Tuesday, June 10, 2008


In progress. I'm cleaning this up bit by bit. [At this point it's become much more then that] I made some good points, which were ignored of course. But I want to be clearer. This may take a while. It may get worse before it gets better.-

Neither Dawkins nor Dennett as far as I know have ever tried to answer questions concerning the purpose or function of religion. Arguing with the faithful is arguing with people over self-reported data. Imagine asking Dawkins why he bothers. Do you think he'd be willing or able to articulate the reasons? He wants to replace religion with something just as absurd: another fictional telos. He wants people to agree with him and he's angry when they don't. Why?

People whether educated or not live their lives in response to preexisting patterns and habits. Determinism rules most aspects of life, and probably I would say all of it, but that's not the subject here. It's enough to acknowledge that acts of discovery get shrouded inevitably in pomp and circumstance. A set of allegories and analogies is built around a set of facts and fact and fiction seem to function for a while in unison, until facts change and fiction doesn't. The discovery of antibiotics begets the ideology of antibiotics begets over-prescription, a habit which lingers long after it's understood to be counterproductive. A tool becomes a crutch becomes a weakness. This changes when we move from the sciences to social life but not in any way that makes things easier.

Affirmative action can be defended only as an unfair necessity: the government acting to the advantage of one group over another. Protectionist trade policies propped up native industries in China and India, The difference between the two is the difference between inter and intranational disputes. Protectionism worked for China and India. Affirmative action has worked to a degree but was brought about under law by tortured logic. It helped break the back of the old segregationist order but in a sense helped break the back of private life, ushering a modern public -economic- measure where there had once been diversity. It helped to destroy an independent black economy and culture.
In order to understand history (as much as it can be "understood") you have to imagine it as a participant and as an outsider. The French Revolution ushered in, or continued, or completed, the bourgeois revolution. Many of it's protagonists thought it had done or would do more. There was never a chance of that.

When does a necessity become an indulgence? And if the people who've called either affirmative action or protectionism an indulgence all along win the day after 50 years of arguing does that mean that they were right 50 years ago? Also: right as a matter of law or of morality?
There’s no right answer outside of context. You could say there's no answer outside of the facts, but the facts in the case of affirmative action and trade, unlike the case of penicillin are still inseparable from the stories that surround them. Antibiotics are an externality, we and our behavior and descriptions of ourselves are not. As the man says: "It ain't worth nuthin' until somebody wants it." And the Constitution isn't broken until the majority says so. We change by rationalizing change as a form of stasis. We analogize to create continuity.
If Barack Obama becomes the next president it will be because he appeared before most people as a man rather than a black man, He won the democratic primary running not only against the Clintons but against the black elite who were used to using their blackness as a label, and who gravitated towards their older white patrons and in Hillary Clinton's case towards someone who used a similar logic of gender based resentment.
Andrew Young: “Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He’s probably gone with more black women than Barack.”
You can argue against affirmative action but I doubt we'd be on the verge of electing a black president without it. Opponents of Affirmative action say, given his background, that Obama has not personally benefitted from it. But it's also true that they themselves have. Ward Connerly says Obama is qualified. But he should admit that Clarence Thomas wasn't.

Discuss judicial review as well.

I was talking to a friend of mine about his son, whom he coddles, reinforcing the kid’s insecurity. He told me he let him stay home from school today, missing a class trip the beach[!], because the kid said he was too stressed by the need to socialize. That annoyed me and it wasn’t until five minutes later that he corrected himself saying it was his wife who led his son stay home, and that he had disagreed. “Well, that changes everything” I said. His wife does the opposite of coddling. She’s fully capable of humiliating the kid in public. If she says it’s okay that’s a whole different issue, especially since he protested. There’s no right answer. The kid has to learn on his own. He can be helped but not taught. Reversing the good cop, bad cop roles even without intending to, keeps the kid thinking. He should have gone to the beach but there's no lost ground.

Science bores me. I appreciate its practical power but as philosophy it’s thin stuff. It’s either the philosophy of planes trains and automobiles, or it’s pure Platonism. I’ll take the medicine (maybe) but won't swallow the narrative.
“also boring: books”…
Books are interesting. The Alps are beautiful but dumb.

“Science bores me.” That was a bit much, but it was hyperbole directed at those who put the word “scholarship” in scare quotes. In more mundane language I simply don’t see science, in the sense of a consideration of the world as a mapping of externalities, helping to resolve any of our central philosophical or political questions. I gave three example: trade, affirmative action and (for lack of a better word) education. In all three I’d argue generalizations are not universally applicable, either as a matter of logic or more obviously politics, but the search for generalizations is what predominates discussion.

I posted a comment on the thread about yet another abomination from Fox pointing out the thanks we owe Murdoch for reminding people that the press should be not neutral but engaged. I don’t read TPM out of some pretense that it’s neutral (and much of what I read offends me) I read it because the writers are articulately personally and intellectually involved in the debate over the issues and because by and large unlike Fox they’re not stupid. Unopinionated writing is not writing without bias, it’s writing where the biases are hidden. One of the most annoying things about unsophisticated liberals (and that’s many of them) is the sense that they’re immune to the foibles of their opponents. It the trait in so many Americans that drives people from other countries nuts.

Where are all the native Arabic speakers in discussions of Iraq? There’s not one Palestinian voice at the “reality based” TPM, and it affects the reporting immensely. It skews it to the point where it’s as deserving of mockery as Fox. But that’s something reason cannot solve, nor will it ever. Reason cannot replace self-representation. As long as so called “serious” people are allowed to frame the debate as between reason and irrationalism the debate will be bogged down in these side issues.

A note on reading. I read everything as an argument from a virtue ethic. If I read an armchair revolutionary it usually becomes clear pretty quickly that that’s what he is. Manners describe an ethos. Everything in words can be read as an example of a form and every written opinion is self-reporting. The difference between what someone believes and what they say they believe is often pretty clear, but only if you refuse to take them at their word. What’s the virtue ethic of geek culture, of libertarianism or the New Atheism? Of Darwinian Fundamentalism?

American liberals are idealistic defenders of representative government: they have a hard time not taking people at their word.
Idealistic liberalism is not the same thing as default liberalism. Seeing liberalism as the default you don't have to believe much of anything people say.

If something isn’t worth reading as a primary text, worth reading in itself, for me it’s not worth reading at all. Interesting writing is writing where the space between the author’s intentions and his desires becomes the subject. That writing, whether by intention or without it, manifests a philosophical awareness, a respect for ambiguity and the specificity of personal experience much more important to the health of a democracy than the search for scientific truth.
j thomas,
the ability to read translations of the Arabic press has been a boon, but often that translation has been done by amateurs and/or natives of countries outside the US.
The fact that experts in the English speaking world speak mostly to experts in the english speaking world is the larger problem.
Henry Farrell is behind the curve regarding American political and intellectual culture, just as Marc Lynch is behind the curve in relation to the state of play in Iraq; and both of them would consider themselves to be left of center. But even seeing them as I do as in the middle, the middle has shifted. And that’s a good thing.

One of the factors mitigating the ghettoized state of American discourse has been the influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, over the past generation. That’s why I don’t get involved with that argument one way or the other. Both sides make short sighted and self-interested defenses of their positions, but social globalization will continue to help the US ride out recent (self-induced) storms. Henry Farrell is an immigrant, and even with his Americanized sensibility he’s still a European. As I said Farrell, along with Josh Marshall and Barack Obama is the new middle. The most annoying thing to me is the argument from self-invention: as if any of them came up with any of this themselves. It’s all pretty much predictable. I’m grateful GWB hasn’t blown us up but other than that there’ve been no surprises.

My general point is the same: being a schoolmaster without an imagination is not very useful. Having a degree in symbolic manipulation means nothing if the relations of symbol to object and event keep changing. The model of the intellectual as auto mechanic is seen now more than at any time in the last century, as absurd. The academy lags.

I’d also say that being able to play chess or exchange recipes over the internet with someone in Tashkent or Cartagena is better I think, than being able to join them in imagined virtual worlds, or even than the ability to discuss politics. The former is grounded in this world, without being freighted with it, and that argues for it being another factor mitigating against societal atomization. That’s a longer argument though.

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