Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Power to Destroy

We were out for dinner, and got to see news on various TV channels all at once. Captioned.

The slant on the political news remains obvious, even after 20-30 years of being graded on it.  If anything, it is more obvious. That's a whole new generation of journalists, and with their turnover, more like 5-6 generations.  From this I conclude that they don't really care to self-monitor for evenhandedness. They don't even check. They have concluded that their POV is the one the public should see in order to really understand what is happening in politics.

Well, a lot of people in a lot of different times and places have thought exactly that as well. Not an attractive record, there.

I noticed something else as well. I saw nothing of building up ideas or people they would presumably like. No sound bites from inspiring advocates, no celebrations of small victories of causes. (Perhaps they just leave that to NPR.) Just a steady stream of dark shadows painted around the ideas and people they don't like.

I am sure their audience has no idea how this affects them, and remain convinced that they study the issues and think for themselves. By which they mean nothing more than "Well, I don't believe everything, and sometimes they go too far."

As examples: the national media, even collectively, has been unable to convince a majority of Americans that Obama has been correct in his ideas on medical insurance, on immigration, on foreign policy, on energy policy. But they have been able to convince a majority of them that those who have opposed him on any of these issues are bad and stupid. No power to build, only power to destroy.

Three-year-olds also have that power, kicking over the towers of their older siblings.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Long Tail of AVI Posts

When you've got almost 5,000 posts on a variety of topics, odd things happen in your archives.  I love checking my stats once a month, because there is always something unexpected there.

Someone must have recently linked to my 2007 post Sexism in Narnia, because it got 100 hits in the last two days.  The comments section would get you to my son Ben's Books For Boys, Books For Girls in response, and that in turn would lead you to my followup Female Characters In Heroic Fantasy.  I'm just making it easier by putting the links here.  I recommend comments be made here as well.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Love Of Country

I the late 70’s and early 80’s, in our earnest young evangelicals stage, Tracy and I learned a great deal about Christian-derived cults: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God (Armstrongism), Unity School, that sort of thing. One reference was Kingdom of the Cults, by Dr. Walter Martin. We may still have it on the bottom shelf.

Martin spent a lot of time with chapter-and-verse doctrinal questions, but he had a general insight that I have found useful on many fronts. Cults redefine terms, to make it sound like they are expressing traditional Christian ideas while introducing heterodox doctrines. There is a similar sentiment in CS Lewis, that we should beware speakers who use biblical references to mask modern ideas - William Jennings Bryan’s use of “Crucifying us on a Cross of Gold” when his goal was bimetallism, for example.  It is closely tied to use of cliches, which also rely on hitting emotional buttons while remaining uh, flexible, about content.

There has been a lot of fury unleashed at Rudy Giuliani for claiming that President Obama doesn’t love America. (Some of this has spilled over onto Scott Walker for not denouncing this as well.) Missing from the discussion is the reality that the two sides mean different things when they use phrases like “love America.” The fight is about whose definition shall prevail. This is similar to all the discussion around the book True Patriot, which I reviewed and discussed in 2009.   A Clinton speechwriter and an activist for educational, environmental, and income-equality causes got together to explain that real patriotism, as exemplified by true patriots, consists of wanting America to act in good ways, as they defined them. Patriotic displays were actually a negative indicator of real patriotism, as the people who go in for flag pins and yellow ribbons all think that is sufficient to be patriotic. (The authors would insist they said no such thing, yet they did, repeatedly.)

Barack Obama called George Bush unpatriotic, if you are looking for evidence of that point.  The statement is simply insane, or calculated evil, by the traditional meaning of the word.  One could logically claim that George Bush did many things which hurt the country or sent it in the wrong direction, or that his effects were worse than what a president who wasn’t patriotic might have done.  Such things occur throughout history in every country.  Sometimes it would have been better for their countries if some patriotic Greeks, or Japanese, or Americans had just stayed home and shut up.  Patriotism is not the highest of virtues, nor is its sibling, love-of-country. Yet it does have a meaning, and according to that meaning George Bush clearly fits the bill.

Identifying as a patriot has political value, so people want to have it both ways. That there may be some virtue they are not entitled to claim is too upsetting. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that no one seems to be making the positive case that Obama loves America.  I don't want to read into that that supporters don't have a positive case.  They may be making a calculated effort not to give credence to the idea by answering it. I can't help but notice it, though.

I would classify myself as moderately patriotic, but I hold a fair bit in reserve in favor of what I consider to be higher claims. Rudi Giuliani is more of a patriot than I am, Barack Obama less.  Rudi loves America warts and all, even while trying to change her.  Obama loves an America that might occur in the future, if it would only act in a certain way. This is usually referred to as living up to her own ideals. The former is patriotism.  The latter may be a superior, more moral sentiment, yet it is not love-of-country. The more strident type of liberal is usually quite clear about this, readily acknowledging that they don’t think patriotism is a good thing and love of country a dangerous precondition for refusing to acknowledge wrong. Michelle Obama gave voice to this when saying that she had not been proud of America until her husband was elected president. While actual patriots might find that infuriating, it’s not crazy in and of itself. We can all imagine a citizen of another country not being proud of it until it had finally stood up to an oppressor, or held free elections, or whatever.

President Obama’s comment early in his first term that he was proud of America in the same way that a Greek was proud of being a Greek illustrated dramatically that he simply does not know what meaning that has for other Americans.

Opinion-Making Among the Educated (Updated)

Went over to cover on another unit today, and in the context of discussing probable cause hearings and attorneys, another social worker remarked entirely irrelevantly  that it would be worse in Texas, because they are trying to get the AP History texts changed so that nothing critical is said about America, because they can’t bear to hear it. The psychiatrist added that it was the Bushes that were pushing this, and Neil Bush had benefited from textbook sales in Texas which was a conflict-of-interest. Later in the day the social worker announced, apropos of nothing, that the oil companies were destroying refineries to make the price of gas go back up.

A lot of correction might be offered to this, but I didn’t. This is how we perpetuate our beliefs and attitudes, even the best-educated of us, with fragments of articles, some read long ago, brought out as choruses to sing around the tribe’s campfire every night.

Update:  My supervisor came in and saw a picture of Bush 43 on a computer and said "Shoot him!" She is not a person who would shoot anyone, of course.  But I did immediately consider what would have occurred if anyone had seen a picture of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and said the same thing.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stewart Vs Limbaugh

I had not thought of my "Not Funny" post as a Stewart vs Limbaugh discussion.  At least, if that was my motivation, it was dark to me at the time I wrote.  I was actually thinking of Eddie Izzard, Bill Cosby, Louis CK, and the Smothers Brothers.

But perhaps there is much that is worth exploring here, more than occurred to me at first go.

This is something in between an apples-to-apples, and apples-to-oranges comparison, so I don't want to get too hung up on small points.  OTOH, the small points may be the revealing ones here.  I would ask my very clever readers to go one direction or the other...

No.  I take that back.  There are smart people here.  Go where you want.  I think there is some general understanding of social criticism, humor, court jesters, and dominant vs outsider culture that is in this topic.  Perhaps we can be truly insightful and original here, discovering a truth that will be worth holding onto.

Not that anyone will listen, of course - don't be silly - but at least a few of us will see things more clearly.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Which Do You Want?

Instapundit links often to excesses of feminist advocacy groups, particularly in connection with sexual  accusations on college campuses.  He is at a university, so the issue likely looms larger for him than it would for others.  I only click trough about a quarter of them. Other issues loom larger for me.

One, by Harvard Law professor Janet Halley, looked intriguing, and it is. Trading the Megaphone For The Gavel in Title IX Enforcement.  She essentially asks feminist groups “Do you want to complain or do you want to govern?” and describes the distinction.

Advocates for any cause are not held to the same standards of fairness and judgment as people making decisions are. This makes me crazy in discussions, because the emphasis then switches to “How can I win?” instead of “What is the best answer?” They can interrupt, they can walk away, they can leave out important facts, they can end-run around procedures and go to public opinion. Run your memory over the things that religious groups, environmental activists, industry spokespersons, and social justice warriors of all stripes say in order to secure votes, funding, or customers. But those who govern, who make decisions, don’t have that luxury.

It is a very clarifying essay, and I wish her all the best in her career going forward.  I cannot imagine that we don't disagree enormously on a dozen crucial issues.  No matter. She can step back, she can reason, and she can tell her allies where they are wrong.  Elizabeth Warren cannot do that. Hillary Clinton cannot do that. Janet Halley likely overlaps with their views more than mine. But I would rank her six rungs above those others.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Baal Shem Tov and Purpose in Life

The story is told that the Baal Shem was granted the privilege of meeting in this life the person he would live next to in heaven.  He was directed to go into a tavern in a small village not all that far from his home, and saw an enormous glutton there, with copious food and drink before him. The Master of the Good Name watched from the next table, marveling at the amount of food the man swallowed, wondering what this meant. Perhaps it is a lesson from G-d that I should not disdain the pleasures of this world.  This man is clearly extreme in his earthly joy, but if he goes to heaven, G-d must approve. He sat beside him.

"You must be a wealthy man," he observed, "to afford to eat so well."

"I cannot afford what you see here," the glutton contradicted. "I will die in debt to the butcher, the tavern-keeper, and the greengrocer, and my family will be embarrassed by me."

"Your wife does not approve, then?" asked the Baal Shem.

"I have no wife," the fat man growled, barely pausing in his dinner. "I have not the time."

"Then you must greatly enjoy the pleasures of the table." the Besht concluded.

"I hate food," the man replied "and I hate drink as well. Every moment of my life is a weariness to me, always eating rich food and drinking good wine."

Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer sat silently for many minutes, observing, thinking. Finally, he gave it up and asked the man "Then I do not understand.  You hate food, yet you eat more than any three men I have known.  You hate drink, yet your glass is immediately empty and you call for more. What is the meaning of all this?"

The man shifted in his chair for a moment, as if to draw breath for another assault on the plates before him.  "There was a pogrom, and my father was brought before the great men of the district and set on fire as a torch to light their banquet. I was there and watched from the shadows."

The Baal Shem bowed his head slightly in sadness and softly said "And so a banquet of your own somehow erases this?"

"Not at all," said the impossibly fat man angrily. "He was a poor, skinny man, a sick chicken, who gave off almost no light, even in death. It was prophesied in a dream that I too would die in the same manner. When they burn me I will give off a light that will go on for days, glorious to behold."

Not Funny

I read an article about comedians who aren’t funny. I don’t want to prejudice the discussion so I won’t discuss even a bit of it. I do have some initial thoughts.

One’s first viewing or hearing of a comedian has an enormous effect going forward.  If the first thing you heard them riff on was an exquisite send-up of something you agreed should be made fun of, then it will take quite a bit of that comedian being over-the-line offensive for you to turn on him. OTOH, if your first experience was something which offended you - Wait.  That’s not fair.  That’s not even half true – then that’s going to be there whenever you hear her again.

Finding something Not Funny because it just doesn’t grab you or is culturally too far off from you is different.  Humor from another time and culture has a way of being opaque to us. Occasional moments of Marx Brothers movies make me laugh, but in general, I just shrug. Yet sometimes we acquire a taste for a writer or performer. Neutral is not the same.

In the original AVI family before Romanians, there were usual nights where one person was reading off alone and laughing out loud.  Some blessed evenings, all four of us were cackling alone, yet shouting out bits and explanations to the others.  Gordon Korman, Dave Barry, and Scott Adams figured prominently in this. There were movies attended where we all laughed, and that part did carry through to acquiring Romanians. Chris and I saw Borat together and could not contain ourselves.

LOL, ROTFL, LMAO, and even LMFAO are seldom true.  We use them as signifiers of amusement, but it seldom a literal description.  I laugh out loud more than nearly everyone you know, I am sure, but those are brief and contextual to a live conversation. Very few comedians make me laugh.

Here's an interesting possible conclusion of that:  Very few comedians are funny.  They are amusing, and when we drink, pay money, and sit in crowds to watch them we may laugh, but they are more properly described as amusing. We chuckle and send the clips on to express a point of view.

What If They Can't?

There is a lot of talk about Islamic extremism that takes it as a given that if the reasonable Muslims would just be more forceful and staunch in their condemnation, it would help a great deal to calm all this down.

What if it really wouldn’t help much?

It may be fair to say that the experiment has not been run – that condemnation too quickly turns to hand-wringing worrying about possible backlash…that surveys show an uncomfortable amount (10-20%) of passive support for terrorists…that powerful figures in the Muslim world have not taken their responsibility seriously.  I agree with all three. But really, do we think that if the mostly reasonable multitude of shopkeepers, students, salesmen, and housewives  collectively decided they weren’t going to take it anymore, the murders would respond by saying “Oh, sorry then.  We’ll stop.  We thought you approved?.” More likely, they’d kill the shopkeeper first for saying it before moving on to infidels.

I’ve known lots of Italians over the years, none of whom had a kind word for the Mafia.  They might kid about having a cousin or classmate who could be called on to break someone’s knees or take them for a ride, but when the discussion got serious they could be deeply resentful about the stereotype and as condemning of organized crime as one might like.  (I’ve worked with Boston Irish who sorta defended it, but not Italians.) Maybe they could have done more, earlier, over a longer time. But the reality is that they did disapprove, but the criminals didn’t much care.

A lot of the terrorists seem to be semi-converts who don’t have a lot of actual Islamic study under their belts:  westerners of middle-eastern descent who take it into their heads to be take seriously a religion their parents are trying to shed or hold superficially. The trained-from-birth fanatic also exists, but he’s not the only strain.

I’d like to see the moderates courageously take the lead.  It would likely help some, and could hardly make things worse. But the idea that creating that change would solve the problem may be one more magic pony.  Evil doesn’t not go away easily, and defining it as someone else’s problem isn’t likely to work.