On The Unbearable Lightness Of David Brooks

Posted April 28, 2015 by Tom
Categories: bad writing, MSM nonsense, Village News

Tags: ,

I know I’ve been mostly absent, and will continue to be so.  (At least until this makes it through copy editing.)*

I know as well that there’s too much to be talked about to waste much time on the utterly predictable.

And I also know that what I’m about to point out is far less an indictment than, say, today’s column should earn.  I do plan to take a whack at that one sometime soon, unless, as I hope, Charles Pierce eviscerates, and I can just crib.

So this is just a bit of nastiness on my part, some pissed-off snark, on confronting the “look inside” excerpt now available for the divine’ BoBo’s new hacktacular, The Road to Character.  As a matter of substance, I’ll just say that I agree with Driftglass, (via the above-referenced Mr. Pierce), that for David Brooks, such an avenue remains the road not taken.

John_Constable_013

But as a matter of pure spite, let me just say that nothing I’ve read of Mr. Brooks’ new minimum opus changes my core opinion.  He’s got a gift for glib writing, the prose analogue to your easy-listening adult classics.  But in any attempt to sustain prose over the long haul…the cracks show.

Exhibit A.  The first two sentences of work:

“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.”

I’m sorry, but what tin ear, what grudge against English prosody, allowed these clunkers to pass? That’s the barker at the door, the first words one encounters while deciding whether to commit precious hours of one’s life into David Brooks’ care!  Such blunt repetition, the rhythmic fail of the second sentence, the parody of explanation — “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé” — forsooth!  I never would have guessed!  Even if Brooks didn’t mind such clumsiness, where in the name of all that’s pasta was his editor?

Trivial, I know, and I’m hardly a without prose sins of my own to regret.  But as I read reviews that praise Brooks depth or countercultural mastery, it’s worth remembering passages like this one.  Brooks is not a great writer, and the reason isn’t that he can’t manipulate words well when he pays attention.  He clearly can.  Rather, it’s that such hack writing hints at the hack thinker putting cursor to phosphor.  Expressing bad thoughts clearly exposes their flaws…which can and hence must be elided in a fog of mediocre prose.  As here you see.

Bonus reading, which has the added benefit of showing what happens when villagers (even genuinely capable ones) review fellow villagers.  See, for example, Pico Iyer in last Sunday’s New York Times book review:

For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).

Umm. Iyer sees in that “Philosophy is likely to be…” a stunning epiphany, a sentence that puts mere piety to shame.  I see a nearly content-free assertion that undercuts itself by word three.  Seasoned Brooks’ readers will recognize the gambit:  in order to justify one of his famous and very often risible claimed dichotomies (resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues) he must impose his judgment on possible contradicting authorities.  Here, philosphy is drained of potency as it fights on the dubious ground of half-truths.  And just in case anyone calls him on it — this magisteral dictum is only “likely” — thus granting Brooks his ex cathdra authority while insulating him, just a bit, from any instance of reality failing to acknowledge his infallibility.

In other words:  this is pure Brooks, a seemingly epigrammatic heap of nonsense, structured to give him both the appearance of gnomic wisdom and plausible deniability.  And this his exceptionally friendly critic sees as masterful.

We need a new culture.

*I can make one prediction with a fair degree of confidence.  Shameless self-promotion to come much closer to the day.

Image:   John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1820-1821.

Posted April 16, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Conservatives, Sex, Stupidity, The Way We Live Now

Tags: , ,

 

Figure_skating_beesWhen a non-crazy parent — Alice Dreger — sits in on her son’s sex-ed class, taught by someone who thinks sex is, well…

Read it and weep.  A taste:

The lesson Jerry wanted to impart? This: “You’ll find a good girl. If you find one who says ‘no,’ that’s the one you want.”

He actually said that. If a girl says no, “that’s the one you want.”

Silly me! I have been teaching my son that if a girl says no, you exit politely and get the hell out of her space.

Oh hell, one more morsel:

Ms. Thomas’s dire warnings continued: “It takes only one sperm to fertilize an egg. It takes only one act of sex to get pregnant.”

I wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “Not if it’s anal or oral!”

Tizian_011

You get the drift.  Dreger’s twitter feed for the last day or so is a hoot and a half too…or would be if it weren’t so damn depressing.

Dreger’s problem — or the East Lansing High School’s — is that the school has contracted at least part of its sex ed curriculum to the usual suspects:

The abstinence class is part of the district’s overall sex education unit. According to Fletcher, it is called SMART for Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens. It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

Lori Bolan, the administrator of SMART, said East Lansing has been using the program for 22 years to cover abstinence. She said it is fact-based using Centers for Disease Control statistics.

“We are trying to give them an option,” she said. “We’re just one portion of what the school provides.”

And yet, inevitably:

Bolan declined to provide the PowerPoint used in the class and the instructor’s name

This last report is from the local paper, which also seems to think the problem isn’t the crap material, but Dreger’s impertinence in giving it a public ridiculing, writing that her choice to live tweet was a shonde:

unfortunately for East Lansing schools, she found a spot with wifi.

In the end, this is yet anothe example of the perils of privatization.  “Independent contracting” of sex-ed to anti-sex, anti women’s autonomy pressure groups is analagous to handing a donor a badge and a gun, or turning convicted criminals into product for processing in private prisons…and so on.  Public goods — an accurately educated school population; professionally policed streets; socially agreed and imposed punishment and rehabilitation are not “luxuries” to be doled out to high bidders or motivated donors.

Or rather they are, but not in civilized societies.

Images:  Photo of bee figure skaters (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) via bugeater.

Titian, Danaë with Eros, 1544.

The War At Home

Posted April 10, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Cops, The Way We Live Now

Tags:

Via Vox, this information and chart on death-by-cop:

A huge majority of the more than 5,600 deaths on the map are from gunshots, which is hardly surprising given that guns are so deadly compared to other tools used by police. There are also a lot of noticeable fatalities from vehicle crashes, stun guns, and asphyxiations. In some cases, people died from stab wounds, medical emergencies, and what’s called “suicide by cop,” when someone commits suicide by baiting a police officer into using deadly force.

Massacre of the innocents

It’s important to note that thte 5,600 number is an estimate, and a lower bound at that:

D. Brian Burghart, head of Fatal Encounters, estimates that his organization’s collection of reports from the public, media, and FBI only captures about 35 percent of total police killings.

That’s a terribly…useful information gap:

This means that it’s hard to gauge, based on this incomplete data set alone, whether these types of killings are becoming more common.

How wonderfully obscure.

Still the data that do exist speak volumes.  Here’s one way to get a sense of the scale of the violence.  In the same period (actually, 2001- April, 2015) US deaths-in-action in Iraq and Afghanistan total 5374.  Saddam and his army, the Taliban, ISIL and all the rest have killed, at a minimum, ~two hundred fewer Americans than our domestic police.

Make of that what you will.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1605-1610.

Appomattox Day

Posted April 9, 2015 by Tom
Categories: The Way We Lived Then

Tags: , ,

On which that genteel butcher Bobby Lee, surrendered the treasonous Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant+Lee

Grant’s terms have generally been regarded as generous, to the point that the military leaders of the rebellion were spared the threat of criminal trials for the actions in defiance of properly constituted Federal authority.  Looking forward, not back, is no new trope in American politics.

In any event, my view of the Civil War echoes Sherman’s:  “secession was treason, was war…”

Apologists for the Lost Cause trump up the usual counters — I’ve just been batting this around with a wistful mythologist on Twitter.  The battle wasn’t for slavery, but state’s rights; the men under arms weren’t traitors — they were just soldiers fighting other men’s battles, or for a misguided but sort-of reasonable goal; and so on.

It is vital, I believe to push back on that nonesense.  That’s not how those at the time saw it, not when it got down to the nub.  Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was a slave holder’s army, and the documents with which the makers of the Confederacy declared their cause made the reason for secession clear.  State’s rights were the means to the real end:  the permanent power to hold other human beings as property:

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

That is: only reason secession occurred is because the South finally lost an election.

It is in that context that April 9 is a great day.  Certainly, too much was left undone.  Too much remains undone.  But at Appomattox, the traitor Robert E. Lee’s surrender enshrined at least the possibility that Federal authority could remedy grievous wrong.  And that’s cause for remembrance of a great hope kindled, and of the too-long wait, still ongoing, for its fulfillment —  what Abraham Lincoln saw as the course forward from the moment of surrender:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy Appomattox Day, everyone.

Image: Montage of these two photographs:

32. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent, Cold Harbor, Va., June 1864. 111-B-36.

145. Lee, Gen. Robert E.; full-length, standing, April 1865. Photographed by Mathew B. Brady. 111-B-1564.

Life Without Parole

Posted April 8, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Crime, Things that actually matter

Tags: , , ,

So. Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all thirty counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing and (closer still to home), the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier.

Good.

Now for sentencing, in which the grotesquely termed “Death Qualified Jury”™ will decide between execution and life without parole.

Like an overwhelming majority of my Boston neighbors, I am opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in all cases.  Three reasons:

1.  Error or malice.  It is hardly news to anyone reading this that police and prosecutors f**k up.  Death at the hands of the state not only renders those errors permanently uncorrectable.  As a citizen in whose name the state kills, I can’t accept that moral burden.

CaravaggioSalomeLondon

That some cases, like Tsarnaev’s, are open and shut doesn’t alter the moral and practical force of the argument above, I think. The moment you introduce discretion into death penalty jurisprudence, you re-open the opportunity for error or malice to kick in..  If the standard is overwhelming obviousness, then who decides; who processes the evidence in support of that definition, and so on.  The only way to be certain you’re not killing innocents is not to kill anyone under the cover of state-imposed penalties.

If that makes me soft, so be it.

2.  Soft or not, I’m vengeful, too.   To my mind, LWOP is a fate worse than death.  Because I do not believe in an afterlife, the only punishments that matter, like the only rewards, are those we receive in this life.  Fifty years in a maximum or super-max prison is, to me, a much more thorough and exemplary penalty than oblivion.

3.  I’m practical.  See reason one.  Cops and government lawyers f**k up.  We kill their errors and the urgency of addressing particular patterns of incompetence, indifference, and outright viciousness diminishes.  Patterns of bad behavior and unjust outcomes become much harder to discern.  Any hope, slim as it may be, of creating a better, more justice-driven law-enforcement system, evaporates when the living reasons to address current injustices disappear.  If we want to make things better, we need not to kill the people whom the system failed.  Simple as that.

One more thing:  I’m not non-violent.  But I’m anti-violence.  The fact that we (in theory) surrender to the state a monopoly on violence means that we need to hedge that power around with a mighty wall.  Not killing those in our power, even the most evil, is part of that wall.  Whether the more pragmatic arguments above carry greater weight some days than others, at bottom there is a moral imperative that I can’t find a way to avoid:  when we, or I, don’t need to kill, choosing to do so anyway is wrong.

Me being me, I could go on, but that there’s the gist.

What do y’all think?

Image:  Caravaggio, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, before 1610.

So You Want To Win A Nobel Prize…

Posted April 7, 2015 by Tom
Categories: geek humor, Science

Tags: ,

Excellent advice from one who has.

Rule number two in this list of ten commandments goes beyond the needed snark (and the first principle, which might be called the Tao of science: the only way to achieve Nobelity is not to strive for it).

Los_borrachos_o_el_triunfo_de_Baco_1629_Velázquez

This second principle actually says something dead on point on where discovery happens, in an argument that I think bears on much beyond science itself.  It requires that the prize-aspirant should “hope that your experiments fail occasionally.”  Why?

Because:

There are usually two main reasons why experiments fail. Very often, it is because you screwed up in the design by not thinking hard enough about it ahead of time. Perhaps more often, it is because you were not careful enough in mixing the reagents (I always ask students if they spat in the tube or, more recently, were texting when they were labeling their tubes). Sometimes, you are not careful enough in performing the analytics (did you put the thermometer in upside down, as I once witnessed from a medical student whose name now appears on my list of doctors who I won’t allow to teat me even if I’m dying?). These problems are the easiest to deal with by always taking great care in designing and executing experiments. If they still fail, then do them over again! But the more interesting reason that experiments fail is because nature is trying to tell you that the axioms on which you based the experiment are wrong. This means the dogma in the field is wrong (often the case with dogma). If you are lucky, as I was, then the dogma will be seriously wrong, and you can design more experiments to find out why. If you are really lucky, then you will stumble onto something big enough to be prizeworthy.

And with that, a chance to think about non-stupid things for a while.  Open thread, y’all

Image:  Diego Velasquez, The Drunkards, or the Triumph of Bacchus1629.

As The WarCons Reunite, Let Us Trip Down Memory Lane

Posted April 7, 2015 by Tom
Categories: bad ideas, Iraq, Republican follies, War, Who thought that was a good idea?

Tags: , ,

Twelve years ago today, Donald Rumsfeld composed this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.37.26 AM

(h/t Rob Golan-Vilella)

As the entire Republican party brays for war in Syria, Iran, Ukraine, wherever next…remember:  their reunion tour will make us long for Nickleback.

That bad.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,249 other followers