General – Page 3 – God of the Machine
Dec 252002

They matter no more than the politics of Bono, or Barbra Streisand; less actually, because Strummer never tried to influence policy. If artists become important in politics, the fault lies not with the idiots themselves but with the even bigger idiots who attend to them. They achieve significance, like the devil, only insofar as people believe in their existence.

So scholastic disputes about the politics of Sandinista!, the xenophobia of “Safe European Home” and Strummer’s alleged evolution into a conservative are utterly beside the point. The Clash, which even had the good grace to break up early, made London Calling and Give ‘Em Enough Rope, great records for reasons that had nothing to do with their politics, which were mostly incoherent when they were even decipherable. That’s what Strummer should be remembered for, and it’s a great deal.

Dec 232002

Steven Den Beste says that, no matter what words you use, the concept eventually reasserts itself, which is a cheerful thought:

The reality is that words follow concepts and not the other way around. If you force someone to use a different term for something, then the meaning of that term will eventually modify in normal use to embody the same concept that the original word meant, which is why certain members of the civil rights movement again searched for a new new term to replace the new term which had failed to eradicate the underlying belief in white racial superiority. When the bigots began to use “Black” without abandoning their bigotry, we got “Afro-American”, and when that didn’t work we got “African-American”. Bigotry in the US is in decline (thankfully) but this did not contribute to the process and may even have impeded it.

Julian Sanchez disagrees:

There’s a more general problem here I’ve noted before of what you might call linguistic hypnosis. We have a healthy enough tendency to think about “human life” in a certain way, but then we overextend our attitude towards “lives” in the sense of “how’s your life?” to the technical, biological sense of “organism with human DNA.” Then we might go back and rationalize our attitude, but the initial reaction is conditioned by the application of the same word to quite different underlying things. I think plenty of libertarians hit the same stumbling block with “intellectual property.” The Constitution, of course, never uses that phrase — it talks about “exclusive rights,” which is to say, monopoly rights that the government may grant. But we’re accustomed to calling it “property,” and libertarians are all for “property” and “markets,” so a lot of us reflexively defend these monopoly rights before we stop and ask: “well, is this really like property in, say, land? if there are differences, what are they, and how might they make a difference?” Or recall the sudden flight from the term “privatization” as applied to Social Security, which in some circles seems to have been replaced by the contentless “modernization.” Will Saletan gave a great talk about this at the San Diego seminar I attended a while back… Among the examples he cited were “affirmative action” (what the hell does that have to do with race preferences?), and “campaign finance reform” (“reform” is always an improvement, right? are you against “reform”?).

It’s a question of how widely the description varies from the thing. The fatuous cases are quickly exposed: nobody believes “people’s republics” are anything of the kind, or that the Europeans are truly interested in “multilateralism” or being our “ally.” Some of Sanchez’s examples are nearly as crude. “Affirmative action” is already on the outs and “campaign finance reform” won’t last long either. But words do influence thought, many subtle misnomers are disguised analogies, and some of them, like “intellectual property,” can dog us for centuries.

Dec 212002

From this week’s New York Observer (don’t even think about it if you have a slow connection):

A Brooklyn resident reported that while he was making a right turn onto Park Avenue from 68th Street at 2:14 PM, his car was struck by a black BMW bearing diplomatic plates. The complainant said that when he suggested that they exchange insurance information, the Beemer’s driver got out of his vehicle, pushed him and stated, “Get the fuck out of here. I do not want to give you any papers. You are inferior to me. I am a diplomat.”

The guy got the license plate number, sure enough the car was traced to a consulate, and guess which country? No, not France. Afghanistan.

Dec 212002

Rod Dreher says: “It’s more important that we look at what people do, not so much what they say.” In fact what people say is often as important as what they do — even more important for certain classes of people, like professional intellectuals. The problem lies in how we interpret what people say. Trent Lott says that “we wouldn’t have had all these problems” had Strom Thurmond been elected President in 1948. It is possible to take a principled position that the Dixiecrat ticket, opposed as it was to federal power over the states, was the best choice available. (The distinguished libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, nobody’s racist, did so at the time; granted, he was very young.) Even at the most literal level, it is certainly true that, had the Dixiecrats been elected, we wouldn’t have had “these” problems but a whole new set.

The question of whether the Dixiecrats, with their love of state-imposed Jim Crow laws combined with their loathing of federal power, would have made for better governance in the long haul appears to interest very few, though it seems interesting to me. Of course actual historical knowledge is required to discuss it intelligently. Far more popular is the question of Trent Lott’s motives, because that’s pop psychology and anyone can play. Is he a segregationist? A racist? Just an idiot? What is at issue is no longer Lott’s remark itself, but what it purportedly reveals about his inner psyche: the subtext, as English majors say. Jim Henley, one of the few bloggers at least willing to take up the question of the merits of the Dixiecrats, takes the novel approach of psychologizing the platform itself:

One thing alone cheers me up: their patent insincerity about constitutionalism and individual liberty and federal police power. Reading [the States Rights platform], you can be pretty sure that a Thurmond Administration would have enthusiastically swung the power of the federal government toward preserving segregation. You can imagine Thurmond directing J. Edgar Hoover to deal with “outside agitators,” resegregating the army and passing latter-day “fugitive slave” laws to force states outside the region to support southern efforts to retard or reverse civil rights.

Well, sure. You can imagine whatever you like. Unfortunately Henley’s imagination lacks an iota of textual support.

Lott’s defenders insist that he isn’t “really” a racist, his opponents insist that he “really” is, and they agree only that they have this right to speculate blandly about his inner life, a conviction buttressed by Lott’s various apologies, most of which were professions of his non-racist bona fides. I wonder if Trent Lott himself knows what he “really” is, let alone the rest of us.

We’re not all Keynesians now. We’re all shrinks.

(Update: Dave Kopel has a detailed analysis of the Dixiecrat platform.)

Dec 202002

Partisanship is loyalty to a person, or a party, over a principle. It sounds silly. Yet often it is proper.

Rational people, confronted with believing their friend or a stranger, will choose their friend, absent other evidence. This partisanship is amply justified; your friend gets the benefit of the doubt by virtue of being your friend. Since this is looked on favorably, it is usually called not partisanship but loyalty.

A classically partisan decision, in politics, is to vote for a candidate of your preferred party, say the Republicans, over one in the opposing party, say the Democrats, with whom you more closely agree. This too can be rational, provided you have a strong enough preference for Republican over Democratic policies. It is matter of calculating how far your principles will likely be advanced by the preferences of the individual candidates against the party discipline to which each will be subjected. One can err in such a calculation, but voting for the Republican is not wrong on its face.

Wrongful partisanship occurs when you allow your emotions about a person, or a group of beliefs a person holds, to blind you to the merits of that person’s particular view. If you despise Hillary Clinton it is difficult not to find reasons to oppose whatever she supports. On the rare occasions that she is right you will be wrong, out of foolishness and obstinacy. I have a woolly-headed lefty friend who enjoys arguing politics with me despite the fact that he is almost always wrong. He is in thrall to so many fundamental errors that it is nearly impossible for him to see the truth on any issue. I therefore, as a default, if I haven’t already formed a view, oppose whatever he opines. Yet he has been right, like a stopped clock, a few times over the years, and I have been slow to come around every time in my assurance that he couldn’t be right, he’s never right. I am persuaded by this experience that wrongful partisanship is nearly always, at bottom, not partisanship for, but partisanship against.

Dec 192002

And you were thinking Tawana Brawley was so 1987:

Everybody’s doing it!

(Update: I used to have Jews in there. No doubt such instances exist. But since all of the Internet sources for Jewish hate crime hoaxes turn out to be, shall we say, interested (see the comments), I removed them.)

Dec 172002

One must admire AC Douglas for trying to define art at all, even if the attempt is less than satisfactory:

Which brings me to my primary — and at the same time, ultimate — criterion for judging whether a work is genuine art or not, whatever its medium: The Jabberwocky Test. If a work fails that test on first and repeated apprehensions it’s unquestionably and irredeemably non-art, and to the extent it meets the test is it art of greater or lesser degree.

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky the first time. The capacity of a work to produce that feeling in the receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

As a determiner of art and non-art, I’ve found The Jabberwocky Test to be virtually infallible, and the Rowells’ spectacular landscape photographs fail the test — most resoundingly. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum said the ancient sage. But in matters as important as art, truth trumps…everything.

I, less courageous than Douglas, will not suggest a universal definition of art. Such things fall into three categories. The artist-centric view finds its apotheosis in Picasso: “Whatever I spit, that is art.” Unfortunately this view spawns many competing claims, before which we will be in the approximate position of the Internal Revenue Service evaluating the tax-exempt status of churches in California.

I used to sympathize with the art-centric view that what makes art art is some formal quality of the work itself. Finding a quality that all forms of art share is the difficulty. Art as imitation is about the best theory of this type that history has produced, but even it founders on music, which doesn’t imitate anything I can discern.

The Jabberwocky Test is an audience-centric theory, and it has distinguished company, notably Aristotle’s catharsis theory of tragedy. But all audience-centric theories are subjectivist, and the Jabberwocky Test more than most. Suppose that Wagner inspires ideas of je ne sais quoi in Douglas, while Douglas’s philistine neighbor claims that Pachelbel’s Canon does the same for him. We should trust Douglas, of course, because Douglas has shown himself to be a sensitive and acute critic, and anyway all people of sensibility know that Pachelbel’s Canon is trash. The Jabberwocky Test, however, gives us no reason to privilege Douglas’s opinions.

Oddly, bad art has disappeared here entirely, leaving only good art and non-art. There is art that Douglas loathes, such as Debussy, but if I understand him correctly, Debussy isn’t exactly bad, just out of tune, as it were, with the Douglas sensibility. And what remains after the test has been applied is all on the same footing. An aspiring work of art either passes or fails — no honors grades. Yet a proper definition of art should not only remove the chaff but distinguish among the wheat. Douglas speaks of “extents,” but I find it difficult to imagine one work of art filling the head with more ideas then another. Seeing as the ideas are all inscrutable, how would one even count?

In lieu of a definition, I propose a heuristic: The Ninth-Grade Test. In ninth grade I decided to torture my English teacher, who assigned us Romeo and Juliet, by demanding to know why, exactly, we had to read Shakespeare. Why not some current popular novel, or Led Zeppelin lyrics? Any theory of art that can’t offer a smart-ass ninth grader a reasonable answer to this question is dead on arrival.

Poor Miss Starr didn’t acquit herself very well. But I doubt the Jabberwocky Test would have helped her much.

Dec 172002

Henceforth, From the Mind

Henceforth, from the mind,
For your whole joy, must spring
Such joy as you may find
In any earthly thing,
And every time and place
Will take your thought for grace.

Henceforth, from the tongue,
From shallow speech alone,
Comes joy you thought, when young,
Would wring you to the bone,
Would pierce you to the heart,
And spoil its stop and start.

Henceforward, from the shell,
Wherein you heard, and wondered
At oceans like a bell
So far from ocean sundered —
A smothered sound that sleeps
Long lost within lost deeps,

Will chime you change and hours,
The shadow of increase,
Will sound you flowers
Born under troubled peace —
Henceforth, henceforth
Will echo sea and earth.

–Louise Bogan

Two things to notice about this poem. The first line in the third stanza is a metrical miracle. The poem is written in iambic trimeter, and the first lines of the first two stanzas omit the first unaccented syllable. “Henceforward” puts it back in, but with a variation on “henceforth,” accentuating the time shift in a way that is beyond my powers to describe but no less real for that. If you do not hear it then you are not reading this poem, or poetry in general, with the attention to sound that it requires.

The poem says that as abstraction becomes more interesting, experience, that blooming buzzing confusion, becomes less so. One has to be of a certain age and temperament to understand this thought, and most people who read poetry are neither. This is why the several great poems on this theme (like this one) are obscure and underrated.

Dec 142002

Let’s briefly review the obvious. Baseball’s Rule 21, of which Pete Rose was acutely aware, states that any player who bets on a baseball game will be banned for one year, and if he bets on a game in which he has a duty to perform he will be banned for life. The rules of the Hall of Fame state that any ineligible player cannot be elected. Therefore, if you believe that Pete Rose bet on Reds games while managing the Reds, you are obliged to conclude a) that Rose should not to be reinstated or elected; or b) that Rule 21 must be changed. Nobody seems to be arguing for b), so everyone must buy into a), right?

Wrong. Instead we hear:

1. Rose should be reinstated, but only if he apologizes. This, the grand prize winner for senselessness, is — surprise! — the line that major league baseball appears to be pursuing. If Rose bet on Reds games, “I’m sorry” makes no difference, sorry. There’s no contrition exemption in Rule 21. If he didn’t bet on baseball at all, of course, he has nothing to apologize for. And if he bet on baseball but not on Reds games, then he’s served the one-year suspension that the offense warrants, plus twelve. No apology necessary; and none desired, frankly. I know therapy is practically a duty these days, but could we, this one time, just do without closure?

2. Gambling is no big deal. Gambling is no big deal if you bet on Reds games; no big deal if I bet on Reds games. A rather big deal if the manager of the Reds bets on Reds games.

A closely related view is that pipeheads like Howe and Strawberry, who did worse things than Rose, got second, third and eighth chances. Other guys in the Hall of Fame, like Cobb and Hornsby, were far bigger creeps than Rose. But the comparative argument is a red herring. We’re discussing Rose: judgments of other cases, for other offenses, can never be dispositive. You want to talk about Howe and Strawberry, be my guest.

This is a not very subtle form of context-shifting. Strawberry’s drug use, which destroyed his talent, is “worse” for him. It does not follow that it is “worse” for baseball to use drugs than to bet on games in which you participate, and it is this second sense of “worse” that we are supposed to be considering.

3. Gambling is OK, as long as you don’t bet against your own team. First, betting on your own team violates a well-known rule. Rules have to be drawn somewhere, and here is as good a place as any. Second, the potential for corruption is very large, as Gerald Posner says:

The possibility exists that decisions won’t be made in the team’s best interests, but rather because of the money riding on the game. If a manager bets on a game, he may bring a player off injured reserves sooner than he should in order to win, or he may pitch a reliever without enough rest, not caring that he won’t be able to pitch for several extra days. If a betting manager gets in large debt to bookies, he can clear his account by merely revealing inside information about the team. The opportunity for corruption is greatly increased. This is not to suggest that Rose compromised the Reds in any way. The chance that such impropriety could result is the reason for such a strict taboo on betting baseball.

4. Rose was a great player. For most of his career Rose was a great player. For the last third he was a serious liability, hanging on only to break the hits record. But Rose certainly merits election on his playing record. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There is very little sense in debating the Hall-of-Fame eligibility of someone who wouldn’t be elected if he were eligible. The contrary argument, more rarely but occasionally heard, that Rose wasn’t really a great player, suffers from the same logical deficiencies, along with factual inaccuracy.

5. Nobody is entitled to an opinion about Rose’s gambling who hasn’t read the Dowd Report. Well, I haven’t read Newton’s Principia either: am I entitled to an opinion about gravity? I will remain among the sluggards who haven’t read the whole report; it runs to hundreds of dull pages and I cannot interest myself sufficiently in the matter. But I have read the sections excerpted in an admirable article by Derek Zumsteg six weeks ago. Several witnesses with nothing to gain said Rose bet on the Reds, including one of his bookies, Ron Peters, who says he took bets from Rose directly. The betting slips indicate that Rose bet on the Reds. Bill James’ famous defense of Rose is tendentious at best, dishonest at worst. Zumsteg sticks to the evidence and it is devastating. The people who have read the Dowd Report and box the ears of the rest of us have had plenty of time to refute Zumsteg. No one has. In any case, it is not too much to ask, I think, that discussion of Pete Rose be confined to the question of whether he bet on Reds games.

Still, in some company even our editorialists look good. In a recent ESPN Internet poll more than 60% of the voters supported Rose’s reinstatement even if it can be shown that he bet against the Reds. Not on the Reds, mind you: against the Reds. Even after correcting for sample bias, we can safely conclude that at least 60% of the voters in a particular Internet poll are moral, not to say mental, defectives.

John Perricone comments. I asked John to refute Derek Zumsteg’s piece on Rose. This he declines to do, arguing instead that major league baseball wouldn’t have demanded that Rose sign an agreement if it had had compelling evidence that Rose bet on the Reds. Of course this cuts both ways: if Rose was innocent, or even if he bet on baseball but not the Reds, why would he sign this extremely punitive agreement instead of taking his one-year suspension? Rule 21 allows, as John points out, for bans “in the best interest of baseball,” but let’s face it, nobody’s gonna be suspended, let alone Rose, for betting on college basketball and tax trouble.

Mike Carminati comments. He’s had a pretty good crack at the Dowd Report.