28 December 2014

"For reasons that remain unclear"


Maybe in 2015 we can all stop pretending that the American news media has been racially enlightened ever since World War II, that Martin Luther King was welcomed with open arms by sage white liberals just waiting for the right black man to put the capstone on their steady and unflagging efforts to elevate black achievers in all fields of art and science; maybe, just maybe, we could let go of the thought that none of our grandparents who may have worked for Life magazine or anchored radio news were actually racist, only those other white people who had never read Kerouac or Ginsberg.

Jesus Christ, the New York Times pisses me off sometimes.

05 September 2014

This editorial from the New York Times is a hallmark of the kind of twisted thinking that can only be generated by liberal imperialists.

Plenty of the online commenters appear to see how absurd the argument here is.  (Thanks to "iona" for bluntly summing up the course of US intervention in Afghanistan:  "...we only make things worse because we are there to support either thug and get those pipelines built.")  Others, like "MR, a rank-and-file do-gooder in Afghanistan," completely avoid engaging the question of why the US must prolong its occupation / donation of money and blood, and give vent to their deep sadness over what the Afghan people have had to endure in the past two, or three, or hundred decades.

Sorry, MR and comrades, but empathy alone does not make a foreign policy.  And as for the Times editorial board:  to recommend an undemocratic "power-sharing deal" because you think it might prevent factional violence is something (I sincerely hope) you would never dream of doing in the United States, or Canada, or Japan.  The difference between this kind of machination and simply choosing maharajas to rule in place of the Empress Queen, as the British Empire commonly did for large swathes of India, is toilet-paper thin.



24 August 2014

I appreciate very much this homage to Diana Wynne Jones, and I want to add a personal reflection on the power of Miyazaki's film version of Howl's Moving Castle

I saw this movie in a cheap theater on a rainy summer night in 2005 maybe a week before I left this country for Britain, where I would end up spending almost two years working and learning.  One way to describe its impact on me would be to say it unleashed my inner child, although I think the story is absolutely made for adult consumption and cogitation too. 

It is no easy task to translate a fantasy novel onto film, and the fact that this film immediately felt so British to me, and kept popping into my daydreams and even my soberer thoughts while in Britain is a testament to Miyazaki's mastery of his medium and cultural sensitivity.  The lumbering, hissing, stomping yet kindly old moving castle of the title is the perfect embodiment of a country where trainspotting was invented.  The bucolic green landscapes, homely cottages, and sheep flocks that Miyazaki's team drew so lovingly (and in such careful contrast to the bustling industrial cities where the story is propelled forward) seem, to a student of Blake and Wordsworth, entirely familiar -- and appropriately fragile, as the specters of militarism and nationalism are shown to be creeping through this fictional society.  War-worship is hardly just a Japanese problem.

"There is never a moment when Jones’s characters seem to exist to satisfy or defy a stereotype, which means that there is space for them to exist in wonderful, human imperfection."  Very true.  As I got to know many many people in Britain, in all their imperfect beauty (sadly I have fallen out of touch with most of them), I think the forgiving spirit of Jones's writing -- communicated to me somehow through the film -- sat beside me and brought me to enter fully into the life of this other country where I did not grow up.





23 August 2014

'Sblood, there The Dish goes again with bad poetry offerings on a weekend.  Today it's Samuel Daniel, who "was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford and made his early living mostly as tutor to the children of exceptionally well-placed people—among them, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke"--surely making him a possible candidate for THE REAL SHAKESPEARE. 

Chastity and beauty, which were deadly foes,
Live reconciled friends within her brow;
And had she pity to conjoin with those,
Then who had heard the plaints I utter now?

All I can think of after reading this is facial-hair lice (and an extremely jealous misogynist lover).  I hope this awful "To Delia" isn't going to displace Shakespeare's Sonnet 147 in any high school English curricula.

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
    For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
    Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

19 August 2014

Interesting to see that yesterday at 85 degrees north (that's 556 kilometers from the North Pole) the temperature reached 11.6 Celsius, or 53 Fahrenheit.  I was thinking about how this would have seemed to Franklin, Peary or any of the historic Arctic explorers, having to worry about their food spoiling as they slogged through the great northern ocean, now dotted with salty melt ponds.  I might have written a little essay about this strange new world we live in, remarking in a restrained tone on the dangers of tampering with an amazingly complex global climate system.

But now Charles Mann (in a Sept. 2014 Atlantic Monthly article which I can't find online) has told us that when "eco-campaigners" write about these things they are debasing the national discourse.  If I understand his argument correctly, I should strive for a middle ground between alarmism and denialism at all times, preferably avoiding all kinds of data, because "for the typical citizen" that's "a muddle, too abstract--too much like 10th-grade homework."

I read your books 1492 and 1493, Mr. Mann, and this Atlantic piece is so far below the quality of those that I have to wonder about your good faith in addressing climate change.  You say it is "as yet mostly invisible," blithely ignoring the sweeping changes in ecosystems such as the Arctic around the globe that anybody residing in these places with eyes, ears, or a sense of smell could notice.  "A tiny practical impact on most people's lives?" There's a whole TV show about that tiny practical impact, called Years of Living Dangerously, in which (for example) Syrian farmers can illuminate for you how their country's economy collapsed after extreme drought and how many of them were driven out of desperation to support ISIS-like rebel groups.

(And by the way, give me a frickin' break about "each side [in the climate debate storing] up bitterness, like batteries taking on charge." Bill McKibben is about as far from a bitter nihilist as you can get.  He has not spent so many years raising awareness about climate change because he hates humanity.  Read his books and you will find much more about constructive adaptations and long-term solutions to climate change than you will ad hominem attacks on coal and oil executives.)

15 August 2014

Mr. Weismann over at Slate seems to have missed a slightly-bleeding-obvious point in his investigation of why the local government of Ferguson, Missouri is so white.  Cities of 21,000 people, as Ferguson is, tend not to pay their council members very much, if anything.  Even Madison, Wisconsin -- a city of over 200,000 people -- pays its alders less than $9,000 a year


14 August 2014

I find the Gilded Age novelist William Dean Howells to be the best corrective to today's jargon-loving cabals of "disruptive innovators."  The following comes from Chapter 13 of The Minister's Charge (1886, set in Boston):

A horse-car came by, and Lemuel stopped it.  He set his bag down on the platform, and stood there near the conductor, without trying to go inside, for the bag was pretty large, and he did not believe the conductor would let him take it in.
The conductor said politely after a while, "See, 'd I get your fare?"
"No," said Lemuel.  He paid, and the conductor went inside and collected the other fares.
When he came back he took advantage of Lemuel's continued presence to have a little chat.  He was a short, plump, stubby-mustached man, and he looked strong and well, but he said, with an introductory sigh, "Well, sir, I get sore all over at this business.  There ain't a bone in me that hain't got an ache in it.  Sometimes I can't tell but what it's the ache got a bone in it, ache seems the biggest."
"Why, what makes it?" asked Lemuel, absently.
"Oh, it's this standin'; it's the hours, and changin' the hours so much.  You hain't got a chance to get used to one set o' hours before they get 'em all shifted round again.  Last week I was on from eight to eight; this week it's from twelve to twelve.  Lord knows what it's going to be next week.  And this is one o' the best lines in town, too."
"I presume they pay you pretty well," said Lemuel, with awakening interest.
"Well, they pay a dollar 'n half a day," said the conductor.
"Why, it's more than forty dollars a month," said Lemuel.
"Well, it is," said the conductor scornfully, "if you work every day in the week.  But I can't stand it more than six days out o' seven, and if you miss a day, or if you miss a trip, they dock you.  No, sir.  It's about the meanest business I ever struck.  If I wa'n't a married man, 'n if I didn't like to be regular about my meals and get 'em at home 'th my wife, I wouldn't stand it a minute.  But that's where it is.  It's regular."

23 June 2014

No, there really isn't "a better way" to break ties in the group stage of the World Cup, Mr. Monkovic.  Certainly not "assembling the teams the next day for a penalty kick shootout" -- guaranteed to increase goalkeeper suicides and impose unnecessary costs on host nations as they stage these exhibitions.

What is so wrong with simply drawing an ostrakon , as a last resort, to determine who must be left behind in the round of 16?  This kind of "dumb luck" was integral to Athenian city-state politics and (careful students of Thucydides are welcome to dispute with me on this) it doesn't seem to have been the fatal flaw in the city's constitution.

19 June 2014

The FTL Castaway, based on GetDaved's "Let's Play FTL Advanced Edition," with apologies to William Cowper


Sidereal sights of sector eight loom'd o'er
Th'appointed planet of our greatest clash...

No allied fleet the storm allay'd,
no light of Mantis beacon shone, 
when with the piercing of our hull's last plate,
We perish'd, each alone.

(But I amidst a darker void of rebel space,
embark'd on tougher quests than he.)

14 June 2014

I'm very enthused to see that Donald Berwick passed the first hurdle in his bid for the governorship of Massachusetts.

Interestingly, well-heeled pharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone will not be going any further.  This is yet another data point in American politics that may be of interest to people who are convinced (some of them just after the Citizens United decision) Big Money runs everything and there is zero chance of a grassroots-funded candidate achieving anything, absent a constitutional amendment or Al Gore getting back together with Tipper or something of the sort.

06 June 2014

According to Mark Twain, first-class lecturers on the lyceum circuit in the Reconstruction era (for example Henry Ward Beecher and Anna Dickinson) "knew their own value and extracted it.  In towns their fee was $200 and $250; in cities $400." [Autobiography of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider]

$400 in 1870 is the equivalent of $7,473 today.  Hillary Clinton must think she is about twenty times as good a speaker as schlubs like Anna Dickinson.

30 May 2014

Kudos to the Washington Post for publishing this piece by a sociologist on reparations.  Also, shame on the Washington Post for not putting that piece in a highlighted position on the website, while giving that favor to some pro-charter school bullshit written by someone who has apparently never spent a day as a professional educator of any kind.


Something smells a little fishy about this study from The Lancet, which finds that in Egypt, a nation with a per-capita GDP of $6,600, over 70% of adults are overweight or obese.

I confess my ample ignorance of biochemistry and nutritional science.  I just don't understand how you get from a third of small children being stunted to more than 70% of adults consuming significantly more food-energy than they expend.  Are that many Egyptians sedentary office workers or sitting at home all day unemployed while someone brings subsidized bread to them? 

19 May 2014

Preach it sister / brother:


As a college instructor, I’m thrilled to see politically engaged students speaking out against awarding honorary degrees and, in some cases, massive speaking fees (Rice was set to be paid $35K) to individuals who they believe do not represent their values. We can’t wag our fingers at millennials for being self-absorbed and then simultaneously criticize them for protesting powerful political figures, which is an inherently social and political act.

And--"we have been able to curate our own little worlds using technology"?  When in the history of humankind has this not been true?  Were steppe-dwelling twenty-somethings of four thousand years ago denounced for embracing WHEELED TRANSPORTATION, selfishly retreating into their own little technological boxes and forsaking the grown-up way of dragging trade goods on sledges?  I shudder to think what happened when these spoiled youngs learned of the ALPHABET, and they became able to read THINGS THAT THEY PERSONALLY SELECTED. 

13 May 2014

A Protestant Response to "The Third Way"

Because I know there are thousands of gay Catholic men in this country who still toil in the Egyptian bondage of their church's "at least we're not Fred Phelps" attitude toward homosexuality, I am moved to offer a response to this notion of the "Third Way."

Like Tony Blair's socialism, Catholic kindness toward those marginalized for being gay is fundamentally a dishonest operation.  The Church does not relieve you of the stigma of your sexual orientation, but lulls you into believing that the stigma is a special charism and that you are called to bind yourself, to march up to the top of Mount Moriah and prepare a firepit for your own soul, all in the name of "chastity."

The catch, if you will, to the gentle promises of acceptance and loving solidarity that the Church extends in this video, comes 34 1/2 minutes in, when Jason Evert states, "We are calling people who experience same-sex attraction to love through purity and sacrifice…"  Jason Evert is not going to join you in this purity and sacrifice, needless to say.  As a straight man and layperson he is under no obligation to renounce sexual intimacy.  He is on your side (and, yes, it is commendable that he confessed 'on behalf of his community' to the sin of homophobic taunting in high school:  I'd love to know how that was done), but you have to teach the rest of us how to be purer and more Godlike.

Another layman, the presumably heterosexual Chris Stefanick, tells us at one point (25:40) that "real fulfillment in life is achieved through love, and love is doing what's right."  Alas, just 'doing what's right' doesn't seem to cut it for those who are having a lot of difficulty with SSA (same-sex attraction, helpfully abbreviated to suggest some form of disability income!)  Practicing Christian virtues to your fellow man may not be sufficient for salvation when you're also lusting after him.

So we are left with the very same gradations of holiness that Martin Luther railed against in another form 500 years ago.  And yes, these gay guys in the video seem to have found peace with second-class status in their religious community, and made steps toward forgiving their oppressors -- a 'politick art' if ever there was one.  And maybe the Catholic Church is, as they say, misapprehended by the wider society and the "secular media".  (Is Stephen Colbert part of that?)  Nonetheless I know in my bones that trusting in one's own merits, in sexual restraint or otherwise, is neither a healthy spiritual practice nor a ticket to redemption.   The balm they're offering is not of Gilead, and when two roads diverge in a wood -- as the video's intro so clearly portrays -- plowing through the poison oak and briars and cutting a "third way" for yourself isn't always the best option.

20 March 2014

I am Fred Phelps' Keeper

I write not to praise Fred Phelps, but to affirm that God loves him too.  Rev. Fred Phelps devoted the last three decades of his life, more or less, to a crusade against "fags," and with the monomaniacal laser-sight of someone captured by fanaticism, he found fags everywhere.   Even Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Bill O'Reilly -- all of whom exploited homophobia for personal and political gain -- did not escape his ugly words of wrath.

There will be very few eulogies said for this man.  His earlier life as a legal champion of African-American civil rights in Kansas is (understandably) eclipsed by all the media attention that he and his Westboro Baptist Church, his rock of righteousness and citadel against the world's depravity, courted.

According to his Wikipedia page, Phelps wrote in a sermon of 2008 that Arminianism* was "a worse blasphemy and heresy than that heard in all filthy Saturday night fag bars in the aggregate in the world." 

It is as an emotionally frail human being that I consider Phelps my brother.  I too have known the energizing and clarifying force of being a "true believer."  As I review the man's biography, certain facts leap out to me:  like me, he was born in the Southern US and attended college on the West Coast. 

Phelps would doubtless have denounced any suggestion that he would be spending many decades in Purgatory, carrying massive boulders long distances and walking zero-visibility smoky paths.  (THOUGHTS BRED OF ANTICHRIST, I expect his response would be.)  Still, that is where my theological imagination places him right now, having his pride and wrath cleansed away.  It gives me no pleasure to picture him being tortured in Hell alongside Jerry Falwell. 

*Phelps was a Particular Baptist, believing that Christ died only to redeem God's elect, not all humankind, and that God decreed the election of some even before the expulsion from Eden.  These beliefs are not at all on the fringe in Calvinist history, although whether John Calvin would have accepted them is quite dubious.  (Read the entries "Arminianism" and "Calvinism" in Essential Theological Terms by Justo Gonzalez for more details.)






15 March 2014

I've been following this Vox Media / gay-homophobe-hiring brouhaha like a lot of folks.   As a gay man and (more to the point here) a reader of Outsports.com , which carries the owned-by-Vox Media  SB Nation brand label, I am a little mystified why Ezra Klein is mystified that there's been a backlash to hiring Mr. Ambrosino.

An excellent broadside, focused on the emptiness of "diversity" as a buzzword in mass media, can be found here.

Hopefully, by 2018, Mr. Ambrosino will have come to his senses regarding what sexual orientation is.  If not, brace yourselves for an ideologically diverse piece about how it's for everyone's good that the Russian government is putting gay people in re-education camps during the World Cup (and, perhaps, turning Robbie Rogers away at the airport).  Hey, maybe the Ukraine crisis four years ago could have been avoided had those pesky gay leftists in Russia read my thoughtful essays on the chosenness of homosexuality! 



15 January 2014

I, for one, love the 2007 Massachusetts law creating buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Would it be too much to ask the lawyers and anti-abortion activists now wailing about "free speech" and feeling "intimidated" by having to stay 35 feet (yes, thirty-five) away from the abortion clinic doors to show the same concern about TSA airport screenings?  the "free speech zones" routinely used at major-party political conventions? 

I do hope all the Justices remember the kind of vitriol and murderous violence that has always been part of the anti-abortion movement.  Not that other protest groups don't have violent elements, but that far too often doctors and vulnerable women have been the only victims of this violence. 

13 January 2014


In days gone by I was very sympathetic to libertarian organizations and even enjoyed reading publications such as Reason magazine. 

The possibilities of a Libertarian - Green coalition in American politics seemed boundless.

And then I started noticing that most libertarians (at least most of those who wrote columns) had no problem with corporations violating every human right under the sun.  Villainy, for them, has always been more inherent in your local school board than in your HMO or who you might buy gas from.

Liberty, I am bold to say, means jack shit when the natural world around you is incapable of sustaining human life.  And that is what is bound to happen when energy interests buy out governments* so they can take as much as they want from the earth.

*a short list of those governments (with varying degrees of corruption):  Alaska and West Virginia states, Alberta province, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.

09 January 2014

There had been three classic ways in which Controllers-General had dealt with the growing burden of French government finance:  disguised bankruptcies, loans from domestic and foreign syndicates and new taxes.  Louis XV's last controller, the AbbĂ© Terray, had used all three.  Louis XVI's first controller, Turgot, repudiated all three.  Instead, he proposed the lessons of liberal economic theory, in particular that of Physiocracy, whose very name proclaimed it to be the "Law of Nature" and thus irrefutable.  The "sect" of the physiocrats argued that was corporatism, regulation and protection -- the heavy hand of the state -- that was stifling productivity and enterprise in France... [after this was removed] the urban and rural sectors would coexist in charmed reciprocity and France would swarm with contented, rational rustics all plowing, producing, saving and spending to the deep rhythm of the market...When Turgot came into office as Controller-General in 1774, having served briefly as minister for the navy, it was not just as an economic but as a political liberal.  Only if he could depend on support from the noble Parlements could he deliver policies that avoided the most arbitrary excesses of the previous reign in respect of bankruptcies, loans and taxes.  So, with the King's warm endorsement, he rescued the Parlements from the limbo into which Chancellor Maupeou had sent them.  His mistaken assumption was that they would back his reforms out of a combination of gratitude and rationality...It followed from Turgot's sympathy with physiocratic ideas that the liberalization of the French economy would, of itself, generate the kind of prosperity that would solve the financial problems of the government.  This would happen in two ways.  Public confidence, that most alchemical of economic quantities, would revive, disposing of the need for additional new loans since the old ones, duly honored, would suffice.  Trade and manufactures would flourish to such an extent that they too, from increased turnover, would yield enough revenues to repair the damage.  All this was, of course, the direct ancestor of supply-side public finance, and had just about as much chance of success as its version two hundred years later in a different but similarly fiscally overstretched empire.

Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Chapter 2: "Blue Horizons, Red Ink"






08 January 2014

I agree with James Carroll that the Air Force should be abolished -- if for no other reason than to save servicemembers' lives.  This crash in England certainly seems to follow a pattern of dangerous flying that resulted in 4 crew deaths in Alaska a few years back, and 4 crew deaths in Washington State twenty years ago.   Of course, the cult of airpower has many powerful adherents in our nation's capital, and we are already being treated to the commentary of "aviation experts" like Chris Yates:
"We have to be mindful that these are military flyers and they are the best, of the best, of the best.  It would be unusual, once we get through this investigation, to find that this was pilot error; it might be more mechanical fault."

Yes, unusual to find that a bloated branch of the military, idolized at airshows and other propaganda events every year, has not actually done anything to discipline personnel who are reckless with the lives of their colleagues.



So long, William Thomas.  We hardly knew ye.

This president gets my balls exploding with anger in ways that George W. Bush never managed to. 

You get well-heeled liberals fawning over your "change of heart" about gay marriage in 2012, and you carefully insert the LGBT community into your rhetoric of equality and fairness:  but when a black gay man's nomination to a federal court is being upheld by the fascist clown Marco Rubio, you throw him under the bus and hope nobody notices.  Oh, I'm sure you would tell me one has to "pick one's battles" or some such.  And next week you'll probably be telling the press corps about the sad, sad, state of affairs in judicial nominations and how it's oh so hard to get good nominees confirmed in today's climate of partisanship yadayadayada.    And you might even speak to a black congregation in, say, Chicago or Atlanta and tell them how important it is to treat their gay brothers and sisters with dignity and to give them "a level playing field."

As much as you have done to support LGBT equality, mr. president, you never cease to remind me of Don Giovanni, who sings "long live humanity, long live liberty" even as he destroys the autonomy of every other person in his world.