General – Page 4 – God of the Machine
Dec 122002

Arthur Silber, who used to be Ayn Rand’s personal secretary, tells an interesting story about her. You should read the whole thing, but the upshot is that she bought a Russian opera record she craved, in violation of the official Objectivist policy of refusing to buy from the Soviets.

For Arthur the moral is to distinguish between “principles — which are of crucial importance — and rules, which are merely formulaic versions of principles, applied by rote and without the much-needed attention to context, including personal context.” That’s an important moral, but of some other story, not this one. This story tells us that boycotts are silly. The value that anyone gains from a purchase, let alone what Ayn Rand would have gained from this particular purchase, so far outweighs the damage inflicted on the target by refusing to buy, that such policies are impossible to justify by ethical egoism. On the other hand, if you’re a golden-rule Kantian (if nobody bought Soviet then the regime would collapse) or an altruist (my petty purchase doesn’t matter, I’m doing this for the greater good), then boycotts make a lot more sense.

It’s no accident that boycotts are especially popular with the left. They’re passive (the virtue of not doing something), inwardly warming, and utterly useless.

Dec 112002

Trent Lott, as everyone knows, is a hair guy. But what sort of hair guy is he?

Fly Not quite so fly

On the left, the silky tresses of John Kerry (D-Christophe). On the right, the over-aerosoled helmet of Trent Lott (R-Some guy with more than one name). Note the grainy texture. The unbroken crescent across the center. The eerie near-symmetry about the X-axis. Ladies, which coif do you want to run your hands through? Is it even a contest?

There is plenty of room, God knows, for hair guys in the Senate. But unless the Republicans elect the #1 hair guy Majority Leader they shouldn’t elect a hair guy at all. The conclusion is ineluctable. Lott must go.

Dec 102002

Publish me! Al Barger recycles the tale that Emily Dickinson had no desire to be published and wrote for no one but herself: “She was a freaky little recluse who showed very little interest in actually publishing her poetry. Renown was of no interest to her.”

In fact she went a good deal out of her way to be published, and struck up a correspondence with T.W. Higginson, editor of The Atlantic Monthly and probably the most famous journalist of his time, with exactly that in mind. She was coy about it to be sure, sending Higginson a few poems and asking him “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” But her intentions were clear enough. Higginson proved himself too thick to understand her poetry. “He seems to have suggested,” her biographer George Whicher writes, “that she abandon the struggle to write in meter and rhyme and follow the example of Whitman.” Her friend Helen Hunt Jackson, the popular novelist, was worse: she published “Success is counted sweetest” without her permission and edited it to boot. (Jackson changed the fourth line to “Requires the sorest need”; the reader can judge the result for himself.) Dickinson finally retreated from society, as Yvor Winters remarked, because she was excluded. She was freakish in the sense of being far more intelligent than her contemporaries.

Dickinson also allowed two other poems to be published in her lifetime, tinkered endlessly with her poems, leaving as many a dozen or more variants of some, and bound them all up carefully to make sure they were preserved. Renown interested her a great deal.

Not that it’s any use to say so. The Dickinson legend appeals profoundly to unpublished writers and it will doubtless live forever.

Dec 102002

There is something niggling and petty about the affirmative action debate. I speak with some authority, having just written a niggling, petty piece on the subject. Let’s consider the logically precedent question to what the University of Michigan’s admissions policy ought to be: who cares? Why should the Supreme Court bother itself about the matter at all?

Like most plaintiffs in affirmative action challenges, the plaintiffs in Grutter v. Bollinger allege, first, that the school’s admissions policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Roger Clegg, who unlike me is an actual lawyer, says (subscription required) that this enjoins “any state actor (including a university).” Since the University of Michigan doesn’t make or enforce any laws I find this, as an interpretation of the plain meaning of the Amendment, hard to credit. But Clegg has precedent behind him, and if he is correct, U. Mich is prohibited from discriminating by race because it takes state money.

The plaintiffs in Grutter also bring suit under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which states that institutions that receive federal money are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of race. The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that a university is under the auspices of federal regulation if even a single student receives federal aid, which means, of course, that the University of Michigan, along with virtually every other college and university in the country, must answer to Title VI. So U. Mich is again prohibited from discriminating because it takes federal money.

Now suppose the University of Michigan renamed itself Independence University and took neither state nor federal money. Then its admission policies would be its own business (not quite, according to current law, but pretty close). Suppose all the other colleges and universities in the country followed suit, and were thus free to set their own admissions policies. How long would affirmative action survive, buffeted by the chill winds of the marketplace? This story about Rice University, which has a less extreme or at least less frank affirmative action policy than most, gives a strong indication. (Link from Discriminations.) It would disappear, for the simple reason that highly qualified black students prefer not to have their admission tainted. So is the real problem that the University of Michigan discriminates against whites, or that it feeds at the public trough?

Private higher education in this country is dead. With the exception of a few eccentric institutions, like Hillsdale College, that refuse to accept federal money, private colleges and universities depend to such an extent on the federal government for research funds and student tuition aid that the old Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr, no privatizing zealot, refers to them as “federal grant universities.” Principled libertarians ought to worry a little less about affirmative action and a lot more about the gradual takeover of American higher education by the government. Eventually colleges and universities will have very little say over whom they admit, and what they teach, at all. We have the edifying model of public elementary and secondary education to look forward to. Among these ruins, to argue about affirmative action is, as Malcolm X used to say of Martin Luther King, like arguing about who gets the jobs at the post office. It’s squabbling over the spoils.

(Update: Bart Burgess comments.)

Dec 092002

Aaron Gleeman analyzes this year’s Hall of Fame candidates. He gives too much weight to career value and too little to peak value, which is to say he votes for Tommy John and Jim Kaat and against Goose Gossage, where I would do the opposite. But those are all close calls, and beyond that we agree perfectly.

Dec 082002

Last night Megan “Jane Galt” McArdle, Ken “Illuminated Donkey” Goldstein and I, crossing Broadway without looking after a Paul Frankenstein-sponsored poker game, were nearly mown down by oncoming traffic, and it got me thinking: suppose we had all bit it? What would the magnitude of the loss be to the blogging community?

A. February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson)
B. October 20, 1977: This Bird It Will Not Change (Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines)
C. March 5, 1963: Sweet Dreams Baby (Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins)

Patsy Cline was and is internationally renowned. Copas and Hawkins are known for dying in a plane crash with Patsy Cline. Exactly. Other suggestions welcome.

Dec 082002

Now winter nights enlarge
  The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
  Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze,
  And cups o’erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
  With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
  Shall wait on honey Love;
While youthful revels, masks, and courtly sights
  Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
  With lovers’ long discourse.
Much speech hath some defense
  Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well:
  Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
  Some poems smoothly read.
The Summer hath his joys,
  And Winter his delights.
Though Love and all his pleasures are but toys,
  They shorten tedious nights.

–Thomas Campion

(Update: Cinderella points out that this, like many Elizabethan poems, was meant to be sung, and provides a link to the music, also written by Campion. I would rather hear it recited, but the fact that so many Elizabethan poems were written as songs partly accounts for the remarkably sensitive meters of such masters as Campion, Dowland, Nashe and Morley.)