Archive for February 2012

Because, Why Not?

February 23, 2012

I came across this short film today, and found myself really enjoying the puppet work.  So, being of generous spirit, I share:

Guilherme Marcondes directed and co-wrote the film; his is work I’ve just been introduced, and he’s now one of those on whom I plan to keep tabs.

As a bonus — here’s a test vid he did as part of a pitch for an ad contact.  Sums up the sentiment here some days:

And with that: top of the afternoon, all.

In Nomine Patri, Fili, et Spiritus…Ronaldus Reaganus?

February 22, 2012

From the story on suggested names for the latest GOP attempt to redefine personhood to exclude members of the female gender, we learn, first, that Rep. Hank Johnston, D-Ga, has a sense of humor:

The legislation (H.R. 3541), sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), was originally entitled the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Non-discrimination Act of 2011.”

Offended at the use of the names of two civil rights heroes, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) offered his own titles for the bill: “The Ronald Reagan Impose Your Beliefs on a Woman’s Womb Act” and “The Tea Party Determines What Rights a Woman Has Act.” (h/t Southern Beale)

We then discover that, hush my mouth, the GOP has something of a divinity problem.  I always thought that their monotheism might extend only as far as three godheads, but I appear to be mistaken:

Johnson’s statements drew ire from Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).  “The gentleman has just more or less taken Ronald Reagan’s name in vain…”

Oh! Reagan dammit!  I stubbed my toe.

Oh! for Reagan’s sake!  Santorum just surged again.

Oh! Reagan, Ron Jr., and Nancy!  I can’t believe our republic has descended to these depths.

Just as that earlier Republic revealed itself as a mere facade once the Caesars gained divinity on death, ours may be in even deeper trouble than we thought.

Yup, your modern GOP has indeedt lost its mind.

Image: Giovanni Paolo Panini, An architectural capriccio with figures among Roman ruins, before 1765.

Yup. Maxwell Perkins Is Still Seriously Dead (Or, Let Me Help You Procrastinate On Your Book Project)

February 21, 2012

How have I missed these guys all this time?

Also too:  this vid puts me in mind of an old Journal of Irreproducible Results paper on the natural history and psychology of editors.  The one unifying characteristic:  all of them as children, had been whacked by a book. ;)

You may consider this a completely GOP genital-invasion gift to the blogosphere.*

*Though, on reflection, one may catch a whiff of big-swingingness in the sketch above.  Ah well.  One can run; one can’t hide.

All The World’s A Stage, But It Ain’t No Sitcom Out There

February 20, 2012

This is outsourced almost entirely to Wallace Shawn, who is one of those exceptionally intimidating talents who seem capable of making art and engaging ideas in almost any way he chooses.

He’s got a new book out, (that would be a new book in 2009; yes I’m that slow) which I’m about to buy, titled, simply, EssaysCommenter Arundel pointed me to this selection from that work, (an addition to the paperback) a piece published in 2011,  titled “Are You Smarter than Thomas Jefferson.”

It’s a genuinely wonderful example of essay-form, a direct descendent from the ur-specimen we credit to Montaigne.  Shawn puts on a masterly display, demonstrating  just how much power derives from the concentration of a sharply individual point of view on experience and ideas — which is the essence of the personal essay.

In this case, it’s the gaze of a man of the theater that leads us into a sequence of images and thoughts that land at a devastating moment of moral vision.Beyond the story it tells in it’s own frame, the piece captures for me some large part of why our current politics leaves me so full of dread and sorrow.

And with that, let me turn over the podium to Mr. Shawn, adding only that there’s more and better (for not being chopped and excerpted to avoid the charge of simply stealing the piece):

I’ve sometimes noted that many people in my generation, born during World War II, are obsessed, as I am, by the image of the trains arriving at the railroad station at Auschwitz and the way that the S.S. officers who greeted the trains would perform on the spot what was called a “selection,” choosing a few of those getting off of each train to be slave laborers, who would get to live for as long as they were needed, while everyone else would be sent to the gas chambers almost immediately. And just as inexorable as were these “selections” are the determinations made by the global market when babies are born. The global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them.

If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label “factory worker” and thrown down into a certain particular pit. And when the moment comes when one of the babies is fully prepared and old enough to work, she’ll crawl out of the pit, and she’ll find herself standing at the gate of a factory in India or in China or in Mexico, and she’ll stand at her workstation for 16 hours a day, she’ll sleep in the factory’s dormitory, she won’t be allowed to speak to her fellow workers, she’ll have to ask for permission to go the bathroom, she’ll be subjected to the sexual whims of her boss, and she’ll be breathing fumes day and night that will make her ill and lead to her death at an early age. And when she has died, one will be able to say about her that she worked, like a nurse, not to benefit herself, but to benefit others. Except that a nurse works to benefit the sick, while the factory worker will have worked to benefit the owners of her factory….

Even those of us who were selected out from the general group have our role and our costume. I happen to play a semi-prosperous fortunate bohemian, not doing too badly, nor too magnificently. And as I walk out onto the street on a sunny day, dressed in my fortunate bohemian costume, I pass, for example, the burly cop on the beat, I pass the weedy professor in his rumpled jacket, distractedly ruminating as he shambles along, I see couples in elegant suits briskly rushing to their meetings, I see the art student and the law student, and in the background, sometimes looming up as they come a bit closer, those not particularly selected out — the drug-store cashier in her oddly matched pink shirt and green slacks, the wacky street hustler with his crazy dialect and his crazy gestures, the wisecracking truck drivers with their round bellies and leering grins, the grim-faced domestic worker who’s slipped out from her employer’s house and now races into a shop to do an errand, and I see nothing, I think nothing, I have no reaction to what I’m seeing, because I believe it all.

I simply believe it. I believe the costumes. I believe the characters. And then for one instant, as the woman runs into the shop, I suddenly see what’s happening, the way a drowning man might have one last vivid glimpse of the glittering shore, and I feel like screaming out, “Stop! Stop! This isn’t real! It’s all a fantasy! It’s all a play! The people in these costumes are not what you think! The accents are fake, the expressions are fake — Don’t you see? It’s all –”

One instant — and then it’s gone. My mind goes blank for a moment, and then I’m back to where I was…

As I said, there’s more, presented as Shawn intended.  Go read the whole thing.

Image:  Pieter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents,  1611 or 1612.

David Brooks Is Always Wrong-Yeshiva Bocher edition

February 19, 2012

David Brooks is the plausible half of the Times’ con-op pair; Douthat, to be sneered at later, is the best known for not being as overtly, epically awful as William Kristol.  (Talk about the subtle bigotry of low expectations.)

Brooks’ trick, the one he’s mastered as his inferiors on the Right bloviating bench have not, is to present sentences that seem to imply great learning, whilst never falling into the temptation to make specific claims of fact that can be shown to be wrong.  It’s an important skill, and it fools lots of people who should know better.  Not so long ago, I was talking with a reporter from the Great Grey Lady herself — a good one, a real journalist covering a difficult beat and doing it well. Douthat, my interlocuter agreed, was an embarassment.  But Brooks.  Now there was someone, said my companion, who even if you disagreed with him, always managed to surprise you.

Well, I suppose, but not in a good way.

After I recovered from blowing bourbon though my nose, I put it to the room that the problem was that Brooks arrived not at unanticipated conclusions, but at pre-determined ones, to which he gave unmerited weight by grabbing the lustre of some intellectual antecedent or another whether or not that purported authority actually bore on the case at hand.

He does some variation on this gimmick over and over again.  It can be an appeal to anonymous “culture” — as in this catastrophe of a column — or it can be a more direct invocation of some exceptionally learned, and often obscure source.

So it is with Brooks now infamous  column on Jeremy Lin, basketball and Jewish Modern Orthodoxy.

Brooks of course has taken plenty of hits for his astonishing display of cluelessness about big time sports in general, basketball in particular, and the nature of the point guard position in fine detail. Charlie Pierce’s take down is vintage, but folks both here and many other places have had their way with the last-kid-picked-for-dodgeball poster child that is our David.  I agree with everything said in such pieces; it takes a willed choice to write so badly, so wrongly about something as broadly understood and loved as basketball.

But I think that all those snarktacular take downs stopped short.  Brooks is probably not as utterly dumb about this stuff as he appears to be in the first three quarters of the column; rather, as always with this sorry excuse for a public thinker, there’s a specific goal in mind.  You have to look carefully, because he tries to disguise the tell in such a way you won’t notice the bad faith that underlies what he presents as a self-evident conclusion.

So, in this column, the goal isn’t to make any kind of point about basketball, or the nature of sport, or even about what actually goes into superlative performance in any human endeavor.  The real end of Brooks’ barrage of high-toned word salad* comes late, almost buried in a gush of seemingly deeply pondered thought:

Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.

Translated: it’s OK for the bishops to meddle with your lady parts because they are really engaging the tragic tension between ambition and self-abnegation.  Don’t get angry, because, damn it, this moral balancing is hard.

Of course, had Brooks simply said that we should not resist the injection of one view of religious obligation into the discourse of civil society, it would have been much easier just to say what many have recently hammered home:  it’s not religious conscience that’s the problem; it’s the assertion of one person’s religious views (biases, delusions) at the expense of others’ ethical, moral, and or faith-derived perspectives.

So, what Brooks has to do here, slyly, is to assert a universal, inarguable property of moral thinking that could trump any picayune sectarian objection that, say, my interpretation of Jewish tradition would prohibit state-sponsored rape.  He does so with the rhetorical gimmick outlined above.  Lin, he tells us, is caught between his desire to excel as a basketball player, which Lin sees as self-glorifying, and the ability to direct the greater glory to the divine.  That tension, Brooks tells us, lies between “two moral universes” that are not reconciliable.

And here is where he rolls out his big gun, a suitably impressive sounding, but (outside certain circles) almost wholly unknown really smart guy:

Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures.

A couple of things to note here.  First, check out the very clever way in which Brooks appropriates to  himself the mantle of the wise man.  “Our best teacher,” he writes, to introduce Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is indeed a major figure in the construction of the Modern Orthodox view of Jewish life and faith.  The implication is clear.  Brooks himself has tilled these fields, has spent all the needed long hours in the study hall to master his Torah and his Talmud, the commentaries and the responsa — and from all this has distilled the labor of centuries to an essence captured by this one writer, hitherto utterly unknown to most of his readership.  It’s a lovely bit of sleight of hand: Soloveitchik’s asserted authority confers greater weight on Brooks himself in his role as the judge of the “best” source on matters of moral complexity.  How fortunate we are to have humble David as our guide!

The second feature to notice is that Brooks, in what appears to be his SOP, seems to hope that no one will actually go read the (outside Jewish Orthodox circles) reasonably obscure works he references.  You will note that links to the two essays Brooks singles out are strangely missing.  One might infer that such works — religious meditations by an orthodox Rabbi who died almost a decade ago (aeons in internet years!) could only be found in tattered volumes found in stacks to which most folks will never gain access.  Or one might wonder about the possibility of bad faith.

Bet on door number two.

Just to do what Mr. Brooks would not:  here’s the link (PDF) to “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and here’s one for “Majesty and Humility.

So what happens should you actually dive into that work?

Well — let’s look at what Brooks says he gets from his august teacher:

First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.In The Lonely Man of Faith and Majesty and Humility, he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the Earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

A couple of thing.  For one, it’s  “The Lonely Man…”  that engages the story of the two Adams. The other essay does draw a dichotomy based on two notions of the first man’s creation, but it draws on a rabbinical tradition to pick out two aspects of religious experience which Soloveitchik deploys to a distinct interpretative end — an astonishingly moving one when the essay shifts from a larger argument to an account of Soloveitchik’s search for some communion with the divine at the point of his wife’s death.

But really, all that’s trivial compared to the real sin Brooks commits here.  That would be — and I’m sure this comes as no surprise — that he simply gets it wrong.  What Brooks says about Soloveitchik’s teaching is not what can be found in the writing cited.  Look above:  Brooks claims that the  man of faith suffers loneliness because he must move between an active role building the world and the passive one of an observer humbled by the glory of God’s creation.  Here’s what the rabbi actually concludes:

Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the “foreign” language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by hinself. When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first—be he an outsider, be he himself. He returns, like Moses of old, to his solitary hiding and to the abode of loneliness. Yes, the loneliness of contemporary man of faith is of a special kind. He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma. This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man. (“The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 65)

So, to Soloveitchik, a person engaged in this world, Adam the First, is demonic (his word) in his quest to succeed.  Adam the Second is lonely, but not because he has a dual allegiance, not because he flits between a sense of work and success in this world and a contemplative life of prayer and surrender.  Rather, he suffers solitude — or embraces it — because the men and women of the world pay him insufficient heed.

That’s Soloveitchik’s view.  I think it suffers from a conclusion derived from assumptions not in evidence, but that’s not the point.  It is, rather, that Brooks distorts what his source plainly writes to bend that thinker’s ends to his own.  This is the most basic form of intellectual dishonesty, an attempt to bolster a bad argument by laying claim to the authority but not the actual sense of a mind greater than one’s own.  It is Brooks’ stock in trade.

And this takes us back to the end to which Brooks hoped to turn this bit of fakery.  Remember, we face an irreducible contradiction.  We must, he beseeches us, concede that the two goals of mastery — really authority over our own bodies, agency — and that of surrender, of devotion to something beyond ourselves are “irreconciliable” — which means we must at times defer to one side or the other.  And that, he says, is what those who object to religion’s intervening into politics don’t get, but should.

Which is to say — sometimes you have to let the bishops mess with your body, or your desire to have sexytime without intending to enjoy babytime.  That’s the price of living with the incompatibility of agency and surrender to established (moral) authority.

You can see why Brooks might not want to say that plain.

More simply:  Expressed clearly Brooks’ conclusion does not follow from his premise:  a this-world focus does not preclude a rich moral life, nor does it bar the recognition that life is tragic, that man (and woman) born of woman is bound to die.  Those who oppose the injection of particular religious views into politics are unable to see complexity in life?  Really?  In what corner of the multiverse?

And that’s why you get all the wind and the flapping of authorial buttocks in this piece: Soloveitchik is this week’s victim of David’s friendly fire, just a name to be propped up to obscure the fatuousness of the underlying argument.  No orthodox anything me, but the old Rabbi deserves better, and Brooks should, but won’t, be ashamed of himself.

I’ll give him this, though:  he’s good.  You do have to work to find the con in his work.  But it’s always there.

So, in conclusion, let me simply say to Mr. Brooks (having finally exhausted any last reserve of politesse)…

…F**k you.  With an oxidized farm implement.

*Think of Brooks as the rocket, goat cheese, and heirloom pear end of the spectrum of the baffle-with-bullshit crowd.

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Old Rabbi, 1642

Pedro Berruguete, Burning the Heretics (Auto da fé), c. 1500

Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante (Divine Comedy, Inferno, 8) ,1822.

Jacob Jordaens, Suzanna and the Elders, before 1678.

Program Notes (More Self-Aggrandizement)

February 15, 2012

For anyone interested in getting Higgsy with me, I’ll be talking with theoretical particle physicist Matt Strassler in just a couple of hours — at 5 p.m. EST.  As usual, it will be part of the Virtually Speaking Science strand of the Virtually Speaking empire — and you can listen live or as a podcast at Blog Talk Radio.*    For those of you whose virtual lives please you more than your real ones, you can take part in the fun as members of the live (ish) audience in Second Life.

Matt, as some of you may recall, is someone whose blog I’ve pointed to before; he’s only been operating Of Particular Significance for a few months, but it has rapidly become one of the handful of first places to go for really smart, high-level but intelligile news and explanation from the bleeding edge of particle physics.  Matt’s been working on the kinds of problems the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for many years now.  After a slightly rocky start, that accelerator has been performing brilliantly, with the result that we are in the midst of a very perplexing time.  We have tons of data, and tantalizing, elusive suggestions of results within that trove…

…among them, hints about what is called the Higgs particle, which is the name for the entitiy physicists believe that nature confers mass on much, though not all of what has mass in the universe.

Matt will tell you that the Higgs, often known by its wretched nickname, “the God particle,” is actually less important than something else, the Higgs field — which is a shorthand way of saying that what the elusive Higgs does is what counts — and we should not presume the search will take us to the point we think is most likely, until it does.

We’ll range over stuff like that, and some conversation about the role of instruments in driving what the instrument makers think, and even to some big questions about why people might care about such genuinely abstruse stuff — and how we might use that interest to do an end around of some more contentious debates in science as it enters the public sphere.

So come on down if you have a moment.  This should be one of those conversations that makes my head hurt, but in a good way.

*We will be getting our podcast going in iTunes shortly, BTW, and I’ll let y’all know as we do.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field With Crows, 1890.

 

How’s That Austerity Thing Working For You?

February 15, 2012

Just to remember how bad Republican notions that we should cut spending in the midst of a recession, this latest from the Eurozone:

The euro zone economy shrank slightly less than expected in the last three months of 2011, but five countries including Italy fell into recession as the sovereign debt crisis discouraged consumers from spending and businesses from investing. sovereign debt crisisdiscouraged consumers from spending and businesses from investing.

Growth in the 17 countries that make up the euro zone fell 0.3 percent, Eurostat, the European statistics agency said [PDF] Wednesday. But the pain was most acute among smaller countries and in southern Europe — ground zero of the debt crisis.

…“It could have been worse,” Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING Bank, said in a note to clients. The figures “clearly indicate that ‘core’ euro zone economies generally were less affected by the escalating debt crisis than peripheral economies, which seems to make sense given that the financial turmoil and austerity efforts are concentrated in the latter part of the region.” (Emphasis added.)

In case you were wondering whether even hobbled stimulus efforts matter, here’s the context with which Eurostat framed its update:

During the fourth quarter of 2011, GDP in the United States increased by 0.7% compared with the previous quarter (after +0.5% in the third quarter of 2011)…Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, GDP rose by 1.6% in the United States (after +1.5% in the previous quarter)…

There’s lots of specific issues hidden within the aggregate data, so it would be an error to overclaim.  But yeah, as far as the data do go, the real world is reiterating a verdict to be read over and over in the historical record.  Despite what the Republican presidential field will tell you, or Paul Ryan, or just about anyone in a leadership position over in GOP land, slashing demand in a recession is an astonishingly stupid thing to do.

Just ask these guys. Or these. Not to mention these. (Via KThug.)

Image:  Gong Kai ,Emaciated Horse, before 1307


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