Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two kinds of careers

After getting books on Christmas plus some post-Christmas shopping, I should probably do another update to my reading list I started a few months ago. But first, something from one of the new books got my attention.

The book is The Conquest of Happiness by the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the passage jumped out at me because it elaborated on something I'd jotted down in a Moleskine notebook a little while ago.

So, here's my Moleskine entry, dated 10/30/08:

As I've observed myself and other young people trying to find their direction in life, one of the themes I've abstracted from people's individual situations is: there's a spectrum of work that expresses your own individuality vs. work that contributes to society. Some people have asked me why I went into law instead of a creative field -- "that seems to be what you're passionate about." Well, when you're an artist, you're struggling to have your voice stand out amid millions of other voices on the market. When you do a more society-oriented job, your voice still matters, but it's not the focus or the goal. The goal that's driving you is achieving the best results for the outside world. Adding your own personal touch is a detail at most. Also, there isn't an ongoing struggle to break through; once you're doing the job, what you're doing automatically matters.
Now here's Bertrand Russell,* published in 1930:
Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved. This is perhaps the chief reason why a modest estimate of one's own powers is a source of happiness. The man who underestimates himself is perpetually being surprised by success, whereas the man who overestimates himself is just as often surprised by failure. ...

Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying. Artists and literary men consider it de rigueur to be unhappy in their marriages, but men of science quite frequently remain capable of old-fashioned domestic bliss.

The reason of this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform. In their work they are happy because in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because its importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen. They have therefore no necessity for complex emotions, since the simpler emotions meet with no obstacles. ...

[T]he man of science ... has an activity which utilizes his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist. When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.

Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world.

The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable. If his powers are of the first order, he must incur one or the other of these misfortunes -- the former if he uses his powers, the latter if he does not. ...

[T]he most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents. ... Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women ... results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable.

* This is from pp. 114-117 of the book. I've fiddled with the paragraph breaks for readability.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Bill Clinton for Senate, not Caroline Kennedy

Let's do this dynasty thing right.

The seat is supposed to be passed down within the same family as the resigning politician. So, isn't Bill Clinton the obvious best choice?

And having a Senator with actual merit would be nice.

Being a famous woman who was sired by a president of the appropriate party shouldn't count.

I'm a resident of New York state. We unfairly get just two Senators -- the same as states with less than a tenth of our population -- so we have a particular need and ability to get first-rate people for the job. If Governor Paterson chooses an inadequate Senator, it'll be an outrage. 

Yet smart liberals like Michael Kinsley are making a dumb argument for Caroline Kennedy: hey, we already have lots of Senators who got the job purely through nepotism. Well, if that's true, then that's bad too!

Let's say we grant that the US has a lot of unqualified lawmakers who were appointed based on nepotism (though he all but admits his own examples don't really support this claim). That still doesn't explain why we should be complacent about this state of affairs.

The only thing we should worry about is trying to do the right thing in the future, since that's the only thing we can change. Critiquing what's happened in the past is a convenient way to dodge our actual responsibility.

The issue of the day isn't whether the Wisconsin plutocrat Herb Kohl should be a Senator; he already is. The issue we're facing now is whether Caroline Kennedy should become a Senator now.

I have no idea what her true convictions are -- does anyone? She's certainly had a lot of solid liberals in her family. But to assume she doesn't have her own distinctive views that might be quite different from any of them is belittling and shamelessly anti-feminist. Based on everything I've heard about her, it sounds like she's coasted through life lending her name to utterly uncontroversial causes ("patriotism, poetry and public service") that shed no light on her privately held ideology.

Finally, we have no idea if she has what it takes to succeed in national politics, and the fact that this is an appointment prevents anyone, including her, from knowing beforehand. (This point has been made before.) It's a rough, sometimes brutal business; most people probably couldn't stomach it. It might make you feel good to praise her as a thoroughly decent and competent human being, but that's just not enough. The question is whether she has what it takes to excel at this specific job, and I haven't seen anything to remotely suggest that she does.

SIDE NOTE: The blog post I linked to in the first sentence is headed "Chelsea for Senate," and it goes on to suggest either Chelsea or Bill. I changed it to just Bill because Chelsea would be unconstitutional -- too young.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The best albums of 2008

No, I don't know what they are.

But I have some links to people who claim to know. And they say things like this:

If you would smile if someone called you 'twee', get this album immediately and get ready to dance around your living room in your bunny ears and vintage aprons because this is your freakin' theme song times a dozen, kiddo.
That's from Summer Anne's top 15 on her blog, Boingy Boingy. Her list is especially good because she has a YouTube clip for one song from each of the top 10 albums. (You might remember Summer from when I blogged her manifestos.)

That list and all the others are making me realize how little I know about the music of 2008, even though I feel like I'm really up-to-date on music. I'll never get through even half of these albums, but I'll try to get through a bunch, eventually.

Here's eMusic's top 88 albums of 2008 -- or, the top 88 albums that are available on eMusic (which doesn't carry major labels). I buy most of my music from eMusic, so this is the list I'll be using the most. They say the list was put together by the website's staff but informed by users' feedback. A nice feature is that they give a short phrase summing up each album (e.g. "Art rock that swoops and soars") in addition to the full-length blurbs. [UPDATE: They've now posted the readers' choices as a separate list.]

Letters Home from Camp has a few people's top 10 lists, with some embedded YouTube clips. This list is by my friend "Alex B."

Pitchfork has a reader poll of the top 25 albums (among other lists). #19 is Of Montreal's new album, which I trashed here.

And here's Metacritic's list of the top 30, which has the (dis?)advantage of being derived by simply averaging out actual reviews of the albums and letting the chips fall where they may, instead of having someone consciously put the whole thing in order. This list also differs from the others in that they tell you each album's score, so you can see whether an album was tied with the next one down or came out ahead by a significant margin.

And if you want to know my opinion (which, again, is of very little worth), the only 2008 album I can whole-heartedly endorse so far is Goldfrapp's Seventh Tree (previously blogged). I was shocked (not "shocked, shocked") to see that it wasn't on any of the lists I've linked to in this post. It wasn't eligible for the eMusic list because they don't sell it, so that's fine ... but what's everyone else's excuse for passing over this radiant gem of an album? It's hard to choose one highlight from an album where every song feels like a hit single, but here's "Caravan Girl":

As usual, you can't particularly hear the bass part in this YouTube clip, so you should definitely buy the album to hear the real music.

There are others I've enjoyed and would probably put on a "best of 2008" list if I made the necessary effort, but haven't sufficiently immersed myself in yet: My Brightest Diamond's A Thousand Shark's Teeth, Ratatat's LP3, Cut Copy's In Ghost Colors, Uh Huh Her's Common Reaction (previously), and the pianist Enrico Pieranunzi's album of Scarlattis sonatas mixed with improvisations.

UPDATE: Others I left out: Avishai Cohen Trio's Gently Disturbed, Jenny Lewis's Acid Tongue, MGMT's Oracular Spectacular.

Any thoughts? Please, comment away!

UPDATE: Here are people's lists on Metafilter, just a few months late.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sitting around the house on Christmas talking about a video game

"You have to kill all these penguins, but the goal of the game is just to save a penguin."

"I guess it's a special celebrity penguin."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas ...

... is just too costly.

That article's from 1990, so the figures are outdated, but most of the points still apply today. Samples:

Although for many years Christmas has been justified on the grounds that it is "merry,'' rigorous quantitative analysis establishes that the opposite is the case....

[U]p to a third of purchases may be ill-suited to their recipients. Christmas is really a throwback to all the inefficiencies of the barter economy, in which people have to match other people's wants to their offerings. Of course, money was invented precisely to solve this "double coincidence of wants" problem. ...

For parents, one especially exasperating aspect of Christmas is mindless toy fetishism.... What's more, toys are unusually hazardous consumer products....

Christmas increases congestion. At least in large urban areas, it is by far the most unpleasant time to shop, travel, dine out, or go to the bathroom in a mall. Just when stores are at their most crowded, shopping becomes mandatory; just when everyone else is making family visitations, they are de rigueur....

Christmas destroys the environment and innocent animals and birds.... This year, according to the Humane Society, at least 4 million foxes and minks will be butchered just to provide our Christmas furs. To stock our tables, the Department of Agriculture tells me, we'll also slaughter 22 million turkeys, 2 million pigs, and 2 million to 3 million cattle, plus a disproportionate fraction of the 6 billion chickens that the United States consumes each year. To anyone who has ever been to a turkey farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a new and somewhat less cheerful meaning. Every single day during the run-up to these holidays, thousands of bewildered, debeaked, growth-hormone-saturated birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into boiling water....

Christmas leads to a sharp rise in absenteeism and a slump in labor productivity that is unlikely to be recaptured the rest of the year....

Far from being "the season to be jolly," Christmas is really the season of sadness and despair. This period's compulsory merriment, hypercommercialism, heavy drinking, and undue media emphasis on the idealized, two-child, two-parent, orthodox Christian family makes those who don't share such lifestyles or religious sentiments feel left out, lonely, and even somewhat un-American. And even in so-called normal families, media hype about the season's merriments often raises expectations and sets up many for disappointment....

Christmas is one of the single most important contributors to obesity -- the average American consumes more than 3,500 calories at Christmas Day dinner alone. Naturally, January is the peak month for diet plans, many of which end up in failure and despair.

Perhaps most important of all, from a purely distributional standpoint, Christmas almost certainly aggravates inequality, since most gift-giving takes place within the family or the same social class, and doesn't reach the people who really need our help. Salvation Army drum-beating aside, Christmas almost certainly reduces our capacity for charity by draining us of wealth that we might otherwise give to the needy, and of our charitable impulses....

Christmas commercialism, of course, is a modern innovation. The ancient Christians did not even observe the holiday until the fifth century, medieval Christians observed it much more modestly, and the Puritans sensibly refused to celebrate it at all. Only in the last fifty years, with the perfection of mass-market advertising and the commercialization of religion in general, has it become such a command performance. Modern Christmas is like primitive Keynesianism, a short-run-oriented economic experiment that has been tried and found wanting. It is the flipside of the positive contribution the "Protestant ethic" once made to capitalism -- Christianity's high holiday now almost certainly makes us feel worse off.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Slightly poignant search terms that have led people to this blog

StatCounter keeps track of the words people have been searching for when they happened upon this blog. (So did SiteMeter, before I stopped using it.)

Every once in a while, they'll give you a glimpse of some random stranger's mind.

Here are some of the ones where, for one reason or other, the idea of someone sitting around trying to find whatever they're looking for with these words strikes me as vaguely touching:

i want to break a gender norm
uncaring husbands overwork wives
ways to lessen hatred towards gender
people who break rules, violate norms, or fail to meet the expectations of others
jazz is dead
extremely skinny
statistics on use of word nigger
attractive round faces
father and daughter talk
how to write a thank you letter to a previous employer for firing you
i want to stop thinking the worst outcome will happen

Monday, December 22, 2008

This blog has a new name.

I just changed the name of this blog from "Jac" to "Jaltcoh."

As I've said in the banner, though, "Jac" isn't gone -- it's "Jaltcoh, a.k.a. Jac." I did this for the general continuity of things, and particularly so those who've already linked to me using the old name won't suddenly be rendered mistaken.

Of course, making the change took just a few seconds of editing the blog template, so if this turns out to be a bad idea for some reason, I can just as painlessly change it back. If you feel strongly about it one way or another, feel free to speak out in the comments.


"Bloglar" is a word I just coined. It means a blog burglar.

Huh? What am I talking about?! What's a blog burglar?

Here's what I'm talking about:

If "the views expressed on Matt’s blog are his own," then what the hell is this? Lady, you are on Matt's blog! How did you get there? Did you just barge in like some burglar in the night?
Click the link for the whole story.

Rejected Obama '08 (O8ama?) logos

Here are the images they didn't want you to see before November 4.

#1 is especially clever, but maybe too clever.

#2 makes you go "ooo..."

#5 is insane!

Nice presentation, starting with some of the less plausible ones and leading up to three "finalists." The last finalist looks so familiar you'd mistake it for the real thing. As explained in the post, though, something was a little off.

Includes commentary by Sol Sender, who was in charge of the Obama logo design team.

He says: "The strongest logos tell simple stories."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Music Friday: Elvis Presley, Blue Christmas

This may be my favorite performance of a Christmas song by anyone (and I say this having just heard the Johnny Cash version playing in a mall):

I love the: "without you, uh-without you ..."

And the way his voice almost-but-not-quite cracks on the "all right"!

If you're doing some late Christmas shopping for someone who enjoys good music, I recommend the 3-DVD set of Elvis's "'68 Comeback Special," which includes this performance and hours more like it.

CHRISTMAS FLASHBACK: "The greatness of Elvis really came through...."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why do we drive more than necessary even though it harms the planet?

It all has to do with the fundamental evil of human nature.

Or, to be more specific, the urge for power regardless of the costs.

Achenblog (Joel Achenbach) explains:

If I could change one thing about myself it's the way I'm the embodiment of all that is wrong with America and the human species more broadly. Don't get me wrong - my self-esteem is in the normal range, but if I could tinker with my existence it would be to make myself something other than a detestable, oozing, suppurating lesion on the body of civilization.

Time constraints prevent a full accounting of what I'm talking about here, but let's take a look at just one example: I am a self-indulgent motorist.

On weekends I engage in countryside motoring as if it's a form of exercise. Worse, during the week, despite the availability of mass transit, I almost always drive to work, a five-mile jaunt on surface streets past one bus stop after another.

Why do I drive? Power. Raw, unbridled power, at my fingertips and toetips.

My Honda Accord is an empowerment device. It gives me the option of going anywhere on the spur of the moment without heed of bus schedules or fear of Metro delays. I could just start driving, and head West, across the continent, and then veer down through Mexico, and onward to Patagonia. Having a car is like sitting in a restaurant near the door. ...

Now, you might declare that global warming and energy insecurity, not to mention urban sprawl and pollution, have intensified the sin of indulging one's motoring desires. And I would not argue with that point. You're right. I am a bad man. And let us note that advertising campaign (I've seen it all over the place -- from some fossil fuel company I think) in which smiling people are seen thinking to themselves, "I will leave the car at home" or "I will take the bus more often" and whatnot. All this is good. But over the long term, if you want to develop a new transportation and energy policy, you'd probably want to err on the side of assuming that people won't change much. And it is human nature to like to be empowered.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why it's easier to understand opposition to gay rights "from outside religion"

Not that it's impossible to do it from within religion -- but it takes longer:

"You need a new revelation."

(That's Yale law professor Jack Balkin and University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse, a.k.a. my mom.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

IM on fatalism and time, ideas and plain language

An IM conversation (as always, this is quoted with permission from the other person):

what do you think of this sentence as an example of something in philosophy
can't send it
["] Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs <t, w> (<time, world situation>), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility. ["]
obviously it's pretty cryptic because of all the symbols.
yeah but do you suspect intentional screwy cryticness
or do you think it's expressed cryptically for a good reason
that's possible.
there's legitimate philosophy that uses symbols.
yeah and i think you'd need to see the whole thing... did he work up to that
but if it's any philosophy area other than logic,
that makes me wonder:

why exactly was it so important for you to express it like that...

when you must know that drastically
narrows your potential audience?
“Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality”
and you can apply the same observation to
garden-variety philosophical prose that's
less layperson-friendly than it could be.
it's an academic thesis written by David Foster Wallace when he was a student
["] Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. ["]
well that explains it: he's trying to impress profs.
"Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow."
that they have no influence on the future?!
hard to see how that could be.
normally a fatalist thinks "human actions
and decisions" are entirely influenced by factors
that are determined by the
so if he committed suicide, his whole life was shaped by that
Well that's a good example...
since the paragraph you just
quoted is easily comprehensible,
why not just say it that way
instead of with the symbols?
the article-writer is making it comprehensible for us
same point.
maybe because when you say it plainly it sounds patently absurd
same thing whether it's a NYT writer
or the original thinker who's clarifying the point.
I've sometimes thought this in law... require people to write very clearly because it's a test of whether they are right
well, it sounds like he's basically
saying time is an illusion --
everything exists at once.
(or, not even "at once" since time is an illusion)
which is what my blog post was about:
if they can't or won't say it clearly,
suspect error or fraud
You'd be calling into question a lot of
academic scholarship with that principle.
I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing.

IN THE COMMENTS: My dad turns up a trenchant on-point quote from an essay by John Kenneth Galbraith called "Writing, Typing, and Economics." It's about economics but is easily generalizable to philosophy and other esoteric fields. Here's a more extended passage:
Any specialist who ventures to write on money with a view to making himself intelligible works under a grave moral hazard. He will be accused of oversimplification. The charge will be made by his fellow professionals, however obtuse or incompetent. They will have a sympathetic hearing from the layman. That is because no layman really expects to understand about money, inflation, or the International Monetary Fund. If he does, he suspects that he is being fooled. One can have respect only for someone who is decently confusing.

In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult.

Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.

Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger.
I feel very strongly about all this.

UPDATE: Another variation on the theme.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Music Friday: John Lennon and Regina Spektor, Real Love

I love how she dramatically changes the chords and melody while staying true to the song:

Regina Spektor covered "Real Love" as part of a Lennon tribute album done as part of the "Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Relativism and liberalism -- an unfortunate pairing

After my dad's relativism post went up, my mom linked to it and asked:

Did RLC take a big lurch right yesterday?
His response:
Did I take a big lurch right? More likely one of my many wobbles.
I wish being a liberal who criticizes relativism didn't seem like a contradiction or a move to the "right."

I don't see anything inherently relativistic about liberalism. In practice, though, there's an unfortunate correlation: liberals are a lot more likely than conservatives to think of themselves as relativists.

But in fact, that's the real contradiction. The idea that no culture's values or principles are objectively better than any other culture's is the antithesis of "progressive."

If you want to see the contradiction on full display, just ask a self-proclaimed relativist how they feel about abortion laws or civil rights or the death penalty or _________. Somehow, the relativism vanishes and absolute principles take its place once the conversation turns to issues that actually matter in the real world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Relativism ad absurdum

In response to my comments on his relativism post, my dad had this to say:

If you're right about relativists' thinking that objective aesthetic judgments are too self-centered, it certainly shows up a contradiction, because they're being equally self-centered, as you point out, in dictating relativism. I think their attitude comes from a desire on liberals' part to believe that they represent all that is nice and good and peaceful and all-accepting. (As Dylan said in 1964, "I'm liberal, to a degree/ I want everybody to be free/ But if you think I'm gonna let Barry Goldwater move in next door, marry my daughter/ You must be crazy.") They're blind to the passive aggression in that stance. And it flummoxes them when you point out that relativism must admit its opposite as a possible "take".

Fortunately, though, we're beating a dead horse. Postmodernism has been on its way out for a decade, and before long college students will be reviling their pomo professors as hidebound reactionaries and demanding to know why that crap has been shoved down their throats.

Another commenter added this, which I think is very problematic:
I guess I am a person who accepts the complexity of life, attitudes, points of view, beliefs. I hate the destruction of war and struggle against the oppressive patriarchal system we are all victims of - men and women. I am suspicious of "purism" and abhor labels.

So, as you describe it, I might be considered a "relativist," even though the term seems to cause me some discomfort.

It seems to me that that's just not getting at what "relativism" really means. By the same token, I don't see what my dad's support of affirmative action even if it's counter to his self-interest has to do with relativism.

The opposite of relativism is not "being selfish" or "being close-minded" or "not taking unfamiliar viewpoints into account" or "disrespecting other cultures."

In fact, the very fact that I do think it's vital to understand foreign cultures and appreciate the views of people who disagree with me is why I can't be a relativist. Relativism, taken seriously, is incompatible with the idea that someone in the United States should stop and think, "Hey, maybe certain values that are unpopular here but are prevalent in other countries are actually better than mine." If relativism is true, then the only value that matters is adhering to the values that are internal to your own culture/community (whether that's your country, locality, religion, etc.)

I'm not the first person to point this out: if you adhere to that principle, then you can't recognize the goodness of a society making transformative moral progress. And that means that the theory shouldn't count Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, Jr. as great Americans. After all, they were deviating from the prevailing values of their time and culture, so by the standards of relativism, weren't they acting wrongly? That's why I consider relativism "wrong" in both senses of the word: not just incorrect but also evil.

And I know that some people will think, "Oh, he's making a straw-man argument by just attacking a really extreme version of 'relativism' that's not what most relativists actually believe." Well, I know there are millions of people who would call themselves relativists but disagree with the conclusion that it's impossible for a society to make radical moral progress. But I simply think they're being internally inconsistent and should resolve the inconsistency in favor of making judgments based on standards that are universal/objective rather than local/relative.


Monday, December 8, 2008

December 8, John Lennon day

The clock radio woke us, and the first sound that came over it was an announcer’s voice: “We’ll have more about the murder of John Lennon after this.”

We sat bolt upright in bed. Had we heard correctly? It had come to us at the tail end of sleep, maybe he had really said some other name, or not the word “murder.”

But when the commercial was over, we learned that it was true. Then we remembered hearing an unusual storm of sirens when we’d gone to bed around midnight, sirens which we now learned had been a couple of miles north of us....

We went to a law students’ party, and one guy, a student’s husband, ... told us that he and his wife lived on the Upper West Side and had been out walking at the time of the murder, just a couple of blocks away, and had heard the horrible sirens, and without knowing anything about what they were for, he had suddenly begun to cry as he walked home.
That's an excerpt from my dad's account — you can read the whole thing here.

And here's my mom's version — posted a few hours later, before either of them had seen the other's post.

(Notice my cameo appearance in the first paragraph of my dad's post and the last paragraph of my mom's post.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Quote of the day

"At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, [Obama] says we only have one president at a time. I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have."

--Rep. Barney Frank (via)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My problem with relativism

My dad posted this on his (now defunct) blog a few years back:

Relativism has been much talked about lately because of the words of Pope Benedict XVI.  [He's referring to these comments from 2005. - Jac]  I greatly respect what I’ve heard from the new pope so far. He is defending Western civilization, a civilization I love and I find worth defending. But I’m also concerned that relativism is turning into the new anti-intellectual, anti-progressive code word. I’ve been asking myself to what extent I’m a relativist.

It turns out that I’m relatively relativistic, not absolutely relativistic. In the normal course of things, I’m eager to consider all points of view and welcome input from all cultures and groups. I support affirmative action even though it doesn’t serve my self–interest and may at times have worked against me. By temperament I prefer a diverse world. Although I go to a medical doctor, I’m open-minded enough to have tried acupuncture. You get the idea.

Where does my relativism stop? It stops at the absolute necessity of defending our civilization’s survival. Thus I supported the war in Afghanistan and was impatient with those who thought that this country had no right to shoot back against its real enemies. I opposed the war in Iraq because I did not feel that Saddam’s regime, however odious, represented an imminent threat against us.

I’m disgusted by those on the left whose cultural relativism consists of an absolute disapproval of the United States: those who gleefully point up every historical misdeed of this country while excusing the misdeeds of other countries as being results of different cultural values. Those who make cushy livings in the United States by vilifying the United States, biting the hand that feeds them. They belie their own claims to relativism. The historical misdeeds need to be brought up, faced honestly, and used as incentives to avoid similar wrongs in the future. But people who act as if the most important thing about George Washington was that he was a slaveowner are simply obtuse.

This issue is important today because Western civilization really is under an imminent threat, perhaps more in Europe than in this country. Islamic militants understand this and European leftists do not. In Holland and France recently the peace–loving liberal public has received some big shocks: the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for making a film critical of Islam, and a number of violent attacks on French students by Muslim gangs shouting racial epithets. Such incidents have galvanized the right and split the left in those countries. The backlash does not promise to be edifying or thoughtful. The conflict is bound to increase.

The Islamicization of Europe is a real threat for the next generation. It shows an intent to take revenge not only for the Crusades but for the Battle of Tours. Meanwhile, relativist leftists are starting to look more and more like their liberal, well–bred counterparts in Chekhov’s plays: sitting around chatting amusingly about their own helplessness and the need to reform society. They don’t dare stand up in their own defense because it’s not the attractive thing to do.

No society, whether privileged or not, has an obligation to comply in its own demise. Liberalism does not mean permitting others to try to destroy you.

If I’m only relatively relativistic, then, does that actually make me more relativistic than the absolute relativists? Who knows? I’m not into solving paradoxes. I live comfortably with them.

But it means I’ll never be fully acceptable to the left. I saw an example of this about a decade ago when I was living in the doctrinairely leftist environment of Madison, Wisconsin. I had a friend who was a leftist activist – a nice, mild-mannered guy, and we had a lot of interests in common. He was going through a divorce, and I’d gone through one a few years earlier and could talk to him about it. We were at a social gathering one evening and there was some Indonesian gamelan music on the stereo. I like Indonesian gamelan music and had just enjoyed a concert of it at the university. So we were talking about how nice the music on the stereo was.

This gave my friend an opportunity to make a multiculturalist point. “How come Mozart is so much better known than Indonesian gamelan music?”

“Maybe because Mozart wrote better music?” I asked.

He looked at me with utter horror, as if the mask had been peeled from my face. “Better music?”

I had said the impermissible. And though the discussion ended there, after that evening he and I never got together socially again.

But you know, much as I can enjoy Indonesian gamelan music, Mozart is better. Tastes can vary. I may like Rembrandt and you may like Titian. But anyone who thinks Jeff Koons is an equally great artist is simply a fool.

I agree with just about all of that. (I do have one quibble, but I'll get to that later...)

I responded in the comments section:
I've had many conversations with Madisonians along the lines of your conversation with your friend about Mozart and Indonesian gamelan music. It amazes me how friends of mine who have devoted enormous amounts of time toward honing their own artistic talents can turn around and insist that no evaluation of artistic merit can possibly have any authority. If no art is better than any other art, then what motivation does the artist have to perfect his or her craft?

It often seems to me that one of the main things driving aesthetic relativists is the idea that objective aesthetic judgments are somehow just too self-centered to be acceptable. "Who are YOU to say that this art is better than that art? You think YOUR taste is any better than anyone else's?!" Well, yes, my taste in music is better than some people's, because I have chosen to spend a lot of time listening to music closely and repeatedly. And my taste in poetry is not as good as many people's, because I have not done what it takes to refine my taste in poetry. This is not being arrogant; it's just being honest.

The irony that always comes up in these conversations is that it is the relativists who are most interested in imposing their own absolute pronouncements on art. The relativist essentially says: "My whole aesthetic theory is the infallible truth; don't you dare contradict me." This same relativist will, of course, criticize me for being close-minded because I have the audacity to suggest that a Brittney Spears song is not quite as good as the 9th Symphony.

BTW, let's not fail to give Indonesian gamelan music its due. After all, it inspired Debussy to write some of the greatest music of all time.


1. A very intricate analysis of the merits of relativism (much more balanced than I'm willing to be!).

2. The philosopher Simon Blackburn on why he's not a relativist.

3. "We need to stop being such cowards about Islam."

(Painting by Vermeer; file from Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why didn't the New York Times report on Indian police refusing to shoot the terrorists?

From an interview in the British press with a photographer who took a photo of one of the terrorists in Mumbai as the attacks were beginning:

[W]hat angered [the photographer, Sebastian] D'Souza ... were the masses of armed police hiding in the area who simply refused to shoot back. "There were armed policemen hiding all around the station but none of them did anything," he said. "At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said, 'Shoot them, they're sitting ducks!' but they just didn't shoot back."
As the gunmen fired at policemen taking cover across the street, Mr D'Souza realised a train was pulling into the station unaware of the horror within. "I couldn't believe it. We rushed to the platform and told everyone to head towards the back of the station. Those who were older and couldn't run, we told them to stay put."
The militants returned inside the station and headed towards a rear exit towards Chowpatty Beach. Mr D'Souza added: "I told some policemen the gunmen had moved towards the rear of the station but they refused to follow them. What is the point of having policemen with guns if they refuse to use them? I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera."
Mickey Kaus looks at how the New York Times reported on that story the next day:
Read the Times story and you'll see a numbing litany of "systemic" problems with Indian security, including "Ill-paid city police [who] are often armed with little more than batons," and "little information-sharing among law enforcement agencies" and all that inadequate equipment, including "old, bulky bulletproof jackets" and lack of  those high-power scopes and "no technology at their disposal to determine where the firepower was coming from ..." It reads like the budget-increase proposal submitted by the Mumbai police bureaucracy--The Indian Omnibus Anti-Terror Funding Act of 2009.  Nowhere in the NYT story will you learn what American blog readers learned a day earlier when Instapundit (among others) linked to the Belfast story: Police had lots of guns, and no problem seeing who and where the terrorists were, but they wouldn't shoot at them.
I'm used to a sort of Liebling-like hierarchy of news sources, with twitterers and bloggers being fastest, but maybe less reliable, while the grand institutions of the MSM weigh in later with more comprehensive and accurate accounts. But that's not what is happening with this Mumbai story. The "fast" sources are telling you what happened. The "slow" MSM sources are using their extra time to sanitize what's happened, to build euphemistic assumptions into their very reporting of the events themselves--in this case, it just so happens, liberal assumptions: 1) the idea that there is no problem that can't be solved by greater funding for government bureaucracies and more interagency taskforces[,] 2) the predisposition to think widely-distributed small arms and a willingness to use them can never be a good idea and 3) an antipathy to any suggestion that an aspect of foreign culture is inferior to nasty American culture. (Maybe we Americans are trigger happy. But do we think that a handful of terrorists could have gone on a similar rampage in New York City without quite quickly encountering a fair number of cops who would have shot back--let alone armed civilians who did the same)? ...
I don't actually know if Kaus is right about this. Maybe the photographer's story lacked credibility for one reason or another and the Times was being more cautious in not simply taking one person's word as the story.

If we're going to be skeptical of the mainstream media's analysis, we should be even more skeptical of bloggers' critiques of the mainstream media's analysis.

But Kaus's distinction between cut-to-the-heart-of-the-matter bloggers vs. kid-gloves mainstream media has the ring of truth.