Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Pragmatist

In a recent long, winding, sometimes frustrating, sometimes fruitful discussion, I attempted to clarify my philosophical position.
No, Feodor, I am not a skeptical British empiricist. I am a very happily American neo-pragmatist in my philosophy, and an equally happy American liberal in my theology. The relationship between the two should be obvious.

A skeptical British empiricist would still consider the question, "Is being prior to knowledge?" an important question to consider. A pragmatist would not; indeed, a pragmatist would think such a question nonsensical.

In order to clarify my own position, I will allow the premiere neo-pragmatist, the late Richard Rorty, make my point (which he does without a whole lot of fuss), from the Introduction to his essay collection, The Consequences of Pragmatism:
The essays in this book are attempts to draw consequences from a pragmatist theory about truth. This theory says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about. For pragmatists, "truth" is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is comm to "Bacon did not write Shakespeare," "It rained yesterday," "E equals mc squared," "Love is better than hate,", "The Allegory of Painting was Vermeer's best work," "2 plus 2 is 4," and "There are nondenumerable infinities." Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature. They doubt this for hte same reason they doubt that there is much to be said about the common feature shared by such morally praiseworthy actions as Susan leaving her husband, America joining the war against the Nazis, America pulling out of Vietnam, Socrates not escaping from jail, Roger picking up litter from the trail, and the suicide of the Hews at Masada. They see certain acts as good ones to perform, under the circumstances, but doubt that there is anything general and useful to say about what makes them all good. The assertion of a given sentence - or the adoption of a disposition to assert the sentence, the conscious acquisition of a belief - is a justifiable, praiseworthy act in certain circumstances. But, a fortiori, it is not like that there is something general and useful to be said about what makes all such actions good - about the common feature of all the sentences which one should acquire a disposition to assert.

There's a whole lot more - the pragmatist position is not "relativist" or "subjectivist" because both these loaded terms assume things the pragmatist simply rejects; there are still interesting things to talk about, but Truth and Goodness, even Philosophy are not among them - but this sums up an approach that not only reframes what philosophy is, but offers a way forward that does not insist on agreement to questions that, by their very nature, have no answers.

Saturday Rock Show

While I had heard of them, I cannot say I ever heard Mahogany Rush before last weekend. Now, I know what I was missing. This is "Poppy", from a 1979 concert, filmed in Canada. What an awesome, righteous tone Frank Marino has. And small hands! How he does what he does considering how much work his fingers have to do; and I love the Wes Montgomery-like octaves in the opening.

Watching and listening, that tone comes from cutting out a whole lot of low end, so the sound cuts across the rest of the band. Not only does it cut clean, but it is clean, like Jerry Garcia's or Steve Howe's, eschewing high distortion, with just enough reverb to carry it over the crowd. It is reminiscent of Peter Frampton's sound on his live album, but Frampton used a custom-built Les Paul, with six pick-ups. Is that an Epiphone? I have always thought they had the best sound. . .

Friday, March 20, 2009

AIG And Me

I have not said a whole lot on the whole AIG-Bonuses business because, quite frankly, the entire story has become some kind of zombie-thing. It has a life of its own, with the company becoming the target of so much rage, breast-beating and brow-furrowing, not to mention cynical and hypocritical nonsense spewing by politicians, and it is my firm belief it will only die if we focus on the main issues. First, AIG leveraged itself in to hell by using credit-default swaps as a way to make money. When you insist that something that is, in reality, worth nothing, is actually worth something, and the real worth (0) comes knocking at your door, the entire structure of financial dealings in which AIGFG engaged crumbled like dust. It didn't bring down the entire American economy on its own, but it certainly was a catalyst. The rage most Americans currently feel (myself included) is not at some fanciful notion that the economy hangs in the balance. The rage is two-fold. First, AIG screwed the economic pooch in a historical manner, coming begging at the federal government's door, receiving billions of dollars in loans. Some of those dollars - which are our dollars, and specifically my dollars - are now going to pay bonuses to the very people who invented the craptacular house of crap that now lies in crappy ruins. Furthermore, even as many people, including many politicians, say it might not be such a hot idea to pay bonuses to a group of people who screwed up so royally, the company is now saying not only it is necessary to keep these people (rather than see if the door will indeed hit them in the ass on the way out), but that not to pay these bonuses could be far worse than paying them.

It's really quite simple. AIG exists right now because of the indulgence of the federal government. All those contracts guaranteeing bonuses are scraps of paper right now, particularly in light of the simple reality that they have not been earned. It will be neither the end of the economy, or capitalism, or even AIG, if those contracts are publicly burned while a group of peopple laugh with glee. As long as the company continue to insist they can make a house of diamonds out of the pile of shit that is their current asset-standing, and as long as we have people in the Treasury who insist that this huge pile of shit needs to be rebuilt in to an entire city of diamonds, we will be in trouble. All we really need to do is tell the current CEO, who happened to have been appointed by the federal government, to do a couple simple things to get back in the country's good graces.

Fire all the really stupid, corrupt, or incompetent (oh, heck, probably all three) people in AIGFS. Don't give them bonuses, don't give them a generous severance package, only give them AIGFS on their resume to assure they will not be hired by any reputable financial services company again during their lifetimes.

Go to the company's books and say three times, "When it says 'zero', it means 'zero'", and take your medicine like your Mother taught you.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

That'll Help

With a generous thank you to Alan for the link, all I can say about this is . . .

Holy shit.
Lesbians living in South Africa are being subjected to "corrective rape" and severe violence by men trying to "cure" them of their sexual orientation, human rights groups have said.


The ferocity of the attack became clear in April last year when Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa's national female football squad, became one of the victims. Miss Simelane, and equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian, was gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs.

But scores more women have been deliberately targeted for rape, the Guardian reports.

"Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I'll become a girl," Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, told the paper. "When you are raped you have a lot of evidence on your body. But when we try and report these crimes nothing happens, and then you see the boys who raped you walking free on the street."

Research shows 86 per cent of black lesbians from the Western Cape live in fear of sexual assault. Triangle, a gay rights organisation, said it deals with up to 10 new cases of "corrective rape" every week.

I'm honestly surprised this hasn't become unofficial policy of some churches here in the United States.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Personal Responsibility

The way the whole story of bonuses for folks at American Insurance Group (AIG) has unfolded, it has become like a huge fire, consuming all the oxygen from other matters of equal or greater importance. It is symbolic of much that has gone wrong recently, and the way the collapse of the financial services industry has been handled.

It is a wonder to see President Obama take responsibility for the way the entire mess has spun completely out of control.
Asked if he wished he’d known about the bonuses sooner, Obama said, in the course of answering: “Ultimately, I’m responsible. I’m the President of the United States…The buck stops with me.”

Wow. Rather than sit around and whine that he inherited a mess of bad policy from the previous Administration (which he did) and that his hands were tied for legal reasons, he just flat-out said, "Folks, I should have done more, and known more to prevent this."

I'm not sure we're ready for a President who assumes responsibility for things that have gone wrong on his watch (compare with Dick Cheney's "stuff happens" comment from his recent interview).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revising And Extending - Making It All Up

A couple days ago, I wrote a little post in which I misspelled the word "ideological" in the title. Among my complaints was the simple fact that, far too often, when some momentous event occurs - the OJ Simpson case, say, or some other high-profile event that gets us all chattering - we very often seek to figure out "what it all means". This is a natural human reaction, really, and there is nothing wrong with it. Yet, sometimes, our desire to "figure it out" runs ahead of all available facts, disregards context, and sometimes - sometimes - simply flies out in to Cloud Cuckoo Land in a wondrous display of intellectual gymnastics that bears absolutely no resemblance to reality.

Does anyone remember this?
In April 1989, in New York City, violent crime rates - murders, rapes, and robberies - were out of control, and people were afraid to walk city streets. The Central Park jogger case set a record (and served as a symbol) for brutality--it was a violent rape in which the victim was also badly beaten, leading to a lengthy hospitalization.

Five teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 16 years, who had been implicated in a separate series of muggings, were questioned about the rape. The boys were black; the victim was white. Some say that things began to go wrong right there--that the race factor trumped a search for the truth. The idea of a roving gang of black boys brutally beating and raping a white woman fit the schema of the public's fear of African-Americans and of teenage gangs.

All of the boys made statements to the police, though not one of them admitted to actually having intercourse with the victim. The search for the perpetrator stopped.

These teenagers should have been given the same kind of celebrity support that the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama received, especially in light of one little-remarked upon fun-fact:
On December 5 of [2002], the Manhattan district attorney's office made a rare move: It asked a judge to dismiss all charges against five men it had earlier prosecuted.

As teenagers, the men had been convicted and incarcerated for raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, and they had since served years of jail time for the crimes. Now, however, the actual perpetrator, an older man named Matias Reyes, has been linked to the victim with DNA evidence - after confessing to the rape and assault earlier this year.

Not only did this incident receive national attention because of the heinous nature of the crime - the woman's head was crushed with a stone after the rape, but fortunately for her, she did not die - but a cottage industry of conservative social commentary emerged, with this "incident" being the linchpin example, of the kind of social breakdown people were bemoaning (all discussed in re communities of color in urban areas, of course). Around the time Reyes confessed and the case against the five previously convicted teens-now-men began to unravel, the following article appeared in New York Magazine appeared, with the following statement:
The case also changed the city itself. Bigger trends -- the crack plague, the economic bust and then boom -- played dominant roles in the story of the nineties. But the symbolism of the Central Park case altered everything from two mayoral elections to the reaction when a knot of teenage boys appeared on a dimly-lit sidewalk.

The "symbolism" of the case. Rather than treat it as a unique event, and pursue the case using actual evidence, the cops and prosecutors, succumbing to a combination of general social fear, racism, and a zeitgeist of anxiety concerning the perceived crumbling of "their" city, saw this case as a "symbol". Five young men became victims of a criminal justice system distorted by fear and racism no less than a young woman became the victim of a serial rapist and murderer who managed to escape justice because the cops and the prosecutors wanted to treat this as a "symbol". The case also introduced a phony right-of-passage to our parlance:
Police officials told reporters that the boys had coined a new term, wilding, to describe beating up random victims, and that while in a holding cell the suspects had laughed and sung the rap hit "Wild Thing."

Now, none of the events the police alleged occurred that night. There was no "wilding". These five teenagers did not brutally rape and attempt to murder a young woman. Yet, the cops, the prosecutors, and commentators took that term - "wilding" - and invented a whole new way of talking about the social breakdown of the underclass. If you type "wilding central park jogger case" in Google, you get "about 21,000" hits.

Except for later articles describing how the real perpetrator of the crime confessed and was convicted with the aide of DNA evidence (blood evidence was never introduced at the first trials of the five young men, because their coerced confessions were considered enough to prosecute them; defense attorney were never given access to the simple fact that only one person's semen was found in the woman, and it didn't match any of the young men who "confessed"), there is not one single article that says the cops, the prosecutors, journalists, commentators, and ordinary citizens invented the entire "wilding" business. Five young men paid with ruined lives as much as one young woman did, because of racism, and the desire to see a crime as a "symbol".

Fear in the face of rising crime rates, exploding drug use, and a general sense of social unease is perfectly natural. Yet, precisely because police and law enforcement in general is thought to be "professional" should require them to be held to a higher standard, not so much of "truth seeking", but at the very least of treating each crime as a unique event, rather than "a symbol". The press, too, should not seek to figure out "what it all means", especially in light of the facts in this particular case.

We all paid a terrible price because one young woman was the victim of a serial rapist in 1989. Certainly not as high as she has, or the five young men who were wrongly convicted of the crime. But the pursuit of ideological coherence absent facts takes a toll. Just consider, to repeat, that "wilding" exists as a term, describing something that, in reality, doesn't exist.

What A Dick (Language Alert)

With AIG taking taxpayer money to pay the people who screwed the economic pooch something extra for their "talent"; with Pakistan in near-meltdown; with Chrysler, which is the basis for the local economy where I live and work, about to pull the plug on itself, the White House Press Corps manages to get red in the face, purse their lips and shake their heads in disdainful, mock-shock, because Obama's Press Secretary didn't show former Vice-President Richard Cheney due respect.
The scribblers from the White House Press Corps have dropped their teacups and opened windows for air after the vicious, uncouth attack on their dear friend Dick Cheney by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Rick Klein, chief towel-washer at ABC's The Note (they still print that?), exclaimed "Wow—we’re talking about the former vice president here." NBC's First Read (Facebook to The Note's MySpace) tut-tutted about the return of "petty political squabbling." And Chip Reid, bravely bold Chip Reid, after choking back tears and bolstered by the support of his fellow Villagers, stood up to that horrible bully and gave him a piece of his mind (hopefully he has some left)

Leaving aside the simple fact that, in a recent interview, Cheney more than hinted that Obama's policies will lead to a terrorist attack - you know, all that restoring the Constitution stuff; leaving aside the detailed account dday publishes in the linked post, how Cheney was in on approving torture; leaving aside the former VP's dismissal of the current economic crisis as "stuff happens". Leaving all that aside, what possible reason would Robert Gibbs, or any American with more than a modicum of gray matter, have for giving any kind of respect or deference to Dick Cheney?

This is a guy who shot a friend in the face and got the guy he shot to apologize for the incident. This is a guy who told Pat Leahy to go fuck himself, told him on the floor of the United States Senate. This is the guy who ran a separate intelligence unit and tossed unfiltered, unanalyzed information to the press in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, every single piece of which was dismissed after about ten minutes of research. That Dick.

If I were Robert Gibbs (and, for the sake of the Obama Administration, it's a good thing I"m not), if Chip Reid ("Chip"? You would think a guy in a serious profession would use his given name, at least at work; actually, "Chip Reid" sounds like a porn name) asked me the following question:
Can I ask you, when you referred to the former Vice President, that was a really hard-hitting, kind of sarcastic response you had. This is a former Vice President of the United States. Is that the attitude—is that the sanctioned tone toward the former Vice President of the United States from this White House now?

I would, with all officiousness, say something like the following:
Sanctioned tone? After four thousand-plus Americans dead in an unnecessary war, economic collapse of historic proportions, illegal domestic spying, secret CIA prisons run in countries where there are few legal restraints on torture, and a cavalier disregard for the concerns of the American people, I thought my tone was really quite polite. In order to clarify, I would quote the former Vice President, and tell him to go fuck himself.

See what I mean? Not a good idea for me to be Press Secretary.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Music For Your Monday

In the early 1960's, Motown managed to create accessible r&b-oriented pop songs, almost all of which centered around love. Catering first and foremost to the rising urban working and middle-class African-American population, it managed to strike a chord with most of the youth of America, and Barry Gordy could rightly lay claim to the motto "The Sound of Young America".

By the end of the decade, America was a very different place. As such, Motown started, very tentatively, to change. In 1968, the Supremes released "Love Child". I will confess that one of my older sisters had this song on a 45 and I used to listen all the time, loving this song, never knowing what it was about. The eleventh number one song the Supremes would have, it signaled a change in Motown that was following the changes in America.

The Temptations told another side of the story of the underclass in an unforgettable performance - "Papa Was A Rolling Stone". With all the panache and class they always had, they still delivered a song one never could have imagined them doing five or six years previously. Here they are in a 1972 television appearance.

After struggling with a very bad marriage to Barry Gordy's sister, and coming off the tragedy of his beloved singing partner Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye produced what is, without a doubt, the greatest album Motown released, What's Going On. Partly a result of his stubborn refusal to take label-owner Gordy's advice as to a direction, partly a result of letters he received from his brother, who was serving in combat in Vietnam, and partly as a result of his desire to show that he had more interests than, as he put it in one interview, "his genitals", the album is a beautiful mix of political and social protest, religious and spiritual songs, all featuring, front and center, Gaye's beautiful, clear tenor. I will admit that the title track is among my favorite songs of all time; if hard pressed, I might say it is the favorite. This long live clip is from a 1973 film, and shows Gaye playing the piano and singing, along with clips of urban life depicting the struggle about which he was singing.

Virtual Tin Cup

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