Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Swinging Both Ways On Capital Punishment


I’ve swung both ways on capital punishment.

I used to be dead set (“dead set,” get it?) for it on the ground that for heinous crimes it satisfies a public need for retribution, one of the policy pillars of criminal sentencing.

I’m still for it on that ground but given the possibility for error I on balance (“on balance,” get it?) swung away from it, reasoning that the cost of innocent human life is too great a price to pay.

I tried on the argument of reserving it for a super category of cases of proof positive but decided against that argument on the basis that any such category impugns the certainty of like heinous cases of guilty but not within that certain super category. 

So that left me against capital punishment on the pragmatic ground of the cost of innocent life due to error outweighing the benefit of retribution. 

But with the just-two-days-old rampage killing of 10, maiming of 15 others, some still fighting for, maybe clinging to life, with it happening in a neighborhood not far from my own and on the very street I’ve often walked and could easily have been walking, with two people I know spared death or inury by a few hair splits and now with the names and stories of the innocents trickling out, my fellow Torontonians, my rage and outrage are implacable conditions in me that need staunching. 

So I’m swinging back to capital punishment on the basis that heinousness plus certainty mitigate and thus outweigh the price of the possibility of error.

Too, this  guy deserves whippings before execution.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Brief Take On Natalie Portman


It’s all water cooler talk and doesn’t amount to much but I don’t buy Portman’s distinction, in refusing to go to Israel to accept the award, between supporting Israel but not wanting to appear to be supporting Netanyahu and endorsing his recent policies. (Which recent policies?) She’s somehow split the difference and has managed both to placate both sides somewhat and disappoint both sides somewhat. 

She could have been more straightforward about it and not conflated going to Israel and accepting the award with supporting the Prime Minister. They are, after all, two different things.

For example, she could have in statement made her political opposition to him, to his recent policies (such as what?) clear and said she distinguishes decisively between accepting the honor of the award and her rejection of Netanyahu’s recent policies. (Which ones?)

My sense is that there’s something else going on behind her splitting the difference, something like her wanting to locate herself on some politically correct side for the sake of appearances, some virtue signaling or something else along some line like that, but I don’t really know. I’m simply sensing tendentiousness and disingenuousness in her odd position.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Exchange On The 2nd Sam Harris Jordan Peterson Podcast

An exchange, maybe only at its beginning, on the interesting podcast hosted by Sam Harris and guested by Jordan Peterson, which may be more than anything a discussion of the whys and wherefores of Peterson. The podcast is linked to below. 


...There’s an interesting podcast here if anyone has the patience for some, any, of it between Peterson and Harris, round two.

Two more different verbal and polemical styles you couldn’t imagine.

And how Peterson talks here, such a bilgey motormouth, it brings again to my mind that critique by Nathan Robinson....


....First, Peterson does have a verbal style that is quite different from the usual ironic norm among academics, and which Harris typifies -- what little I've seen/heard of it I find engaging and interesting rather than bilgey, but maybe I haven't listened to enough. Second, I favor a pragmatic notion of truth, as I think P does but not H. And third, I think myth is or can be significant, in the way literature or art or religion is significant, and I'm pretty clearly against what I consider a pseudo-"common sense" rejection of such symbolic cultural forms, which again H, as one of the erstwhile "new atheists", may typify. But at least he's relatively fair, in contrast to Robinson whose critique of P I thought was a piece of crap.....


....It’s not so much a matter of watching YouTube. It’s that it’s the site/platform for the broadcast of some of these exchanges. Me, I gambol over the cats. 

I don’t see Harris as being ironic save maybe for the odd sardonic comment. More, he strikes me as pretty straight forward wanting to engage civilly, talk really, not debate, with his guests. I’ve only watched him a few times and didn’t see the notorious first round between him and Peterson. 

I’ve had different responses to Peterson at different times. On this one as I said he struck me as a bilgey motor mouth whose ultimate position I find elusive. It so happened that just before I started to watch Harris/Peterson 2—I watched it over a few viewings—I saw a few minutes of him maybe lecturing to a class. His point was that, and he talked for a while about Crime and Punishment, ...If God does not exist, everything is permitted...And I thought to myself, “Well, I understand that. And I diametrically disagree with it.” 

And it came to be that that was *one* of his themes in talking with Harris, that but for God, we’re in a state of nature, unconstrained in seeking to get what we want, a view I reject. 

I’m not sure what a pragmatic notion of truth is even as I have a lay understanding of pragmatism, as judging theories and actions by their consequences and adjusting as we go as consequences lead us to. But my understanding is so anodyne that I can’t imagine that either Harris or Peterson would disagree it. Pragmatism came up in the conversation but I could make no sense of what Peterson means by it. 

What do you understand Peterson’s conception of pragmatic truth is? Apparently what truth itself is was the stumbling block in the first debate; apparently, they couldn’t converge on what it means and apparently, at least according to Harris, truth, or what is true, is only that which helps us survive, a view I can’t get my mind around and doesn’t accord with my understanding of what’s true. 

As for myth, I sensed in what Peterson said either confusion or that he’s wrong, as I understand him. Maybe I don’t. He assimilates literature to myth and myth to literature—I see them as categorically different, one an art as such, the other not—in offering us fundamental touchstones and patterns in how we ought live and what life is basically is, contingent, malevolent and tragic.  In them both as a species of each other is truth or truths. 

I think that betrays a fundamental misconception of what literature is, has and does. If literature reflects and illumines life or reality, it does so in ways that allow us to enter imaginatively into characters’ lives and situations, understand discrete emotions and states of being, be carried along with into life’s dilemmas, conflicts and abysses, some small and some overwhelmingly large, and perhaps broaden and enrich our own sense of reality and life. The truth of literature is the authenticity of its creation, what a character does or thinks rings true, how people speak with and treat each other seems true, created worlds seem true, paradoxical insights and tensions seem right. We are able to enter literary worlds as if they were true. 

So what literature  decidedly does not do is offer us truthful ways of living, truths by which to live or by how to live. We come away with better senses of how things are, what they are like and what maybe possible. That’s different from what I understand Peterson to be saying about the mining of myths for models and touchstones that are in some sense prescriptive. 

Harris of course agrees that literature offers us truths but I think of the kind I described. And where for sure they differ is that Harris insists that we needn’t leave this world to engage these truths. Peterson seems to see that differently but I’m not sure what he’s saying about what we’re to do with the myths or the truths literature or Christianity has for us. For me, as for literature, there is nothing we are to do with it save to enrich our sense of the world, enjoy the beauty of the art. Certainly by it we are not in the main going to change the way we live. 

Somehow for Peterson we have to get inside the myths, the archetypes, or some such or I don’t know what. 

Penultimately, I never heard Harris or Dawkins or Hitchens or Dennet reject “symbolic cultural norms,” perhaps save for those of religion itself, and if I understand what they are, say binding civic rituals or national rituals, maybe something like the practices of Reform Judaism. In fact I heard Dawkins specifically subscribe to those kinds of secular reenactments of religious rituals, though stripped of religious belief, as socially gluing. But maybe as with pragmatic truth you could clarify what you mean by symbolic cultural norms. 

I myself have no problem with the new atheists, no longer so new, proselytizing against religion and for atheism or agnosticism. It seems to me an altogether worthwhile project and a good counterweight to all the religious hocus pocus, creationism, intelligent design, continuously blasted at us....


....Harris' tone is cool and distanced, in a way academics commonly learn since grad school as a generically defensive manner, and that's what I mean by irony, not a specific ploy. Peterson's on the other hand, is both warmer and more hesitant, often groping for the right words, using hand gestures, etc. -- the sort of thing that's easily mocked but, for those resisting that temptation, also more engaging, or so I find it. 

I don't know what P's conception of pragmatic truth is, only that, as you say, it was apparently an issue in their earlier discussion, and my understanding is that H disagreed with P over it. If your conception of Harris' notion of truth is correct, on the other hand, I don't know what they were arguing about, since it certainly seems pragmatic.

I'd like to know what P actually said in that lecture you saw where you say he made the old claim re: God and moral permission. If he did say or imply that I'd agree with you that it's wrong, but I'm dubious about that claim or interpretation since it seems to me at odds with the much more complex set of themes that he deals with. I'd be grateful if you could point me to a more precise location for this than an hour long podcast. The one thing I would say in general is that the origins and maintenance of morality is a cultural construct involving meaning and narrative that is much more complicated than an individual just following their instincts or "thinking it out". 

And that brings me to myth and literature. I don't agree with your disjunction between the two, and I'd say that literature, which you approve of, itself relies heavily on mining the myths of culture(s), which form a great repository of narrative and meaning for all of art. In your telling it seems as though you regard literature as mere escapism, delivering us to other worlds and taking us away from our lives in the real world, while myths are reduced to mere falsehoods, and both views seem to  me mistaken. 

You're probably right that the new atheists so-called don't explicitly reject "symbolic cultural forms" (or "norms" if you prefer), since that would leave them a little too naked. But your short summary of them glosses too quickly over the role, and the source or well-spring, of these "socially gluing" forms. The latter term underlines their importance, but doesn't help with the question of how exactly do we sustain them -- or at least sustain meaning, purpose, and value that have been given body, over many generations, by such forms, but that the modern world has undermined. In comparison with that question, simple atheism, whether new or old, strikes me as, well, trite. I'm not getting the blasting by the sort of religious hocus-pocus, creationism, etc. you are, and I find the existence of such inadequate reactions to be only a sad testament to a spreading cultural desperation. Anyway, that's the sort of question I see P grappling with, and it's the main reason for my interest in him, not the pronouns....


....Lotta words coming your way:

I’ve not  read all your back and forth with Roger. So if my response is impoverished or repetitive or negligent or ow sinful by reason of that, I’m sorry. I’m responding to your longer response to my last email to you. 

I’m going paragraph by paragraph.

I of course agree with the contrast in styles as between Harris and Peterson. I myself don’t mock Peterson for the way he presents himself in public. I’m interested in the tones, body language, human drama, rhetorical style and tics and so on of these people, or anyone really, when they speak, but I try not to let it distract me from trying to grapple with the substance of what they say. 

My sense of Harris is that by nature he’s a fairly dry and restrained speaker almost to the point of boredom and being phlegmatic. I don’t see irony, even as you define it, in that nor anything peculiarly academic save if academic means being intellectually straight forward, trying to understand the argument, raising questions, making counter arguments and presenting his case. 

Except that the human drama of Peterson’s way of speaking draws one, me, in, as it’s involving to see him struggle to formulate his thoughts as he goes, his manner in this is for me disjunctive from what he says. 

Here, when I speak of him as a bilge-filled motor mouth, I find him to be speaking, maybe for me for the first time so much so that it became remarkable, in an almost obsessive way, dunning Harris and viewer with foray ridden and obscure references, not offering substantive product for all the rhetorical work, and with a certain, I perceived, desperation, as though his floods of words and references and going on and on and on would somehow swamp Harris, who doesn’t typically talk a great deal. 

There was a pointed, maybe ironic, inversion by the end of conversation. Peterson was visibly tiring, slowing down, being almost conversationally perfunctory, till he admitted he was done while Harris was just getting going, much more energized at the end than at the beginning, expanding enthusiastically on his arguments, talking longer and with some references too to underscore his points. 

To clarify, with pragmatic truth, I was more interested in what you meant by it. I did take your mention of it as you meaning it was a reason why you liked Peterson or liked him over Harris as a thinker. I thought if you could clarify what it means to you, I would’ve tried to link it back to conversation. 

I’ll try to dig out the discrete 10’ or on YouTube where Peterson talks about the point of “No God, no moral restraint.” I can’t go back to the conversation, which is about 140’ or so: that’s a bridge too far. But I will say that that notion seems to me to be one of his foundational ideas, that secularlity itself cannot ground or lead to moral absolutes such that the inherent immorality of Raskolnikov  killing the old pawnbroker withers away. 

I’ve noted before my agreeing with quite a few things Peterson says along the way to his “more complex themes”—as I noted in my rethink of Robinson on Peterson—I can’t get hold of his deepest complexities. I find them either inapplicable to what I understand about living a righteous life in the world or basically incomprehensible, which raises the Costanza question: is it me or him. My working presumption in these matters is “it’s me.” But with Peterson, I’m feeling some rebuttal. So I don’t know. I’d said that in Scott Alexander in calling Peterson a prophet, he noted that that was in big part comprised by the force, and maybe even depth, strange to say, with which Peterson conveys the wisdom of certain cliches. Maybe something will become clearer in your paragraphs on literature any myth and the new atheists.

I’m not seeing how you get from my view of what the truths are in literature to me seeing it as “mere escapism.” I’d thought I’d said, tried to say, just as we “suspend disbelief”—in quotation marks because that phrase doesn’t really capture the dialectic in reading involving the ongoing dynamic interplay of, so to say, one leg of our mind firmly planted in as if and the other in the world we know—so we come back to our world engaged, affected, informed and perhaps for some even revisioning it from what we have read. 

My point about what Peterson gets wrong, as I see it, is that when he assimilates myth and literature to each other as providing the indispensable well springs of “truth” as to how we ought live, he gets literature and hence, on his reckoning, myth wrong. Literature does no such thing, I don’t think. Art is the reflection and illumination of our experience. It indispensable in the sense that it is inconceivable that we can live without it. Peterson maybe makes a category mistake here. It’s his posit, I think, that the logic of secularism leads to a world without the truth of literature insofar as secularism denies the literal truth of God, and that we must therefore turn away from secularism and embrace the truths of myth and literature to ground and be led to righteousness. And if he’s not saying that, then I don’t know what he’s saying. 

I think this is a false dichotomy and that this is where Harris was going when he got on a roll at the end of the conversation. We secularists need not leave this world for righteousness; we can absorb the good ethical teachings of (say) Christianity (or other religions) and such truths as literature and myth have for us without losing our atheism or agnosticism. Again, it’s Peterson’s position, as I have it, that we cannot. Where I stop short with him is this: I don’t understand why the hell not: and I’m not sure he does either. For why in this conversation so many words, words, words, words, that leave me and many others, of reasonable intelligence, not understanding him on this.

I guess finally I’m not seeing the cultural desperation you speak of—and I hear from Steven Pinker that empirically, i.e. studies show that—it’s not the case, that on the whole and generally we in the developed world aren’t a particularly  unhappy lot, or why, if we’re non believers, if we’ve arrived by thought and experience at a total rejection of any belief in the supernatural, we shouldn’t be assertive about it at the proper time and place, which is a matter of good manners, and why we need to look to what we wholly reject at its core  to sustain both righteousness and spirituality. I think that’s where Harris ends up when he speaks, for one example personal to him, of his Bhuddist practices, mindful meditation and that sort of thing, without forsaking his devout atheism....


P.S. this isn’t the 10’ one I saw. It seems buried in the bowels of YouTube but maybe this one will do. I haven’t watched it through but I did the first few minutes of it. I’m hopeful he makes the same point. 

It’s about 11’. (Linked to below)

Maybe in any event this video, which I’ll watch through, could be a manageable case in point for talking about Peterson....

Friday, April 6, 2018

On Finishing Rich Cohen’s Machers And Rockers....


I finished Rich Cohen’s Machers And Rockers, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in the blues—namely, Mississippi Delta and Chicago South Side, in Chess Records, the first generation of Chicago Bluesmen, especially Muddy Waters and Little Walter, (not enough on Howlin’ Wolf, mind you), the transition from South Side electrified blues to rock and roll especially through the music and lyrics of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, who turned the great  mystery trains of the blues into speeding, screaming bullets, in the fascinating hustling record men like Leonard Chess, a huge focus of the book, mostly tough, pushy, aggressive, street wise, immigrant Jews, who formed independent labels and recorded black bluesmen and women that the majors wouldn’t touch, in fact, recorded them for black audiences that the majors didn’t care about, and, finally, sadly, how it all went south.

Here are a couple of tastes for your pleasure from near the book’s end, the sad going south part:

.....The executives at GRT said they wanted Chess Records to continue as before with Leonard at the helm, calling the shots, churning out the hits, but of course things started to change right away. In the corporate world, the only thing as important as money is control: which means no dope smoking in the back rooms, no black guys hanging out for no reason, no shouting in the halls, no ....”Get that fucking cocksucker on the fucking phone”..., no ...”Hey Marshall, run out and get Wolf a bottle of applejack”... Within a few months of the sale, 2120 South Michigan had been overrun by auditors, managers, accountants, suit wearing Nancy boys, numbers crunchers, scolders and shushers, actual library- style shushers, who wanted to go over those numbers again, keep it quiet in the lobby, contain and control all that noise and action that might seem like chaos but was in fact the rhythm section of the label. Without it, the song had no drive.  It was like trying to run a crime family without all those aimless espresso drinking hours at the social club. Leonard responded by staying away, coming in late, leaving early, spending more time at WVON (me: his radio station.) He was concerned only with securing a place for Marshall, (me: his son), protecting him from the corporation. “It was like cancer from the moment GRT arrived,” Marshall told me. “They we’re sending me to budget meetings. Chess was never run that way, we never had budget meetings, never thought about how many hits we were going to have. We just hoped and kept trying.  Now it was a public corporation, and we had to submit shit to the shareholders.”....


....Chess records pressed more than music—it pressed the mystique and style of Rock and Roll. Artists like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley invented the sound, the swagger: Diddley sings, ...”I walked forty-seven miles of barbed wire, I got a cobra snake for a neck tie.” Leonard invented the image and style of the record executive, the cigar smoking presence behind the music. It was an accidental invention, Leonard being Leonard, but there is no way to look at postwar social history without looking at Chess. He created an image as archetypal and American as the woodsman or logger or city desk editor. The record man—rough and vulgar and comical and irritating and cheap and rude, but when you shook his hand, you knew you had really met someone....

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rich Cohen, Machers And Rockers: Sam Phillips And Leonard Chess


On comparing Leonard Chess and Sam Phillips, Rich Cohen in Machers and Rockers has a point:

....To me, Phillips is less interesting than Leonard because he sold the big contract, because he took the easy money, because he made a decision that was small time and it was a decision that initiated the terrible transition of Elvis from wild leering figure into declawed matinee idol. It was a failure of confidence, nerve, imagination. Leonard would never have sold that contract; he would shouted, “All right, motherfuckers! Let’s get rich!”... 

I’ve read any number of versions of Sam Phillips selling Elvis’s contract to RCA, but none that come anywhere close to Cohen’s view of it as a failure of nerve.

Rich Cohen, Machers And Rockers: Dylan Via Little Walter


In his book on Chess Records, Machers And Rockers—“machers” idiomatic Yiddish for guys who get things done, literally, make things—Rich Cohen at one point notes Bob Dylan’s album Love and Death and admonishes us to think about that title.

Which I do but the point’s not clicking in.

Then I’m reading later Rich Cohen’s litany of reasons why he loves Little Walter and why he’s his favorite of the blues guys, the “pioneers” he calls them, who by electrifying their instruments birthed a new sound. He says, coming to the last of the litany, 

....because his face was clean and handsome at a distance but up close seasoned with knife scars won by his temper in dives; because he actually lived the sort of epic life people like Bob Dylan fake in interviews and conjure up in songs like Tangled Up In Blue.....

And so the possible point concerning Love And Death clicked in: the love for the music Dylan loved and his theft of it, as maybe Cohen sees it.

Islands And Speciation: Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show On Earth.., His Book On Evidence For Evolution

I’m near the 1/2 way mark of Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show On Earth..., his terrific book on the evidence for evolution.

As a long past English major with not much science in my soul—though I love, revere, bow down to, the idea of science—I didn’t follow a lot of the stuff on the molecular ways of cells. But I’m following a fair bit of the other things Dawkins discusses.

I just read, got and liked Dawkins’s notion of understanding the idea of islands from the standpoint of animal, or indeed from any life or plant form surrounded on all sides by what is uninhabitable or threatening, the way land surrounding water would make the water an island to a fish, or even how deep water surrounding shallow water would make the shallows an island to shallows inhabiting fish like coral fish, or how surrounding desert makes an island of an oasis. 

The point of this is how innumerable disruptions of the island environments so understood over billions of years led to innumerable instances of speciation since species are differentiated by their inability to breed and, so, genes favouring survival in new environments lead to unique evolutionary progression away from mitigation through breeding by the former split off species. 

If I have that generally and more or less right.

I had never thought of “Island disruption” as the key to speciation.