Feb 222003

Well here’s a nasty little result. It turns out that the best way to select for optimum performance from a multi-racial applicant pool is to discriminate against the low-performing groups. You need not follow the rather daunting math to follow the reasoning: the greater the difference between a score and the mean, the likelier it becomes that the score was lucky. If you adopt a single cutoff, the members of low-performing groups who are admitted have a greater differential between their scores and the mean (for their groups) than others. Therefore, their results are more likely due to chance. Therefore, you need to set a higher cutoff for the low-performing groups to compensate for this fact. And therefore people who clamor for a single cutoff for all applicants are not advocating a meritocracy, even though they think so.

(Link from Gene Expression, who else?)

Feb 192003

The Nobel shortlist is out. (More like medium-length: there are 156 nominees.) I’ll leave Bono and Chirac to everybody else; it’s George Ryan who interests me. No matter what you think of capital punishment, how does a governor who commutes the sentences of 150 convicted murderers to life from execution contribute to world peace?

Feb 162003

Why is nearly all war poetry anti-war, and not just now, but always? Stanley Kunitz thinks it’s because “[war] is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.” Poets oppose war because they care more deeply about humanity than the rest of us. If this satisfies you then stop reading now, by all means.

A poem motivates, through technical means like rhythm, meter and rhyme, the emotion proper to its rational statement. Emotion derives from personal experience. Thus the statement of poetry tends to be personal. This is not to say that poems cannot make complex logical arguments. But these arguments will relate, in the end, to a personal experience.

War is, at the level of the statesmen (and the pundits), where one decides whether to wage it, or even at the level of the generals, where one decides how, as impersonal a subject as one could wish for. To decide rationally to wage war one must put one’s emotions aside, which is the opposite of what poetry asks you to do.

Therefore most poetry about war is written at the level of the soldier, the best of it often by the soldier, and it’s understandably not very favorable to the enterprise. For the soldier war is a bloody, muddy, destructive, terrifying, chaotic smash — hell, as Sherman said. At this disastrously personal level it is impossible to be pro-war: no one enjoys war, for itself, except the morally deranged. This poem by Yvor Winters limns the difficulty:

Night of Battle
Europe: 1944
as regarded from a great distance

Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.

In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.

Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.

Winters fiercely supported the Second World War, but this poem is neither pro nor anti. To support a war one must regard it “from a great distance,” while poetry tends, on the contrary, to regard matters up close. As much room as there is for the individual, there is that much room for poetry; when one disappears the other must as well.

This is why pro-war poetry like Kipling’s sounds like tub-thumping. Kipling had little poetic talent: his poetry resembles great poetry as Sousa marches resemble great music. But mostly he chose a medium that does not suit the subject.

The problem of war resembles the problem of “what is seen and what is not seen,” as Bastiat put it, in economics. Unsound economic policies like tariffs win support because the benefits are seen, while the costs are invisible, being good things that never happen. (Not coincidentally, very little poetry has been written on economics.) War is the opposite. The costs are seen, while the benefits are invisible, being bad things that never happen. All art, and poetry especially, deals best with what is seen. So poems about war will tend to be against, or ambivalent, but always myopic. Anyone looking for geopolitical wisdom from poetry should look elsewhere. And when faced with a subject that’s out of their ken, poets, like actors, should just shut up.

(Update: Jim Ryan comments.)

Another: Andrea Harris notes this pro-war poetry site. The poems are not very good, but they’re better than the anti-war stuff.)

Feb 162003

As Steven Den Beste, Arthur Silber, and others have pointed out, war with Iraq is no longer an abstract question. We’ve already threatened Saddam with force, many times and with increasing shrillness, unless he disarms. He’s failed to do so, as everyone acknowledges, even Inspector Magoo and the French. Arthur writes:

But here is the problem that confronts us now: after all the posturing, preparations, and speech-making, especially over the past year, if we were to do nothing now, we might as well hand out engraved invitations to terrorists to come and attack us again. Paper tiger wouldn’t even begin to describe the problem. We might as well be defenseless — because, in effect, we would have rendered ourselves defenseless.

One could describe this policy as unilateral moral disarmament.

Opponents of the war continue to argue in a vacuum, as though we have not promised to disarm Saddam by any means necessary. It’s certainly possible to argue that we shouldn’t have made any such promise. What I’d like to see is an argument that, having promised to disarm him, we should then proceed not to do so. Just asking, is all.

Feb 152003

Special thanks to Oliver Stone for Comandante, his upcoming searing exposé of Fidel Castro. Besides the “revolutionary” mustache Stone sports for his scenes in the movie, making him look like the missing Ortega brother, one detail cannot go unmentioned:

Throughout, Castro wears his trademark green fatigues, but when the camera pans to his shoes it shows how times have changed: even a veteran revolutionary sports the ubiquitous Nike swoosh.

Fidel Castro, supporter of evil capitalist exploitation of Third World sweatshop labor.

Feb 092003

About time. Maybe it was the protest vote:

“It’s not working,” Matthew W. Daus, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said yesterday.

Mr. Daus’s agency conducted a study in recent weeks and found that 67 percent of the 4,000 or so respondents said they did not pay a lick of attention when Eartha Kitt or Plcido Domingo or Michael Buffer (“Let’s get ready to rummmmmmmble!”) asked them, by recorded proxy, to wear their seat belts in a taxicab.

Moreover, nearly 12 percent of those questioned said they purposefully refused to buckle up because the announcements were annoying.

If we must have a goo-goo mayor, this is what he ought to be doing, instead of persecuting smokers: ridding us of these stagnant puddles of graft.

Feb 082003

Of the many intelligent replies to the New York Sun’s editorial advocacy of censorship, Arthur Silber’s gets nearest to the heart of the matter:

In effect, the Sun announces its own, newer version of preemption: let’s destroy civil liberties now, and with absolute certainty, so as to avoid the possibility that those same civil liberties might be destroyed later. To identify the nature of this argument, is to realize how truly ludicrous it is, and it would be laughable if the matter were not so serious. Yet certain conservatives make this same kind of argument with profoundly disturbing regularity in connection with a compulsory draft, for example. They say: “But if we don’t forcibly conscript people, how will we be able to save our free country?” — thus ignoring the fact that by establishing the precedent of slavery yet again, and by establishing the principle that no one has the right to his own life, they have destroyed the very concept of a free country at its core — and that once this was accomplished, there would be nothing left to save.

(Update: Silber comments on the comments.)

Feb 082003

Sam Hamill was right. He had no business at “Laura Bush’s tea party” — not because of his fatuous politics, but because of his fatuous poetry.

State of the Union, 2003

I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.

Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.

I’m not sure how you repeat cheap tobacco, I’m quite sure I don’t want to investigate the question, and I’m 100% sure that’s not what Hamill’s repeating here. This is actually worse than Andrew Motion, worse even than Harold Pinter: those were still possible to parody. Give me the actors against the war. Some of them can actually act.

(Update: Emperor Misha and Cinderella comment. Frederick Glaysher protests to The New York Times, which predictably sided with the poets, and maintains a useful list of links on the whole sorry affair.)