Archive for May, 2013
FWIW, Cathy Young is one of my favorite columnists.
So I’ve been sitting around thinking about that discussion of the last couple of days–it ended with a “I’m comfortable knowing you’re wrong,” the Internet equivalent of a pout–
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s brought me back to the one thing I find most astonishing about the present state of American (and probably Western) civilization–that really remarkably huge number of people we pay to do work that is of no value at all.
I’m not just talking about the people we pay to actively harm us, which is what D’s minions are all about.
I’m talking about the millions of people we pay to push duplicate and quadriplicate pieces of paper around–or their virtual equivalents–that contain information that is of no use to anybody at all, and sometimes that isn’t even real information.
Some of this kind of thing is initiated and mandated by government, but by no means all of it is. Bureaucracies seem to have a natural life cycle, like species of animals. They collect “information” and devise elaborate and multilayered “rational processes” almost by instinct.
If I was asked what it was that made me sure that the West was a rich civilization, it wouldn’t be the usual things like the number of televisions and cell phones in poor households or the number of bathrooms in the average new house.
I would look, instead, at the number of people we are able to support who contributed nothing to this society at all.
And I’m not talking here about people on welfare or disability payments.
I’m talking about the legions who do things like collect statistics on how many people of each race are taking math courses at Stanford, which employees have which credit ratings, what the average weight is in Mississippi, and what colors of house paint are preferred by East Asian immigrants.
Every once in a while it is possible to glimpse the beginnings of a commercial rationale behind some of these requests for “information.”
If the information on house paint color preferences is being gathered by a company that produces house paint, it could be used to better target advertising to consumers who would best respond to it, possibly leading to higher sales of house paint and a healther company able to employ more workers.
It is less clear what use there is for that information to the United States Census, or to a sociology professor in Dartmouth, New Hampshire.
To a certain extent, of course, there is in this what I think of as a “neat factor.”
A lot of this information, as useless as it may be in any practical sense, is just sort of neat to know. Black homeowners are more likely to paint their houses red than white homeowners? Gee, cool!
Some of what seems to be going on–especially in government departments–is a kind of jobs program.
We have convinced a generation (or two) of Americans that a college education is the key to a “good” job, and that a “good” job is by definition not a blue collar job.
Then we have pushed more and more of them through “college” programs that are not in fact college programs, leaving them with t he expectation that they deserve to have “good” jobs in an office somewhere.
A society that has such a large group of people in it and does nothing to diffuse the anger that will be caused by their not finding such jobs is in big trouble. Almost all the young Muslim men who opt for radical Islam and start blowing things up belong to just that cohort–they cannot find employment, income or status that fits their idea of what their education entitles them to.
In the US and some of the other Anglophone countries, this situation is exacerbated by an affirmative action system that virtually guarantees that an outsized proportion of minority students can’t get a high school education no matter how talented they are or how hard they try.
High schools can hide their incredible incompetence behind stats that say they graduated x percentage and got y percentage into “college,” a set of numbers that would not look nearly so good if we were to compare, instead, actual skill levels.
And that same circumstance drives some of the make work in private organizations and corporations.
If the EEOC is looking over your shoulder, and “disparate impact” is the standard by which you will be judged to be discriminating or not, the better part of valor may easily be to do what you have to to get your numbers up. make work jobs with carefully constructed lists if “responsibilities” that do not actually impact the bottom line or the organization’s mission.
But in the end, the most curious t hing about all of this is the fact that these explanations do not in any way explain t he entire phenomenon.
I have always taken it as a given that in any society run even half right, every single person in it would be capable of finding not just employment, but actually useful employment.
It seems to me absolutely obvious that there is so much that really needs to be done–bridges and roads built and repaired, refrigerators manufactured and serviced, cancer cured, novels written, you name it–
Anyway, that there was so much of that stuff out there to do, there should be no need for make work jobs for anybody. That there should be no need to waste people.
And yet wasting people is what we’re doing, hundreds of thousands of them, day after day, year after year.
They do jobs that are not only meaningless in some cosmic sense, but that are meaningless in fact. Or they don’t do any jobs at all, and spend their time sitting on front stoops or at kitchen tables.
Sometimes I wonder if this happens because we’ve planned badly or operated badly, or if we’ve gotten to a point in our technological development that we literally have no use for certain kinds of people–that we have jobs that need to be done, but that the people available do not have the native intelligence or talent that would make them capable of doing it.
One of my sons is an enormous fan of a series of science fiction novels that includes, for a while, a planet called The People’s Republic of Haven.
In the People’s Republic of Haven, there are two kinds of people: the administrators, and the Doles. The administrators run everything and do every kind of work. The Doles live off government social provision and do nothing else.
It seems to me that that cannot be a good way to live. No matter how generous the provision, there is something wrong in a life that has nothing in it but sort of diddling around satisfiying bodily needs and drifting aimlessly into death.
I’ve heard people on the Internet say that this is indeed what they want, that they resent working and want a world where no one would have to.
Maybe they have some of those make work jobs that give them no real place in the world in spite of their salaries and their benefits.
I couldn’t imagine living that way myself.
Three entries on a minor incident, and I just can’t stop.
But yesterday I ended up in an internet discussion with one of the wo men protesting Ron Lindsay’s speech–and a woman whose behavior proves that Lindsay’s fears for what the conference was likely to produce were entirely justified.
I think that it’s important to recognize that at the base of all the talk about “privilege” and “hearing diverse voices” is a naked grab for power, backed up by a willingness to engage in any kind of dishonesty to score.
So, here goes:
1) The purpose of the technique is to get your opponent angry. Once your opponent is angry, you can sit up and go, “See? She’s just irrational. I’m the reasonable one here!”
2) The purpose of number 1 is to deligitimize your opponent’s position without actually having to defeat it.
3) The reason that’s the purpose is because you CAN’T defeat i t. Your opponent is right and you are wrong, and you know it.
4) My opponent–we’ll call her D–went after t his by constantly telling me I was “using hyperbole–after all, sexual harrassment cases don’t usually end in court” and “what usually happens is a write up and a training session–some employees actuall take advantage of this situation to better their skills.”
5) Of course, a write up and a re education sentence ARE punishment, and I’d be willing to bet that most of the employees sentenced to them resent the hell out of them in private no matter how they make nice in public to keep their jobs.
6) D began her argument by insisting that sexual harrassment l aw HAD to be subjective, that it was ONLY subjective feelings that counted, there could NOT be an objective definition of harrassment, that “perception is everything.”
7) I pointed out what should be obvious–in such a case, it was not possible for someone to know IF he was breaking the law or not. If the entire “crime” was in the contents of somebody else’s head, then there was no way to avoid committing it, and no defense against a charge of it. It’s harrassment if your accuser says it is. We’ve just gotten rid of the rules of evidence AND the presumption of innocence in one fell stroke.
8) At this point we’d get more accusations of how I was engaging in hyperbole–but most cases don’t go to court! Do you think there’s a reason why t his woman can’t grasp the difference between most cases DON’T go to court (which is irrelevant) and most cases CAN’T go to court (which would at least be a legitimate complaint)?
9) At that point, I would point out that a write up and a training session WERE punishment, and she’d go back to denying it.
10) At that point–well, after a few rounds of this–she produced a legal definition of harrassment and went–there! don’t do that and you’ll be fine and free of those “pesky” training sessions.
11) You know what the problem with that was? The legal defintion she gave me was NOT based on anybody’s subjective feelings. I think it was overly broad, but it did in fact give two objectively verifiable criteria for what is and what isn’t harrassment.
a) it required that the behavior show a pattern over time AND
b) it implied–by saying that the behavior must be “unwanted”–that the accused must have been TOLD at some point that he should not be doing what he’s doing.
12) This is a far cry from “perceptions are everything” and “harrassment law has to be subjective.” It’s a far cry from that because it ISN’T that. It is, instead, an attempt to establish rules that are OBJECTIVELY VERIFIABLE and DO NOT DEPEND ON THE SUBJECTIVE FEELINGS of self-declared victims.
13) She would then go back to telling me that harrassment law has to be subjective.
14) Oh, and she’d also throw around a lot of hackneyed Latin catchphrases and then TRANSLATE them for me. I think this might have been an attempt to intimidate me–oh, poor you, I’m much better educated than you. I even know Latin! So, you know, what the hell. She got the wrong person.
15) When I inexplicably refused to fall for this nonsense, or to be thrown off topic by various ruses (New Coke failed because–!) she would then declare that talking to me was like talking to a brick wall and all I did was make statement and provide no evidence–it was up to ME, according to D, to explain why subjective feelings shouldn’t “count.”
16) I still say that since the exclusion of subjective feelings has been a standard part of both the rules of evidence AND the scientific method for centuries–she’s the one who has the burden of proving that should be changed.
17) And I am now utterly convinced that Ron Lindsay had every right to expect that that conference would end where he said it would.
People like this were in t he audience.
I’m going to start t his post with a warning.
In this post, I am going to be writing about a mystery novel. It’s an old mystery novel. It’s considered a classic. Most of you have probably already read it if you’re ever going to read it at all.
But I’m going to be writing about it, and that means that there may be spoilers.
I will not do that annoying thing where you write SPOILERS in big letters and set off that content with extra space.
So be forewarned. Spoilers may exist here.
First, though, let’s get to this, the very first paragraph of this novel:
>>>It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dress private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars. <<<<<
In case you didn’t recognize it, that is the first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
I read it because a person whose work I respect a lot–Keith Snyder, who wrote Night Men, that I discussed here earlier–
Anyway, I read it because Keith Snyder mentioned it, on Facebook, as a book that transcends the genre, the book that proves that the writing of detective stories can reach the stature of literature.
This was not the first time I had ever tried to read Chandler. Chandler is the long-time favorite of a certain brand of English professor, and Chandler is the mystery writer you will be steered to if you ever take a course in mystery and detective fiction.
Personally, I have always had the suspicion that English departments like Chandler so much precisely because he could not be confused with what they’d call “real literature,” because he is so flagrantly arch and fake that anybody who reads him will automatically go, “oh, well, if THAT’S the best the genre can do.”
But here was Keith recommending Chandler, and I like Keith, and this was a Chandler I had never tried to read, so–
It’s one of the nice things of living in a house where two mystery writers have lived that there are a lot of mystery books just sort of floating around, and that included this one.
So I dug it out of the space behind the door in the spare room, took it downstairs, opened it up, and read…that.
If Keith hadn’t mentioned that book as a good one, that’s where I would have stopped.
Because that is not just bad writing. It is very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad writing. It is almost comical bad writing.
No, I take that back. It isn’t almost anything. It IS comical bad writing.
And, as it turns out, it’s the start of something like a pattern. Every once in a while the story comes to a screeching halt and we are treated to one of these descriptions, always long, always including the details of whatever whichever character is wearing, and, in the case of men, almost always including the color of his socks.
The color of his socks.
I am not making that up.
Put the descriptions and the socks together with Chandler’s other writer’s tick–the tendency to indulge in similes of a kind so awful that they sound like he’s making fun of himself–and what you have is page after page of really bad writing. Just go put in all the reallies up there.
The plot was not only no better, if might have been worse–and that in spite of the fact that the central mystery was actually pretty interesting.
The next time somebody tells me that Chandler is to be valorized for his “realism,” I’m going to laugh until I choke.
Bodies flying around left and right, Marlowe (Chandler’s detective) concealing evidence and not only getting away with it but getting thanked by the cops, cops suborning perjury and hiding crimes and doing anything else if it’s for a guy with money or somebody they like–the mind would boggle, but it doesn’t really have time. The book is fast and there isn’t much of it.
I sat around wondering what it was that ever made anybody think this was a good book, never mind a book that “transcends the genre” and proves that detective fiction can be just as much Literature as anything else.
And then a funny thing happened.
I finished the book.
I put it down where I could find it again when I got around to wanting to write this post.
And I wanted another one.
I’m not making that up, either.
I put it down.
I looked at it.
And I wanted another one.
And I still don’t know why.
There is virtually nothing I usually like in this book, and my guess is that there never will be in any of Chandler’s writing. I don’t think portraying the world as entirely corrupt in almost every aspect is much more realistic than one of Miss Marple’s villages, and may be less. Philip Marlowe comes off like an addled adolescent so busy spraying the landscape with testosterone that he doesn’t have time to think. Rex Stout’s take on the same character–Archie Goodwin–is much better done and much more attractive.
But I wanted more of it, just the same. And I may never know why.
Here’s a factor in reading and writing that nobody ever considers–what is it that some people have that makes their work compelling, no matter how intrinsically bad, or intrinsically good, it is?
Okay. So I’ve been thinking about it.
First, I think that what Cathy wants is not North Korea, but Sweden.
And granted, I don’t find Sweden any more attractive than I find North Korea on the points that really matter to me.
Soft totalitarianism is no more attractive to me than the hard kind. The Scandinavian welfare states seem to me to be massive experiments in totalitarian social control.
And let’s get the definition of totalitarian straight–it’s not about gulags, it’s about allowing the state to regulate every single corner of your life. What you eat. What you wear. What you think. What your children are taught in school, and how you raise them.
And on and on and on.
In the end, I’m not going to be all right in any such place, no matter how comfortable and shiny it is, because I seem to be one of those people who simply do not fit. Anywhere.
But what is a more interesting question to me at the moment is what it is this guy could have done, besides what he did.
And that depends on two factors.
One of those factors is what was going on inside his head.
The other is how much control he had over the the fact of the conference at all.
In the first place, I don’t think it is at all clear that Lindsay could have decided, on behalf of the CFI, not to sponsor the conference at all.
I don’t know how we could figure this out, but CEOs are not necessarily the final word on how an organization run. He may have not wanted to have the conference. He may not have wanted to sponsor the conference and been overruled by his board, for instance.
On the subject of what was going on in his head:
Cathy F says that she objected to the implication that, since some groups of women talking about male privilege do this, then THIS group necessarily would.
So here’s a scenario:
Let’s say Lindsay thinks that conferences like this one DO always do that. That, even with the best will in the world, such conferences are ALWAYS hijacked by their most doctrinaire attendees.
Hold such a conference, he believes, and it will inevitably disintegrate into blizzard of catch phrases and bullying, with the rational attendees unable or unwilling to speak out for fear of being tagged as The Enemy, and The Enemy (people like him) with nothing to look forward to but an ending stream of abuse and targetted self righteousness.
In such a case, what exactly should the man do? What would be the moral and ethical thing for him to do?
On the one hand, I sympathize with the thought. I DO think such conferences always disintegrate into bullying and self-righteousness of any attendee who will not go along to get along.
That’s how I ended up getting kicked out of my consciousness raising group and why I have attended no political conferences on the left or on the right since 1992.
As far as I can tell, the trend to treat political ideology as dogma and to banish, abuse and as far as possible annihilate heretics has gone from being a creature of conferences to being SOP in everything from the Internet, academia, the press, the corporations…you pick ’em, we’ve got ’em.
And the poison has certainly become part of organized secularism in a number of places.
And it is poison. It’s a barrier erected between the mind and reality, and reality bends for no one.
It’s despressing that it comes so often from people who tell me I should favor them because THEY rely on reason and science, while the religious people and conservatives over there just indulge in supersitition and faith.
First, I’d like to present you with a link, here
to the set of remarks that occasioned all the fuss.
What you are looking at is the opening statement given by Ron Lindsay, CEO of the Centers for Inquiry, at the recently concluded Women in Secularism 2 conference.
The conference was held to address what many people feel to be a significant underrepresentation of women in secular organizations. The Centers for Inquiry are the current incarnation of Paul Kurtz’s Council for Secular Humanism.
It’s not the largest humanist organization in the country–that would be the American Humanist Association–but it is the most prestigious, and the one that manages most consistantly to pull in the big names both at conferences and in print publications. It’s the organization that publishes Free Inquiry. Its sister organization publishes Skeptical Inquirer.
Now, I have nothing against the Centers for Inquiry. Free Inquiry actually has a columnist (Tibor Machan) that’s a sort of quasi-libertarian. It’s just the one, and he’s almost certainly there to get the CFI out from under complaints that they’re ideologically onesided.
But, you know. Hey. It’s one. One is better than zero, and every once in a while this one does something that’s very entertaining. A while back, Machan wrote and Free Inquiry published a column saying that it’s not important (or even possible) that things should be “fair,” and that kicked up enough dust and indignation that last a couple of issues.
From what I can tell, there was not a lot of ideological diversity on offer at the Women in Secularism 2 conference, which I suppose was to be expected.
Even those of us who are in favor of all sorts of feministy-sounding stuff–the full moral, legal, philosophical and social equality of women, say–don’t call ourselves feminists any more. Whether we like it or not, the term has come to mean a specific set of ideologies on the left.
Any libertarian who calls herself a feminist will find herself in a firestorm of denunciations about how she can’t really be a feminist because she doesn’t want to bring down the patriarchy or doesn’t agree with things like comparable worth.
Take it from me. I went from being told I had a mind like a man to being told I was a “male-identified woman” in no time flat.
My vision of a feminist utopia is a place where I get to think the way I think without being told there’s something wrong with me for thinking like that.
That said, I went hunting around for Lindsay’s statement after links to strenuous objections to it on the statuses of a number of women I have good reason to think deserve my respect.
I do not generally see these women indulging in knee-jerk politically correct silliness.
Because of that, what I expected to find when I got to Lindsay’s statement was something along the lines of another kind of knee-jerk response, lately much in evidence among some of the more famous New Atheists, saying something like all this feminism stuff is irrational bunk.
Instead, I got to the statement, and I read it, and it left me–completely nonplussed.
What Lindsay contended was twofold:
a) that “privilege” is often used as an automatic explanation for any phenonomenon, cutting off any actual inquiry into what is going on.
b) that “privilege” is often used as a cudgel to shut people up.
In some ways, the statement is painful to read.
The man spends so much time hemming, hawing, qualifying, nuancing, whatever, trying to put himself in a position where he has a chance in hell of being actually listened to, instead of hammered and hounded out of his job, I found myself feeling the way my son does when he finds the cats chasing a mouse that has somehow gotten into the house.
I just wanted to take the poor man home and feed him cheese.
But the real kicker is this.
I don’t see how anybody living in the United States today and having anything at all to do with political and social discussion could disagree with anything the man had to say.
Is the idea of “privilege” used in a reflexive, unthinking way in order to “explain” things nobody is bothering to examine?
Yep. Every day. All the time. I can give you numerous examples out of a single composition textbook–composition, not Women’s Studies or sociology.
Is it true that in individual cases where a man–or a percentage of men–achieve a status or receive an award out of proportion to the women in the same pool, that the reason for that may not be “privilege” but some other factor, like the men involved having better credentials, more productive output or just more aggressiveness about going after the prize?
Yep, that’s true, too. and it’s true even in cases where there is still a heavy bias against taking women seriously in a field or area.
Of course, we could always test this sort of thing by setting up a truly gender blind evaluation system–no names, no indicators of anything gender specific, no photographs, no personal interviews.
Unfortunately, when we do that, results often don’t support what we want to think about the situation, so we’ve stopped doing that, and declared that it’s all a matter of “unconscious bias” or criteria that must be wrong because they produce a “disparate impact” on different groups.
At the end of the day, however, the remark that got the biggest response was Lindsay’s contention that the concept of “male privilege” is often used as a club to shut people up.
This was treated as unadulterated heresy–and I use the term advisedly.
Shutting up men? Don’t be ridiculous. Men are NEVER silenced, they’re just upset that women get to say things they don’t like.
I’m sorry, but what planet are these women living on?
There are, by now, in American society a small set of ideas it is worth your job, and maybe even your life, to question–ever.
And you will be in just as much hot water for questioning them if you’re on the right as you will if you’re on the left.
Ask Larry Summers, forced out of his job as President of Harvard for saying its possible that a talent for math is more prevalent in men than in women. Ask the poor low level staffer at the Heritage Foundation forced out of his job in the last couple of weeks because some blogger discovered that he’d written his dissertation at Harvard on the thesis that Hispanic immigrants were less likely to score high on intelligence tests than the native born.
The issue isn’t whether these ideas are true or untrue.
The issue is that some thing have become undiscussable, completely off the table as objects of inquiry.
If you don’t think people are self-censoring themselves all over the place, if you don’t think this has resulted in massive policy mismanagement because in a whole host of areas we’re not even allowed to ask if our assumptions are true–
Well, then you haven’t been paying attention.
I think Lindsay is going to end up learning the hard way what happens to heretics in the modern church of Scientism and Social Justice.
And I think that’s too bad.
Because I also agree with the other thing that got him into this hot water.
Just because you’re a member of Group X does NOT mean that you know best anything at all about what is going on with Group X.
Subjective experience does not, and should not, trump logic, reason and objective investigation.
I’ve always wanted to use that word…
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I read a lot of magazines, from all over the political spectrum. Yesterday, I read the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, which is a conservative magazine started by, I think, William Kristol.
As conservative magazines go, it tends to shorter and livelier pieces than, say, the National Review, which I still think is the best conservative periodical out there. It is, however, a conservative magazine and not a libertarian one (like Reason).
Anyway, it’s exam week, my students are largely in panic and throw-themselves-at-my-feet mode, and Monday is a very long day for me anyway.
I came home exhausted, heated up some leftover tuna noodle casserole, threw myself on the loveseat, opened my e-reader and found the Weekly Standard. It looked to be perfect. Like I said, it tends to printing short and lively.
The article that led to this post wasn’t very short, but it was indeed very lively, and I spent a lot of time wondering if I could justify writing a blog post about it if I couldn’t also provide a link to it.
As it turned out, that wasn’t actually a problem. The link is here
and all I can say is that it has to be read to be believed.
I don’t usually think the political magazines are making things up, even when they are–think of The New Republic, on several occasions–but in this case I had to check.
As it turned out, she wasn’t making it up, not even a little. And if, after reading the article, you don’t believe me, you can go here
That’s the official web site for the conference in question.
And the conference in question is called the 14th Annual White Privilege Conference, held just a while back in Washington State at the Sea-Pac airport.
Now, in case you’re wondering, the White Privilege Conference was exactly what you’d expect it to be–a gathering of almost exclusively white, largely female, academic and administrative types with a vested interest in what has come to be called, with very good reason, the “diversity industry.”
In some ways, this conference had more to recommend it than these sorts of things often do. It actually had a few “people of color,” although not really enough of them to get beyond standard tokenism.
It also had an awful lot of capitalism going on, with people hawking books and promoting their consulting businesses, as well as tables full of WPC gear and souvenirs. The souvenirs included t shirts and tote backs emblazoned with conference slogans, mostly having to do with how you’re white and ashamed of it, or you’re working on giving up your white privilege, or whatever.
What this was, in other words, was a lemon session–a gathering whose primary purpose is to let some people tell other people how awful they are.
If you’ve never run into this kind of thing, let me just say that it’s a popular sport in some places–sororities and fraternities; religious orders; consciousness raising sessions; Communist re-education camps.
And it’s never cheap. A quick look through the article will show you that registration fees alone came to over $400, and then there would be the hotel room and meals and probably a whole lot else. From what I could figure out, one of the special sessions charged separately and cost over $1000.
It isn’t hard to figure out that this conference could not have come off if institutions of various sorts–schools and universities, nonprofit agencies, government agencies, even corporations–weren’t willing to pay for it.
It also isn’t hard to figure out that a certain percentage of the attendees were only there because the conference provided a sort of paid mini-vacation from otherwise rather borning jobs.
But what kept bothering me as I read through all this was something that bothers me a lot, lately–that an awful lot of Americans are being paid to do work that is completely, utterly, and irrevocably useless.
The market for it seems to be entirely artificial–a SCOTUS ruling striking down affirmative action or the disparate impact rule would cause the money to dry up overnight and all the “highly trained” personnel to be instantly unemployable.
And that’s without noting the obvious–which is that these things represent the most rarified examples of “first world problems.”
After I thought about it, though, I changed my mind.
The people who put together these conferences–and there are many like this one, with many different names–are indeed selling a product that is valuable to their audience, and that their audience would be willing to pay for if the institutional funds dried up.
The audience is small, and it wouldn’t be able to pay much. There wouldn’t be big time hotels or significant speaking fees for presenters.
But some money would roll in, as individuals paid on their own to get what their institutions would no longer give them.
Because what these conferences are, for their True Believer attendees, is a form of…
That is, in fact, what all these people were doing at this thing–the same thing mystery fans do at mystery conventions and romance fans do at romance conventions and, I expect, sf fans do at sf conventions.
They come to meet their favorite authors and to hear what they expect those authors to hear. They’re no more able to recognize that half of what they hear is silly and the other half is belaboring the obvious than romance readers recognize that every Barbara Cartland novel is the same.
Granted, the entertainment provided in this instance is more than a tad masochistic, but if you believe the web, lots of people out there like masochism.
I will admit to being flummoxed by what is, to me, a completely inexplicable taste.
But I’ve decided that that’s all it is–a taste.
It has existed before with many different rationales. It exists in all cultures and societies that get beyond a certain level of affluence. It’s something human beings do.
If I were writing a manual of “mental illness,” it would be first on the list.
Every once in a while I find myself with something to write about, but no real way to work myself into it.
What started me off this morning was a report about an appearance made by Chris Murphy–the junior senator from my very own state–on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show.
Now, a couple of things I should note before starting.
First, I tend to like Rachel Maddow, who is one of the more reasonable voices in political television. She’s very personable, which I think went a long way to make her the only name in the line up of that ill-fated attempt to create a left-wing talk radio network with a serious career. She’s also academically very, very impressive.
There is also a story in our house about how my younger son, first watching Maddow’s show at a very young age, and having no idea what a “lesbian” was, decided that lesbians were “very, very happy people” and hoped that one day he could become one.
Now THAT’S a story he doesn’t like me to tell. On the other hand, I think he was six.
The second thing is to note that I DON’T much like Chris Murphy. I didn’t mind him when he was my Representative. I even voted for him at least once.
But the campaign he ran for Senate against Linda McMahon was just so objectionable, and so dishonest, that I ended up voting for her out of sheer reaction. There is a limit to how much complete crap I’m willing to put up with.
On top of that, during that campaign and since, Murphy has just looked–I don’t know how to put it. Pasty white and slack, as if he’s ill in some way.
I have no use for the modern mania for having politicians disclose their “health status,” and I would certainly vote for a man who shared my principles even if he had cancer or was HIV positive.
Still, Murphy looks so bad that I can’t help myself from wondering if he’s about to fall over every time I see him on screen.
I do understand that this is not relevant to what I want to discuss here. It’s just been on my mind lately, and the effect when I’m watching him has been very strong and very odd.
Anyway, I was not watching him on the night he said this on Rachel Maddow’s show, but it’s been widely reported, so I’m going to go on the assumption that the reports are accurate.
What is he reported to have said?
He’s reported to have said that the idea that the second amendment exists in order to make sure that people can take up arms against their own government is “insane.”
“Insane” was the specific word he used.
And Rachel Maddow agreed with him.
Now, Rachel Maddow has no obligation to know what the hell she’s doing when it comes to the history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but Chris Murphy has on several occasions–as a Congressman and a Senator–taken an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
It might be a good idea if, before he took that oath, he bothered to inform himself of the history as well as the plain text of the Constitution he’s swearing to uphold.
Murphy and Maddow are, of course, both graduates of top-twenty universities (Willams and Stanford, respectively), but t his is not something we can blame on the Ivy League or its sister schools.
American history and government is supposed to be the province of the high schools.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, it was the one thing every single school in the state was required to teach, public or parochial or private.
These days, the state wouldn’t be able to enforce the requirement on private schools that took no state money, but from what I can tell, Murphy went to a public school.
He should have been required to sit through one full year of American history (including, yes, a history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights) and one full year of what we used to call Civics.
Now, to understand that the Second Amendment exists because men at the time of the framing were scared to death of a strong federal government and wanted to make sure they could defend themselves against it is not the same thing as saying that you agree with the policy.
In fact, given the Civil War, I’d say that the status of that particular issue is more ambiguous than it might have been in 1789.
But that that was in fact what the amendment was for is not in doubt and is not ambiguous in the least.
You can go look it up. There’s plenty of documentation remaining–newspaper editorials, private letters, transcripts of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, and on and on and on and on and on–
All testifying to the fear of centralized government and demands that the states and the people retain a right to self-defense against it.
What the framers imagined, of course, was not that individual people would take up arms against the federal government, but that states would.
What they were imagining was what came to be the Civil War, except that the Second Amendment was set up to protect the rights of the states who wanted to secede.
I was taught in school that the Civil War had changed this forever, and settled it by force. The states did not have the right to secede.
Given the present state of the country, I’m not sure that “once and for all” is going to hold, but whether it does or not, it’s surely the job of a United States Senator, or Congressman, or President, or anybody else in this government who takes the oath to preserve and defend the Constitution to know what the Constitution says and enough about its history to know what it means.
Hell, I think it would be a good idea for you to know that much if you’re going to vote.
What’s happened to high schools in this state is even more appalling than I usded to think.
I have absolutely no way of knowing how this blog post is going to work. The computer is behaving oddly. The Internet connection is behaving oddly. The morning has been chaotic.
On top of that, I meant to post this yesterday.
We are, however, at the end of the term. Virtually every person I talk to seems to be in one kind of crisis or the other.
That said: I’ve spent the last week reading through a set of short stories (long stories? novellas?) by H.P. Lovecraft, at the suggestion of somebody who told me I ought to know them because they were very “New England” and I claimed to be interested in all things New England.
That last thing is sort of, kind of, mostly true. What I’m interested in is what I think of as distinctly New England, which seems to end just after the Civil War. After that, we begin to become a national culture instead of a group of regional ones.
These days, even writers who were born and brought up in New England do not write specifically or noticeably as New Englanders. Stephen King, for instance, although he was born and brought up in Maine and lives there still, and although he sets a lot of what he writes in Maine or New Hampshire, has a notably New England sensibility in only one book of his I’ve read: Cujo.
Still, the stories were so recommended to me, and I read them.
f) H.P. Lovecraft. “The Dunwich Horror.”
g) H.P. Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
h) H. P. Lovecraft. “The Colour Out of Space.”
I also read a long, rambling biographical/bibliographical essay at the back of the volume of Lovecraft stories I borrowed from my sons. It was more annoying than helpful, so I’ll let that go.
Before I get to specifics here, I need to fill in some background.
I tried reading Lovecraft in my twenties or so, and I absolutely hated the one thing I tried.
I can’t remember the title of that thing, although I think I’d be able to recognize it if I saw it. The Lovecraft collection my sons gave me doesn’t have anything in it that I recognize.
But I do remember what it was I didn’t like about it: the constant use of phonetic spellings meant to imitate dialect.
Now, I have to admit that this is a matter of taste, and some people don’t mind it at all.
It drives me absolutely bonkers. It’s why I don’t ever read Mark Twain.
I don’t like it no matter who does it, and I find it almost impossible to read.
Unfortunately, in these stories, Lovecraft does a lot of it. In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” there’s an eight page section of nothing else, and it gives you the most important information in the story. It took me almost four hours to decipher it, and by the time I was done I was furious.
So, keeping in mind that there were some barriers for me in this stuff that may not be there for you:
1) “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” seem to me to be the same underlying story: there’s something evil and horrible out there that existed long before humans. The evil and horribleness consist of the nonhumanness, probably subhumanness, of the creatures involved. These creatures are mating with/assimilating with present day humans and turning those humans into creatures like themselves.
“The Colour Out of Space” seemed to me to be more straightforward science fiction of a type I’m used to, where an invasion from outer space is in the end lethal to us.
And yes, I know all sf is not like that, but there’s a fair amount of it that is. So can we just get past this?
2) “The Colour Out of Space’ did not seem to me to have a particularly New England sensibility, but the other two did.
It’s a sensibility of a kind I haven’t seen much of in a long time, and I hadn’t known that anybody was writing it as late as Lovecraft.
Let’s just say that there are people up here who have always been abnormally obsessed with their ancestry, and that was true going all the way back to the Puritans. And it’s a peculiar kind of ancestor obsession, not at all always the kind that celebrates our ancestors as wonderful people we’ll never be able to live up to.
There is, also, the Puritan obsession with “degeneration”–that is, the way, not only the way human beings go to hell in a handbasket, but the way in which they become deeply and foully corrupted.
Lovecraft is very good with that last one.
3) What Lovecraft was not, for me, was particularly suspenseful. It seemed to me that I could see the endings coming long before they got there, so that getting to those endings was largely anticlimactic.
What fascination consisted of for me in these stories came with the atmosphere and the very strong sense of place, along with the picture of a particular take on human life and human meaning.
And I’ve got no problem with that. I don’t read fiction for plot or story, and I’ve discussed this here before.
What surprises me is that these stories were given to me by someone who says he does read for plot and story.
I’m a little nonplussed about what somebody who DOES read for plot and story sees in at least these three Lovecrafts. Maybe the answer is that other Lovecrafts are very different, but I can’t know that at the moment.
3) After reading these three, I went digging around on the Internet, looking for information, and what I came up with was this:
This was a very, very strange man.
Freud would have had a field day on the sexual issues alone. The racial issues run from the casual racism of the time to the truly bizarre.
And the racial issues, especially, seemed to me to have a direct connection to the Dunwich and Innsmouth stories.
I don’t know what I think of that.
I do not require my fiction to mirror the politic pieties of my time, and I really don’t require my fiction writer to agree with me politically. If I did, I’d have virtually nothing to read.
Even so, some of the things in the letters are beyond just normal weird.
4) On the basis of two of the three of these stories, I’d say that Lovecraft was a New England writer at least some of the tim e.
Maybe it took a first class case of weird to maintain that regionality in an era when America was already well on its way to an homogenized national culture.
Before I start here, I have one of those apologies I have to make because I don’t treat this blog as a professional responsibility.
It’s been many years since I’ve read Plato’s Euthryphro. The last time I looked at it was when my younger son was reading it, and that had to be back in 2010 at the very latest.
The Euthyphro is one of those things. It caused, for me, a sort of intellectual shock–a sort of oh, wait, THAT’S what’s going on here moment–the first time I read it, and I was fourteen at the time.
The Euthyphro is up for free several places on the web, and it’s up free for e readers, too, so if you want to read the whole thing, go right ahead.
It’s a Socratic dialogue, which means it makes its point in that circuitous way that drives some people nuts, so there’s also that to consider.
What I want to do here is cut to the chase–if you ask most religious believers how they know if something is right or wrong, good or evil, they will tell you that they know because the gods, or God, has decreed it so.
But if you look at what religious believers actually do, you find that “God says so” is by no means adequate to have an act declared moral and right.
If God came down tomorrow and decreed that rape was moral, they would say that God was wrong.
In other words, religious believers judge the behavior of God just as they judge the behavior of human beings, and they do so on the basis of a set of moral rules that they derive from–
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
Most people have no idea where their intrinsic moral sense comes from, or where they got the rules they feel instinctively are “moral” and “immoral.”
Some of them are, certainly, things they have been taught in childhood by schools and parents and the culture at large.
But if you look at this stuff long enough, you come to realize that all the conditioning in the world doesn’t seem to be capable of budging some very basic moral ideas.
If you look closely at the seemingly diverse moral codes of different peoples, what you find is that there is less diversity in the codes themselves than there is in the cultural definition of “human.”
But that’s sort of beside the point. The question, the real bottom line, is–where are these moral ideas coming from?
And how do we know they are worthwhile ideas?
And what would worthwhile moral ideas actually look like?
This is the kind of question to which there is never going to be any solid, irrefutable single right answer.
People will differ, and the answers they come to will take the form of “if…then…” statements–IF you want to do X, THEN you must do Y.
And because of this, of course, any discussion of this problem will inevitably land us in Outlier Syndrome–the tendency of some disputants to bring up a definition of “moral” or “good” or “right” held by one person here or there, or one isolated culture here or there, and never touched by the rest of us.
Outlier Syndrome is mostly a way to shut down the argument. See? Everybody disagrees! So there’s no point in talking about it!
Outlier Syndrome rests on a fallacy: IF there is controversy or lots of different ideas on a subject, THEN the subject itself must be entirely subjective and just a matter of opinion.
But if this were true, then EVERYTHING would be a matter of opinion–including gravity, the date of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the existence of cucumbers.
There is virtually nothing that has been ever thought or said or done on this planet that hasn’t been disputed sometime, somewhere.
Given the nature of the Internet, most of it is probably being disputed now.
This does not mean that there is no objective reality. It just means that a lot of people are getting it wrong.
The case of morality, or happiness, or the good and the true and the beautiful, is a lot more complicated, for a lot of reasons.
But what it is not is futile for discussion.
This thing we do–both the attempt to apply reason to these questions, and the fact that we have to answer these questions at all–is what makes us distinctively human.
And the answers we arrive at for these questions determine enormous amounts about what kind of society we live in, what kind of people we are, what kind of world we live in and what kind of world we leave to the people who come after us.
We do not actually have a choice about whether we consider these things. If we don’t do it rationally and deliberately, we will do it by default, by accepting what our parents or teachers told us without question, by doing what everybody else is doing because it’s what everybody else is doing and, you know, what the hell.
But no matter how we go about it, it WILL matter.
The Great Conversation is the record of people asking these questions.
We can read our way through it and find what different ideas people had and how they justified them.
We can escape the stultifying modern dictum that there is one narrow way that is “normal” while everything else is a “mental illness.”
We can be real, live human beings.
It’s not that I don’t think other things are worth studying.
It’s that I think that if you haven’t studied this, you’ve wasted your time.
Now I think I’ll go batten down the hatches, because we have what looks like a big storm going on.
The rest of you can yell at me at will.