God of the Machine – Page 55 – Culling my readers to a manageable elite since 2002.
Aug 012002

Eugene Volokh suggested using this to suppress pop-up windows while browsing. Works too. Works too well in fact. At least half the blogs I read use pop-up windows for their comments, giving me the Hobson’s Choice of comments and pop-up ads, or no ads and no comments either. Pop-up windows are a lousy format for comments anyway, slow to load and annoying (occasionally impossible) to resize. Charles Johnson’s blog is the model for how comments should be handled, and it’s probably no coincidence that he gathers more of them than anyone else. So could you all just put your comments on the perma-link page so I can surf in peace? Jane? Susanna? Laurence? And could you do this, like, today? Thanks.

Jul 312002

Anyone who has ever listened to a sports interview has heard it. “John Elway [or your chucklehead of choice] is just gonna try to go out there and be the best quarterback that John Elway can be.” Nobody talks this way except professional athletes, not even college athletes. The locus classicus is Bo Jackson, who employed the Third Person Jock with such stolid consistency that Nike designed an entire advertising campaign around it.

Now it appears that the Third Person Jock has spread to the world of popular music. The Oops Girl was recently caught employing it to help her explain why she cut a concert short after five songs. (Scroll to the end of the story; link from Susanna at Cut on the Bias.) Turns out she was tired: “I think I am just going to take six months off and just have Britney time and just do what Britney wants to do.” Bo would have said, “Bo thinks Bo is just…”, but it’s a start.

My questions are: First, how old is the Third Person Jock? In the famous sports cliche scene from Bull Durham (1988) the Third Person Jock goes unmentioned. Yet I’m sure it dates from before then. Second, where does it come from? Do you get in the habit from reading about yourself in the paper all the time, or what? And third, are there other citations from pop stars, or anyone else outside professional athletics? Or is Britney, as she is in so many other ways, an innovator here as well?

Jul 312002

(Part 1 and Part 2.)

Someone who styles himself “Ragnar” (why, if it isn’t “Galt,” is it always “Ragnar”? why can’t I have a “Francisco” or a “Howard” or a “Hank” every once in a while?) took issue with my remarks about Objectivism and determinism as follows:

“I may be determined by my chemical makeup — and surely that is quite real — to believe certain things, but those beliefs can still be true or false…”

How do you know that? You were simply determined to believe that position just as the advocate of free-will was allegedly determined to believe in volition. Reality is obviously the way it is despite the beliefs of any particular subject. That has nothing to do with the Objectivist argument. That is a metaphysical point. The Objectivist position is that determinism is guilty of an epistemological contradiction — namely that determinism by its very nature makes it impossible to independently validate claims including the claim that determinism is true.

If determinism were true then all claims would be valid, i.e., determinism would be valid and so would free-will — claims that directly contradict each other. The fact that there are different, and mutually exhaustive claims, means that there was a mental process that has engaged in error. Error is only possible to a volitional being — its existence refutes the theory of determinism.

In sum, you have completely missed the point being made. Your argument is a total misunderstanding of the Objectivist position. Please read a little more carefully next time before you criticize. (Even if you disagree with the Objectivist position, please at least get right what you are disagreeing with.

His argument is wrong, but that isn’t what concerns me here. I want to discuss the style and tone of this post, not to pick on Ragnar, but because it exemplifies certain habits of thought and discourse. It is actually far more civil than what one usually encounters from Objectivists, but the tell-tale signs are there.

To begin with the end. The last paragraph consists, in its entirety, of the reiterated accusation that I completely missed the point, totally misunderstood, read carelessly, got it wrong. This is of course very bad manners, but it gets at something central to the Objecto-universe. Ragnar’s not just saying that my argument is fallacious. He’s saying that I would never dream of making such a silly argument if I only understood Objectivism properly.

Objectivists cannot admit what is obvious to the rest of the world, that it is possible for two reasonable people to understand each other perfectly, and still disagree. To understand Objectivism is to accept Objectivism. This bland certainty finds an outlet in official doctrine in Rand’s famous assertion that there are “no conflicts of interest among rational men”; and in the fiction, most ludicrously, when Rearden gives up his mistress Dagny in Atlas Shrugged because Galt, whom he recognizes as a superior being, comes along, and they all live happily ever after together in the gulch.

Now as to the whole business about epistemological (emphasis Ragnar’s) contradictions. There are certain talismans, magic words and phrases that Objectivists use to ward off argument, the way vampire-hunters use garlic and wolfbane. Anyone who was ever argued with an Objectivist will know what I mean. “Epistemological,” which is just a fancy word for “having to do with how we know things,” is one of these. It is obvious that all contradictions are “epistemological”: since a contradiction is a mental construct what else could they possibly be? But Objectivists are sure that everyone but them disbelieves in an objective reality independent of the perceiver, when about the last philosopher to maintain such a position was Bishop Berkeley, about 300 years ago, and even he wasn’t very serious. Therefore they are apt to emphasize their belief in an objective reality with pointless qualifiers like “epistemological,” and to assail their interlocutors with remarks like “A is A” and “existence exists.” There are even monstrous coinages like “psycho-epistemology” — which means “how one thinks.”

I imagine the experience must resemble arguing with a true-blue Marxist, although I’ve never had the pleasure. You ask him a simple question, like “what is a class, anyway?” and he probably tells you all about “the principle of distribution according to need” and “determining socioeconomic bases” but never quite gets round to answering you. It’s the same thing with Objectivists. Drives me crazy.

(Update: Billy Beck comments. “Epistemological” is a fine word. But “epistemological contradiction” has eleven syllables, and “contradiction” only four.)

Jul 282002

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Jul 272002

Let’s suppose it does. Then what is a race, exactly? One might say it’s a group of people with common ancestry. Well, so is a family. How common, and how ancient? A snobbish Frenchman once remarked that Americans can amuse themselves endlessly trying to discover who their grandfather is, to which Mark Twain replied that Frenchmen can amuse themselves endlessly trying to discover who their father is. But almost all of us can amuse ourselves endlessly trying to discover who our great-great-great-grandfather was. If ancestry is the race-criterion, then it must be inferred, because it can’t be discovered.

We are then left with the question of which characteristics show race. One might think that all of them do, but some are always favored over others. Skin pigmentation is very popular, but why is that more a racial characteristic than, say, height? The Nazi race-theorists used to like eye color. In the late 19th century, the heyday of race theories, skull shape was all the rage. Dolichocephalic, or long-skulled people, were supposed to be the guardians of civilization, while the degenerate broad-skulled (brachycephalic) types were all radical politics and dirty fingernails.

And how many races are there? Three seems to be the standard answer these days — Negro, Caucasian, Asian — but why only three? What about the Arabs? the Italians? the Irish? Don’t we also have to distinguish the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes? Are there only races or are there sub-races as well? Race-theorists have given numbers ranging from two to two hundred. No logic dictates the choice. One might object that we don’t know exactly how many species there are either, yet we believe in the division. True; but once we get up to the level of families, or phyla, there is universal agreement among scientists. With race there is no agreement even at that level of granularity.

I am reminded of this by Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article on miscegenation. (I realize I am logically bound to deny that there is such a thing as miscegenation. I define it as marriage between people who identify themselves as belonging to different races.) The more intermarriage there is, the fewer obvious physical distinctions to latch onto, the more race-thinking is submerged. Tiger Woods, Sullivan points out, is a terrific antidote to race-thinking, partly because he pretty clearly has no race at all, but mostly because he refuses to identify himself racially or to align himself with any race causes.

Nations, cultures, religions — these things are real. But races are like witches. Witch-thinking disappeared not because cultural exchange programs convinced people that witches were nice people too, even if they did fornicate with Satan once in a while. It disappeared because people finally convinced themselves that witches don’t exist.

(Note on Sources: Mostly stolen from Jacques Barzun’s book Race: A Study in Superstition. He wrote it in 1937 and it is as relevant now as then. I would dig up a copy if I were you.)

Jul 252002

My girlfriend and I saw Tadpole the other night. It’s not terrible, but the main character, a 15-year-old Manhattan boarding-school student who pines after his stepmother and reads Candide in translation despite his alleged fluency in French, brought back Holden Caulfield to me like a bad oyster. (Note to Tadpole director Gary Winick: nobody prepares grilled cheese sandwiches in advance.)

Holden was 17 in 1951, which means that, like a lot of his fans, not to mention his creator, he’s collecting Social Security. Salinger too is retired; he had the good sense to stop writing when he had nothing left to say. So can we retire Salingeriana and Salinger retreads too? Would that be OK?

What everyone remembers about Holden is his passion, his positive mania, for sniffing out everything “phony.” This keeps him very busy, which is good because he has nothing else to do. Ernie the piano player is a phony because he puts in too many arpeggios. His roommate is a phony because he’s vain and stupid and succeeds with girls by sounding sincere. The guy across the hall is a phony because he describes a great basketball player as having “the perfect build for basketball.” A girl he dates is a phony because she likes the Lunts and says “grand” too often. (Here Holden may have a point.) A teacher he used to like is a phony because he turns out to be an alcoholic homosexual who married for money.

Now all of these people are ghastly in their own way. But showing off is one thing, and vanity is another, and envy is a third, and affectation is something else. It gets us nowhere to lump these traits together and call them “phony.” This can’t be chalked up to Holden’s adolescent argot either. “Phoniness” recurs constantly in Salinger, no matter which book, no matter who’s narrating.

In Salinger’s universe only children are never phony. It helps to be dead too. The only truly sympathetic characters in Catcher in the Rye outside of Holden himself are his sister Phoebe and his late brother Allie, a sort of proto-Seymour Glass who died of leukemia and wrote poems on his baseball glove in green ink.

This harping on “phoniness” is indispensable to Salinger’s continuing appeal. For all Holden’s modesty, his ejaculations of “I’m an idiot, I’m a madman,” at bottom he feels superior to the phonies and provokes the same feeling in the reader. And Salinger’s settings, fancy boarding schools and prestigious colleges, intensify the feeling by elevating the baseline. It’s always pleasant to feel superior, and especially pleasant to feel superior to the Ivy League. And the beauty part, for the reader, is that no actual achievement, no objective superiority, is required: it’s all a matter of having your heart in the right place. (Many readers also appreciate that you can kill the complete works in a couple afternoons.)

But whatever else you can say about Catcher in the Rye, at least no member of the Glass family appears. Here’s a typical example of middle-period Salinger. Salinger is writing in the person of Buddy Glass, in Seymour: An Introduction:

It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction — extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-earned runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.

This passage is not the best in the Glass works but it is by no means the worst. The comment on his own fervent and rather ghoulish admirers is amusing — Salinger, like the sainted eldest Glass, Seymour, is a sort of suicide poet himself — but let’s look at the style for a second.

Salinger’s books, like many thin volumes, have earned him an undeserved reputation for brevity. In fact, as this passage shows, he is a gasbag. Sentence for sentence, he’s right in there with Thomas Wolfe; he just doesn’t write as many sentences. The snobbish qualification “to put it much more horribly than I really want to” is characteristic. He can’t think of anything better than “floppy-eared runt” yet he wants to let his reader know, sotto voce, that he isn’t really happy with it either. One might object that this is the voice of Buddy Glass, not Salinger himself; but in Franny and Zooey, where he’s narrating on his own account, he writes exactly the same way.

Then there’s the jumbo list of authorial flaws in the middle of the paragraph. Salinger likes lists. Franny and Zooey has one, of the contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet, that’s nearly three times this long and apropos of nothing.

Not having read Salinger in fifteen years I didn’t remember how awful, how self-conscious, how snobbish the style is; how full it is of parenthetical throat-clearing, pedantic qualifications, go-nowhere asides, shuck and jive.

Only the Glasses, among the adults in Salinger, get a phoniness pass. As Zooey says to Franny, “Whatever we are, we’re not fishy [phony], buddy.” This is partly because of their surpassing brilliance, which, like most surpassing brilliance in literature, we have to take mostly on faith; and partly because they’re more like overgrown child prodigies than actual adults. (All the Glasses appeared as children on a quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child.” Wisdom…children…get it?) But the Glasses, like Holden, are all potential, no achievement; all faith and no good works. What do they amount to as adults? Buddy, a literature professor at a cow college. Franny, a student and aspiring actress prone to fainting spells when near vulgarity. Zooey, a television actor. Boo Boo, a Tuckahoe housewife. Walt, dead in the war; Waker, a Jesuit priest. And finally Seymour himself, a suicide at 31. (He leaves 184 double haikus, and they are brilliant, masterly, Buddy tells us so. He can’t actually print any of them, though, legal matter you understand. The trouble with having a literary genius as a character is that you can’t show much of his ouevre, beyond the occasional letter or piece of juvenilia, without being a literary genius yourself.)

And what sort of wisdom do these Wise Children impart to us? I yield the floor to Zooey, who finally snaps his sister Franny out of her religious mania with this:

“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? …Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

All of a sudden we’re not supposed to feel superior any more. We’re supposed to feel humble, because Christ is in us and of us. Gosh, I never heard that before. There’s something cheap about this sort of fake wisdom, something tawdry, meretricious, something…what’s the word I’m looking for? Phony. That’s it.

(Update: I posted this, in a slightly different form, on BlogCritics, which inspired Rodney Welch to comment.)

Jul 222002

My father once taught remedial math at City College in New York. He had a student, nicknamed “Less Than Chance” Diaz, who would consistently, on four-option multiple choice exams with no guessing penalty, score below 25%. But at least the guy didn’t pass. (Link courtesy of Kimberly Swygert over at No. 2 Pencil, an interesting blog about standardized tests.)

Jul 222002

Greenspan made his famous remarks about “irrational exuberance” on December 5, 1996. The Dow closed that day at 6413. If you had bought the index the next morning and sold it at the open today (probably not a very clever idea), you would have earned a compound rate of about 3.75%. Now that isn’t great; you would have done a little better in bonds. But it beats inflation. So why is everyone acting like blood is running in the streets? Is there a divine right to 20% annual returns?

Jul 192002

I never thought I’d see the day. A new contender giving undisputed champion of ponderous, literal-minded tendentiousness David Horowitz a run for his money? In this corner, the challenger, The Rittenhouse Review:

Remember back in grade school, there was that really annoying kid, the loud-mouthed know-it-all with the obnoxious parents who were always shoving Stalinist pamphlets in your parents mailbox and trying to unionize the cafeteria ladies?

You know, the kid who was always spouting a bunch of crap about the Rosenbergs and Rosa Luxem-something when all you wanted to do was play a friggin game of stickball?

Well, hes still around.

Only now he has his own weblog.

We call first dibs on “HorowitzWatch.”

And in this corner, the defending champion:

The Rittenhouse Review is a leftist blog with all the hallmarks of the species – the compulsive deception and the twisted understanding of the past and the future. For the record, I loved stickball when I was a kid. And unlike the Rittenhouse commies, I am no longer handing out Stalinist pamphlets. Actually, the Rittenhouse gang are evidently not old enough to have any conception of what it was like to be a youngster in the Communist left during the Cold War era. There were NO loud-mouthed kids in grade school handing out Stalinist pamphlets to anyone, let alone organizing the cafeteria ladies (thats what post-modern commies do). In those days we were very much like the Rittenhouse gang is now: always pretending to be something we were not. Liberals for instance.

I say it’s still Horowitz, but only on points. Can we all get back to stickball now?