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Archive for November, 2012

A Change of Policy

with 18 comments

So, a couple of days ago I published a post on the relative liberty of persons in the modern age of stridently defended rights and other ages with less in the way of rights talk and more in the way of personal liberty…

In the process of doing that, I tried to defend myself from the possible charge of sentimentalizing the past by saying that I wasn’t doing it, that I wasn’t engaging in the kind of thing too many fantasy novels engaged in, and that even Tolkein engaged in.

Note that paragraph up there.

It does NOT say that sentimentalizing the Middle Ages is a bad thing, nor does it say that a book that does so is a bad book.

It does NOT compare the writers and/and or readers to anybody or anything.

It is not, in fact, about fantasy or Tolkein at all–it’s about me.

And what it says about both fantasy and Tolkein is something that my two sons, who read fantasy nearly nonstop and in huge quantities, thought was self-evident.

I know, because I did ask them about it. 

And I asked them about it because I was beginning to think I was crazy. 

A few months ago, I published another post here outlining the fact that I get sick and tired of getting jumped on for imagined–note that IMAGINED–slights to science fiction and fantasy, and asking for that behavior to stop.

In response to the post of a couple of days ago, I once again got jumped on for my supposed–note the SUPPOSED–put-down of Tolkein.  I got told I was a snob.  I got told I was having “an Edmund Wilson moment.”

And I wasn’t hit with that by any one person.

I’ll repeat part of what I said here in my last post about this subject:  the same people who jump on me and call be names whenever I mention fantasy or science fiction in anything but terms so laudatory they’re practically hagiography have no compunction whatsoever in trashing books I love and that they  have never read, on the apparent assumption that anybody who reads anything that sounds like that must be a stupid jerk because those books are obviously worthless.

I have never mentioned any work of sf or fantasy in terms like those, and I have never referred to the genres of sf and fantasy in terms like those–but apparently the general consensus is that I must modify my tone whenever speaking of either, and be sure to throw in a lot of praise if I’m going to say anything that’s even just neutral about the genres.

I said last time I wasn’t going to.

Now I’m going to go farther than that.

I don’t think a lot of people read this blog, and certainly very few people comment here.

And sometimes I write blog posts off the top of my head without thinking about them too much.

But that last thing I posted I worked on quite a bit, and I was actually interested in finding out if anybody had anything to say about the point.

I never got a chance. The discussion was highjacked right off the bat by people yelling and screaming at me about what they imagined–note the IMAGINED–I’d said about Tolkein,

So,  here’s what I do now.

The  next time I publish a blog post that is met by high dudgeon and accusations because of what I have supposedly–note the SUPPOSEDLY–said about fantasy, science fiction or anything else–

I will immediately delete those comments from the blog. 

One of the things I got for graduating from  high school was a cessation of having to defend myself endlessly because of the books people thought–note the THOUGHT–I loved and the ones they thought–note the THOUGHT–I  hated.

My first response when stuff like this happens is that I should give up writing the blog. 

The more I think about it, though, that isn’t what I want to do.

If you’re incapable of avoding a deluge of paranoid fantasies about how anybody who isn’t shouting unqualified praise of the book you like is being a rotten little snob and looking down on you–

Well, go have them somewhere else.

It’s not a discussion I’m ever going to get into again.


Written by janeh

November 13th, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 6 comments

It’s Sunday, and on Sunday I have a ritual–actually, it’s less a ritual than a desperate attempt not to let myself burn out. 

My instinct seems to be, for some reason or the other, to overwork.  What’s more, I don’t just overwork at writing, I overwork at everything.  This has a tendency, if it isn’t broken up at regular intervals, to make me feel as if my head were about to explode.

Anyway, on Sundays, unless I have an urgent deadline urgently looming, I take the day off.  On the seventh day He rested, the verse says, and then the Christians changed that to make it the first. 

Or something.  I’m not really entirely sure how they worked that out.

What I do to take a day off is to put music on and read whatever book I’m reading, in reasonable peace when not interrupted by offspring who think they have emergencies.

With my two, emergencies often come down to “can we eat in the family room tonight and watch Die Hard for dinner?”

Since the answer to this is, on a Sunday, almost always no–exceptions are made for times when I have a bad flu–the relaxation thing can give way to a lot of tedious disputation.  Both of my sons seem to have inherited what their father called “lawyer blood.”

There were no such disputations this morning.  My calm was unbroken, and I put on two Anonymous 4 CDs–first Origins of Fire and then 11,000 Virgins–to provide the back up music for my book, which is the John Guy biography of Thomas Becket.

Anonymous 4 is a group of four women who sing Medieval music both secular and religious a capella.  The two CDs mentioned above are religious music written by–wait for it–Hildegarde von Bingen.

And maybe I should say used to sing, since the group broke up some years ago.

Still, the fit was near perfect, and it would all have been more perfect still if I’d had a copy of The Lion in Winter to watch this afternoon.  But that is one of the movies we’ve yet to replace on DVD, and it isn’t up on Netflix at the moment either.

I’ll think of something.

For what it’s worth, The Lion in Winter is one of only two reasonably accurate depictions of the Middle Ages I’ve ever seen on film, the other one being the movie of The Name of the Rose, and in both cases the reason for accuracy is the refusal to sentimentalize the period. 

The real Middle Ages bear little or no resemblance to what goes on in fantasy novels–even in Tolkein.  And one of my frustrations with Tolkein is that, unlike most of his many imitators, he knew better.

Right now, though, I want to put all that aside.  Yes, I know–there were no antibiotics, no modern medicine.  Women died more often from childbirth than from any other cause, and I myself would definitely have ended up dead at my first attempt.  There was no central heating, and even the largest fireplace failed to keep the nobility warm in what was a little ice age.  Children were born with birth defects that could not be ameliorated and then hounded and abused because of them.  Almost everybody, including the nobility, was illiterate.

So, as I said, I don’t want to sentimentalize the Middle Ages.

It did occur to me, though, this morning, reading the Becket biography, that if I consider the issues that bother me most in today’s society and today’s government–

If I think first about the administrative state and the way in which it attempts to regulate every aspect of private life, no matter how minor–

Then the people of the Middle Ages, at least in England, were better off than I am now.

In both the h istory of events and the  history of ideas, we tend to concentrate on the Big Questions–freedom of speech, for instance, and freedom of conscience.

And in Medieval England, you could certainly get into a lot of trouble for those things. 

Contrary to the mythology, there really wasn’t much in the way of witch hunting in England in that period.  Still, religious dissidents could get into trouble with both the ecclessiastical authorities and the civil ones, and religious minorities (like Jews) could have their property confiscated or even be banished from the kingdom.

And I’m me.  I can’t shut up and I tend to be a contrarian, which means I probably would have been in trouble from off.

Even so, the areas of private life and private action that were untouched and unscrutinized by any authority are truly breathtaking to contemplate.

You raised your children as you saw fit to raise them, educated them (or not) as  you saw fit to educate them, had them trained for a trade or not as you saw fit to train them.  What went on inside the privacy of your own home was your business.  A man’s home is his castle, the English said, and by that they meant something far more absolute than anything we can contemplate now.

Some people will respond to this by saying that some of the things that went on in those castles were violent and unjust, that child abuse was rampant, that domestic violence was the rule rather than the exception.

I’d say that a large part of our perception of this period on issues such as these comes from the fact that we have changed our definitions of these things, and continue to change them. 

But it’s the change in approach that bothers me, and not just as it relates strictly to private conduct in private homes.

Our child abuse legislation, for instance, assumes that children belong to the state and that the state may exercise “oversight” of their uprbringing, with “professional judgment” substituted for parental and allowed to override it on virtually any pretext.

And it’s not just the relationship between parents and children that are assumed to be properly subjected to this oversight.  Relationships between grown children and parents and between spouses also come under scrutiny.

“Domestic violence” is what the state says it is, regardless of the wishes of any of the parties involved–and in no case are the parties to be allowed to settle such issues among themselves.

People are arrested and jailed for things that were not crimes and not considered crimes at all only 20 years ago.

Spit on somebody?  That’s assault!  Have a fight with another kid on the playground?  Either or both of you is a bully!  You need therapy! Have a fight with another kid in the neighborhood?  That’s assault!  Kiss your girlfriend when the security cameras are on?  That’s sexual assault, and  you’re on the sex offender registry until you’re forty.

This approach to handling everyday life has become so ubiquitous, we forget that it wasn’t always that way.  When men got liquored up and went at each other in barroom parking lots, they mostly weren’t arrested.  If the cops came, they broke up the fight and sent the participants on their way.  Then everybody rolled their eyes and told the two of them they were idiots.

Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days when a woman could be brutally beaten by her husband over and over again while the cops refused to do anything about it even when she wanted him arrested.

Nor do I want to go back to a time when children were the property of their parents to the point that the parents could kill them if that’s what they wanted to do.

But both those things were minority cases, and I do think we’ve given up far too much in the way of personal liberty to insure that any member of that minority does not slip through the cracks.

Hell, we haven’t even managed to insure that.  There is no evidence whatsoever that social policing has reduced the number of severe abuse and neglect cases by even a single child or a single battered adult.

There are other areas of personal liberty we’ve lost as well–the right to decide who will or will not be served in the restaurant you own, and under what conditions; the right to make our own decisions about our own bodies in myriad ways.

In Medieval England, if you could afford to buy the alcohol you could drink it–and if you could make it on your own it was your business and nobody else’s.  If you owned a little house in town you could turn it into a boarding house on any terms you wanted, and you could pick and choose who to rent the rooms to if that was what you wanted.

I can hear the chorus of objection all the way from here–people got food poisoning! people were discriminated against because of prejudice!

Yada yada yada.

The real question, for me, is whether the things we’ve gained are worth the liberty we’ve lost.

And, I’ll admit it, I don’t think they are in most cases.



Written by janeh

November 11th, 2012 at 11:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

There Are Three Kinds of People…

with 4 comments

Well, it’s Saturday.  I just got a boatload of work done.  There’s a pot roast the size of Detroit in the slow cooker.  There’s Paganini in the background.  There’s tea right here beside me.

And I have just finished reading a book.

Unlike some of you, I am incapable of reading more than one book at a time. I can read a book and also read magazines, even magazines with long and detailed articles like The New York Review of Books, but for whatever the reason, I can’t read The Winter King and Southern Injustice at the same time.

I know that some of you consider this a grave handicap, and it probably is.  But here I am.

The book I just finished reading is the one I was talking about some days ago, Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism.

It was one of those things somebody sent me on the assumptions that a) I probably hadn’t heard of it and b) I’d probably love it to pieces.

She was right on both counts.

For what it’s worth, I can heartily recommend it.  It’s clearly and forcifully written.  It takes up the lives, ideas and careers of a lot of people you may never have heard of or, if you haven’t don’t know much about.  It gives you the life of Engels instead of Marx, Deng instead of Mao.  It also gives you people like Clement Atlee, Samuel Gompers and Tony Blair.

So the book is worth it for the sake of the information you don’t have.

But I think it’s also worth it for its last chapter, which simultaneously concentrates on the life of Moses Hess–the man who first came up with “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” and one of the founding Zionists in the old sense of the term–and on the question of Socialism as a religion and why so many people have been drawn to it.

Before you start throwing Ayn Rand at my head, I’d like to suggest that there are three kinds of people who are drawn to Socialism as a faith.

And Socialism is a faith, because if it was science it would have jettisoned many of its tenets long ago.  When scientific experiments fail, scientiests are supposed to ditch the theory and look for something new. 

When history did not bear out Marx’s theories, and when experiments in socialism did not work out the way they were predicted–Socialists did what most religious people do.  They checked their Scriptures and found a new way of interpreting them.

But there is more going on here than that. 

I think it’s important to note that there is more than one kind of person attracted to Socialist ideas.

Surely there are the Nurse Ratcheds and Delores Umbrages of the world, the people Rand embodied in Ivy Starnes, whose primary driving focus is on getting as much power into their own hands as is possible. 

Those people come in petty versions–the social worker or school nurse or parole officer who wants to be kowtowed to–and world historical versions (like Hitler, Stalin and Mao) and everything in between.

But there are two other kinds of person, and those two kinds are important because without them, the first kind could never get itself into power.

The first kind are those driven mostly by resentment and envy.  They hate the idea that anybody, anywhere has more than they do, and they resent the fact that capitalist economies–to the extent that they actually ARE capitalist and not corporatist–reward people whose achievements and qualifications they despise. 

This is the basis for the continual calls for “comparable worth” in determing pay–the market must be sexist because it pays elementary school teachers (who have to have a college degree) less than carpenters or plumbers or garbage men, who do not.

It can’t be the case that the public has decided that these services are worth more to them than elementary school teaching–and if they have, they’re wrong.  No, the only possible explanation is that people are sexist.  They instinctively value work done by women less than work done by men. 

Therefore, the government should step in and fix this.

The fact is that capitalist societies are strictly democratic–that is, to the extent that they’re actually capitalist, and not corporatist–and they reward those whom most of their members value.  They value Stephen King over Paul Auster, Die Hard over Good Night and Good Luck, the Big Mac over whole grain bread with a tabouli salad.

They do because they do.

The issue of envy and resentment is important because it is always the case that capitalist societies end up valuing lots and lots and lots of things over the things that intellectuals do–or even that quasi-intellectuals do. 

And intellectuals and their downmarket wannabes are not disposable.  Intellectuals do things that are very powerful even if they aren’t paid well, like shaping the narrative by which a society lives and thereby establishing the terms by which that society will frame and answer the questions that arise in its conduct and history.

I’ve always thought that this explains why so many Western intellectuals are more interested in destroying Western civilization than they are in building something else–that, given the choice of  a heaven on earth with Western civilization surviving and a complete destructive hell if it does not, they would choose the second.

Think of it as the ideological equivalent of a woman scorned.  Think of Medea on the ramparts hurtling Jason’s children to their deaths.

But there is a third kind of person, and it’s that third kind of person I want to concern myself with here. 

Back during the campaigns, The Nation ran a series of what seemed to be ads in which various conservatives writers and politicians were featured with elongated noses accompanied by something they’d said, which was then declared a “lie.”

Most of these quotations were not lies.  They were mostly differences in interpretation. Sometimes they were ideas the readers of the magazine just wouldn’t like.  In one case, the quote was actually of a joke–not a very good joke, but a joke nonetheless.

But the one quotation that struck me was not only not a lie, it was actually the truth.

The speaker was Paul Ryan, and what he said was that people who believe they have a right to things like healthcare or education are actually in favor of slavery.

I say this is not a lie because it isn’t.  And I say this is the truth because it is.

There is no way to guarantee you a “right to education” or an “entitlement to health care” unless the government has the right to force teachers and doctors and nurses to provide you with it against their will.

If the government cannot do this, then it is possible that there will come a day when there is nobody willing to provide the service, and your “entitlement” to it would collapse.

Something very like this has already been happening in the provision of abortion services in the US. 

Not only do most doctors refuse to do abortions–even most gynecologists refuse to do abortions–but most medical students refuse to take training in how to do them. 

Abortion is unavailable in 80% of the counties in US states, and not because laws have been passed or the Army of God has been making death threats.  Doctors seem to find the entire thing–well, yucky.

The results have been predictable–there are periodic calls to make abortion training mandatory for medical students. 

These calls go nowhere, for lots of reasons, and when they go nowhere the people who want them complain that this is theocracy.  Religious doctors are “imposing” their religious views on their patients, and so are religious medical students.

The same cry goes up when Catholic hospitals refuse to provide abortions or abortion referrals or the “morning after pill,” and when pharmacists refuse to dispense the morning after pill or birth control or to carry either in independently owned stores.

(Pharmacists working for chains who refuse when their employers want the products stocked and the prescriptions fulfilled have no religious right to refuse if they want to go on being employed.  The right to set policy belongs to the owner of the store, not the employees.)

The obvious coerciveness of all this is not obvious to the third category of Socialist adherents–and the similarity to plain slavery is not obvious to them–for one very important reason.

This is what I think of as The Fuzz. 

A great many of these people seem to be driven almost entirely by emotion, and rather bathetic emotion at that.  They’re very proud of their ability to be “empathic,” by which they seem to mean feeling upset at the fact that other people suffer. 

This can be applied to real suffering–a family destroyed when one member gets a catastrophic illness or an expensive chronic one–or to any of a dozen or more less credible ones, like women being made to feel bad because somebody out there “judges” them for having had an abortion.

The  primary point here is that these people are not thinking through their positions.  They’re just “feeling.” 

And they feel by responded to a very narrow set of emotional cues. 

These are the people at whom those Sarah McLaughlin puppy and kitten rescue commercials are aimed, as well as the endless series of media stories focussing  on one woman here, one family there.

You can shout all you want about anecdote not being evidence, but they live by anecdote.  Both their moral and their political worlds are almost entirely narratively based.

They can’t see that forcing a doctor to perform an abortion he is morally opposed to, or forcing Catholic hospitals to provide an implicit endoresment of abortion and birth control against their religious convictions, or forcing a pharmicist to carry products in his own privately own store that are not what he approves is, in fact, coercion.

And they can’t see that their preferred answer to the problem–they should be forced, and they still won’t do it, then they don’t have to be doctors/teachers/pharmacists/whatever–is tantamount to the worst kind of employment discrimination.

If you point it out to do, they’ll ask you such questions as “What do you want?  Jehovah’s Witness hospitals that won’t provide blood transfusions?”

I’d say I didn’t want it, but I’d also say that it ought to be allowed.

And then they call me names.

What is going on here is similar to what goes on in criminal trials, and especially murder trials. 

The victim is somewhere else.  The accused is right here in front of you.  Every defense attorney in the world knows that the best way to get your guy acquited is to get the jury to relate to him and not to the victim.  That’s why we “put the victim on trial” in rape and murder cases.

People like this think Paul Ryan’s comment is “a lie” because they are unable to conceive of a situation in which acting on what they feel will result in an outcome even worse than the bad thing they’re trying to eradicate. 

It’s like Matt when I first quit smoking.  He was four, and he did indeed notice that I’d become an angry, irrational and less than happy person. He decided that this was the fault of the workout regime I’d taken up to keep myself from gaining the weight lots of people gain when they quit.

Since quitting smoking was a good thing, Matt was convinced it could not have any bad consequences.

But Matt was four, and these people are supposed to be all grown up.

And quitting smoking will, in the end, lead to good things, and the bad things will disappear.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to minimize the extent to which feeling instead of thinking drives all kinds of social issues–hate crimes legislation, welfare policy, antidiscrimination law.

Without the vast hordes of people who feel instead of think, the Nurse Ratcheds and the envious resenters would be dead at the starting gate.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2012 at 10:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Once More Into The Breach

with 5 comments

I don’t usually write a blog post on Friday.  I’ve got an early class, and it’s my absolutely worst day on a number of levels.

But I heard this last night, and I can’t help myself.

Mayor Bloomberg and the same health department that tried to limit “sugary drinks” to no more than 16 ounces–unless they were from Starbucks or other places yuppies like to get their stuff–has now issued an order banning gifts of food to homeless shelters, because the city can’t monitor their salt and fat content beforehand.

So here are these people, living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans, mentally ill or addicted or whatever–and Mayor Bloomberg thinks their biggest problem is that they might get too much salt in a donated batch of bagels.

Or maybe Bloomberg and his people think that homeless people wouldn’t be homeless if they hadn’t done anything wrong, so they should be punished by only being allowed to eat tasteless, unappetizing food.

It would be interesting to find out whether some of them think they get better food dumpster diving.

This, by the way, is the real class warfare.

I’m going to go do something so that I can at least appear to be competent at eight o’clock.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2012 at 7:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Notes on the Aftermath

with 6 comments

I learned something very important this election.

I’m an old person.  I can no longer stay up all night to listen to the returns and then do a normal day following. 

I did indeed do my entire normal day yesterday, but I spent the whole time feeling as if I was about to fall over.

And then there’s been the weather.  We had a nor’easter move in over night.  First they said it was going to dump one and a half inches of snow.  Then four to seven inches of snow.  Then ten inches of snow. 

Then I went to bed.

This morning, the entire state seems to be closed except my place, which is apparently carrying on as usual. 

I think if I’m going to have to shovel, or make offspring shovel, I should at least get a snow day.  But nobody listens to me.

At any rate–the election.

1) I told you so. 

I have been saying for months that Romney had  no chance of winning this election and that the outcome wouldn’t even be close.

I was right on both counts.

2) But I don’t think the reason was what Democrats want it to be.  I don’t think Tea Party candidates dragged Romney down.

I think Romney dragged the Tea Party candidates down.

The Tea Party hated Romney and didn’t come out to vote for anybody, meaning to send a clear signal to the party brass that they were no long willing to put up with rich guys  whose only interests were to funnel taxpayer money to corporate welfare clients and to protect those clients from their mistakes.

I think the Democrats got their analysis extact 180 degrees wrong. 

The Tea Party was not astroturf being manipulated by rich people.

The Tea Party was trying to turn the Republican Party into the agency of what they want, which is actually much worse for the rich guys than anything the Democrats have on offer.

The Democrats were just as much behind saving the bankers as the Republicans were.  The Tea Party wanted to see these guys crash and burn.

For a while, TP rallies featured people with signs saying “Let the failures fail.”

There were hysterical blog posts across the left wing declaring  that the TP protestors might SEEM to be calling down retribution on bankers, but that wasn’t what they REALLY meant.  What they REALLY meant was that poor people should be left to starve.

No, what they really meant is that people like Dick Fuld and Jamie Dimon should go down with their firms and lose all their money in a combination of the collapse of the enterprises they ran into the ground and the lawsuits from investors that would surely follow.

TP candidates would have done much better with Santorum on the ticket, because their base would have been willing to come out and vote.

3) What we are actually seeing here is the death of Establishment Republicanism. 

The Establishment types yelled and screamed that the world was going to end if the TP didn’t rush out and vote “against Obama,”  never mind who Mitt really was or what he represented–run, run, the world is on fire!

The TP wasn’t having any of it.

If the Republicans are ever going to win an election again, they’re going to have to ditch the rich guys and find people who are going to be willing to throw those same rich guys under the bus the next time there’s a financial scandal.

4) That said, I also think that the more extreme religious right candidate isn’t going to do very well either.

Of the two poster boys for ton deafness in this race, I’ve go some sympathy for Mourdock and none at all for Akin.

Akin was an idiot, and he should have dropped out of the race. 

Mourdock, on the other hand, had a point that he seemed constitutionally incapable of articulating.

If you honestly believe that abortion is the act of murdering a child, then making exceptions for rape makes no sense.

Making exceptions indicates that you are, in fact, viewing pregnancy as punishment for sexual behavior.  If she gets pregnant she has to live with it–unless it turns out it wasn’t her fault, then it’s okay.

Such a position is not just incoherent, but morally reprehensible.

But it is also the case that adhering to such a position will lose you elections, because people instinctively recoil from it.

They recoil from it because being forced to carry a pregnancy to term under those conditions is a punishment, no matter what else it is.  It is suffering inflicted on a person who is already the innocent victim of other suffering.

And people are just not going to have it.

5) Anyone who thinks that nobody votes because they want to stay on welfare needs to meet some of my students, a good knot of whom declared that they’d voted Democratic because the Republicans wanted to take their food stamps and welfare away.

I still think my answer to this one is the right one.

Let’s move away from a system where we have a patchwork of “programs” offering a little bit of this here and a little bit of that there accompanied by gargantuan bureaucracies with tentacles reaching further and further into private life in an attempt to “fix” the poor–and anybody else they can get their hands on.

Let’s replace all this with an expanded earned income tax credit–maybe four or five or six time larger than it is now, paid for by all those social work and administrative salaries and benefits we will no longer have to pay after we’re no longer trying to build the New Englightenment Man.

Let’s give the poor money and treat them like grown ups.  Let them make their own decisions for themselves.

Some of them will, undoubtedly, make very bad decisions–but that’s their business and not yours. 

And life is going to be a lot better for everybody, when we’re  no longer trying to  micromanage  everybody’s private life in an attempt to coercive them all to behave just like all your friends in Scarsdale.

While we’re at it, of course, I’d get rid of all the other programs and regulations meant to “fix” people and “help” them by coercively changing their private behavior.

The people of the United States are not children, and they’re not patients.  They’re citizens, and they should be treated as such, even if they’re dumb as rocks or too poor to buy potato chips.

6) Those of you from outside the US might be interested to know that there was virtually no discussion of foreign policy at all in this race.

The old truism is that Republicans win when foreign policy is the focus of the Presidential election and Democrats win when the economy is, and that held up here.

I’m getting most of my news about the Lybian thing from the BBC.  Fox runs some stories, and the other stations say “Fox is lying” and then don’t elaborate. 

The liberal to left wing here continues to declare all kinds of thing “lies” that are nothing of the kind.

For some people, any difference of opinion or interpretation is automatically “lying” if they don’t agree with it, and so is telling jokes.

There aren’t very many times I sympathize with Ann Coulter, but, I mean, really.  You ought to be able to expect that your audience is literate enough to get it when you’re making a funny.

7) As to my local races, I’m completely flabbergasted.  I did not expect the Republican candidates to win, but I didn’t the races to be such complete blowouts, either, considering the way the Democrats were running their campaigns.

Elizabeth Esty’s entire campaigan against Andrew Rohraback came down to “OTHER Republicans take these stands on issues, so you should vote against him, even though he doesn’t agree with any of this.”

Is that what we vote on these days, really?

But Chris Murphy’s campaign was far worse, because it spent a lot of time telling outright lies.

And the lies weren’t subtle, and they weren’t matters of interpretation, and they weren’t hard to uncover.

McMahon would run an add proclaiming herself a pro-choice woman, and the next ad on your television would be Murphy declaring that you should vote for him because “I’m pro-choice and she’s not.”

We’re a blue state–damned near navy blue–and the two of them were going to win under any circumstances. 

I did think there would be more people here who, like me, didn’t think it was a good idea to vote for people who behaved like t his.

I’m going to go off now and correct papers.

It’s been suggested to me that I should get back to the education thing, and start with the Enlightenment and finish the argument.

I’m still in the middle of rewrites, though, and I’m going to have to get those done before I can write something as complex as that.

But I’m thinking about it.

I’d better go correct papers.

Written by janeh

November 8th, 2012 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Civic Duty

with 4 comments

So, what can I say?

I voted.

I didn’t vote for Romney.  And I didn’t vote for Obama.

But I voted, and so did the two of them, Greg for the first time. 

Greg managed to keep his mouth shut, so that he didn’t get thrown out of the polls for electioneering.

I found out that the voting machines scan the paper ballots from both sides, which means I didn’t have to spend five minutes trying to figure out which way I was supposed to put mine in.

And now I’m going off to make an enormous tuna casserole and spend the evening drinking serious Scotch and watching the returns.

It says something that the only time I ever want to drink anything stronger Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey Tea is during the returns for federal elections.

Written by janeh

November 6th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

State of the Union

with 4 comments

Well, looking over the commments, I think I’m with Cheryl–I think the issue isn’t self interest, but disgust and disillusionment at the free riding.

And not just the freeriding of intellectuals who want to spend all their time talking theory instead of doing anything specific.  At New Harmony, especially, there was a distinct–and distinctly large–free riding population on the other end, people who signed up for the “cooperative community” because they believed Owen’s promise that in such a community they would have to do no more than two or three hours of work a day, and none on Sunday.

This seems to be a common fantasy of people who found such communities. 

My guess is that one of the things religion did for these groups was to cut down on the free riding by redefining work as a form of prayer. 

The religious communities were also much less likely than the nonreligious ones to hold out the promise of endless leisure as a goal of their societies.

But it’s important to remember, as well, that New Harmony was not Fruitlands.  It was not founded by people who did not understand what work had to be done to make a society function, or who constructed their plans out of theory untainted with practice.

Owen had built and run very successful companies.  His fault was not in a failure to understand what practicality required, but in seriously misjudging human nature, both in its foundations and in its malleability.

It ought by now to be understood that no amount of social engineering–no matter how sweepingly total or uncompromisingly brutal or tyrannically therapeutic–will change human nature in any significant way.

Owen simply refused to believe it, and a lot of people have come down the pike since who continute to refuse to believe it. 

At the moment, I’m up to Julius Nyerere refusing to believe it, and I think in a page or two I’m going to arrive at yet another great big mess.

 As for unions, a couple of things.

First is that the one union I have any personal knowledge of  is one that not only refuses me the right to refuse to belong to it, but then actively works AGAINST my interests and the interests of the majority of the people it gets its dues from.

What the union actually does is to protect the rights of full time faculty–a very small minority of our teaching staff–against the rights of part timers.  It limits the number of courses a part timer can teach, making it impossible to make a living as an adjunct unless you sign up at three or four different area colleges and spend truly enormous amounts of time and money commuting between them.

It also enforces a policy where any full timer who wants to make a little extra money can bump a part timer from a course section at will.  That means that even if a part timer gets assigned the two courses the union will allow her to teach, she can find herself deprived of either or both of them as late as the date classes begin for the term, with no notice and no compensation.

The union brass tells me, earnestly, that doing these things protects me from being “exploited” by the university. 

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

Maybe–just maybe–the reason people resist unionization sometimes is because they’re aware of situations like this, and not because they’re “sheep.”

As for “income inequality,” I don’t see anything wrong with it, per se.  It doesn’t bother me at all that Bill Gates makes exponentially more money than I do.  I don’t think that’s “immoral.”  I don’t think it should be eradicated.  I don’t think it’s anything but the way the world works.

It DOES bother me that the people at the head of Lehmann Brothers, etc, still have THEIR money, but that’s because my government took my tax dollars to cushion them from the consequences of their failures.

And it DOES bother me that businesses are allowed to do things that should be clearly unConstitutional–like requiring me not to smoke or drink at home, and not just on the job. 

The answer to that is to no longer allow the government to do EITHER or those things–but good luck with the second one, because the government wants to regulate your home life, too.

Other than that, the real question about income differentials is this–what kind of living would the workers make if the company did not exist? 

If they’re living better than they would have, then I think their decision to go with what they’re offered isn’t evidence of sheepdom, but evidence of a fair amount of calculation.


Written by janeh

November 5th, 2012 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Robert Owen

with 8 comments

So, with the outage repaired in what I have to consider record time, and other things more or less out of control on the usual bases, I actually got to settle down with a book I need to pay attention to, and that book is Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism.

When I told a friend of mine I was reading this, he remarked that he wasn’t sure socialism  had fallen.

That may be true, but the book is still interesting, intelligent and very informative, so let me make a few notes here for anybody who might want to think about reading it.

The first is the author, who was what we called in my day a “red diaper baby”–someone born and brought up in a Communist/Socialist family and who who brought up on Marxism the way other children were brought up on Catholicism.

There is an interesting opening chapter/prologue about that upbringing and about his parents and their friends, all of it leading up to the fact that Muravchik is now a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s not a unique trajectory.  A number of prominent writers on the Right these days share it, including, most prominently, David Horowitz, who has become more or less a Rightist the way Lenin was a Leftist.

I know nothing at all about Muravchik, but that in itself is probably indicative.  If he was pursuing a career as an intellectual bomb thrower, I probably would have heard about it.

After that initial autobiographical note, Muravchik proceeds by giving the personal stories of various people  important in the history of socialism, beginning at the French Revolution and ending with Tony Blair and New Labour. 

One of the reasons I was interested in this book is that he includes Mussolini and the Fascists (including the National Socialists), which is something most people who write about the Left rarely allow themselves to admit.

So far–I’m not finished yet–I’ve been impressed by the amount of information I didn’t already know, such as the nearly lifelong personal connection between Lenin and Alexander Kerensky.  For someone, like me, who reads a lot in this area, this is not an easy thing to do.

But so far, the most interesting material in this book concerns a man named Robert Owen and his attempts to build the New Cooperative Society, right here on earth, right now, and not through coercive politics.

Owen was a Welsh industrialist in the years before the American Civil War, and  it is important to note what he was not.

He was not born to a wealthy family, and he was  not sent to university to become an intellectual.

Instead, at fourteen years old, he left home to make his way in the world.  His parents were prosperous members of the working class, but they were members of the working class.  They gave him  10 pounds to help him on his way, and he went to London.

What happened after that is the kind of rags-to-riches story that we now think Horatio Alger made up.   He worked in draper’s shop, then went to Manchester and got a job in another draper’s shop.  He moved from there to a mill, and by the time he was twenty-one he was a manager at the same mill.

At that point,  he started making serious money, and very serious money it was, too.  Before he reached middle age, he was one of the richest men in Europe.

He was also something else by then, and that is one of the most prominent advocates of Enlightenment ideas about human nature and social organization.

In spite of the fact that his formal education stopped when he was ten, he’d not only  managed to keep up with all the new ideas floating around, he’d become an honor champion of them.  He was elected to several learned societies that would ordinarily have requited their members to have much higher levels of formal education, and he began to write on his pet project of creating a heaven on earth.

He called this heaven on earth the “new cooperative communities,” and he was convinced that once they were founded, men and women would be completely different from the way they were in his own society.

This was because he believed absolutely that there was  no such thing as free will, and that therefore all the behavior we saw that we didn’t like–theft, idleness, alcoholism–would disappear once men and women came to live in cooperative communities wi thout personal property and saw how much better such societies were to their own.

This was not a particularly unusual set of ideas at the time.  It was the thinking that came out of the French Revolution, and writers and lecturers who embraced such thinking were very popular.

There is a wonderful story in this book of then-President John Quincy Adams leaving the White House after lunch one day to walk across the street to hear Owns lecture–no Secret Service detail or anything!–and these were, of course, the ideas adopted by many of the New England Transcendentalists.

What’s more, there was something of a vogue in founding communitarian settlements, especially in the United States.  Some of those settlements were notably successful.  These included the Shakers, whose last two surviving members were still living in their northern New England settlement houses in the 1970s, and a group known as the Rappites.

The Rappites were the followers of a man named George Rapp.  They’re important to t his story because they founded a large and flourishing cooperative community at New Harmony, Indiana just about the time Owen was looking around the United States for a place to found a cooperative community of his own.

It was just at the time when Rapp was having one of his periodic fits of restlessness.  New Harmony was actually the third site on which his community had settled.  Every once in a while, Rapp would get the idea that his community was actually in the wrong place and would demand they all pick up and move.  From what we can tell, they mostly did.  And they mostly flourished.

And, like the Quakers, they died out in the end only because their rules of celebacy made producing a new generation difficult.

It’s remarkable how many of the people who found and occupy these kinds of settlements cannot wrap their minds around the fact that not producing children will be a crimp in the continued survival of their project, but there it is.  Not having sex was as popular in early nineteenth century American communist settlements as having it with everything except the cat was in Sixties and Seventies communes.

On that front, Owen had an advantage.  He didn’t intend for the citizens of his New Cooperative Communities (or New Communal Societies) to refrain from sex.  He had an entire, elaborate system all written down and ready to be put into place about how mates would be chosen and when and on what basis and…well, you get the idea.

So Owen bought New Harmony, the Rappites moves (I think) to upstate New York, and then–the entire New Harmony experiment fell apart.

In fact, it took  less than a year before Owen’s New Harmony community completely destroyed the flourishing agricultural system that the Rappites had left them.  Crops went unplanted or were eaten by wondering livestock, livestock went untended (which is why the were eating the crops), and in no time at all, the single most important group to the survival of the settlement–the skilled workers and artisans–picked up and left.

Actually, that’s the group of people  most necessary to the survival of any society of any kind, and when Atlas shrugs, it isn’t Rand’s industrialists who go, it’s the ironmongers, the blacksmiths, the shoemakers, the builders and the rest of the people who have specialized knowledge of how to make things work. 

If Atlas shrugs this time, my guess is that the plumbers, the electricians, the mechanics and the engineers are the ones who are going to go this time.

Along with these people, of course, went the experienced farmers, the ones who understood that you have limited windows of opportunity to plant and to reap, among  other things.

The ones who stayed were in one of two categories:  people looking for a free ride, and intellectuals trying to live out their own passionately held theories.

Neither group seemed to know how to actually do anything.

This may seem inevitable, and just what you’d expect, so that there’s no point in belaboring the obvious. 

But two things interest me here.

First, Owen should have known better.  He was not a professional intellectual, although he became one in practice.  He was not only a businessman, but a phemonenally successful businessman. He knew what it meant to meet a payroll, as they say in politics these days.

And he knew that some of the ideas he had about human nature and how human beings behaved were wrong, because he’d seen the wrongness of them in his own factories.  At o ne point he tried to introduce a system whereby workers would police their productivity themselves.  The free riding was terrific, and the system had to be abandoned within a year.

Even if we adopt the explanation Owen himself did in later years–that people conditioned by a selfish society couldn’t  just become communal and cooperative overnight–it’s something that should have been evident from his own initial theories.

But here’s the big thing.

Remember how I said that several of these Communist communities in antebellus America were successful?

They were.  They were very successful, and many lasted not just years, but decades.

Of course, there were many such communities that fell apart in no time flat, and disintegrated into squalor and penury almost as soon as they were founded.

These unsuccessful communities, like Owen’s unsuccessful community, differed from the successful communities in one specific way.

Openness to the market?


Observant of individual rights?


Some form of draconian punishment of free riding?


What was it?


All the successful voluntary Communist communities in antebellum America were declaratively and distinctively religious communities before they were anything else.

All the unsuccessful ones, in contrast, were declaratively opposed to religion in  all its various forms.

Owen was so adamantly opposed to religion that he went on at length even in lectures about other things to declare it the worst evil on earth and in need of being eradicated as soon as possible.

Some of the Transcendentalist communities were a little squishier than this, in that they only outrightly rejected Christianity. 

They then went in for the sort of vague “spirituality” which consists of thinking warm fuzzy  pseudoprofound thoughts while not actually committing oneself to any set of substantive beliefs in particular.

It’s discouraging, sometimes, to realize that all this stuff has been going on for centuries, with not so much as a significant detail ever changing from one decade to the next.

It’s even more discouraging to realize that I’ve got friends and students who would sign on to all this right this minute without a second thought.

But I’m still very interested in Robert Owen, who doesn’t fit the mold for the kind of politics he adopted.

Oh, and then there were his children, who remained in America after the New Harmony experiment failed, repudiated their father’s ideas almost in their entirety, and went to work in their New Country.  They go elected to the state legislature, build businesses and–in the case of his most cherished son–became a banker.

Written by janeh

November 3rd, 2012 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sucker Punch

with 3 comments

Well, what can I say?

We lost power.  And we not only lost power, but the new VP for Emergency Management at Connecticut Light and Power, or whatever he’s called, got up at press conferences and said all the same things the old president or CEO or whatever he was said last time, which did not make Governor Malloy happy and didn’t make any of the rest of us happy, either.

We can’t do anything about widespread power outages.  As soon as things are safe, we will assess the situation and get right to work.  It will take two or three days before the assessments are done.

A friend of mine said that this only sounded as if CL & P wasn’t doing anything but assessing for three days, and in fact he was right–we got our power back after about 12 hours. We didn’t even lose any food.

But I went back and looked at the stuff I had for last year, and I’d be willing to be that “didn’t do anything until the assessments were all finished three days later” was what we had then.  At least I can’t find any  indication that anything was getting fixed.

On the other hand, a lot of what went wrong last October went right this time–we had out of state crews in Connecticut as of Sunday night, ready and able to get started.  At least part of the reason for that was that no out of state crews had been left unpaid since the last disaster.

Yes, that’s what I said.  When the big winter storm hit here this time last year, some out of state crews were refusing to come because they still hadn’t been paid for the work they did during Hurricane Irene a few months earlier.

So there was that.  There was also a massive tree clearing effort that had been going on all year and went into gear to finish up by the time the storm was predicted to hit.

And all this helped.  Our power went out at around eleven Monday night and came back between ten and eleven the next morning.  We didn’t even lose any food, and Matt found that his decision to stay instead of trying to get back to Philadelphia actually made sense.

All that said, things are nasty enough.  The towns on the shore will in all likelihood be without power for at least a week, which will be the third time in fourteen months they have been stuck with that particular problem. 

And New York, of course, is a mess.  As is New Jersey.  I’ve got friends in Virginia and family in Maryland and they all seem to be all right, and not in the middle of a castrophic mess.

Of the people I know in New York, most thankfully live in Brooklyn, where the least damage seems to have been done. 

But my agent is without power or water, and the businesses I deal with all seem to be well before the 31st Street cut-off for “you really don’t want to be here.”

As to what else is going on–the predictable “this is all about global warming and climate change” stories have all started, and they continue to miss the point.  The issue–at least for me–has never been if climate change is happening but what we should do about it, coupled with my skepticism that a “global goverance” regime of top down controls is the way to go.

(Why is it that the people who constantly lecture me about how we’re all resistant to “change” don’t seem to be able to cope with actual change?)

But the big news on the political front is that this thing may have won Obama the election.

It matters how government officials respond to this sort of thing.  It is one of the very few times we can see them actually doing their jobs.  It’s what turned my–and a lot of other people’s–opinions about Rudy Giuliani from “jerk” to ‘class act.”

Obama has done well with this, so far.  He’s certainly got a better ear for  how to behave in public and what to say than W did after Katrina.

And he’s being helped immeasurably by a Romney campaign that–I don’t know what it is they think they’re doing.  The Romney campaign’s behavior in the middle of all this has been patently bizarre.

I’m also pleased with Chris Christie in New Jersey, who had the grace to thank the President for help instead of doing that thing where you try to say it’s all the other guy’s fault no matter what he does.

At any rate, it’s over.

Before Hurricane Irene in the summer of last year–what happened in the fall was a winter storm with snow–anyway, before that, the last time a hurricane  had hit Connecticut with any force was in 1938.

I have to go correct these papers.

Hurricanes may come and go, but English composition marches on.

Written by janeh

November 1st, 2012 at 8:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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