Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Note On The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln (Carter) And Shake Off (Hiller)


I make, try to, a distinction in fiction between writing and literature, whether what's written can be called literary. (If I had to articulate what comprises literary I think I could but it wouldn't be immediately easy.) So John Grisham's is writing, nothing wrong with it, and George V. Higgins's is literature. 

Anyway, I a little while ago finished Tom Wolfe's 700 page+ Back To Blood and I judge it literary, very literary. And I finished Stephen L. Carter's earnest 500+ The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln, which I judge to be writing. 

There's a clear intelligence, sincere, prodigious effort and much research behind Carter's story, and the impeachment trial itself is excellently done--maybe the best thing in the book--adroit, precise, and knowing, as a representation of that kind of legal proceeding, Carter being a Yale law prof. And there is a good idea running through the book, the complexity of history at any given time as opposed to our tendency to hagiography for revered figures like Lincoln.

But the writing is stodgy to the point of stiffness. By their manner of speaking, the characters are indistinct from each other. There is virtually no point of view layered into the omniscient narration. The characters are so weighed down by the formality of their speaking that they lose any semblance of flesh and blood reality. The novel has no voice, any possibility for which drowns in the artificiality of the prose.

But then again I just finished a shorter literary book I highly recommend, Shake Off by Mischa Hiller, about a Palestinian operative who lost his family in the Shatila massacre. From the first sentence on, a distinct literary voice presents itself. The writing is spare yet evocative, perfectly informal with sensitive first person consciousness  about colloquiality as fits the character. There is here too a great deal of background knowledge, particularly about spycraft, but there's nothing laboured or imposed about how it's woven into the narrative. 

I don't want to say much about this literary novel for fear of giving anything away. But I will say that underlying the increasingly hectic pace of events and relationships is the brilliant deployment of the theme that, I'd argue,  inheres in all, or virtually all, literary novels, the theme of self discovery, of identity, of coming to terms with who, how and what one is. 

I hit on this novel by sheer good fortune on a deep dive into a remainder bin. Hiller was totally unknown to me. No longer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes On The Revenant


Spoilers: The Revenant, which we saw today.

1: I have some thoughts about the movie's ending and penultimate ending.  Where some complain about them, I think they work and have a forming sense of their implication. If anyone wants to talk about it, I'd be all ears, and, then, some mouth.

2: I've read critics complain about, among other things: 

a. the ambiguity in Glass's quest: is it driven by a deep instinct and desire to survive; or is it driven by a desire for revenge? My view is that this concern is overly binary and the two need not be split apart or prioritized. They are aspects of each other here.

b. there is no character development in Glass; he's the same man at the end as he is when he starts. I have two thoughts about this: one, where is it written a character has to change? That's an ungrounded prescription; two, I'd argue he does change, he is different at the end than he is in the beginning. God is either a big fat squirrel one can feast on. Or God is some kind of an overarching and supervening mystery in all things. "Vengeance is God's," Glass is told and learns. To my mind he acts out that lesson in his final bloody confrontation with Fitzgerald. 

c. the story of the movie is too simple, the movie is too long for such a simple, one dimensional tale. This criticism may be the most obtuse of all. Again, the demand for plot complexity is ungroundedly prescriptive, as is the assertion of a necessary relation between complexity and narrative length. As well how can anyone possibly think the narrative is too simple? The intersecting linear development of the plot strands belie any such claim as do the constantly shifting events Glass experiences. This criticism conflates the elemental with the overly simple.

d. via Richard Brody, the films effects are, in effect, effects, contrived or superimposed and without organic film life, all pressed into the service of the director wanting to fill in his view of this world and the world, which include a whole series of "issues." Here, I have the sharpest opposition to any of the criticisms I've mentioned. The constantly shifting images of the landscape, of nature itself, of the weather, all at times inhumanly savage and brutal, at all at times beautiful and beneficent seem to me to be cinematically alive and thematically perfect even as I continue to try to understand the full meaning of this great movie's theme.

e. the movie's ending is unsatisfying, too incomplete, too ambiguous. I can understand this concern but don't agree with it. I found not so much mystery and ambiguity in the ending  but rather the fulfilled completion of Glass's quest, his finding some just resolution of the meaning of his life, given the facts of it, and his place amidst all things both at hand and beyond him, which *may be* to say, in the movie's terms, his relation to God as this movie has Him.

Two final thoughts or questions:

How to say what vision of the world emerges from this movie, which is to ask: what is its theme, its metaphysics? Not so readily easy to work out and answer. But I think I have some inklings. 

And, what does "the willing suspension of disbelief" mean, if it's not simply a hoary cliche, in relation to this movie? We agree within ourselves to give in to the story *as if* it were real. But as we watch it, as I watched it, I at the same time was consumed by it even as here and there I registered some doubt and disbelief about this or that. I'm not sure why, but this particular movie, which I thought was great on seeing it, and which I think even more of as I think about it, raises the strange mental dialectic of ongoing immersion and occasional disbelief all at the same time.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Adele and Janis Joplin

Nov 29, 15

Adele and Janis Joplin:

So I drove down to have lunch today with my beautiful, oh-so-smart daughter Aviva Basman, Canada's greatest refugees' rights lawyer, her exquisite and shimmeringly lovely husband Scott Pearce, their cute as all get out son, Max Pearce Basman, kinda nerdy, kinda geeky, in the best, most endearing, most charming senses of those qualities, and their oh so girrrly daughter Roxy Pearce Basman, a diminutive throw back to second wave feminism, when girls were girrrls as in girrrlpower, if you get my drift. 

But all that's a digression from my point. 

On my way down, today about a 35' drive, I played over and over and over and so on again and again, Janis Joplin's incredible version of Little Girl Blue. The best version of it ever, I'd argue. And as I kept repeatedly listening to it, I kept comparing it to Adele's Hello, which I've heard a few times now and don't love. S'ok. 

And I thought, for as much as I really liked Rolling In The Deep, a great marriage of voice and song, that Janis Joplin is so much the better singer judging by a comparison of Hello and Little Girl Blue. 

In Hello, I find Adele, who's got an undeniably big voice, more bombastic than affecting, more generic in her expression of sorrow and regret than inside those emotions, more histrionic than dramatic, unsubtle in her phrasing, dynamics and melisma, with too much unnuanced belting, more, generally, signing outside than inside the song. 

And to my ears, Janis Joplin's singing in Little Girl Blue is 180 degrees different. Her voice and phrasing range from the subtlest quiet delicacy in the intense empathy she feels for Little Girl Blue's pain and desolation to the powerful, big and full voiced urging of her to count her little fingers, just to get her past thoughts of suicide:

...And I know how you feel,
And I know you ain't got no reason to go on
And I know you feel you must be through.
Oh honey go on and sit right back down
I want you to count, oh count your little fingers...

from providing matter of fact, prosaic, resignedly sung, wise advice--"What else is there to do"--to the poetic and wistful evoking of the similarities and associations between "count your little fingers" and ...."count those raindrops/Oh, feel 'em falling down on you..., and the evocation of devastated loss and lonely hopelessness through the imagery and metaphor of the falling raindrops:

...all you ever gonna have to count on,
Or gonna wanna lean on
It's gonna feel just like those raindrops do
When they're falling down, honey, all around you.

Rodgers and Hart meet one of the bluesiest chicks who ever lived, who took your evocative show tune lyrics and elevated them by imbuing them with the spirit and sensibility of the blues.

To my ears, as MC Hammer once said, Adele can't touch this.

Here's the difference for anyone interested:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Note On Harvey Mansfield's Manliness

Here's one of the maddening things about Harvey Mansfield's Manliness, which isn't at all a tract: he often says idiosyncratic things. He's a big conservative philosophic brain in Harvard's school of government, steeped in the great books, a prolific writer, totally fluent in a number of languages and revered by his students. He's been called "the smartest guy at Harvard." Unless he's operating by some cryptic code decipherable only to the congregation, some of what he says seems to an ordinary guy like me arbitrary nonsense. A recent example--I'm 4/10ths through his book:

(at 40% on Kindle edition)  ...Nietzsche conflates Socratic reason with Francis Bacon's science; he contends that classical rationalism intended for the *understanding* of things extends seamlessly into modern rationalism aimed at the control of things for the increase of human power....

I get this so far, but have no idea whether Mansfield endorses this or merely gives an account of Nietzsche's thought. If it's the former, I'm struck by his use of "conflates," which suggests a confused lumping together of disparate things. From the "endorses" perspective, this line of thought must be wrong since we can see science as a discrete mode of inquiry into the objective nature of material reality that holds no necessary political agenda and ideally seeks to make no value judgments. 

Science is separable from other rational modes of inquiry, say philosophy, which also try to understand what we think about the world and how we come to think it, and say, applied philosophy, including the social sciences, which seeks to evaluate human issues across a spectrum of concerns, which seeks to improve our lot, and which is inherently normative.

A final note here: we can recognize the desire to understand things, to control, if possible, some of them for human betterment, without succumbing to the illusion Nietzsche diagnosed that everything is subject to discernible laws open to our understanding and control and, so, tameable, subject to our power. That may have been a romantic hope at the beginning of and part way through enlightenment science, but is now understood by most thinking people as a naive humanism. The point is to see both the promise and hope of rationality and deliberation in science and non science while seeing the vast darkness that lies beyond rationality.

Mansfield continues....Theoretical man who believes that nature is comprehensible implies that knowledge is your guide and will make you, nay, all men happy-- and thus paves the way for modern science and for modern socialism...

Again it's unclear to me whether adoption or mere reiteration. From reading his book, I'd put my money on the former, which includes the latter. Anyway, as we see the world today, who is this theoretical man? Who believes that knowledge will make all men happy? And why do any such seers and believers pave the way for modern science and socialism? (Certainly this last assertion is pure Mansfield.)

Again, the confusing use of "conflation" in the first quote makes trouble for me in the second quote. I can see the lineage from the enlightenment to seeing the universe as subject to accessible clock-like mechanical laws to philosophy, say Hegel-the idea of the idea inexorably moving through history, and to applied or materialist philosophy, say Marx and Marxism as "scientific socialism" or "scientific materialism" to a telling conception of "theoretical man," to a belief that knowledge and application of "scientific materialism" will make all men happy-"..each according to his need." 

But, and it's a huge but: how on any view of this:

do we see today the prominence of such theoretical men, save for outlier Marxists here and there? 

(Which isn't to take away from the power of Marx's analysis of material interests as a prime mover of social action, a deep insight separable from his predictive belief in the iron laws of necessary historical development.) 

and an even bigger but: how does the illusion that knowledge will make all men happy, whomever might still believe that, pave the way to modern science? 

There is clearly "better living through chemistry," which comes with destructive trade offs simply in the nature of how science proceeds; but how in the world does modern science get to be essentially characterized by any form of deluded Utopianism, as I read Mansfield to say?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An Argument Against Robert Nozick

So I'm talking to a libertarian friend and I think from looking at some things I've worked out, actually *learned* is more like it, a deep contradiction in the analysis of Robert Nozick that I'm going to trot out here. 

Either this is a telling argument against libertarianism or I'm missing or mistaking things.

....Larry, I tried this out, with a lot of help along the way, on someone I know. So If you don't mind I want to try a different tack with you, turning on the difference between aptness and legitimacy.

Nozick argues that independents are to be forcibly incorporated into society. Even if their rejection of it is their right, they pose a danger to what they reject (thus on a utilitarian basis decreasing the happiness of those accepting society by increasing their fear.) They can live in society obeying its laws or be dealt with by the monopolizer of force if their rejection leads to law breaking and worse. Since ought entails can, there is no moral duty to do the impossible. On this basis, the state does not lose legitimacy by that forcible incorporation: it is impossible to deal with the independents otherwise. In one way of understanding this, that incorporation comes down to the sheer power of the state compared to the relative powerlessness of the independents. 

Now, to take this one step further, what if a majority in the state want national health insurance. (Getting it increases their happiness.) What position can the minority take who oppose but are perforce required to help fund it through their taxes, or, even more pervasive, the welfare state? Does the state lose its legitimacy by forcing those opposed to support them by making them pay their taxes? Does the reasoning for the forcible incorporation of the independents without sacrificing legitimacy lose its force in relation to forcing dissenters from welfarism without, the argument is, by analogy, losing legitimacy? I'd think that those who oppose welfarism would continue to insist on their opposition but would do so conceding legitimacy. 

So of Nozick is:

as I understand he is, a social contract theorist;

and if he agrees that the basis of social contract theory is consent;

and if he rejects any proposition, as I understand he does, advanced by some that since unanimous consent in any state is impossible the state, any state premised on deep individual pluralism is therefore necessarily illegitimate;

then his notions of consent and legitimacy necessarily brook majorities that hold to policies that he stands fundamentally against.

If so, then what exactly is the core of his notion of  legitimacy, and what does that core do to the illegitimacy of the welfare project you argue against? Arguments pro and con specific policies on the basis of legitimacy run up against the concession of legitimacy to the state even as majority policies breach libertarians' central thesis of deep pluralism not to be trenched upon. And so, finally, arguments against say welfare policy can cite that central thesis, but can't with consistency, I don't think, assert the illegitimacy of that policy. Or can they?

No doubt there are frailties in this reasoning. I'd be happy to see that set out, as you see it...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thoughts On Unifying Libertarians And Conservatives

Thoughts On Unifying Libertarians And ConservativesMy take on this by Peter Berkowitz's argument for the harmonization of conservatives and libertarians.

 What distinguishes say Burkean conservatism from classical liberalism? 

The former wants to go slow--despite the American Revolution--in policy change, be incremental, be concerned about unintended consequences, wants to emphasize traditions for at least two reasons--a presumptive bulwark against radical policy change and the organic continuity of the past into the present, our bonds with out past being the meaning of who we are nationally. 

So on this conception, there is no necessary denigration of government or even the imposition of government in our lives. Rather government working within the imperatives of going slow, being incremental, and respectful of traditions is fine. One could say the emphasis is on the polity as such and not so much on the individual and perhaps harkens to an aristocratic notion of regime, the complete appropriateness of betters ruling lessers. Hence perhaps Berkowitz's shorthand conceptualization of conservatism as virtue. Normatively, tradition yields stability, predictability and so traditional institutions such as, writ large, the state as manifestation of its past and, smaller, the family, the church, local communities, and within those habits of respect, civility, obedience to authority. And other things too.

Classical liberalism is not so concerned with tradition, our organic connection to the past or the nature of the state as such save for what it minimally ought to be. It focuses on the individual. It sees its ideal in individual liberty, in unleashing the potencies of that, of the manifestation of that in the market, entrepreneurial energy, competition, where the role of the state is to set the minimum conditions for allowing that to flourish and to secure it all including securing the state. Decentralization is a watch word here and central planning is anathema as an individual energy killer. More deeply, in this tradition, is a philosophic  commitment to the primacy of the individual as a principled starting point, a natural law commitment to inalienable rights preceding states (which, could be consistent with Burkean conservatism--but I don't know that.) So there is no right in the state to do more than what its minimal role is, which is to safeguard individual liberty and the enterprise it unleashes. Laissez faire, as they taught in grade 10 social studies. And here the shorthand conceptual counterpoint to virtue is liberty. 

I'm uncertain how this all works out in foreign policy. What positions necessarily flow from the starting premises. 

On the social issues side, I can't readily see a harmonization of the two positions. There is no necessary or compelling reason emerging from classical liberalism's starting premises that could be argued to commit it Berkowitz's idea for virtue; and, more, classical liberalism is doctrinally set against aristocratic notions of man and government that for Burke lead to the imperatives of hierarchy, rank, and tradition in the structuring of societies.  

On the law and order side, from the standpoint of criminal law I can see compatibility in criminal law against harming conduct but direct incompatibility on criminalizing non harming but aguably offensive conduct.

On the fiscal policy side, I don't see necessary compatibility or incompatibility but can see tensions between perhaps conservatives' willingness for state regulation to enhance the desiderata of stability and predictability and classical liberals' willingness to tolerate some upheaval, disorder, unpredictability in the unleashing of individual energy. In two words, again, laissez faire. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some Thoughts On Michael Eric Dyson's "Think Out Loud"

A few thoughts:

After an interesting start comparing a generation of black intellectuals to the New York intellectuals, including the veering of some from both groups pronouncedly rightwards, Dyson descends to a kind of elaborated baseball cards catalogue of who's prominent these days and who has been, what they've done, with nothing much else, save for some stock comments about the Internet and what modern technology delivers and makes possible. And even in that, as the piece gets increasingly rhapsodic, Dyson stops being self aware of some of the nonsense he's in effect subscribing to:

...The book is no longer exclusively dominant in the realm of black ideas. The black digital intelligentsia flourishes in an epistemic ecology in which the scholarly impulse has been sheared by the cutting edges of new technology and the desire for instant knowledge and commentary on current ideas and events...

So excited is Dyson by the sweep of his way inflated prose--"digital intelligentsia flourishes in an epistemic ecology"--that he can't pause for a moment to note how impoverished it is and what a bane for a culture it is to want "instant knowledge and commentary."

A defensive tone forecasting what's to come is evident pretty early on in this on a past generation of black thinkers:

...We proved that, as with basketball and music, the dominant American thinkers were black. Which brings us to the present...

Paradoxically, the triumphalism, which suggests a continuation of that "dominance," trumpets the defensiveness and foretells a need in Dyson to make outlandish claims, in which, among other things, he assesses mediocrity, competence and better as "brilliance":

....They include, to name only a few, Jamelle Bouie at Slate, Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York TimesMagazineJoy Reid at MSNBC, Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony, and the NewRepublic’s Jamil Smith. Brilliant, eloquent, deeply learned writers and thinkers, they contend with the issues of the day, online, on television, wherever they can....

This is like saying the white journalists in the mainstream press or white pundits who appear on television are "brilliant"--surely a  quality to be spoken of sparingly, not indiscriminately as does Dyson--rather than these these white scribblers and talkers being what they are, mediocre, competent and in some instances good and exceptionally good. Dyson's overestimation, fuelled by skin colour, is particularly so in the highlighting of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who a commentator on this thread nails for precisely Coates's  lack of intellectual brilliance. I'd add he's an ok writer, not much more than that. Quoting from what I agree with in the comment:

.....The problem with having Ta-Nehisi Coates as the standard-bearer of the "Emerging Black Intelligentsia" is that he's clearly not exceptionally intelligent...

My abiding criticism of this essay, apart from it being an outlandish catalogue written in inflated  prose, is Dyson's need to claim for black Americans exclusiveness and dominance as truth tellers, thinkers and as measurers of what's right and moral:

...IN 2013, Professor Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, argued  in The New York Times that black intellectuals ought to be “the moral conscience of their societies...

Tyson, instead of blanching at the precious grandiosity of "the moral conscience"--not even just "a moral conscience" will do, welcomes the idea and goes on to say that those he catalogues, who themselves range from the mediocre to the competent to the good and to the very good, are in Dyson's reckoning to a man and woman, as noted, "Brilliant, eloquent, deeply learned." The myth at the foundation of the "Ferguson rebellion"--euphemism for thugs rampaging, burning and looting--"hands up don't shoot," seeing BLM as the cutting edge of something, seeing it and its apologists as "the moral conscience of their societies," eliding BLM's radical distraction from the hard day to day work to improve the conditions of black lives, flying over its illogical conflation of disparate impact as an actuality and "structural racism," these all measure both Dyson's rhapsodic remove from actuality and his flawed skewing in only one ideological direction. For he doesn't engage, or just catalogue, conservative black intellectuals, journalists and media figures. Except for one brief passing mention, noted, he excludes them all from his grandiloquent survey.

The clear inference emerging here is that the foundation for Dyson's overpraise is skin colour. In a nutshell, for Tyson, black is beautiful, necessarily, which is to say, black of an acceptable ideological stripe, is beautiful, necessarily. In a nutshell, for that beauty, Dyson is cheerleader: "Give me a B; Give me an L; Give me an A; Give me a C; Give me a K." Whatta ya' got? Ya got: "...At The Atlantic Coates called Harris-Perry America’s 'foremost public intellectual'...," a spectacularly dumb assertion Dyson affirms.