Monday, December 31, 2012

Tom Tomorrow Has Some Questions

All pointed, all good.  The funniest:
Can someone PLEASE tell the President if he doesn't stop negotiating with himself, he'll go blind?
The rest.  Go, read.

Top Posts of 2012

First, eight in alphabetical order:

1. An Atheist Jew Reflects on the Mormon Baptism of the Dead
2. Composition No. 1: a Review (Sort Of)
3. Do Libertarians Believe in Slavery?
4. Remarks on Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
5. Surprises in Rereading Classic Children's Literature: Kipling's Just So Stories edition
6. Thoughts on Yoram Hazony's Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture
7. What if the World Ends Tomorrow and No One Notices?
8. We Are All Senator Inhofe Now

Those are, I think, my most substantive posts of the year.

Then two others which are simply the syllabi I did for my two new courses this fall.  These are actually equally substantive (at least) as the above -- certainly, a lot of work and thought went into them --  but they're not quite your standard blog posts, so I thought I'd list them separately.

9. Syllabus for American Studies 100: The History of American Culture
10. Syllabus for American Studies 101: Myths and Paradoxes

Then two which, although both are simply quotes of things other people said, but given the collection (in the first case) and the edition/repurposing (in the other), I feel like they're substantive:

11. The Forthcoming Prequels To Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen: Quote Roundup
12. Lines in Larry Kramer's Seminal Essay "1,112 and Counting..." Which Could Be Written Today About Global Warming

And, finally, one which is rather less substantive than others on this list, but I like it, in a "it's pleasantly quirky" sort of way:

13. Theodorides's Epigram (and Diverse Tangentially Related Matters

And that baker's dozen of posts are, I think, the best I've done on this blog this year.  Although of course it goes without saying that you ought to go and read everything I post since it's all golden.

Happy New Year to all my noble readers.  I'll see you anon.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Joseph!

Happy birthday to Joseph, who turns four today.  Two recent action shots:



 Happy birthday!  (And no, Joseph, you're still not old enough to be on the net.  Close that phone right now, or you're in big trouble, buster.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What if the World Ends Tomorrow and No One Notices?

LINDSEY: It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL: See what?
LINDSEY: The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE: I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY: Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.

-- Angel, Season 5.17 "Underneath", by Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft
What if those predicting that, because the remaining ancient Mayans need to order their next world-cycle wall calendar now,* the world is ending, are right?  And no one ever notices?

I mean, is there some reason to think that the world has to end all at once?  Must it be over in seconds?  Can the actual sounding of the trumpets take a few minutes?  A few weeks?

Centuries?

Does it matter, as long as the ending really begins -- say, becomes irreversible, so that there is no longer anything to be done about it -- on the starting date?  Can't we say world, in some sense, ended on that day?**

I refer, of course, not to the penny-ante mystical apocalypsi that various adherents of internet conspiracy theories, but to the apocalypse, the one that we're sitting in, that we're perpetuating, day in and day out.

Climate change.

Because, yeah, if we don't change course, the world -- by which I mean the human race, since our "world" is the one with our feelings and thoughts and interpretations in it: mere rock and tree don't, in my view, make a world -- will end.  It'll take a while -- two centuries?  Three? -- but it'll happen.  The warming process will eventually become self-sustaining, and will go on, even as the industrial processes which began it crumbles, and our lives along with it.  And it will get hotter and hotter, until no grain can grow in it, no one can stand outside in it.  Until it's all over.

Unless we change course in time.

But what's "in time"?  We don't really know.  It's too complex, too big.  There are too many factors.  There's good reason to think it's soon -- terrifyingly soon -- but we don't know precisely when.

In fact, we'll never know.

If we stop it in time -- if we control our emissions enough that world civilization survives well enough to mitigate and adapt -- we won't know how close we came.  All we'll know is that we came very close, but swerved at the almost-last instant.  Even if we could -- and we almost certainly won't be able to, technically, it's just too hard -- who goes out with a ruler to measure precisely the distance from the tire to the cliff?  At most you gaze, with a shiver, at the depth of the skid marks.

And if we don't stop in time, we'll even less be able to know. As things crumble -- as the waters rise, as crops fail, as refugees in search of a nonexistent safe haven -- who will have time to look back, measure, calculate, ruminate, and figure that, yes, up until this date, there was still a chance to change, up until just this moment it wasn't too late, but after such-and-such a date the inertia was too great, and no effort could have stopped it.

"Such-and-such a date."  Such as, perhaps, December 21, 2012.

Oh, there's no reason to believe it will be then -- the Ancient Mayans didn't even believe the world would end on that day, let alone have any actual grounds for that belief.  But it seems far more important to note that it might be that day.  That things are happening, right now, that will ensure that, sometime, sometime soon, it will be too late.

Surely the blithe reassurances that the world will not suddenly end today are almost beside the point when we know for a fact that the world is on its way to ending?  Perhaps instead of telling people not to worry, we should instead tell them that, yes, they should worry -- but that it's not yet set, and that perhaps action now can still turn the tide?

Because -- since we can't know for sure, since we'll never know, either way -- the only sensible thing to do -- the secular Pascalian wager, that looks not at the odds but the stakes, at what there is to be lost and won -- is to fight on as if it isn't too late.  Since acting as if it is would, after all, be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But to believe there is still time -- warranted or not -- is not the same as to say there's no danger.  The calendar is turning, and we'll be long past the end of the world by the time we are certain that there will, in fact, be one.

So run, fight, work, as if we can still escape.  Because maybe we can.  But one thing we do know is that we won't be able to always, nor even for very long.

____________________________
* Although, in fairness, it was a really good calendar -- IMS, better than the Gregorian (which is to say it diverges from the sun's cycle by a tiny fraction of a second less than the Gregorian does, and thus drifts off season slightly more slowly).

** Actually, this was (very, very roughly) the response to the Great Disappointment of 1844 -- when hundreds of thousands thought the world was ending -- which eventually led to the Seventh Day Adventists.

On the Mayan Apocalypse

CORDELIA
...if the world doesn't end, I'm gonna need a note.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Episode 3.12, "Helpless", by David Fury

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Theologies of Moloch

Quotes and links on Newtown, and guns more generally (mostly via Twitter).
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:
First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

-- Garry Wills, "Our Moloch"

**


Dangerous jobs in today's America (via)

**

Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

-- Firmin DeBrabander, "The Freedom of an Armed Society"
Or, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden put it, "Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn't a function of our shared society. They should grow up."

**


**

Quick facts and links from diverse sources:

People in possession of a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who didn’t have a firearm.
Although medical advances ensure that fewer lives are being lost to violence, incidences of such violence are actually increasing.
Sales are booming for kids' body armor.
Fully 87% of children killed in this way [by guns], in the industrialized world, are killed in the United States.
20 Disturbing Gun Ads
Tunisia had the lowest gun ownership rate in the world when they overthrew their dictator of 24 years.
How Japan has virtually eliminated shooting deaths.
German police fired just 85 bullets total in 2011.
The answer is not more guns.

**

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

-- Adam Gopnik, "Newton and the Madness of Guns"

** 

Twitter-length commentary from diverse sources:

• Conn. priest: "I just told a little boy that his sister died. And he said, 'Who am I going to play with?'"-- Audrey Cooper

• "Kant famously claimed it wrong to lie to a deranged murderer to save someone, which is what Victoria Soto is rightly praised for doing" -- Chris Bertram

• "I support the right to keep and bear children." -- Tom Tomorrow

• "If you believe you live in a country where you need a gun for personal protection at all times you’re implying you live in a failed state. "  -- Tobias Buckell

• "If only the first victim, Adam Lanza's mother, had been a gun owner, she could have stopped this before it started." -- Michael Moore (he also posted a link to a free, online copy of his Oscar-winning film Bowling for Columbine)

• "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of teachers and kindergarteners. -- " - Billmon

• "Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again." -- James Fallows, "American Exceptionaslims: The Shootings Will Go On"

• "Here's a mind-boggling sentence: 'Tonight's speech was very different from any other he's given as president after a mass shooting.' "-- Angus Johnston

• "We have no reason to assume that this will be the last such incident in 2012." -- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

• The bottom line: "Gun regulation isn't about reducing violence, it's about reducing the lethality of violence. International evidence shows that works." -- Richard Yeselson

**

Sociologists study the links between small-towns and school shootings:
[I]n her 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Newman concluded that many of these small-town massacres followed a few striking patterns.

One thing they discovered was that it was often boys at the margins of society who carried out these shootings. They weren’t loners. But they were often socially awkward and struggling to fit in. And the atmosphere of small towns could exacerbate those feelings. ”In a small town,” Newman says, “there often aren’t that many options, it’s hard to find a place where you can feel socially comfortable. These smaller towns are extremely stable — that’s what makes them such wonderful places to raise a family. But that very stability can often feel like a death sentence to those at the margins.”

So why attack schools? “Think about what the shooter wants to accomplish — trying to get the attention of their peers, trying to change how people around them think about them,” Newman says. “If you’re looking to attack a community and change the way people think about you, the school is the place where you’ll have the most devastating impact.”
**

Digby pairs the story of Dr. John Snow, in 1854, trying to convince a town to shut down the pump that was (although this was not yet understood, save by Dr. Snow) the cause of a cholera epidemic, with Australia's successful gun control laws, instituted in reaction to a massacre:
It took many more years before it was widely accepted that cholera came from the water. (In fact, it took a priest trying to prove that it was God's will to finally do it!)

But here's the relevant takeaway: they didn't need to cure the disease to end the epidemic. What ended it was shutting down the pump....

[Australia's gun control] did not solve the problem of mental illness or end the primitive capacity of human beings to commit murder and mayhem. Those are huge problems that their society, like all societies, is still grappling with every day. But it did end the epidemic of mass shootings. They have not had even one since then.

The lesson is this: End the epidemic and then we can --- and must --- talk about root causes and mental health facilities and our violent culture. But first things first --- shut down the damned pump.
**

From the front page of The New York Times, December 16, 2012:


**
The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization....

The guns that I grew up with (in the late-1970’s and 1980’s) were bolt-action rifles: non-automatic weapons, with organic fixtures - i.e., stocks - and limited magazine capacities....

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today...

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used - liberally - by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums, and gun-oriented Youtube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on You Tube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone - their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers - experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.

And I think there’s a sense in which they’ve constructured their own (batshit insane) reality.

One in which we have to live.

-- "Tactical Reality" (Letter to the Editor at Talking Points Memo)
 **
There are a lot of folks who believe we’re free in the US because of guns.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking about what that means.

It is a bizarre, weirdly narcissistic notion that is totally unhinged from any of our history.... [T]he Jacksonian drive for universal manhood suffrage, the fight against the bank of the United States, abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, progressivism, the various religious awakenings, westward expansion, industrialization, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era. Obviously you could come up with a very different list. But we’ve been a country now for well over two centuries and we have the longest period of unbroken republican, constitutional rule of any country in the world.

We’ve expanded our freedoms, sometimes let it recede. We’ve had major blots on in our history like the post-Reconstruction era in the South or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. It’s a rich and complex, sometimes tragic, but generally incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And yet in really not a single one of these cases has any government — state or federal — been pushed back in some moment of overreach by armed citizens or even affected in its decision-making by the knowledge of an armed citizenry.

You could imagine a very different history in which various strong men had taken power and been deposed by violent uprisings. That just hasn’t been our history.

-- Josh Marshall, "In Search of the Guns & Freedom Unicorn"
**
It’s telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain. They think they’re covering a sport, an entertainment. But politics matters, because policies matter. “Obamacare” and “gay marriage” are not just issues that might play badly with swing voters or turn the tide in Virginia; they’re issues that affect people’s lives. Gun control and the Second Amendment are issues, too, and now seems like a pretty good time to talk about them.


This was written in response to an earlier massacre.  I guess for a writer, publishing a piece about a gun massacre in America is a perennial.

**
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
-- 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, quoted by President Barack Obama on December 16, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lyrics of the Day: Bob Dylan's Masters of War

This one's going out to Ron Cohen, CEO of Sig Sauer:
Come you masters of war:
You that build all the guns,
You that build the death planes,
You that build the big bombs,
You that hide behind walls,
You that hide behind desks--
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy,
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy.
You put a gun in my hand,
And you hide from my eyes,
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old,
You lie and deceive;
A world war can be won
You want me to believe.
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain,
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire,
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher.
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled,
Fear to bring children
Into the world.
For threatening my baby,
Unborn and unnamed,
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn?
You might say that I’m young;
You might say I’m unlearned.
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you:
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question:
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find,
When your death takes its toll,
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die,
And your death’ll come soon:
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon,
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed,
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

-- Bob Dylan
Cover of the song by Steve Earle (song starts about 0:55):

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Latest Horror

It's stupid, I know: yet while I really, really have nothing to say, still I can't help feel that it is somehow wrong to let this blog stand empty, without at least some acknowledgement of the latest horrific violence in our country, this time in Newport.  (This time: and yes, as so many are saying, how awful to feel such bleak certainty that it is only the latest in what has become a seemingly endless series of crimes we shriek about but do nothing to stop.)  It is the combination of the need to acknowledge and the utter lack of anything to say that makes ritual and symbol so necessary at such times, I guess.  But I don't even have those.  So take this admission of inarticulate despair as a feeble equivalent for wearing black, flying the flag at half staff, covering the mirrors.  Verbal dirt thrown onto the casket of a child.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fact to Make You Feel Old, Stolen In Its Entirety from Randall Munroe

Quoth Munroe:
The first Star Trek episode aired closer in time to the ratification of the 19th Amendment—guaranteeing women in the US the right to vote—than to today.
My flabber is officially gasted.

Now, to be fair, it isn't yet much closer.  The first Star Trek episode aired Thursday, September 8, 1966 -- 16,898 days ago, or 46 years, 3 months and 5 days ago.  The 19th Amendment was ratified Wednesday, August 18, 1920 -- 16,822 days (or 46 years and 21 days) prior to Star Trek's airing.  (Number of days calculated using this handy tool.)  In fact, given that Munroe posted this on September 29 of this year, he waited until it was true only by a day (or so, depending on the times all these things happened).  Now, that was a while ago, so now it's more comfortably -- or, rather, more uncomfortably -- true.

And, as these things tend to, it will only get worse as time goes on.

...It occurs to me that Munroe probably had that thought earlier, and was waiting until it was true to post it.  (The coincidence otherwise seems too great.)  Which leads to the further thought that someone should set up some sort of automated system to generate such depressing thoughts automatically (just feed a list of cultural milestones into a date calculator, and voila).  Which leads to the final thought that the person best suited to do this is, clearly, Randall Munroe himself.

We eagerly await his next masterpiece. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poem of the Day: Farewell, Rewards and Fairies

Farewell, Rewards and Fairies

Farewell, rewards and fairies,
Good housewives now may say,
For now foul sluts in dairies
Do fare as well as they.
And though they sweep their hearths no less
Than maids were wont to do,
Yet who of late for cleanness
Finds sixpence in her shoe?

Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.

At morning and at evening both
You merry were and glad,
So little care of sleep or sloth
These pretty ladies had;
When Tom came home from labour,
Or Cis to milking rose,
Then merrily went their tabor,
And nimbly went their toes.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

By which we note the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.

A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!

-- Richard Corbet (1582–1635)
This poem, I believe, is now quite obscure: but in Rudyard Kipling's day it was apparently common enough that his child protagonists of Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) had memorized it.

It's a strange poem. On a first read it may seem -- at least it seemed to me -- largely a poem about disenchantment: the sense that the old magic has gone from the world that so much fantasy is based on, even about. (Which is one of the reasons that fantasy can seem, at times, such an essentially anti-modernist genre.) In which case nothing may surprise about it save that it's so early -- the first few decades of the Seventeenth century, after the ascent of James to the throne of England (1603), but before Corbet's death in 1635. And there, of course, we may be surprised, but we shouldn't be: that sense of modernist disenchantment is in other works from the period, too, such as the famous passage by Corbet's more famous contemporary poet-in-arms, John Donne:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

But though we have become distracted by Donne, and recognize that it is a better poem and wish to follow that particularly path with leaves no step has trodden black (no, no, don't go on another tangent--), reread the Corbet. And on a second reading you may zero in, as I did, on the somewhat puzzling religious politics of the poem.

At second glance the poem may seem simply anti-Catholic: the Faeries are declared gone because they were Catholic, and the new spirit of the age is equated with protestantism:
...the Fairies
Were of the old Profession.
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
Their dances were Procession.
But now, alas, they all are dead;
Or gone beyond the seas;
Or farther for Religion fled;
Or else they take their ease.
(The "old Profession", of course, is not the proverbial oldest profession (though faeries of that sort might make an interesting story, should anyone wish to write it), but the former faith (profession, that which you profess, i.e. your religion.))

Except is that right? Because the metaphor of the changeling, the faerie put in place of a babe, is used to explain the replacement of Catholicism by Protestantism:
Lament, lament, old Abbeys,
The Fairies’ lost command!
They did but change Priests’ babies,
But some have changed your land.
And all your children, sprung from thence,
Are now grown Puritans,
Who live as Changelings ever since
For love of your demains.
So is it in fact a pro Catholic poem, since Protestants are equated with changelings (not, traditionally, a positive association)?  Possible, I suppose, but given that its author was a bishop in the Church of England, it seems unlikely.  I presume such a bishop was unlikely to be a secret Catholic?

Except that that last stanza seems to praise Faeries specifically for their punishment of (what we would now call) snitching, and actually wishes that England had similar "Justices":
A tell-tale in their company
They never could endure!
And whoso kept not secretly
Their mirth, was punished, sure;
It was a just and Christian deed
To pinch such black and blue.
Oh how the commonwealth doth want
Such Justices as you!
What is that all about?

My guess is that the answer to this mystery would be more-or-less obvious to anyone well versed in the history of early Stewart England, but that I (whose period is far off from that in both space and time) am just missing it.

So anyone have a sense of what is going on -- in terms of religious politics, and the sense of the changing metaphysical beliefs -- in this poem?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Five Classic SF Stories Online

A propos of nothing in particular, here are links to five of the "classic" SF stories that SciFiction had put online between 2000 - 2005, which are still available thanks to the good services of Web Archive.  No judgment that these are the best or the most interesting intended; they're just five that caught my eye:

R. A. Lafferty, "The Transcendent Tigers"
Joanna Russ, "When it Changed"
Robert Silverberg, "The Man Who Never Forgot"
Howard Waldrop, "The Ugly Chickens"
Gene Wolfe, "Paul's Treehouse"

Three of those I'd read before, two I hadn't. But they're all worth reading. I commend them to your attention.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Atrios Contra Bipartisanship

The real reason for bipartisan deals is so Congress can pass horrible things that the public hates and it isn't clear who you can blame.

-- Atrios

Friday, December 07, 2012

Verbatim Title of a Recent Presentation at a Major Scientific Conference: "Is the Earth F**ked?"

LINDSEY: It's been here all along. Underneath. You're just too damn stupid to see it.
ANGEL: See what?
LINDSEY: The apocalypse, man. You're soaking in it.
SPIKE: I've seen an apocalypse or two in my time. I'd know I one was under my nose.
LINDSEY: Not an apocalypse. The apocalypse. What'd you think, a gong was gonna sound? Time to jump on your horses and fight the big fight? Starting pistol went off a long time ago, boys.

-- Angel, Season 5.17 "Underneath", by Sarah Fain & Elizabeth Craft
Today in apocalylinks:

The question we all want to know the answer to: Is the Earth F**ked?
As for the big question—is Earth f**ked? ...there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite f**ked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.
Read the rest here.

Michael Klare sums up the recent World Bank report:
Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in “a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C.”

This should stop everyone in their tracks.  Most scientists believe that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius is about all the planet can accommodate without unimaginably catastrophic consequences: sea-level increases that will wipe out many coastal cities, persistent droughts that will destroy farmland on which hundreds of millions of people depend for their survival, the collapse of vital ecosystems, and far more.  An increase of 3.6 degrees C essentially suggests the end of human civilization as we know it.

To put this in context, human activity has already warmed the planet by about 0.8 degrees C -- enough to produce severe droughts around the world, trigger or intensify intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, and drastically reduce the Arctic ice cap.  “Given those impacts,” writes noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, “many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.”  Among those cited by McKibben is Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” Emanuel writes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it this way: “If we’re seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”
As Tom Englehardt puts it in his introduction to the piece: "climate change is getting scarier by the week".

• Disasters making their way through production, should soon be in a theater near you!  Possible climate Pearl Harbors; -- or, as Gerry Canavan, from whom I got the link, suggested, climate fiscal cliffs.

We Can Cut Carbon Pollution One Third By Closing ‘Carbon Loophole’ Through The Clean Air Act... which Obama could do without Congressional approval.  If Obama doesn't get serious about climate change soon, then his only hope for avoiding history's remembering him solely for his inaction is the possibility that the world will be so f**ked that no one will have any time to think about history at all.

The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert says it's time for a carbon tax. Ibid's Hendrik Hertzberg says that said carbon tax should replace the payroll tax.

One climatologist predicts the 2012 drought will last through 2013.

At least large groups of Belgians are singing cheerful songs about the apocalypse

President Obama, Disregarding Gandalf's Warnings, Looks Into a Palantir


(Photo from here; link via.)

Monday, December 03, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson on Geoengineering

Kim Stanley Robinson, "Earth: Under Repair, Forever":
We lack the political mechanisms, or maybe even the political will, to decarbonize. So people are right to be worried, and some of them have therefore put forth various geoengineering plans as possible emergency measures: problematic, but better than nothing.

Objections to geoengineering appeared immediately. Many people have expressed doubt that the proposals would work, or believe that a string of negative unintended consequences could follow. Merely discussing these ideas, it has been said, risks giving us the false hope of a "silver bullet" solution to climate change in the near future -- thus reducing the pressure to stem carbon emissions here and now.

These are valid concerns, but the fact remains: our current technologies are already geoengineering the planet -- albeit accidentally and negatively....

For the rest of history, we will be required to work at repairing the damage we've already done to the biosphere. Geoengineering, then, has become our ongoing responsibility to life on this planet, including all human generations to come....

...just as technology has aided us in the task of deforesting and draining our wetlands, so too does it now provide us with the capability to do things like reforest and rehydrate. Thinking about such potential reversals makes me believe the definition of geoengineering should be broadened. Our actions have a global impact; it's good to be reminded of this by giving that impact a name. Were we to take up hybrids and electric cars in great numbers, for example, could that be considered geoengineering? Under an expanded definition, absolutely. Whatever we do as a civilization of seven billion is inevitably going to have a geoengineering effect.

What about that number, seven billion? Could stabilizing our population count? Again, yes. And we know of one good way to achieve this goal: promoting women's legal and social rights. Wherever they expand, population growth shifts toward the replacement rate. This particular geoengineering technology nicely illustrates how the word technology can't be defined simply as machinery; it includes things like software, organizational systems, laws, writing, and even public policy.
Read the rest. (via)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Today in Apocalypse Links


New Scientist Special Report: 7 Reasons Climate Change Is ‘Even Worse Than We Thought’.  From Think Progress's post summarizing the seven reasons:
  1. The thick sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was not expected to melt until the end of the century. If current trends continue, summer ice could be gone in a decade or two. Read more (or see “Death Spiral Watch: Experts Warn ‘Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer’ In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue“).
  2. We knew global warming was going to make the weather more extreme. But it’s becoming even more extreme than anyone predicted. Read more (or see “NOAA Bombshell: Warming-Driven Arctic Ice Loss Is Boosting Chance of Extreme U.S. Weather“).
  3. Global warming was expected to boost food production. Instead, food prices are soaring as the effects of extreme weather kick in. Read more (or see “Oxfam Warns Climate Change And Extreme Weather Will Cause Food Prices To Soar” and links therein).
  4. Greenland’s rapid loss of ice mean we’re in for a rise of at least 1 metre by 2100, and possibly much more. Read more (or see “Greenland Ice Sheet Melt Nearing Critical ‘Tipping Point’” and links therein).
  5. The planet currently absorbs half our CO2emissions. All the signs are it won’t for much longer. Read more (or see “Carbon Feedback From Thawing Permafrost Will Likely Add 0.4°F – 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100” and “Drying Peatlands and Intensifying Wildfires Boost Carbon Release Ninefold“).
  6. If we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow, we might be able to avoid climate disaster. In fact we are still increasing emissions. Read more (or see “The IEA And Others Warn Of Some 11°F Warming by 2100 on current emissions path”)
  7. If the worst climate predictions are realised, vast swathes of the globe could become too hot for humans to survive. Read more (or see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts“)

5 Charts About Climate Change That Should Have You Very, Very Worried:
Two major organizations released climate change reports this month warning of doom and gloom if we stick to our current course and fail to take more aggressive measures. A World Bank report [pdf link] imagines a world 4 degrees warmer, the temperature predicted by century's end barring changes, and says it aims to shock people into action by sharing devastating scenarios of flood, famine, drought and cyclones. Meanwhile, a report from the US National Research Council, commissioned by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies, says the consequences of climate change--rising sea levels, severe flooding, droughts, fires, and insect infestations--pose threats greater than those from terrorism ranging from massive food shortages to a rise in armed conflicts.
Click through for five charts taken from the reports.

Climate Change Largely Irreversible for 1000 Years

The shells of ocean animals are already dissolving in acidic sea

Climate Change Threatens to Create a Second Dust Bowl

Canadian conservatives are embracing denialism because they're just interested in the money gained from burning the world.

Obama is on the wrong side on this one.  Not "not doing enough": he's working on the side of those who are destroying the world.

As I've said before: however worried you are, you're not worried enough.

(Most links via Dave Roberts's twitter feed.)

Update: New day, new apocalyptic link:

•  Global Sea Level Rising 60 Percent Faster Than Predicted

Update 2: Pandora's box contains hope.  Now we just need to replicate that woman's experience millions of times over.  And maybe we can start to reverse the course we're on.  (The movie web site is here.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Quotes, With Occasional Commentary

Recent readings from around the web.  Starting with Andrew Sullivan on Israel:
I'm slowly reaching the conclusion that we cannot stop them [Israel] from committing suicide, if that's what they want. They're a sovereign state. And I can't keep hoping for a two-state solution when it is in fact a shiny object meant to distract from Israel's determination to occupy one-state on the original Ben-Zion Netanyahu lines. My only caveat (and even that is quixotic) is: not on our dime. And the premise of any re-engagement with a two-state solution should be immediate dismantling of every single settlement outside of the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem. The Israelis can maintain military control of the West Bank for legitimate security purposes, without continuing the ethnic social engineering being imposed by the settlements.

-- Andrew Sullivan, "Why Does Greater Israel Block Gaza's Exports?"
I must say that "a shiny object meant to distract from Israel's determination to occupy one-state on the original Ben-Zion Netanyahu lines" is a bitter but sadly plausible description of the current state of the two-state solution.

~ ~ ~

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues his extraordinary, Joe DiMaggio-level hiting streak of blogging brilliance with a post on male desire and misogyny and humiliation and it's brilliant, go read it.  But stick around for Coates's added brilliance in the comments, for instance:
At the end of the day we are, as we always are, discussing power. The presence of power, and its absence, shapes belief and modes of thinking. We generally are very comfortable discussing what the absence of power does to people. I have long maintained that it is just important to discuss what the presence of power does as well.

This isn't new. I've spent as much time on this blog discussing the psychology of slave-holders as I have discussing the psychology of slaves. I think you have to do that. We are not the products of the same ends of the system. We are equal. We are not the same.
And also:
[Earlier commentator:]So does any person actually HAVE power here, I guess is what I'm asking.

Yeah they do. But power isn't omnipotence. And it isn't boundless. I don't believe that being oppressed means an absence of power. And the presence of power deriving from class, does not mean that every individual has the same access to the same amount of power.

Peter Still was a slave in Alabama. He worked hard and was thought to be highly moral. He was so trusted that his master gave him the right to "hire out" his own labor, and negotiate contracts away from the farm. Still's master was (like most slave-owners) an avowed white supremacist convinced that blacks--and thus Peter--were happy in slavery. Peter manipulated this belief and actively plotted to gain his freedom. He used his master's trust to hire himself out to someone who believed he deserved to be free. After two years of laboring, Peter escaped.

His escape was aided by the belief that Peter was happy. This belief was not a side-effect of slavery, but a necessary precondition. It was part of what it meant to be a member of the master class. But it was also the source of weakness for Peter Still's master, and great power for Peter, himself. Peter so manipulated his master that he not only escaped, but subsequently returned--right under his master's eye--to visit his family by using his master's presumptions against him.

Telling this story, and highlighting Still's "power" does not mean he and his master were equal. It does not then follow that his enslaver had no power. But my sense is that the dynamic between oppressors and oppressed is rarely absolutist.

I would find it hard to accept that women never have any power in this dynamic, nor ever use such power. And I don't think admitting as much compromises a critique. On the contrary I think rendering women as "powerless" is dehumanizing.
And yet again:
It's something I've noticed in my studies of race and slavery. The smalles point can't be conceded. Power wants more power, and wherever it finds itself lacking it sees the seeds of its doom. In slavery literature you see people who seem to have absolute power over their slaves, convinced that potential doom is right around the corner. In art you see dudes who undoubtedly wield the power of gender attempting to proscribe the right to say "No."
So not only should you read the whole thing, but read beyond it, too.

~ ~ ~

Aaron Brady (a.k.a. Zunguzungu) has seen Lincoln and has some things to say about it:
Slaves were not and could not be “given” their freedom because they had always had it: it had required a great deal of violent force and political work to keep them enslaved, and when that force was removed—as the South collapsed politically and militarily—they began to act like the human beings they always already were, organizing, moving, and seizing their destinies in their own hands. At this point, the game was up; just as the institution of slavery had always depended on substantial governmental enforcement and support, it would have taken a substantial amount of violent force to re-impose it, a concerted project to re-establish slavery that no one in the north had any particular stomach for. At the end of the Civil War, to put it simply, the North had a simple choice: re-imposing slavery by force or accept the new reality. They chose the latter....

Spielberg and Kushner are interested in a kind of scrupulous (almost farcical) accuracy about things that do not matter, while working very hard to place everything else that was going on in the period—and everything else Lincoln was responding to—off camera....

And to put it quite bluntly, I think the filmmakers made this choice because they wanted to make a polemical point about moderation over radicalism, and I think they picked the story they wanted to tell because it seems to support that position. And yet the historical story they tell only supports that claim if you very selectively frame out most of the context around it, and so they do. And passing a single bill in Congress only comes to seem to represent the broader field of social change and progress—“things” getting “done”— if we ignore the big picture.
I always get a lot out of these big movies, not from seeing them, but from reading the commentary that comes out about them.  You can read the rest of Brady's piece here.  Oh, incidentally. Brady's read Tarzan, too.

~ ~ ~

And Bruce Bartlett seems to have a strange idea of what "proved correct" means (via):
I know that it’s unattractive and bad form to say “I told you so” when one’s advice was ignored yet ultimately proved correct.... I think I’m at ground zero in the saga of Republicans closing their eyes to any facts or evidence that conflict with their dogma. Rather than listen to me, they threw me under a bus. To this day, I don’t think they understand that my motives were to help them avoid the permanent decline that now seems inevitable....

I thought I had a nice thesis to put forward. All successful schools of economic thought follow a progression of being outsiders and revolutionaries, achieving success when economic circumstances cannot be explained by orthodox theory, acceptance for the dissidents, followed by inevitable failure when new circumstances arise that don’t fit the model, leading to the rise of a fresh school of thought. It was basically a Thomas Kuhnian view of economic theory.

I thought I had two perfect examples that fit my model of the rise and fall of economic ideas: Keynesian economics and supply-side economics. I thought at first I knew enough about the former to say what I wanted to say, but eventually I found the research I had previously done to be wanting. It was based too much on what academics thought and not enough on how Keynesian ideas penetrated the policymaking community....

After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger....

Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades....

The final line for me to cross in complete alienation from the right was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal—and only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right that moderate Republicans from the past are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today. Viewed in historical context, I see Obama as actually being on the center-right....

I’ve paid a heavy price, both personal and financial, for my evolution from comfortably within the Republican Party and conservative movement to a less than comfortable position somewhere on the center-left. Honest to God, I am not a liberal or a Democrat. But these days, they are the only people who will listen to me. When Republicans and conservatives once again start asking my opinion, I will know they are on the road to recovery.
So Bartlett thinks that he was right about what conservatives needed to do because he's embraced contemporary liberalism, and he thinks they should to?  And this proves his conservatism was correct?  Or something?  I'm confused.

And I didn't even quote the part where he was going to break the shocking news that nobody knows that, prior to 1964, when Southern whites were mostly Democrats, the Democrats had a lot of racists in the party and did racist things to cater to them -- and that, now that all of those people (first specifically, and then as a larger demographic block) have become Republicans thanks in large part to the Democrats (belated) embrace of equality, African Americans (who somehow don't know all this shocking history) ought to vote for the party to which the racists fled rather than the one whose embrace of Civil Rights drove them out.  And they have to make that argument since, after all, the intense fear and hatred of illegals (read: Hispanics) is so strong that they can't possibly modulate by embracing amnesty or other sensible immigration policies.  --  Yeah, that's the answer to the Republicans' troubles getting minority voters.  I can't believe the Republicans didn't listen to this guy!

Of course, Barlett is now right -- Obama is a center-rightist, and any ideas that are to the right of that are simply so absurd as to be not worth considering.  But why Barlett thinks this is a vindication of his version of a conservatism, rather than simply a confession that he was on the wrong side, is deeply puzzling.

Update: The blog Whiskey Fire puts it succinctly: "'Finally, after much inner struggle, I realized that the Rush Limbaugh view of the world has its flaws' is not, in the final analysis, a very impressive intellectual manifesto."

~ ~ ~

A long interesting article on the current state of the drug war, with particular emphasis on recent developments (via):
The long boom in American demand for cocaine, the economic fact that shaped the modern traffic, is declining, rapidly, by many measures. According to the federal government’s preferred measure, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people abusing cocaine has halved since 2006. No other illegal drug has replaced cocaine: Heroin, far less prevalent, has held steady, and methamphetamine use seems to have peaked nearly a decade ago. “This decline,” says Peter Reuter, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland and a leading thinker on drug policy, “is very much real.”

Cocaine addicts are aging, and they aren’t being replaced. In the early nineties, the average age of an addict, Reuter says, was about 27. Now it is about 40. Plenty of people are still trying the drug—the rates of first-time use haven’t dropped—but for reasons that haven’t fully been discerned, “they aren’t becoming addicts,” Reuter says. The epidemic has now been waning for fifteen years, long enough to think the trends will last and that the florid paranoia, broken families, and death of the crack-cocaine epidemic will not be a permanent feature of American life but a cultural artifact of the ugliness of the eighties.
(That quote is from page four.)

~ ~ ~

The first sentence:
A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive.
'nuff said.  (Needless to say, this applies.)

~ ~ ~

And lastly, a video (via): dumb ways to die -- in song!.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Standing Athwart the End of History, Yelling Stop

Admiring one's own writing is one of the least attractive of human activities, a sort of onanistic autovoyeurism.  But on the other hand, I've long felt that I should take all the admirers I can get: beggars can't be choosers and all that.  And in this case, there is the additional fact that it's needed since there is something I want to explain.

In an earlier post, I closed with a phrase that I rather liked: "Someone needs to stand athwart the end of history, yelling Stop."  Enough that I have -- temporarily -- added it to my masthead as a motto.*

The joke of the phrase requires that you know that William F. Buckley, in many ways the founder of contemporary American conservatism (and by any measure one of the crucial founders of it), in the inaugural editorial of his magazine The National Review, defined its mission thus: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."  The key phrase in that sentence -- "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop" -- has come to be one of the central self-definitions of the conservative movement.**

So when I was talking about civil disobedience with regards to global warming, it occurred to me that what we desperately need now are people to stand athwart the end of history, yelling Stop.  I am far from alone in doing so -- and far, far from the loudest of voices doing so.  I can only dream of having a fraction of the impact in trying to stop the end of history that Buckley had in trying to stop history itself.  But since the phrase is there, I thought I'd make it my own.

(It also has another angle I like: it can be read also as a cri de coeur on the end of the humanities (history specifically, but the humanities generally) at our universities, and their decline in the culture.  In that sense, too, I'd like to stand athwart the end of history, yelling Stop.)

_________________________________
* And consequently removed the motto I previously had, "vilely determined to cheat the people of their rightful viscose", the explanation of which can be found in this post here.  I was sad to loose it, but decided I liked the new one sufficiently to replace it.  For now.

** It would probably be unkind to point out that stopping history in 1955 meant stopping the Civil Rights Movement, second wave feminism and the Gay Rights Movement, to say nothing of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.  On the other hand, it's true, given what Buckley wrote and when he wrote it.   (And even if he didn't mean it about the Soviet Union & the cold war, he unquestionably meant it about the other three liberation movements.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

My Increasingly-Self Conscious Annual Thanksgiving Wish

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson
Thanksgiving is a holiday, and holidays are rituals. And one of my holiday rituals is to give thanks to you, Noble Reader, for reading. Not all sentences said ritualistically are heartfelt -- it goes with the territory -- but this one always is.* I am thankful that you have dropped by; I hope you will come back again. That I am copying and pasting this paragraph from last year's post -- save for this self-referential sentence -- does not in any way alter or diminish this fact (he said speech act-ily.)

And please note that, with the exception of this paragraph, this entire post was cut & paste from last year's, which means that all the sentences talking about how I just cut & paste everything save that sentence were themselves cut & paste, and the other sentences were copied from copies.  If I wasn't always so busy right before Thanksgiving, perhaps I might some day write something new.  In the meantime, I will point out that, once again, this post is no less heartfelt for my heart having felt it last year at the same season.

I wish everyone a joyful Thanksgiving, however (and whether) you celebrate it, and to whomever (and however) you give thanks.

_________________________
* Yes, that sentence noting that the ritualistic sentence is said not just ritualistically but sincerely is now, itself, a part of my Thanksgiving ritual. I will note that it, too, is said sincerely and not just realistically, and shudder at the inevitable extrapolation of this trend. (As, for instance, the slightly odd shudder I get at copying & pasting the previous sentence from last year's post...)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Quote Unquote

Here are some interesting things I've read recently.  If you like the quoted bits, click through, because you'll probably like the rest too.  Most of these links via twitter, which I am still enslaved to by the power of the Dark Lord using, even post-election.  (Update: several quotes added.)

On race in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series:
...the troubling thing about the Dothraki isn’t how different they are from the Westerosi.  It’s how similar they all are to each other.... In Martin’s “non-Anglo” cultures, and in Orientalist literature more generally, the layers are collapsed.  The individuals don’t move within their society, rather, they are fully-formed instances of their society....

This is where Martin’s depiction of cultural “otherness” becomes fascinating to me, because I think it actually tells us something profound about our own internal models of cultural difference.  We don’t think of our own culture as the be-all and end-all of our abilities and opinions. We see ourselves as free agents operating within a culture, and because we accord ourselves that freedom we tend to accord it to other people in our culture as well.  But when it comes to other cultures, we have much more of a tendency to see people simply as tokens or instances of the broader cultural category they come from, which means that their “is known” and “I know” are collapsed. Most of us try to guard against this kind of thinking, as it’s pretty much textbook racial stereotyping. But it’s not hard to slip, and I think this is illustrated by how easy it is not to be bothered by Martin’s world. Lots of people roll their eyes at this aspect of the books, but it all pretty much works as storytelling.

-- Stokes, It is known — Game of Thrones, the Orient, and Conventional Wisdom
On giving away ebooks with the dead-trees version (via; see also)
What indie rock bands have figured out is that the purchase of music does not have to be an either/or proposition. They don’t make their customers choose between analog or digital. Whenever you buy a record from just about any indie band, it comes with either a CD or with a card that contains a URL and a download code so you can get a digital copy at no additional cost.... And guess what? This strategy works: vinyl is in resurgence....

Hardcovers books have similar characteristics to vinyl records. They can be bought in independent book stores that often have knowledgeable staff. The physical artifact is a pleasure to hold and to read. It has a fidelity that is not yet matched via the digital medium. There is a ritual to taking a book off the shelf, settling into a favorite chair, and losing oneself in the text. And like the vinyl record before it, the hardcover book is losing ground to digital formats. According the Association of American Publishers, as reported in GalleyCat, 2012 is the first year that revenues from e-book sales will eclipse that of hardcovers. E-books are gaining traction in the market for the same reasons that digital music has become the dominant format: convenience. It is more convenient to simply press a “Download to Kindle” button than to trudge out to the bookstore (as pleasant as it might be once you are there) or even to order a physical book online. It is also far more convenient to pack a single Kindle with multiple books on it as opposed to packing numerous physical books when traveling...

There are likely many people like myself who prefer a solid hardcover. I like the feel of it, am more comfortable reading on paper as opposed to a screen, and I sleep better knowing that it will probably not mysteriously vanish from my bookshelf if the computer system at the bookstore I purchased it from doesn’t like my travel patterns. However, given that I do travel a lot, carrying a heavy hardcover (or three) around is just not practical. Just as with music, I like the analog edition and am willing to pay more for it, but I am not going to choose it over the vastly more convenient digital edition – and I am most certainly not going to buy both. So why are publishers making their best customers choose and watching idly as they do in fact choose, in increasing numbers, a format that is not as lucrative for publishers and that is rapidly leading to an over-reliance on a small number of distributors?

-- Michael Clarke, "What Can Publishers Learn from Indie Rock?"
On the supposed "New Republicans":
There has been a lot of talk since the election about the possible emergence of a new faction within the Republican party, or at least among the conservative intelligentsia. These new Republicans, we’re told, are willing to be more open-minded on cultural issues, more understanding of immigrants, and more skeptical that trickle-down economics is enough; they’ll favor direct measures to help working families.

So what should we call these new Republicans? I have a suggestion: why not call them “Democrats”?

...On economic issues the modern Democratic party is what we would once have considered “centrist”, or even center-right. Obama’s Heritage-Foundation-inspired health care plan is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. Nobody with political influence is suggesting a return to pre-Reagan tax rates on the wealthy. Fantasies about Obama as a socialist, redistributionist hater of capitalism bear no more resemblance to reality than fantasies about his birthplace or religion.

-- Paul Krugman, "The New Republicans"
On the conservatives are against big government myth:
The conservative movement is not about small government, it is about privatized government. From Bush and Ryan's attempts to privatize Social Security, to turning Medicare into a Groupon, to bringing private industry into the military, every step involves introducing market agents into government processes and pushing market risk to individuals. This continued under Mitt Romney's big policy ideas. He had an idea for taking our system of unemployment insurance and turning it into a system of private unemployment savings accounts. He wanted to fix higher education costs by expanding the for-profit industry, which would "hold down the cost of education," even though they are far more expensive than their non-profit equivalents.

-- Mike Konczal, "What Are Conservatives Getting Wrong About the Economy? (Douthat Reply Edition)"
On the next step after the current assault in Gaza:
Since the bombing began, both sides have asked how this ends. If the answer is something other than with a repetition in a few more years—a perpetual state of war—Israelis must wrestle with the question of their own identity. No, that question is not the clich├ęd one: Does Israel have a right to exist? Rather, the more imperative question is: Is the way in which Israel exists—as an occupier, a colonizer, and ultimately, as an apartheid state—right? Is there another solution, involving a single, democratic state?

...Moving forward, what is needed is a fundamental change in the way Israelis view their relations with Palestinian Arabs. Yes, Palestinians have a role and will continue to fight for their rights in hopes of achieving a just and peaceful outcome. But at this stage it is Israel—and only Israel—that controls the ever changing realities on the ground. It would be easy for Israeli leaders to postpone facing this reality, but it would also be cowardly. The onus is on them.
-- Yousef Munayyer, "When the Smoke Clears in Gaza"
On superheroes, the status quo, and imagining change:
Graeber points out that the superheroes are always seeking to maintain the status quo, even though the status quo is not by any means fair or just in its own right. It’s as if they don’t have the imagination to think of how things could be changed for the better.

Reading this, I realized that this is a fundamental pattern: It’s easier to say what you don’t want than what you want. It’s easier to point out the problems with other people’s solutions than it is to suggest your own. It’s easier to rally to fight something you disagree with that it is to organize around a shared vision of what could be. In short: Fighting is easy. Creating is hard.

Imagination is a very sensitive thing. If you think too much about how things could be different, you tend to get bummed out about how impossible it seems to change them. And if you tell people around you how you’d like things to be different, they might call you a dreamer or a communist or a utopianist. And they’ll probably laugh at you.

In a way, we’re all just super-villains with low self-esteem. We’re so unused to imagining how the world could be any different that it takes a lot of courage even to try. And even more so when we decide to act upon our ideas to affect the change we want to see in the world.

-- Andreas Lloyd, "Fighting is Easy. Creating is Hard."
(That essay will justifiably annoy superhero fans who will note that this has, in fact, been one of the major themes of many of the best superhero stories over the past quarter century, and that it's written without any evident knowledge of that fact.  Still worth reading, though.  Also note that the David Graeber piece that Lloyd jumps off of is this one, which I previously linked here along with other similarly themed pieces.)

And, from the New Yorker, Le Blog de Jean Paul Sartre:
I was awakened this morning by the sound of an insistent knocking at my door. It was a man in a brown suit. He seemed to be in a hurry, as if Death itself were pursuing him.

“One always dies too soon—or too late,” I told him. “And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else.”

“Okay,” he said. “But I’m just the UPS guy.”

“Oh,” I said. “I— Oh.”

“Sign here,” he said.

“I thought you were a harbinger of Death,” I told him.

“I get that a lot,” he said...

-- Bill Barol, "Le Blog de Jean Paul Sartre"
On writing and literature:
Writerly vanity is like a vicious dog chained up outside the house. You try to starve and neglect the dog into silence, but sometimes he becomes so clamorous that he must be fed if you’re going to be able to ignore him again.

-- Adam Kirsch, "Rocket and Lightship"
-- I hesitate to endorse this piece, as it is (in my view) deeply uneven, containing some wonderful parts but also some sheer rubbish, and a fair amount of grandiose preening.  I'm not even sure if the good outweighs the bad.  But the good has its own merits that are not tarnished by the bad, in recognition of which I thought I'd link.

On the lie that we need to cut social security, medicare and medicaid:
...in the future, we will be able to afford all the health care we consume today, plus all the other stuff we consume today, and then some. That means that, for example, seniors can enjoy the same level of health benefits that they enjoy today, and the rest of us can still be better off than we are now. And it isn't even close. Forty years from now we will be, on average, twice as well-off as we are today....

So the real point isn't that we can't afford Social Security and Medicare. It's that some people don't want to pay the higher taxes necessary to maintain Social Security and Medicare. This is a question of distribution, pure and simple.

...When people say that we can't afford our entitlement programs, they're really saying that rich people won't pay the taxes necessary to sustain our entitlement programs.

-- James Kwak, "The U.S. Does Not Have a Spending Problem, We Have a Distribution Problem"
On the claim that Hamas targets civilians while Israel does not:
And as one of those civilians who used to be targeted on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I have no problem saying that intentionally targeting civilians is wrong—is, in fact, a war crime.... But I weary of the desperate clinging to the word “unintentional” on my side of this decades-long war....

Whether these corpses can be considered collateral damage, accidents, the unintended outcome of well-targeted efforts—simply no longer matters to me. When your state has piled up more than 3000 dead bodies, more than 1,300 of them the bodies of children, it simply no longer matters.

If we accept at face value the idea that Israel takes every possible precaution to preclude civilian deaths (a notion I cannot help but question when I read reports like this, and this, and this), then we are left with only one possible explanation: Rank, criminal incompetence.
If we reject the idea of incompetence (though I have yet to meet a human being incapable of serious error), then we are left with only one other possible explanation: Rank, criminal indifference.
I can already hear the protests that Hamas and other militants hide among civilians, that they are really to blame for these deaths, that it’s not Israel’s fault—and I do not deny that Palestinian extremists share the blame.
But is it really “hiding among civilians” to go to your own house? Is it really “hiding among civilians” to drive down a residential street?

And what if the shoe were on the other foot? Are we willing to say that Israeli soldiers are “hiding among civilians” when they ride city buses, or that Israel’s Defense Ministry is “hiding among civilians” because it’s located in the very heart of Tel Aviv? Yes, Hamas are terrorists and the IDF is a state’s army—but are military targets in civilian locales legitimate, or not?

-- Emily L. Hauser, "Incompetence or Indifference?"