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Archive for April, 2014

Staying Very Still

with 35 comments

So, it’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m having one of those days when I could sleep in the middle of the afternoon if I let myself, but I know that if I let myself I’m going to be up all night and a wreck in the morning.

And I’m having, you know, malaise.

It’s bad enough that this atheist book I’ve been talking about–The Age of Atheists, I brought it up a few posts ago–is a complete wash.  It’s not so much about atheists as it is about people who have spent their lives wandering around not accomplishing much of anything while nattering about authenticity and wholeness while sometimes taking prodigious amounts of pharmaceuticals. 

There’s real atheism out there, but none of the people this author is mentioning seem to be among them. Mostly what we’ve got is Spiritual but not Religious, which seems to require speaking vaguely about completeness and richness and joy.

I finally figured out what I disliked about all these people earlier this morning, and it wasn’t just that talking about “completeness and richness and joy” is gibberish.

Alhough it is, gibberish, and it doesn’t help.

What really struck me was that these were the most thoroughly self absorbed people in the history of the universe–self absorbed to the point of outright insanity.

There’s an AIDs epidemic in Africa.  There are nine year old girls across the Muslim world who are having their clitorises removed and being married to 40 year old men.  We could go to Mars if we put our minds to it.  The vast majority of us are only ill clothed, ill housed and ill fed relative to others of us who are doing better with all those things–

And we’re sitting around worrying about “microagressions” and “checking our privilege” and “triggering” caused by people acknowledging realities we don’t like.

I’m not saying that I don’t obsess about myself every once in a while, or even more than every once in a while.  I do, of course I do, we all do.  It’s natural. 

I am saying that, when I do do that kind of thing, I’m being a jerk.

I know we’re not supposed to judge anybody else’s pain–and there’s some sense in that.  We’re all different.  What really hurts me may not be what really hurts you, and vice versa.


The fact remains that there is an objective scale to these things.  Not all suffering is created equal. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a wonder for surviving genital mutilation, child sex and marital rape and battery to become what she’s become–which is more than most of the people now nattering about “microaggressions” will ever manage.

But her suffering was objectively worse than those microaggressions.  And they presented a far higher barrier to a life of achievement than microaggressions ever will.

There has never been a perfect world, and there never will be.  The choice isn’t between Ali’s history and perfection, but Ali’s history and some that are less bad, and others that are less bad than that, and others that are yet less bad than that last one. 

And on all those levels, even the very worst, at least some people have managed to achieve anyway. 

That doesn’t mean that everybody can, or that everybody should be expected to.

It does mean that if you’re reduced to obsessing about “bossy” as a code word, you ought to be thoroughly embarrassed with yourself.  And then you should shut up and get on with it.

In fact, I’m beginning to think we should all shut up and get on with it.

As denizens of a First World country, where even the very poorest of us have access to resources undreamed of even by the generation that survived the Depression and won WWII, we ought to be able to find something better to do with our time than shrieking endlessly about how we’ll never accomplish anything or realize our potential because codewords like “bossy” and other “microaggressions” erect a wall that just won’t let us do anything.

They managed to do something in a world of Jim Crow, widespread discrimination against Jews and women, a legal regime that said you couldn’t be raped in marriage and that women who got raped at all were probably asking for it–never mind things like lynching.

And yet, that generation managed not only to survive the Depression and win WWII, but to end legal racial discrimination, find a vaccine for polio, expand the rights and opportunities of women past anything ever seen before on this planet, and land us on the moon as well.

Honestly, now.  What is it we think we’re doing with our lives?

I ran across two pieces of news yesterday.

One of them was an interview with a sophomore at Swarthmore who was indignant–just indignant–that anybody would think that just because she was at a liberal arts college, she ought to be required to hear different points of view.

It was part of a larger story about the fallout from an incident at UC Santa Barbara where a professor and her students stole a sign being held by a teenaged girl who was in a “free speech zone” protesting abortion.  The University wants it to be known that these outside agitators come onto campus and upside and divide the students and the faculty, so the stealing of the sign and the later vandalism and what seems to have been a physical assault were, well, we wouldn’t say justified, but…

Never mind.

The other was the cover story in the May 2014 issue of Discover magazine.

It was about a former Shuttle astronaut named Franklin Chang Dias, who has invented a new kind of rocket that might get us to Mars a lot faster.

Let’s ditch all the crap, and just get the job done.

Written by janeh

April 26th, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Let’s Do This

with 3 comments

Meaning this.


Let’s do it NOW.

Let’s stop talking about how awful everything is and nattering away about “microaggressions” and whatever else, and do this.



Written by janeh

April 25th, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Children’s Books

with 4 comments

So, considering the amount of snark I got yesterday when I said I didn’t want children’s books in my search for an astronomy book, I think I’d better expand.

First, yes, YA is indeed for children, just slightly older children.  I’m willing to concede that there’s a vast range there, but the old Sweet Valley High series was YA, and so were  the Goosebumps books. 

And YA has all the things I don’t like about children’s books–restricted vocabulary and simplification of concepts being the biggies.

But my animus to children’s books didn’t start recently, not even as recently as my own adulthood.

I can’t say I’ve always rejected children’s books.  I had one I remember to this day and loved dearly, a Little Golden Book about a duck billed platypus.  It was the first book I ever knew myself to read by myself. 

And I bought my children children’s books when they were small.

But by the time I was about ten, I had no use for them–I felt actively insulted when librarians tried to steer me to the children’s book room.  Eventually, I had to have a parent come in and okay my ascent to the classical novels on the second floor. 

In fact, the various attempts by teachers and relatives to get me to read children’s books infuriated me–I felt as if they were denigrating my i ntelligence, calling me stupid in a coded way, downgrading my status as a human being about twenty notches every time they did it.

But my requirement for the astronomy book isn’t about that.  It’s about the level of difficulty I was looking for, because the level of difficulty determines the completeness of the explanations and exposition.

I don’t need an absolutely rock bottom explanation–I read enough already so that I’ve gotten past that point.  What I do need is something coherent that will pull a lot of things together. 

But I do think I am seeing something in what still seems to me to be the ever increasing resort by adults to children’s books.

In novels, I think it has to do both with the prose–the sentence structure, the vocabulary–and the use of literary devices that I can tell from my own students aren’t being taught in schools any more.

With other things, I don’t know.  If you haven’t watched Cosmos, you should–both because it’s good, and because the I’m-teaching–a-bunch-of-bright-sixth-graders tone is very, very obvious.

You’ll notice that I’m not STOPPING.  I watched it this week, and I’ll watch it next.  It’s very well done and very interesting. 

But with the astronomy, I want something that will take me up and beyond the level I’m already at.

Written by janeh

April 23rd, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Complaint, Sort Of, And A Puzzlement

with 6 comments

This week-end, I went looking for something I couldn’t find.  And not wanting to be an idiot, I decided to do the sensible thing and ask a lot of people if they could help me find it.
This project was made a little more complicated than it might have been because I wasn’t sure that the thing I was looking for actually existed.
It was plausible that such a thing would exist.  It was even likely, since I own at least one other thing of the same kind.
In case you’re wondering, what I’m looking for is a basic but not bottom-level book on astronomy, preferably with a lot of illustrations and divided up in a way that made concepts and developments clear and had them clearly blocked out.
The problem was that no matter how hard I looked for it, I couldn’ t find it.  And I haven’t found it yet. So I made the obligatory post on FB, and sat back to see what would happen.
The first thing that happened was that somebody suggested the Dorling-Kindersly books. 
Now, I love the DK books, and my children had practically all of them–when they were very young children.  DK is aimed at very young children.
I decided I hadn’t really been clear, and posted back that I was really looking for something several levels of difficulty above that–
And people posted other suggestions, including something called The Stars by somebody named, I think, Hey or Fey–and one poster noted that she’d used that book in her middle school science class.
In other words, virtually all the books that were recommended to me were for children.
If the people who recommended these books to me had been themselves professional astronomers, I could have understood this, sort of.
But the people doing the recommending were other adults like myself, with no particular science backgrounds (with one exception) that I know of. 
And yet their idea of a book that “wouldn’t insult my intelligence” was one written for—ten year olds.
When I say other things of this kind exist, I mean it.  Somewhere in this office I have the best introductory book on evolution ever written, a solidly packed volume aimed AT ADULTS, beautifully written and clear.
And, while we’re at it, I know that writing about astronomy on the level I’m interested in exists, too, because there is Astronomy magazine and Scientific American and Discover.
I remain convinced that there must be, out there somewhere, a book FOR ADULTS of the kind I’m looking for.
But this incident reminds me of something else–the kinds of comments I see people making about Cosmos, the reboot of the Carl Sagan series now being narrated by Neil Degrasse Tyson.
I like Cosmos quite a bit, but it is–like the books being recommended to me–narrated at the level usually achieved by a bright 10 year old. 
And it’s narrated at that level in spite of the fact that it obviously isn’t aimed at ten year olds, since it airs at nine o’clock on Sunday nights, when most ten year olds are in bed and in anticipation of the start of the school week.
What’s more, the comments I see do not respond to the show as a show for children, but always indicate that it’s the first thing they’ve seen in a long time that made science “clear” and understandable.
I mean, really?
I’ve commented here before that many of the big best sellers these days tend to be books for children, as if the general reading level of the adult population has been reduced to the elemental.
In this case, however, we’re talking about simple information, and its delivery doesn’t require anybody to read.
Is it really the case that people find science so intimidating and alienating they can’t understand ideas presented at the same intellectual level that they handle when reading about politics or history?
I find the whole thing completely bizarre, and while we’re at it.
I’m still looking for that book on astronomy.

Written by janeh

April 22nd, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Out of Context

with 2 comments

A couple of days ago, a writer whose work I like very much posted a status saying that she had cursed somebody out on FB, and that she didn’t feel bad about it.  The was because the woman she had cursed out had declared herself in favor of a sentence that had been given to a 15 year old boy for stealing a few trinkets, a wallet and some pot from people at a party.

I am trying to be very careful  how I state this here, because that original status did not include much in the way of detail–not the charges, not the state, nothing.

The sentence, by the way, was a doozy–six life sentences, plus more, adding up to life plus 60 years.

The comments that followed this post were more or less expected–the declaration that no sentence like this would ever be given to a white teenager, who would have gotten “probation” instead, and all the rest of it.

But this story bothered me, and, I am happy to say bothered a number of other people as well, and eventually somebody posted a link to the full story.

I don’t know that this link is the same one, but it’s a good one. So you can go here to get the particulars:


As you can see, the story is far more complicated than it was first announced to be.

And, of course, I knew that from off. It is almost never the case that judges can hand out any sentence at all from 118 years to probation at their own discretion.

Judicial discretion in sentencing is limited by law and sometimes completely obviated by it–that’s what “mandatory minimums” are all about.

You don’t have to disagree with the contention hat there is something obscene about h anding a sentence of 118 years to a 15 year old for a robbery in which nobody was actually hurt to understand that what actually happened here had nothing to do with either racism or a bitch judge.

First, we’re talking about an armed robbery–it doesn’t matter what the worth of the loot is, if you bring a gun, even if you don’t use it, the sentencing guidelines start going through the roof.

I don’t know what this writer’s position is on gun control, but I do know that most of the people I know who are in favor of stringent gun control think that increasing sentences for use of a gun is a good thing.

Second, the robbery took place over twenty minutes and apparently scared the crap out of the victims.  In other words, the crime was not quite the same thing as just taking a few little bits and pieces.

As the story was originally told in the status, it sounded as if the kid has been a guest at the party, or a gate crasher, and had snuck around taking things.  

That was not what happened, and what did happen was considerably more serious.

Third, the kid was offered a plea bargain, which his two co-criminals and were also offered and which they accepted.

I have a lot of problems with the plea bargain system, especially when it concerns juveniles and near-juveniles, black or white.

Kids with broken families and few resources–white as well as black–are shoved into taken plea bargains for things they haven’t done, being advised that they’re likely to be convicted even if they’re not guilty, so they might as well get as little time as possible.

This case, however, is a prime example of what plea bargains are for, for a number of reasons.

a) the kid was guilty, and had pretty much admitted it.  He refused to take the plea bargain because he didn’t think he was guilty of “everything” they were charging him with.

b) the two other kids who had taken part in the robbery had both accepted plea bargains, and it’s guaranteed that part of the conditions for those bargains would be their willingness to testify against Travion Blount at trial

and, finally–drum roll, please–the BIG one

c) conviction for armed robbery in this state carried statutorially mandated life terms.

In other words, the people who were complaining about racist sentencing–saying that a white kid would have gotten much less in the way of jail time, or none at all–were wrong.

White or black, young or old, anybody tried and convicted as an adult of armed robbery would be stuck in the same place.

What bothers me about all this is that I can’ see the point of truncating the story to begin with.

There is nothing about the real incident that makes giving a 15 year old kid a 118 year sentence right, or even comprehensible. 

Sometimes you do see stories like this that have been truncated because not to truncate would be to make the sentence seem at least understandable–about twenty years ago there was a case in Chicago, I think, where three young girls were given life without parole for the murder of an elderly woman in their neighborhood.  The girls were black, the woman was white, and protests were lodged from Germany and France as well as the United States.

The protests stopped when the state released details of the crime and pictures from the crime scene–a bludgeoning death so brutal the victim’s face was unrecognizable as human, or even animal.

Nothing in this case was even remotely comparable.  No one was hurt during the robbery.  Not much was taken.  And the whole thing sounds like a trio of rank idiots on amateur night.

Travion Blount had the right to plea as he wanted to plea, but I think if I had been his lawyer, I’d have quit when he refused to take the bargain. 

That lawyer must have known what was inevitably going to happen here. 

And as far as I can tell, the lawyer did try to explain it to ravion Blount. 

There are issues here that need to be addressed.

One of them is the question of when we charge juvenile as adults.  I’m almost never happy with that one, but I do sort of get it when the crime is the kind of savagery evidences in the Chicago case.  With this one,  I can’t see the rationale.

The other is the extent to which we limit judicial discretion in sentencing.  I know there was a concern, for a while, over judges who gave minimal sentences for violent crimes, but there needs to be some mechanism to allow a judge to fix a situation like this.

And the situation needed fixing.

The governor of Virginia did reduce Travion Blount’s sentence, eventually–to 40 years, still a long hall.

I have no idea if that is “appropriate” or not in this case–no idea what else the kid may have done in his life, no idea if there are other issues here the news stories don’t make us aware of.

The governor is on record as saying he things the 40 year sentence is exactly what’s justified here.  The state attorney general and the original prosecutors are on record as saying that the original sentence should have stood.

But making an incident like this sound like something it’s not isn’t helping anybody on any side of this argument.



Written by janeh

April 21st, 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Questions of Ultimate Whatever

with 3 comments

So it’s Tuesday, and it’s tax day, so I’m sort of floaty and distracted, the way I get when I have important things to do and don’t feel confident doing them.

I get into that state fairly often, because I don’t really feel all that competent to do much of anything.

But this is a head’s up, just so you know that although this post has a point, it may come through a little sideways.

Lately I’ve been reading this book called The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson. 

This was advertised as a history of the ways in which people have tried to reconstruct their lives after their loss of faith.  And as an idea, I think this is not a bad one. 

The history of Western attempts to replace religion with something is longer than we usually remember, and contains a lot of twists and turns that seem impossible now.

I haven’t got all that far into this book yet, and I don’t want to make some grand pronouncement on it before I finish.

But reading what I have so far keeps bumping me up against a wall that may be a matter of temperament and may be a matter of education, but I can’t tell.

First, let me say that I am not usually aware of how much the rejection of religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted of an equally passionate rejection of science.

The New Atheists today spend a lot of their time declaring their undying commitment to Reason and Science, but their counterparts in the first wave of Death of God thinking seem to have spent a lot of their time being really very silly.

This was especially true of the time between the two world wars, where you have men and women draped in togas and scarves wandering around the Swiss countryside doing interpretive dance because–actually, I never was quite able to figure out the because.

Everybody was passionately concerned with “wholeness,” because they felt their lives had been “fragmented” by industrialization, or something, or–what the hell.

This is a kind of talk I have heard before, but I have to admit I’ve never understood it.   My life has never felt particularly fragmented, and I don’t think it’s because I’m some superior intellectual being.

The idea of being fragmented seems incoherent to me.

I have somewhat the same problem with the term “alienation,” meaning to not like your job, or feel like you’d rather be anywhere else.  I do in fact experience those last two things, but they don’t seem like some cosmic state so much as an ordinary part of life. 

Of course sometimes we hate our jobs, and sometimes we need to do things to eat that we’d rather not do.  Welcome to reality.

But very soon after the proto-hippies leaping through the Swiss air to express their solidarity with nature, or whatever the hell, we get to the period between the two world wars, and there to the idea that Art would be a substitute for religion.

Some of you are about to point out that Matthew Arnold tried this on decades before Verdun, but Arnold’s idea of substituting Art for God was considerably more organized than what happened with Isadora Duncan, the Dadists,  Bernard Shaw and the rest of them.

This is art should substitute for religion by being an experience.  We will become “whole” through self-expression.  We will find Joy and Meaning and Wholeness (always Wholeness) and I don’t know what else.

You get a lot of the same kind of language in the work of people like John Dewey and other luminaries of the early “religious humanist” movement. 

Hell, you get a lot of the same kind of language now, whenever one of the New Atheists or The American Humanist Association or the Secular Humanism people puts out a statement about how to live without religion.

Joy! Wonder! Creativity! Awe! Sometimes it’s feeling part of the fullness of the natural world.

I never have any idea what any of this stuff means, or even what it is supposed to mean. 

If people tell me they have personally experienced something, I will usually give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling me the truth, or at least what they perceive as the truth.

But this sort of language connects to nothing I understand. 

Add to that this insistance of this writer on the importance of art people at large during this period–the insistance that interpretive dance, Expressionist art,  avant garde literature and all the rest of it profoundly changed the way everybody thought and felt, and I’m just left speechless.

In the first place, I don’t believe that there was ever a time when the ordinary run of people was taking its identity or philosophy from avant garde anything.

While intellectuals were installing urinals in museum shows and railing against the alienation of capitalist rationalism, ordinary people were spending their time in the movies. 

If they were using art to try to construct new identities at all, they were basing them on The Perils of Pauline, not the logical impracticalities of Djuna Barnes.

I don’t think art functions this way, for anybody, and I don’t think it ever has.

Whoever it was–Louis B. Mayer?  Sam Goldwyn?–was on to something when he said that if you want to send a message, you should call Western Union.

Certainly art of all kinds sends messages, whether we want it to or not, but it almost never sends them effectively when it’s being done on purpose.

We learn things from novels and plays and movies and television and music and poetry, but almost never the billboarded intention even if there is one.

I become aware every once in a while that this kind of thinking about art is still alive in certain places and among certain people.  There are a number of art groups and individuals out there who “use dance to express…” whatever.

I have never understood what such people think they’re going to accomplish, because staging an interpretive dance about racism in Harlem is likely to attract mostly the population of Morningside Heights. The actualy Harlem people will all be off somewhere listening to hip-hop.

Maybe it’s that I think that what these people are trying to express is inherently false–that life is not what they want it to be, and that on some level they know it.

I feel the same way when humanist groups start going on about Wonder and Awe and Joy and…whatever.

The words are coming out of their mouths, but they don’t seem to connect to anything that actually exists in reality.  They’re sounds without meaning, fill-in words meant to pretend to content but not actually to have it.

I end up wondering why people feel the need to talk like this, what it is that they perceive that I don’t.

Because, really, my idea of the Meaning of Life is a Monty Python movie.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2014 at 7:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cosmos, Joke Sites, and the Things that Make Us Vulnerable to…Crap

with 7 comments

So, here’s the thing.

I actually tried to check out that story before I posted it yesterday–the one on Creationists in Oklahoma responding to the airing of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.

I checked it out on Snopes.com, which had nothing on it.  And I found the same story a couple of other places. 

In the end, though, I bought it for the reason most of us buy hoaxes–because it sounded completely plausible to me, and because I’d been expecting something like it since the show first began to air.

On the other hand, I really should have known better.

Unlike a lot of the other people on the net who have the vapors over Creationism, I’ve read a lot of actual Creationist material. 

And what should have made it screamingly obvious that this story was false was—the spelling.

So let me backtrack a bit here and see if I can work this out.

1) The most important factor in my falling for it was the fact that I was expecting something like it, and the something like it had not been showing up.

Let me start by saying that I like the new Cosmos series quite a bit, even though it’s pitched to a child’s intellectual and instructional level, which sometimes makes me a little nuts.

But the series is both clear and engaging, and its quirks–some of the emphases (see Giordano Bruno, who gets LONG stretches in episode 2) are a little off-kilter.  But by and large, a good introduction to the history of science, at least so far.

It is also uncompromisingly secular, and uncompromisingly critical of the role of religion in retarding the progress of science over the centuries.

It is not, however, inaccurate about the role of religion in the progress of science–it acknowledges the places where the Church actually aided the progress of science and it manages to at least mention the fact that Galileo’s problems were largely the result of his political activities rather than his science.

In spite of all that, I have been suspecting, for some time, that there would be complaints.

This isn’t a New Atheist diatribe, but it is, as I said, steadfastly secular.  It doesn’t pull its punches on things like evolution and the age of the universe.  It doesn’t say that everybody’s “way of knowing” is just as good as anybody else’s.  In fact, it’s quite clear on the idea that some “ways of knowing” are a LOT better than others.

So I was, as I said, expecting some blowback, and when I saw this thing, my brain went:  ah, finally.

But I still should have known better, because there’s a big giveaway here that anybody who has ever read Creationist literature should pick up right away.

Which gets me to

2) I know people who really are like this.  I have them in my family.  They roam the landscape like addled lemmings just asking to be an example of evolution in action.


What these people are not is part of the organized Creationist movement.

Anybody who has spent any time reading Creationist literature, or who has gone to Ken Ham’s Creationist Museum, or has even looked into the writing of people in the Christian school and homeschool movements will notice one thing right away.

These people spell better than the rest of us, and their grammar tends to also be much more strictly correct.

That’s because the curricula for Christian schools and homeschools put a lot of emphasis on basics like grammar, punctuation and spelling. 

Even when the ideas are migraine-inducing, the presentation tends to be very good indeed. 

If Creationists actually spoke and wrote as the people in that article did, they’d have no credibility beyond their very small circle. 

Instead, these people do have credibility with a lot of their fellow citizens who don’t actually know much about science, but see there is a controversy and try to be fair to both sides. 

In fact, to the extent that Creationism has had any success at all in this country, it is due not to true Bible believing Christians who want their point of view represented in public schools, but on the non believers around them who read their material, see that it’s well put together, and decide that the fair thing to do is to represent all sides instead of just one.

And yes, of course, I know that this is not the kind of case where the “fairness” approach makes any sense, but we are never going to get out from under the fact that the fairness approach is deeply and probably ineradicably American. 

And in spite of cases like this, where it shouldn’t really apply, that’s not a bad trait for a people to have.

3) My falling for this reminds me of something I’ve brought up on this blog before–the tendency of major news outlets and university administrations to fall for fake “hate crimes.”

If you take some time and look around on the web, you’ll find that there have been a remarkable number of these things over time, starting with the Brawley case and coming right on down to just about now, with students caught red-handed spraying racist grafitti on their own dorm room doors and sending themselves racist or rapist e mails.

The one that’s stuck with me over the years had to do with a university professor in, I think, Wisconsin, who faked a redneck pick-up truck stalking incident in the days after he’d published an anti-religious letter to the editor in the local paper.

I don’t know what these poeple think is going on, but my first advice to any of them would be to note that the police are a lot smarter than hoaxers ever think they are.

But the bottom line is that we all think we know how the world works, and we’re all subject to confirmation bias in all its myriad forms. 

That’s why we all find ourselves believing things we want to be true.

4) I was asked, in e mail, whether, when I said I wanted local communities to make their own decisions about the curriula in their local schools, I’d include local communities like the one invented in this article.

And my answer, as always, is yes.

Self government does not promise that people will always make the wise choice, or the best choice, or even the choice most in line with reality.

It only says that self government is the great moral obligation we owe to our fellow men and women.

I’ve got to go work out things with student papers.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2014 at 8:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And The Stupid Goes On

with 5 comments

And then there’s this


because the issue is not which side is bringing the stupid, but the attempts by the stupid to shut other people up.


Written by janeh

April 13th, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Risk Management

with 6 comments

So, it’s Sunday, and up until a little while ago I had Gustav Leonhardt playing Well Tempered Clavier 2 behind me.  I have that on a two disc set and the first disc is finished, but I can’t seem to get myself out of the office and over to the CD player to change out. 

It’s a clammy, half-rainy morning and there is no wildlife outside my office windows.  I’ve got a chicken for Sunday dinner and I’m about a third of the way through watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the FOD. 

That’s the kind of thing I do in the late afternoons when I’m too tired to write intelligbly or even read intelligibly.  I admit I tend to take about three months to get through a series of any length, and sometimes I just get sick of it and stop.

This afternoon I am unlikely to have any time for Star Trek, and I’m equally unlikely to have any time for the book I’m reading, which is a study of how philosophers and others have responded over the decades to the idea of the death of God. 

That sound absolutely awful, I know, but it’s actually very interesting, and I’ve even started to develop theories about the entire phenomenon.  Maybe I’ll get to it in a later post.

It’s the Sunday dinner thing that’s on my mind this morning.

Sunday dinner was not a ritual in the family in which I was brought up.  We were definitely the kind of family that had dinner together or quasi-together every night–quasi-together because my father was the kind of attorney who worked 80 hour weeks, so that he was often not at home and dinner was attended by my brother, my mother and myself.

Sometimes my mother would get sick of it and just set the two of us children up in front of the television set with television trays, so we were sometimes harbingers of a future not yet in sight.

Sunday dinner became important to me after Bill died, because it ended up being the way I convinced myself that Matt and Greg and I were going to remain a family in spite of our fourth part no longer being with us.

In the early years, this was, for me, a very frantic thing.  It was not just a matter of grief, although I had plenty of that.  It wasn’t even a matter of the fallout from one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life:  having my mother come to stay with me after the funeral.

You have to understand that it wasn’t just a matter of my mother and I not getting along–saying we didn’t get along is a whale of an understatement.  The woman hated me, and told me about it, starting when I was about 5 years old, although she would never have put it in exactly those words.

Let’s just say I was an enormous disappointment to her, not at all the kind of daughter she wanted, and far too much like the girls she hated all through school and later.  She wanted a frilly girly girl who liked dolls and clothes and celebrity gossip.  She got a passionate bluestocking who wanted books and a PhD.

I knew about PhDs early.  I read a children’s biography of Marie Curie and never looked back.

Of course, I never would have read that biography on my own.  By the time I was in 4th grade, I was adamantly opposed to reading “children’s books” of any kind.  The entire idea of “children’s books” seemed to me to be an insult–the adults were telling me I was too stupid to read real books.

I read the Marie Curie biography because my teacher insisted that I use it for a book report.   She was adamantly opposed to all the books I suggested, some of which–like Anna Karenina–were a little above my comprehension level.

My original idea, after Bill died, was that my mother should come and stay with me for a year.  I think I was afraid of being alone, of the silence in the house where Bill used to be, even when he was out.

Whatever I was thinking didn’t matter all that much, I suppose, beyond the fact that it really was a very bad idea.  I had forgotten how much acrimony there was between us, and how fast it all went bad when it started to go bad.

She ended up staying until Christmas, when my father came up from Florida to visit.  She went back with him.  And I was relieved.

Relieved or not, though, I was back in the same place I had been when Bill was first dead, and that was stuck in a situation that felt as if it had no coherence at all. 

Genesis says that before the creation, the world was without form and void–and that was my life in those early months.  Oddly enough, all the fighting my mother and I had done had actually helped keep the void at bay.  Now it was here, and I couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do with it.

What I ended up doing about it was Sunday dinner.  Every week I would go to work cooking something elaborate that we would all sit down and eat together.

I like to cook, and always have, but these weren’t that kind of elaborate dinners.  I had two small children in the house, and their tastes ran to double quarter pounders with cheese.

During that exact period of time for no reason I know of, the local IGA ran sales on turkey breasts nearly every week, and nearly every week I’d buy one and make rice pilaf and corn and have cranberry sauce. 

Turkey is not so much a holiday-only food as it was in my childhood, but it still felt as if I were doing something Very Special, and the predictable Very Specialness of it calmed me down.

Calming myself down was the thing I needed most. If I didn’t do that, I couldn’t function.

What interests me at the moment, though, is that I still have the need to do Sunday dinner each and every Sunday.

We’re no longer coming apart.  We have demonstrated that we will be together and a family as long as we live.  My life may still smash up and come to nothing on a lot of different levels, but the family level is not going to be one of them.  We survived, intact, as Us.

But here, you see, is the obvious question–if we have survied, intact, as Us, why is the whole Sunday dinner thing such a compelling drive in me, every week, without fail?

Why am I upset and off balance for days afterward if we don’t do it?  If there’s something else we have to do on Sunday, I stage Sunday dinner on Monday.  If I can’t do even that for some reason, I’m in a bad mood until Sunday comes around again.

And nothing else, no matter what happens, makes me feel better about it.

I am always very aware that the way I am feeling makes no sense–but there it is, and it won’t go away.

Today, I am enormously calmer than I would be otherwise because I know that, barring some catastrophe, the chicken goes in the oven at three and the vegetables for the pilaf get chopped into pieces at 5:45.

Maybe my children have a point, and I’m crazy.

Written by janeh

April 13th, 2014 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tyranny for Art’s Sake

with 7 comments

I’ve been looking at the comments from yesterday, and I find them very interesting.  I seem to have confused two different attempts at railroad building in 19th Century America.  I’ll try to be more careful as I go on. 

But the really interesting thing is the statement that “absolute property rights” would have resulted in there being no Paganini.

In the first place, it’s important to note that I said NOTHING about “absolute property rights.”

In fact, most of what I was talking about had nothing to do with property rights at all, unless you’re using the Lockean formulation that the origin of property rights is that every man owns first and foremost himself.

It’s not that I don’t think that property rights are important.  They are very important, and they are more important for the poor and disenfranchised than they could ever be to the rich and powerful.

Running on about “absolute property rights” is a straw man argument.  No one denies that there are times and circumstances when  there needs to be a public project for the long term advantage of the country or the city or the county or the town–the building of dams, the building of roads, all kinds of things.

The trick is to frame the policy of what we now call “eminent domain” to make sure that the use of it is a) restricted to absolute necessity and b) restricted to actually public projects and c) not available for use by the government to deprive some people of their property in order to enrich other private parties.

In other words, I think the Interstate highway system is defensible.  I think the Kelo decision is not.  Kelo, by the way, is a great example of why property rights should be closer to absolute than they now are.  And you’ll notice that the majority decision that gave New London the right to through Kelo et al out of their homes was a result of the legal philosophies of the justices that call themselves liberals.  The conservatives were all on the side of the homeowner.

But on top of that, none of what I said even implies that civilization COULD NOT advance without the use of coercion.  I don’t think it’s possible to know.

I DO think, however, that if the only way we could get Paganini would be to make people suffer through slavery and oppression, then I’d be happy to give up Paganini.  That’s no choice at all.  I am not George Steiner.  Art, no matter how great, is no excuse for millions of people living in misery.

There is nothing to say that civilization would not have developed anyway, although more slowly.  And there is a lot to say that every country that has increased properity and comfort for the majority of its citizens has done so through respect their individual natural rights as human beings.

Democracy may or may not produce great art–personally, I think it can do that, too, Steiner notwithstanding–but what it definitely does do is give us “relative” poverty instead of the absolute kind, so that conservatives can be driven crazy by poor people with cell phones and air conditioning and plasma TVs, and liberals can insist that none of that matters because you can have all that and be poor anyway.

What I was actually talking about, though, was not the property problem, but something else:  the extent to which the state should be allowed to interfere in the private decisions of private people about their private lives.

The democratic revolution–English version–says that each human being is an end to himself and may not be used as the means to the ends of others.  It says that government power must be tightly restricted in order to make interference in such things as rare as possible, and even then only when there is an overwhelming need to get a job done.

There is no question that sometimes, such overwhelming need actually exists.  The institution of laws forbidding dumping human waste in the streets of growing cities was definitely one of them. 

And sometimes such laws are legitimate in some places but not in others–that NYC requires its citizens to have professional garbage service makes sense; in a small rural town with only a couple of thousand people, letting people make their own arrangements (even taking their own garbage to the dump by themselves) also makes sense.

 The issue is to what extent must governments treat their citizens AS citizens and AS human beings, rather than a fodder (cannon and otherwise) for “the public good.”

The problem begins with the very phrase meant to defend the practice:  who is the public? what constitutes their good? who gets to decide that? And the problem gets more acute when you look at the fact–and it is a fact–that most declarations of the public good have not been good for the public or even for the elite forces that imposed them.

Both left and right want to engage in cultural coercion. They see the wrong of it in some cases and not in others.

The left waxes indignant about such practices as forcing Native American children into boarding schools to be trained out of their own culture and into the white majority’s.  They reject–as “cultural imperialism” and virtually without condition–any suggestion that African American children should be trained out of their colloquial speech and customary cultural habits.

At the same time, they have no trouble with imposing mandatory national curricula on private as well as public schools, with an eye to ending fundamentalist Christian teaching against evolution.

In the meantime, the right will fight for the rights of fundamentalist Christians to raise their children their way (including teaching creationism), but often vigorously support imposing cultural mandates about things like Ebonics and teen aged sex.

The list of topics about which each side is convinced that allowing people to make their own decisions will bring on the apocalypse is very long, and each side, once in power, resorts to coercion first rather than last.

And that is, as I’ve pointed out, been the truth throughout history.

But it’s also the truth that it is only when governments began to retreat from that posture that we begin to see nations with near universal prosperity, nations where even poor people are richer than rich people have been throughout the centuries.

And it’s even more so the truth that all those projects for “the public good” MOST often brought no good to the public and lead to nothing but more efficient forms of oppression and pain for the vast majority of the populations they’d been foisted on.

The Mayans  didn’t produce a Paganini either.

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2014 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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