Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday Rock Show

I found out not too long ago that Kerry Livgren, the songwriter from Kansas', had a serious stroke. While he is in recovery - including relearning how to play music - that is very sad news indeed. In recent years, he reformed a pre-Kansas group he was in, called Proto-Kaw. Here they are in concert, performing "Scont". Leaning more in the direction of fusion - there is a section of this song that sounds quite a bit like the first incarnation of King Crimson - they are less edgy in concert than Kansas, yet still demonstrating two things I love about Livgren's songs - complexity and a need for a certain level of musical talent above the norm.

Question Begging

I am no longer one who complains about "journalists" as a kind of generic complaint. For one thing, what many perceive to be failures on the part of "journalists" are, really, ideological differences with pundits, a different breed of cat. Journalists, as professionals, usually are more-than-competent at their craft. The complaints leveled by some on the left on the internet too often are unrelated to issues surrounding how journalists do their jobs; indeed, one of the more egregious practitioners of the whole "our journalists are failing the country" theme, Glenn Greenwald, seems to believe - quite often writes without any sense that he has no idea what he is talking about.

All the same, there are moments, and even whole stories, that leave me wondering about some journalists. A story in this morning's Washington Post by Neil Irwin and Lorie Montgomery on the possibility that Ben Bernanke will not be appointed to a second term a chief of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee has a couple things wrong with it. First, the lede frames the entire story in a way that is puzzling, to say the least.
The populist brushfire that has burned through Democratic fortunes this week threatened Friday to claim Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, imperiling his nomination for a second term and sending an unsettled stock market tumbling for the third straight day.

What, exactly, is a "populist brushfire"? How did it "burned through Democratic fortunes"? This is meaningless drivel, really. Perhaps to the insiders in Washington, these words and phrases have some kind of resonance; since the Post is one of the ways folks up there keep tabs on the conventional wisdom, this is something for which we should account. Yet, I, for one, am puzzled by the construction.

Did the stock market "tumble" because Bernanke's appointment was under threat? Is there any way that question can be answered, beside consulting "experts" who insist it is, indeed, the case?

The other part of the article that leaves me troubled is the following:
Although Democrats and Republicans alike mostly praise Bernanke for aggressive steps to combat the recession, he is increasingly blamed for failing to rein in Wall Street excesses that led to the crisis and tarred by his role as engineer of the profoundly unpopular bailout for financial firms.(italics added)

This is one of those hidden passive-voice things that nags at me. It offers up some of the serious criticism leveled at Bernanke, yet does so without any reference to specifics. Furthermore, this charge, in particular, is one that can be checked with reference to actual events. Did Bernanke, in fact, have a role in the specific crisis, the collapse of the housing bubble? In fact, there is abundant evidence that Bernanke (and previous Fed Chair Alan Greenspan) encouraged the unrealistic investments in real estate, both private and commercial, and refused to interfere in the mushrooming of financial instruments increasingly reliant on unrealistic values and huge debt. There were many, many signs, even before the economy began to cool in the spring of 2008, that the housing market was a classic investment bubble. The housing bubble was a topic of discussion among economists and commentators on the economy and the financial sector for quite a while. The role of the Fed - easing the landing of that particular crash through incremental increases in interest rates, thus discouraging reckless lending and borrowing - was offered up routinely as a way to avoid what many feared would come. Yet, he (and they, the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee) refused to do so. When the collapse came, and the economy started to falter, then collapse, years-too-long near-zero interest rates left the Fed with no options as to how to tackle the recession.

Bernanke's role in recent economic events is clear. Yet, this article simply offers it up as an example of us versus them, Republicans versus Democrats back and forth on Capitol Hill. In framing it as part of an undefined "populist brushfire", this whole article leaves me scratching my head.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What Matt Said

Pretty much, yeah.

Academia And Mediocrity

[K]nowledge is important, in the end, not because it flatters the pretensions of its producers, but because it helps us achieve our purposes.

I had every intention, at one time, of becoming an academic. The happiest I had been was in the academy; I love University libraries more than many places. Yet, my time spent in pursuit of that goal of academic life, the humanities' doctorate, left me disillusioned not just at the process, but at the life toward which I was working. While I am impressed by those who do finish the process, my own view from outside is that, a century after a slew of reforms of the academy - ushered in from Americans impressed with the standards set in German research universities - is that the sprouting of increasingly specialized academic journals and the pursuit of increasingly esoteric studies in a variety of disciplines (moreso in the humanities than the sciences, to be sure) has led not so much to an increase in our ability to understand and organize our collective experience so much as it has led to a kind of leveling down. The demand to "publish or perish" results, in the end, to an overall decrease in the level of academic life. On the one hand, will one more study, say, of the writings of J. D. Salinger or the philosophy of Spinoza really make our society better? Am I the only one who thinks that a careful study of a local poet or local historian or folklorist by a University Press is of decreasingly marginal utility, when considered on a collective basis?

Louis Menand, of Harvard University's literature department, has published The Marketplace of Ideas to address the elephant in the classroom - a kind of malaise that is effecting academic life (in particular the humanities). Reviewed by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in Slate (from whence the epigram), Menand's work focuses attention on what has been wrought by the academic reforms of Harvard's storied President, Charles William Eliot. The model of academic freedom Eliot used, based in the academic reforms in the German Empire of the 19th century, were themselves modeled on an understanding of the pursuit of knowledge that was not only historically contingent, but structured on a particularly parochial understanding of "science" as the model for knowledge. That understanding is, largely, passe. Furthermore, while the model does work well in the sciences, they work less well the further one wanders from the laboratory. The mushrooming of academic journals might indicate that our collective pursuit of understanding (as opposed to knowledge) is working quite well; or, it might just be an object lesson, an example of the end of a model of academic professionalization that, for all it has benefited our society over the past century, has become one of decreasing utility.

From my own perspective, there is one telling observation Lewis-Kraus makes on Menand's book:
In the 2004 election, he notes, 95 percent of humanities and social-science professors voted for Kerry; zero percent voted for Bush. This is sure to be taken up by the few remaining culture warriors as proof of the disloyalty of the American professoriate. But Menand, in the context of a book about the trade-offs of professionalization, reads the situation differently. The fault is not with the politics themselves; academics are usually careful to keep policy out of the classroom. It is with the homogeneity. The system is simply replicating itself too smoothly.

As Lewis-Kraus makes clear, for all it insists that academic freedom as an umbrella exists to protect the pursuit of knowledge as an ideal, he makes clear that Menand makes the observation that the system really creates not scholars so much as professionals schooled in the wiles and ways of certain professional practices. Increasingly marginalized from the larger society, intent on pursuing esoterica that has an ever-decreasing marginal utility - again, understanding as a social phenomenon is, or at least should be, considered among the criteria we apply to the results of academic researches - we are now at the point, or perhaps far past it, where a reconsideration of the entire system might be necessary in order to reset our priorities.

When Congress Doesn't Pass Laws

I heard this story on the way home this morning and the first thought I had was, "This is the fault of Congress." The Bush Administration invented a term - "illegal enemy combatants" - and, without any clear definition of what, exactly, that means, the courts have been at sea as to how to proceed.

A year and a half ago, the Supreme Court opened federal courts to habeas corpus hearings for those held at Guantanamo Bay prison. Among the many issues, apart from the question of what, exactly, such a creature is, are questions of the admissibility of evidence obtained through "enhanced interrogation", which the federal courts routinely dismiss as the equivalent of torture.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Congress did not act to set up a framework for what the Bush Administration insisted all along would be a long, complicated, and non-traditional style of warfare. The Bush Administration, various offices of Legal Counsel all got together and cobbled together rules that the federal courts have, for the most part, found unconstitutional. Yet, absent any other legal framework, the habeas hearings have left a hodge-podge.

Too often we hear complaints about "government" as if it were some weird entity that bore no relation to the day-to-day functioning of our society. As Ari Shapiro's story makes abundantly clear, however, when Congress fails to fulfill its most basic Constitutional function - to pass laws - it creates legal headaches, to be sure. These legal headaches, however, hide very real human tragedies.

Yet another thing to get upset at the years of Congressional Republican rule, I guess.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Inhofe Outdoes His Own Stupidity

The deadliest terror attack in the US prior to 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Today, one of the US Senators from that state said the following:
INHOFE: I’m, for one — I know it’s not politically correct to say it — I believe in racial and ethnic profiling. I think if you’re looking at people getting on an airplane and you have X amount of resources to get into it, you get at the targets, and not my wife. And I just think it’s something that should be looked into. The statement that’s made, it’s probably 90 percent true with some exceptions like the Murrah federal office building in my state, Oklahoma. Those people, they were not Muslims, they were not Middle Easterners. But when you hear that not all Middle Easterners or Muslims between the age of 20 and 35 are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims or Middle Easterners between the age of 20 and 35, that’s by and large true.

That he sees Timothy McVeigh as an exception to be set aside is even more horrible than the evident racism.

Things That Make Me Go WTF And Weep Simultaneously


Cowardly BS (UPDATE)

I want to play a little game here. It's called, "Let's be adults about things." Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts to replace the recently deceased Ted Kennedy. In part he won because the Democratic Party in Massachusetts miscalculated; Ms. Coakley also lost pretty much fair and square because she was, to put it bluntly, the worst possible choice for a candidate. Scott Brown, while certainly holding all sorts of odd, even awful, notions and political positions, is now the junior Senator from Massachusetts. I think he deserves a note of congratulations, if for no other reason than winning an election that, for all intents and purposes, he should have lost.

Now the Republicans have 41 seats in the US Senate. The Democrats have 57. There are two independents. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a socialist, and caucuses with the Democrats. Joe Lieberman is a douchebag and also caucuses with the Democrats, although I can't for the life of me understand why. That gives the Democrats, effectively, 59 seats. While there are, to be sure, more conservative Democrats - Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu - for the most part the Democratic caucus is far more liberal even than the majorities the Democrats held, say, in the late-1980's through 1994. The possibilities inherent in this quite liberal plurality should be exciting to contemplate.

Except, of course, too many people are not. Instead, they are actually accepting the Republican version of events - Mitch McConnell's truly stupid notion that an election in a relatively small state is a national referendum makes sense only in a mind bereft of sense - and are writing crap like this.
Folks, Scott Brown’s victory has sent a clear message that not one single American voter supports a progressive agenda. Let’s face it — it’s over. The Dems are not going to be able to salvage a single thing out of this.

As if they ever were.

We might as well quit trying.


The Republicans own us. We may still technically have the presidency, large majorities in both houses of Congress and more governors, but really, the endgame in this particular political drama is all but written in stone.

And the message for any sane person is: Give up. Stop thinking it will ever get better. It will only get worse forever and ever and ever.

If the person who wrote this truly believes it, the website that featured this post should fold. Ditto pretty much every liberal who writes a blog, produces original news content, or advocates for candidates. Eschaton? Done. Crooks & Liars? Turn it off. TPM? Josh Marshall might as well start looking for a regular job. If D. Aristophanes publishes a single new post at Sadly, No!, he is both a liar and a hypocrite.

Am I the only liberal in America who couldn't care less that the Republicans won in Massachusetts? Am I the only one who thinks that it might be time to start providing testicles and spinal cords to Congressional Democrats, rather than sit in our corners and whine and moan because the Republicans have 41 fucking seats in the US Senate?

I didn't realize the caricature of Democrats as cowardly surrender monkeys was actually true, but this single post has proved me wrong.

At least some are, anyway.

UPDATE: I feel stupid. I got owned, apparently, because I was far too ready to accept Aristophanes' post as legit, rather than the satire it is. He let me know in comments.

Sorry, guys, I should have known better.

I'm leaving this up as an object lesson in my own stupidity.

Again, many apologies to Aristophanes and all those at Sadly,No! for being so dumb. Too may, at least in the mainstream media are acting as if the entire Democratic Party should fold so, in my defense, I read this as straight commentary rather than satire. My head is hung in shame. You guys can even write a post, like you did once before, about how stupid I am, and I won't complain.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Our Really Stupid Discourse

Because the Democratic Party now has 59 seats rather than sixty in the United States Senate, their entire legislative agenda is doomed because this is a huge loss for President Obama.

I want to plucky my eyes out. Not because Brown won - Coakley was a lousy candidate, by all accounts - but because everyone thinks this is the end of everything for the Democrats. Including the Democrats.

A Cat's Life

The first time I saw Patch, she was a six-week old, scruffy cat sitting in a cardboard box. It was a hot Sunday afternoon in July, 1994. We had been in Jarratt, VA a little over a week and the Owen family offered us two kittens from a recent litter from their farm.

From the first, Patch's personality was the dominant of the two (the other cat, Hobbes - and you can guess where we got that name - died in October, 2004 after a long illness). Loud, insistent to the point of being demanding, a Diva among cats, she earned her name for the orange Patch over her right eye (she was a tortoise-shell calico, and the rest of her was gray).

She wasn't the best mouser in the world, to be sure.

She ate a tiny bit of mackerel with her meals every day of her life, including her last day.

When we had goose for Christmas a few years back, I gave her a small taste, which we always figured was the high point of her culinary life.

She lived in three parsonages in two states, never exactly happy at having to move, but always adjusting after a day or two.

Last night, after a typical day, she left us after fifteen years of companionship. Well right up to the (quite literal) last minute, she spent her last afternoon and evening demanding her dinner (as usual), lying on my wife as she was stretched out on the couch reading, and keeping the dog at bay with a combination of stares-down and the occasional smack on his muzzle. Then, she collapsed. Lisa and I sat and petted her, and my hand was on her when she breathed her last. We all gathered around her, crying and saying our last goodbyes. This afternoon, I buried her in our little garden in the side yard.

Fifteen years is a long life for a cat, and Patch's had that added element of robust health right up the very end. These last couple years, Lisa and I both commented that she just didn't seem to age, her personality not really changing all that much. She just lived, and despite an outward diffidence toward us and the other animals that shared her space, she loved, and was loved, deeply. It is less than 24 hours since her very sudden death, and both my wife and I find ourselves looking for her. At 5 pm, I wondered why she wasn't coming around to demand, quite vocally, her dinner, and then remembered why, and was sad all over again.

She was a singular individual, even among that most singular species, the domestic cat. More than a pet, she was a part of our family, with Lisa and me from just after our first wedding anniversary until now.

It is an end of an era for our family, and we are all sad. Yet we also celebrate the life of our beloved family member, and give thanks for all the years we shared home and life together.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Music For Your Monday

Exciting historical times offer up cultural artifacts that reflect on those times. I remember well reading the Rolling Stone "official" history of rock and roll (pretty standard fluff, but full of good stuff in the early chapters on American folk musics), for example, that the Second World War offered, among many other things such as death and destruction, a whole host of songs, popular and folk, on the event; the Korean War, on the other hand, only one B.B. King song, "Korea Blues".

The Civil Rights movement also had its poets laureate and songsters. While I wouldn't necessarily include Bob Dylan as an official "chronicler", he participated and supported the movement in his own way (including sitting around and holding hands, singing "Kum Ba Yah"). Yet, as he reflected more deeply, "The Times They Are A-Changing" came out, a far more reflective and threatening musical manifesto.

Sam Cooke's most powerful song, "A Change Is Gonna Come", was his offering to the world, stripped either of a desire to please the Lord or seek the gains of filthy lucre. As such, it managed to do both. My own sense is, had he lived, his voice would have rung out for many years to come.

It predates the Civil Rights movement; it was really part of the leftist, socialist/communist infiltrated, yet nonetheless necessary anti-lynching movement of the 1920's and 1930's (one of FDR's more cowardly moments; he knew a federal anti-lynching statute was necessary; he supported the idea; he also knew the resistance of southern Senators, especially if it passed, would doom the New Deal legislation he saw as far more important). This song was written for Billie Holiday, and she was afraid of it - its bleakness, its baldness, and the threat it seemed to pose. Yet, along with "God Bless The Child" and "Autumn in New York", it is my favorite musical performance of hers because she made it her own. For all the ravages his life of dissipation left on her face and body, it really didn't touch her voice, especially as she sings this song.

On James Baldwin

While he is justly famous for many things, Baldwin came to my attention when I read a collection of New Yorker pieces, collected under the title The Fire Next Time. The first piece in this slim collection is an open letter to his nephew on the occasion of the nephew's birthday, in which Baldwin tries to explain to the younger man why the boy's father, Baldwin's brother, is who he is. He wants the young man not to hate or despise him, but to understand him, and to use him as an object lesson in becoming more fully human, precisely because Baldwin's brother, living under the too-heavy yoke of white supremacy, has interiorized the lie of his own inferiority. Baldwin broke that particular yoke through the power of books and his own peculiar genius with words. He offers that as an option to the young man.

Baldwin suffered in a nation that hated him because he was black and gay. In the midst of this suffering, Baldwin loved America deeply, passionately enough to leave it for France, knowing in his deepest heart that no matter what he said, or wrote, or did, America would not love him. This kind of unrequited love, that cuts the heart out of one's innermost identity, no doubt left a huge hole in his heart.

As beautiful a writer as Baldwin was; as honest as he was unrepentant for the crime of being what the accident of birth had made him - a gay black man in a time and place that despised both; adamant in his refusal to hate that which hated him most, Baldwin's writings are a testament to the power of real love acting in the world to make it less hostile, less deprecatory, especially for those who are hated the most by the powers that be. In refusing to accept the judgment of the world that his life was of less worth than others, and in repeating his love for a time and place that did not want him, Baldwin's life is a marvelous example of a kind of existentialist heroism - he has made certain choices, accepted certain realities, and makes his own meaning as he moves forward. To read Baldwin at his best - which is usually whenever he puts pen to paper - is to encounter that rare-enough individual: the hero.

Of all the African-American writers who gave us a glimpse in to the heart of Darkness of America, I love Baldwin the most because of his fierce and open discussion of the power of love. Baldwin knew that real love, not the agape of secular liberals for that abstraction "humanity", but real love was, first and foremost, a threat to the lover. It creates real vulnerability. It offers the challenge to live up to the possibility of being oneself without artifice, without mask, and without pretension. While there is a deep romantic strain to much of Baldwin's words, it is tempered by an understanding that, in the end, love is the source of as much pain as pleasure, as much tragedy as triumph. Surrendering to love, for Baldwin is far preferable to other choices we face, even with the threat it poses, precisely because Baldwin understood, as he lays out in "Letter From A Region of my Mind", that all other choices lead only to death and destruction. Rather than live with the knowledge that his love for the land that made him would never be returned, he fled to France. He did so in order that he would not be destroyed by that American refusal to recognize him as one of its most beloved sons.

On this day when we remember the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to offer a rumination on a contemporary, a compatriot in the pursuit of justice in the name of love.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Those Who Never Knew The Past Are Condemned To Say Stupid Things About It

The title, an addition George Santayana may or may not have accepted, came to mind as I read this tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn upon the occasion of his death. A few months back, I wrote a post in which I highlighted an excellent, if chilling, article profiling a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and his tale of his time during that particular nightmare. While I did so in order to bring the article to the attention of readers, I also did so to highlight a glaring, almost obscene, gap between much of the rhetoric of the American right regarding the Obama Administration. Specifically, I contrasted the very real horrors of life under tyranny with the still-on-going attempt to portray Obama as a budding tyrant.

The First of the Month piece includes a snippet from a Stalin-era show trial. On the stand is revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin, being questioned by prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky (who managed, through his long career, to demonstrate both viciousness and a willingness to do what is necessary to survive). Pay particular attention to the point Vyshinsky makes concerning "counter-revolutionary" acts:
“Is it true that every opposition to the Party is a struggle against the party?” “In general it is, factually it is.”

“And that means in the end, given the existence of oppositionist beliefs, any foul deeds whatever might be perpetrated against the Party…?”
“But, wait a minute, none were actually committed.”

“But they could have been?”
“Well theoretically speaking.”

“So you see, only a fine distinction separates us. We are required to concretize the eventuality: in the interest of discrediting for the future any idea of opposition, we are required to accept as having taken place what could only theoretically have taken place. After all, it could have, couldn’t it?”
“It could have.”

“And so it is necessary to accept as actual what was possible; that’s all. It’s a small philosophical transition. Are we in agreement?”(italics added)

That phrase, "a fine distinction", hides horrors. Insanity. It is the excuse for the butchering not just of our understanding of reality - a horrible enough thought - but of millions of human lives.

Reading Solzhenitsyn is a wonderful cure for those who get lost in the mire of our current political debates. The never-ending parade of nonsense, the portrayals of Obama as little different from Vyshinsky's mentor Stalin, or Hitler, or Pol Pot is a kind of rape of reality. We have record enough of the horrors of modern and contemporary tyrannies, the reality-distorting insistence that human life be subservient to the powerful's attempt to make it bend to their will, to take to task those who claim our current Administration is no different from these. Those who continue to claim that our freedoms are disappearing, our nation becoming unrecognizable, our culture bereft of spiritual or moral uplift all because of our current President not only display their ignorance; they do violence to the memory of those who managed to survive very real tyranny and tell their stories in order to keep others from having to live through the experience.

Some Things I Will Never Understand (UPDATE)

Following up on my post from yesterday, I have to wonder whether or not there are, as both the analytical philosophers and those who followed Wittgenstein suggested, some linguistic constructions that are, no matter how hard one tries, unintelligible.
HUME: Let’s assume that for the purpose of this question, which is in raw political terms is it better for the Democrats and worse for the Republicans if the bill passes or if it fails?

MCCONNELL: What’s important is it would be good for the country if it failed.(italics added)

To be honest, no way of seeking to parse, deconstruct, or otherwise interpret that sentence leads me to a conclusion other than it is just meaningless. A string of words that certainly looks and sounds like a sentence in English; yet, when one attempts to figure out what it means, I, for one, conclude that McConnell may have well said, "I am woman, hear me roar," and it would have made just as much sense.

At some point we need to remember that rhetoric like this is just noise, static clogging our airwaves.

Before anyone comments that McConnell is referring to deficits, or some a priori notion that government intervention in any sector of the economy is ipso facto bad for the country; or that, as a Republican, what he really means is it would be bad for the Republicans but he can't say that, let me just respond quickly. To the first, I doubt whether Mitch McConnell has any understanding deep enough to root his politics in something even that obviously false. In fact, it seems the Republicans believe only one thing; they are political Barthians, screeching, "Nein!" at any attempt by the Democrats to make the nation a little better, a little more compassionate, a little more sensible.

As for the second, while that may indeed be true, it would be far preferable for them to be honest enough to say it, rather than string a bunch of words together that sound noble but are really just sounds.

UPDATE: Another example. This kind of thing is so common that Duncan even has a tag-line for it. That it is meaningless isn't changed by repetition.

Virtual Tin Cup

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