Wednesday, December 11, 2013




http://www.edge.org/conversation/dennett-on-wieseltier-v-pinker-in-the-new-republic

Part 1

Me to another guy on Dennett on Wieseltier linked to below:


Dennett....It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities....

Me.....But it's "true enough" says Dennett. He may not have liked how W gets to the point, how he merely asserts it, whatever, but it's his whole case in a microcosm. It's a (self evident?) premise his argument is built on.

Dennett..... Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation....

Me....Don't we need to distinguish between the social science part of the humanities, which W doesn't do, and the arts part of the humanities? And while accumulated knowledge likely, I don't know enough to comment, leads I guess to progress in the social science, it surely doesn't for literature, art, music, dance, film, etc. or for philosophy. And that's his point here.

Dennett...but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism. Consider, for instance, this obiter dictum from Wieseltier:

...It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.....

Me....In what sense irreducible? What inwardness, exactly, are we discussing? How has its autonomy as a category been established? In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope. And notice the ambiguity: is the study of those many expressions itself a matter governed by the rules of empirical research, or is it just another set of expressions of inwardness, interpretations of interpretations of interpretations?

Part 2

Dennett.....Philosophical matters are those that demand answers that can stand up to all things considered and hence cannot be addressed without suspending the enabling assumptions of any more specific field of science or inquiry. Wieseltier seems to believe that these matters are the exclusive province of philosophers, professionals who have been licensed to hold forth on them because of some advanced training in the humanities that qualifies them to do this important work.

That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it, but the plain fact is that every discipline generates philosophical issues as it advances, and they cannot be responsibly addressed by thinkers ignorant of the facts (the findings, the methods, the problems) encountered in those disciplines....

Me.....I'm just not following this in relation to W nor simply in what some of it says. For example, and to start, what is the meaning of the first sentence. I'm struggling with it. I understand the first part, I think: philosophical conclusions, or reasoning along the way, must be capable of withstanding any fair attack from any vantage point--"all things considered." It's the part that follows in that sentence that confuses me. So if one, say, wants to address philosophically the idea, W's main point, that the sciences and the humanities proceed incompatibly in approaching reality, neither having much to offer the other, then a quantitative psychologist would have to do what to address W's point: suspend his discipline's operating/enabling assumptions?

I'm lost.

But what does any of that, whatever it means, have to do with W's argument?

Dennett takes W's argument that what comprises the place and limits of science is not the province of science as such but of philosophy as such:

....The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science...

to mean that only in the cloistered precincts of philosophy can science's limits and place be defined and that scientists have nothing to add to it.

....That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it...

But that's, I think, a nonsensical, off stride view of what W is saying. He's saying, rather, that when scientists speak of the limits and place of science they aren't *necessarily* in virtue of being scientists in a better position to pronounce on them than any others, as they necessarily are when they speak scientifically about things, that the limits and place of science is a philosophical question not a scientific one. (And Dennett, you'll recall, begins by agreeing, dismissively mind you, that W is right: ...This is true enough...)

Part 3

Dennett....A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn't read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments.

Me:....I used to study English literature up to getting an MA. I have kept up a little in the trends in academic literary criticism, albeit increasingly as an amateur, a layman, someone increasingly distanced from the field. I know slightly there has been some movement in it to read neuro-science and cognitive into the critical reading of texts.

My academic friends don't think much of it. I really can't comment but remain skeptical and report that reaction for what it is worth.

Here the best eaten pudding for proof is made up of the examples Pinker offers as evidence for how applying science enriches the study of the arts. I can't think of any examples that are in the least persuasive and, going from memory, recall W decimating his example of the learning of psychology deepening  our understanding of the beginning of Anna Karenina on the sameness of happy families and the singularity of unhappy families.

There's another point to be made here that shows why Dennett is off base. Literature, other arts,  remain to be studied in their own terms. I can't tell you how many essays I've read, for example, about Keats's two lines about truth and beauty, which essays became an extended discussion, in the way of philosophy, of those lines wrenched from poetic context.

They're nonsense as a matter of a proper, as the academy would have it, critical appreciation of the poem, the nonsense stemming from the disjuncture between the understanding those lines as part of and integrally connected to the poem and the essays' philosophical excursions.

Northrop Frye wrote correctly in The Anatomy of Criticism, paraphrase, that critical emphasis should bear proportion to the emphasis in the text. A corollary of that proposition is art that should be critically understood by reference to the artistic use of the artistic materials being considered, language and its usage, paint and its usage, etc. I'd venture the thought that neuro science or psychology, other sciences, have not much to tell us about the critical appreciation of texts unless the author incorporates that content into his work.

Dennett concluding .......Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

Me.....Dennett  here misreads W and distorts his argument. (A circumstantial indicator is that W wouldn't use the word "problematics" and disdains those who do, just as he disdains Pomo as jargon ridden distraction.)

W has no fear of thinkers from the outside invading protected turf and I'd ask for textual evidence of this in his essay. Nor, in the same vein, does W want to "defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs." This distortion, as noted, runs through Dennett's short piece.

W isn't in the academy and he has no territorial turf to defend as such. He is concerned to stand against wrong claims that science has something to offer the "internal" study of the arts, I.E. not the sociology of them, the economics of them, the neuro-cognitive nature of our responses to them, and so on, but the critical appreciation of the arts on their terms.

Behind W's position lies his confrontation with Pinker's claim that Stephen Jay Gould was wrong, (as was C.P. Snow), that the sciences and the humanities are not distinct realms of experience, do not approach experience fundamentally differently. These themes are different from what Dennett ascribes to W.

 I'll end this by repeating a just made point. Let Pinker or Dennett give good examples to support how the insights of science aid us in the critical appreciation of the arts, and then we'd have something more fruitful to discuss.





Why Machiavelli Still Matters

NYT. 12,10,13

FIVE hundred years ago, on Dec. 10, 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli sent a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, describing his day spent haggling with local farmers and setting bird traps for his evening meal. A typical day for the atypical letter writer, who had changed from his mud-splattered clothes to the robes he once wore as a high official in the Florentine republic.
Toward the end of the letter Machiavelli mentions for the first time a “little work” he was writing on politics. This little work was, of course, “The Prince.”
One of the remarkable things about “The Prince” is not just what Machiavelli wrote, but that he was able to write at all. Just 10 months earlier, he endured the “strappado”: Hands tied behind his back, he was strung to a prison ceiling and repeatedly plunged to the floor.
Having at the time just been given the task of overseeing the foreign policy and defense of his native city, he was thrown out of his office when the Medici family returned to power. The new rulers suspected him of plotting against them and wanted to hear what he had to say. Machiavelli prided himself on not uttering a word.
He may well have saved his words for “The Prince,” dedicated to a member of the family who ordered his torture: Lorenzo de Medici. With the book, Machiavelli sought to persuade Lorenzo that he was a friend whose experience in politics and knowledge of the ancients made him an invaluable adviser.
History does not tell us if Lorenzo bothered to read the book. But if he did, he would have learned from his would-be friend that there are, in fact, no friends in politics.
“The Prince” is a manual for those who wish to win and keep power. The Renaissance was awash in such how-to guides, but Machiavelli’s was different. To be sure, he counsels a prince on how to act toward his enemies, using force and fraud in war. But his true novelty resides in how we should think about our friends. It is at the book’s heart, in the chapter devoted to this issue, that Machiavelli proclaims his originality.
Set aside what you would like to imagine about politics, Machiavelli writes, and instead go straight to the truth of how things really work, or what he calls the “effectual truth.” You will see that allies in politics, whether at home or abroad, are not friends.
Perhaps others had been deluded about the distinction because the same word in Italian — “amici” — is used for both concepts. Whoever imagines allies are friends, Machiavelli warns, ensures his ruin rather than his preservation.
There may be no students more in need of this insight, yet less likely to accept it, than contemporary Americans, both in and outside the government. Like the political moralizers Machiavelli aims to subvert, we still believe a leader should be virtuous: generous and merciful, honest and faithful.
Yet Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
For such a leader, allies are friends when it is in their interest to be. (We can, with difficulty, accept this lesson when embodied by a Charles de Gaulle; we have even greater difficulty when it is taught by, say, Hamid Karzai.) What’s more, Machiavelli says, leaders must at times inspire fear not only in their foes but even in their allies — and even in their own ministers.
What would Machiavelli have thought when President Obama apologized for the fiasco of his health care rollout? Far from earning respect, he would say, all he received was contempt. As one of Machiavelli’s favorite exemplars, Cesare Borgia, grasped, heads must sometimes roll. (Though in Borgia’s case, he meant it quite literally, though he preferred slicing bodies in half and leaving them in a public square.)
Machiavelli has long been called a teacher of evil. But the author of “The Prince” never urged evil for evil’s sake. The proper aim of a leader is to maintain his state (and, not incidentally, his job). Politics is an arena where following virtue often leads to the ruin of a state, whereas pursuing what appears to be vice results in security and well-being. In short, there are never easy choices, and prudence consists of knowing how to recognize the qualities of the hard decisions you face and choosing the less bad as what is the most good.
Those of us who see the world, if not in Manichaean, at least in Hollywoodian terms, will recoil at such claims. Perhaps we are right to do so, but we would be wrong to dismiss them out of hand. If Machiavelli’s teaching concerning friends and allies in politics is deeply disconcerting, it is because it goes to the bone of our religious convictions and moral conventions. This explains why he remains as reviled, but also as revered, today as he was in his own age.
John Scott and Robert Zaretsky are, respectively, the chairman of the department of political science at the University of California, Davis, and a professor of history at the University of Houston. They are the authors of “The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Me, Van Meter, Chotiner On Julia Louis Dreyfus

Van Meter on Julia Louis Dreyfus: http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/julia-louis-dreyfus-talks-veep-enough-said.html

Isaac Chotiner briefly on Van Meter: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115866/julia-louis-dreyfus-profile-new-york-magazine

And me:

....I think she's great, was great in Seinfeld, so funny in Old Christine and a complex, funny, subtle character in Veep, which is an incredibly smart and funny show that seems to nail a lot of the way politics is, in a way that David E. Kelly would like too but can't IMHO.I haven’t seen Enough Said, and look forward to it. Dreyfus has the gift of the zotz.

But I found the sheer, non stop gush of Van Meter's portrayal, finally, an irritating obstruction, (too bad too, for all the vivid, stylish and smart writing), and redolent of a particular sensibility--what could that be I wonder?-- not that there's anything wrong with what it, whatever it might be.

Being a devotee of Larry David, I'd quarrel, without disinterest, with this:

... the fact that Louis-Dreyfus, 52, is the only person from that show who has completely moved on and remained … vital and modern and daring.

Besides that this isn’t a fact, it’s a judgment, it's also comparing apples and mongooses. No fight she’s a more capacious actor than him, and specifically a better comedic actor, his range being so limited, and no fight Clear History was ok, but only so,so. But, besides being the fundamental creative comic pulse of Seinfeld, which will likely never get old, and can stand up well, in its own way,with Veep,the staying power over time of which I tend to doubt, let alone its sheer lack of comparable cultural iconography and resonance, David puts together Curb Your Enthusiasm, writing, acting, producing, sometimes directing, a kind of hovering genius-God over it, the way David Simon was to The Wire, David Chase was to The Sopranos, and the way David Milich was to Deadwood. The Davids have it. And who's to say his accomplishment in Curb Your Enthusiasm is less vital, modern and daring than all of what Dreyfus has *acted in* since Seinfeld?

Some comparisons are necessary and wanted. Some are unneeded and unwanted, or, even if needed and wanted, fallacious in their substance. As here. Hence odious.

Plus I’d add this gush of Van Meter's to Chotiner's list of nine.

As a kind of sidebar postscript, what’s with this: ... Elton John: a national treasure, still trying to surprise us... Really, a national treasure, say the way Sinatra was, or Elvis, or Ray Charles, or Billie Holiday, or Bessie Smith, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Miles Davis, or James Brown, or John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, or Dylan, just to pick a few immediate names from the hat of my mind? I don’t think so, not hardly at all.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Short (Sour) Note On Midnight Train To Lisbon

I just saw Bille August's Night Train To Lisbon, which I found in no particular order, unegaging, puzzling, pretentious, pseudo-arty, boring, and soporific. As to that last characteristic, I can attest to it: I fell asleep for about 20' roughly 1/3 of the way through.

Pretentious and pseudo-arty because the supposedly philosophical profundities in the dead doctor's book are bland thoughts, cliches really, such as about the relations between past, present and future, the discovery of our morality as we age, and the need to live full, vital lives. Not that these thoughts aren't worthy, but the movie confers such an august, no pun intended, imprimatur of depth to them, that the discrepancy between their relative ordinariness and that conferral is irritating.

Puzzling because

SPOILER ALERT, (as if anyone would care)

the love between the doctor and Estefania, so fraught, so intense, so long suppressed, so fought against, as August would have it, contrivedly founders, even as the reasons are given, the moment its possibility eventuates, leading to the response in me of "You've got to be f.....g kidding."

Matching that contrivance is the whole absurd arc of Irons's story, bizarre coincidence generating bizarre coincidence such that you'd think the movie was exercise in a kind of gritty, political revolution-filled and entirely anomalous magic realism.

By the way the reason the girl wants to jump off the bridge in the opening scene is later revealed as equally ridiculous.

IMHO natcherly.

Short Note On Easy Money

I just saw Daniel Espinosa's Easy Money. It has a lot of excellent elements:

good acting,

a strong story line with good side stories that flow easily and naturally in out of the main story,

individual exciting or touching scenes, as intended, especially between the enforcer, Mrado, and his daughter,

the cross sections of Swedish society spanning from immigrant low level criminals to the elite rich and their families,

the familiar, but no less interesting for that, theme of a young man from the provinces, the business student J.W. needing to present himself as rich to maintain his place with his fellow students, the elite rich of his generation he socializes with and the woman among them who falls in love with him and therefore turning to a one off criminal involvement to get rich,

the surprise at the depth of her love for him,

the inherent and remorseless murderous corruption, as in "no honour among thieves," of criminality, and its breeding of desperateness and delusion for those who would seek to gain by it.

And other things too.

But it's often insert, with dull scenes between characters that take too long without enough pay off to warrant their length, and with their inertness being inexcusable.

So I struggled to watch it through, feeling there was something ongoingly worthwhile in it but frustrated by what an effort it all was.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Reason As The Unity Behind All Religions

There was in a recent TNR a long essay by a Harvard history prof, I think a historian of intellectual history, Peter Gordon, which focused on reason as the essence of God and the means of people, as divine in their souls, that divinity marked by reason, apprehending God. That essay spawned a number of interesting and civil conversations on the subsequent thread. Here's my comment addressed to a couple of nice guys, which I think is self contained as to its meaning, if anyone's interested. Highly unlikely. The link follows my comments.

Jack, Wayne:

I agree with both of you on the general insufficiency of "just a story" in characterizing the great religious texts. But, to be a bit contrarian, I can imagine instances when, depending on context, that phrase might be apt, and it could be apt in context with reference to the great texts of literature as well. But it's poor in denying the riches of those texts, even as one comes at them as a non believer, as I do.

I'm interested in Gordon's concluding paragraph in relation to Jack's last comments

....This breakup of the old philosophical union between God and Reason is another name for the great disentanglement in the history of ideas that some theorists still call secularization. The breakup may strike us as irrevocable. But if Fraenkel is right, then the story of philosophical religion reveals a painful irony: the democratic sentiments that now inhibit us from distinguishing between non-philosophers and philosophers have also made it increasingly difficult for us to look past the literal contents of various religious traditions to a shared philosophical commitment within. Our own egalitarianism, in other words, is an obstruction to the kind of contextualist pluralism once upheld by the most subtle thinkers of the Abrahamic religions. The most zealous advocates for religion today are populists and literalists, and they have abandoned the principles of interpretation that made philosophical religion a possibility. Nathan’s is a lonely voice in the midst of war.....

I find a paradox in these comments that goes with a tension in the very theme Gordon presents about the underlying unity of the great religions despite their apparent differences, that unity, in a nutshell in Gordon's words, "...the essential sameness of ethical aspiration..." Gordon traces the argument that when religion had a mind, reason, philosophers, that is to say, could see through superficial variation to the underlying unity: "...But for those who are philosophers like Lessing himself, the variations will seem unimportant...We grow intolerant when we take notice only of the outward forms, but the truly wise will discern the unity within plurality."

The paradox in the general presentation of Gordon's argument for me lies in the simplicity, no less profound for that, of the truth of the content of that unity. For what the story of Nathan tells us, I'd argue, is of the expansive nature of benevolent goodness: "...The judge admonishes the sons to model themselves after their father in unprejudiced affection, each to strive to outdo his brothers in benevolence..." That "ethical aspiration" is the key; and the forms of religion are its husks. So unless Gordon has a different notion of "philosopher" in mind than what the term is usually taken to mean, the different notion perhaps equating wisdom with philosophy, I'm hard pressed to understand why it takes the subtle intellectual capacity, the ability to make logical distinctions, see through the fallacies in arguments, reason rigorously, and so on, I associate with philosophy, to understand that simple though profound unity. I'm hard pressed to understand why that simple but profound truth isn't accessible to most of us non philosophers, why for us "noble lies" are the ticket.

The related paradox in Gordon's concluding paragraph is of the same order: why, if democratic notions of the day command us, in their aim for correctness, to treat all philosophers and non philosophers alike--even granting that doubtful and over-general proposition--is it, again, that most of us can't take in the simple truth of that unity? What need have we, really, for "...the kind of contextualist pluralism once upheld by the most subtle thinkers of the Abrahamic religions?" I can't see how our insistence on egalitarianism--even granting that insistence, which I don't save for the sake of argument here--obstructs our ability to get to that truth.

And isn't Jack making this point when he says,

....Just stories...... without going into apologetics or scientific theorizing I believe these Just Stories can and often do contain comprehensive lessons to include emanating implied material more encompassing and complete than any philosophical dispensation might reveal. Sometimes the unwashed are more constitutionally intuitively informed than the best philosophizers or scientificizers. As a child better disposed to the simple truth....

I'm sure there are answers to these paradoxes and I'm interested in getting them. For me, as I think about it right now, we all understand ethical aspiration and our falling short it every day, every way as the "Satan" in us so inclines us away from it, that we generally resent, suspect and recoil from the type of person we describe as the "do gooder." The world, for me, is too complex for the shining profundity of ethical aspiration. My notion of things is caught by the idea of negative capability, in the words of Wallace Stevens:

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds,

in the pervasive and often tragic clash between "right against right," such that these complexities belie the simplicity and applicability of the ideal of ethical aspiration.

After all, whose ethics and whose means of achieving them?

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115470/carlos-fraenkels-philosophical-religions-reviewed-peter-gordon?hubRefSrc=email#lf_comment=120715170

On Honour And Rob Ford

I've been thinking some about honour lately. That's been prompted by some of what I learned from Michael Sandel's book on justice, and his twelve lectures on justice, What's The Right Thing To Do, as applied to the misadventures of my infamous mayor, Rob Ford, now stripped of much of his power though still retaining the status of his office.

I thought about Falstaff's famous words in the Henry plays, in which he lances empty honour, something Shakespeare loathed, especially at the cost of human life in its name. Falstaff, the pragmatist as cynic, in a negative sense of pragmatist, encapsulates his argument on honour when he says "discretion is the better part of valour." Hotspur embodies one conception of honour that Falstaff rejects. We're much persuaded and amused by and attracted to Falstaff and his views, earthy and grounded, as much as Hal the Prince himself is, in that phase of his life.

But, while Shakespeare creates in Falstaff a figure of irresistible and magnetic vitality, it comes ripping off the page, finally The Prince, that tavern-based part of his life complete, (and Shakespeare too, thematically), rejects Falstaff. He is in his essence a whoring, lying fraud, an embodiment of falsity.

In that rejection lies a distinction between empty honour, its murderous fatuity, and honour with substance, grounding the claims of true valour. For the cynic, nothing is worth anything, nothing that calls for sacrifice counts as worthwhile precisely because it imperils the self. For the cynic only what's good for the self counts as worthwhile. Falstaff is an object lesson in the exclusive claims of the self, claims made all the more difficult to penetrate by virtue of how compellingly attractive he is. And what Prince Hal must leave behind, nay must reject and expel, in donning the sober mantle of responsible power, are those claims, cynical and false as they are.

In his book and lectures, Sandel argues that we must, more than, or in addition to, cost benefit, take account of the integrity, the honourifics, the purpose of any enterprise or project we think important, teleological reasoning, to give it a fancy name. Our reasoning, our arguments, about issues affecting matters we think important, must contain, Sandel argues and I agree, an account of their purpose and must be measured by how the integrity of that purpose is advanced or retarded.

These few thoughts form my view that those who argue that my Mayor ought to be left alone, his private life being private, he not being corrupt in the carrying out of his duties, (and a few eminent people have argued this), miss entirely the dimension of honour and integrity as fundamental to leadership and holding office. Their argument makes the notion of "disgracing the office" meaningless, strips office holding, the higher the office the more so is the case, of a fundamentally important aspect of its meaning. (As for what conduct finally counts as creating that disgrace, that is a separate issue. In the case of Ford, there is for me no question that he has disgraced his office.)

So it's good that Ford has been stripped of much of his functional power. But, for me, it's frustratingly outrageous that he still retains his status as mayor, even while I understand that legally, as things now stand in Ontario, it seems draconian to pass laws, which could in principle be done, only to take away his status as mayor.

To try to put some of this together, Ford stands as an unrejected, unexpelled Falstaff, infecting the mayoralty somewhat as Falstaff would have, had Hal brought him into court as a confidant and close to power.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Interpretation of The Gettysburg Address


.....In July 1863, at Gettysburg, Pa., about 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in a three-day battle. The memorial service held four months later featured a spellbinding speaker, Edward Everett, who started late and went on for two hours. Lincoln had been invited to make a few brief remarks after Everett wrapped up....

....Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth....

________________________________________________________________________________

The biblical resonances in "Four score and seven years ago" set the eighty seven years ago in a vast implicative context that fuses historical time and infinite time. The phrasing echoes the Psalms: "The deliberate days of our years are three score years and ten." Those resonances continue in the phrase "our fathers brought forth," which has echoes of God the Father and of creation itself: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." A new nation is "brought forth" and "conceived," with imagery of aborning creation, and with that language yoking together act and idea: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The intimation of divine creation gets even deeper by the language of all men being "created equal," equal since all men are God's children and so partake of the divine. All this anticipates the explicit recourse near the end of the Address to America as "this nation under God."

By the terms of the Address, however, for all that God watches, it is for men to do.

Act and idea are reinforced by what has been brought forth "on this continent," namely the idea, the "proposition," "that all men are created equal." This idea gives this physical place, "this continent," meaning as America. And America is wholly committed, "dedicated," to the political ideal of equal creation. That commitment is the justification and rationale for the terrible struggle and its wholesale costs that the Address memorializes.

Lincoln carries language of the first paragraph into the second to link the two. "Nation" is thrice repeated. "Conceived" and "dedicated" get repeated. Conception yields dedication to conception's child, the "proposition," and dedication, complete commitment, harbours the need to fight mightily and sacrificially for its validation as tested by the Confederacy: "a great civil war, testing whether." So nation, idea and act are indivisible even as rent in a great struggle in which the stakes are the equality of all men created by God.

The Address moves in historic time from the founding as articulated in the Declaration of Independence to the very moment of Lincoln's speech as there is a temporal coupling in each paragraph's opening words: "Four score and seven years ago;" and the compellingly immediate and direct "Now," which precisely focuses attention after the overarching framework set in the first paragraph. But "Now" expands outward from its own immediacy, contrasting vividly with historic time implicatively set in time everlasting in the first paragraph. "Now" expands to the ongoing great internecine battle that surrounds it and threatens to undo idea and nation: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation."

This language expands time by sweeping in eighty seven years of historic time implicit in the nation as "brought forth." The outward spiral of significance continues and moves to embraces the universality of the dedicated proposition of all men's equal creation: "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." "Long endure" takes the universal widening of "any nation" and projects it into the ongoing future of historic time. Whether any nation can long endure, that test, becomes the ultimate stakes in the great "civil war."

Then an odd but strikingly grand and formal archaism transports us subtly back to the moment of the Address: "We are met..." So Lincoln rhetorically gathers all who hear him and the wounded and dead they consecrate into a great meeting, all bound together in "We." But "are met," too, suggests being watchfully visited by, being watchfully attended on, by someone, something, beyond "We." There is some other intimated watchful presence at this great meeting, which looks ahead to "this nation, under God." But anchoring that intimation, anchoring all of the "We" who "are met" is an awesome and grounded reality. For "We are met on a great battlefield of that war." So much is implicit in these words as layers of meaning reverberate against each other: the different types of time, idea and act, a nation, all nations "so conceived and dedicated," immediacy and consequence ranging to the limits of historic time, the latter to be bound up in "shall not perish from the earth."

The present perfect "We are met"--that fuses the active in denoting the act of meeting and being attended upon with the passive denoting something that has happened even while it still happens: "We" have met and are meeting and are being met by--continues in "We have come." The reason for the great meeting is a dedication. And the act of dedication, an utter commitment, echoes, though faintly, the originating dedication of men on a place, "this continent," conceiving and bringing forth a nation wholly committed to an idea, "that all men are created equal." And that faint echo of original conception has a parallel in "a portion of that field," which itself is a small physical part of "this continent."

There is contraction in "this continent" down to "a great battlefield" down even more to "a portion of that field." We move in this contraction from idea to a great testing action to the relatively lesser significance of the dedication that the living "We" have come to do. And the language of the Address in the last two lines of the second paragraph becomes less grand, less formal, simpler and more direct, consisting entirely, except for "altogether," of one and two syllable words. The utter simplicity and directness of "for those who here gave their lives" that that nation might live" convey the fact of death in sacrifice for an idea. That idea, as contrasted with the sheer, brute fact of deaths, is captured in "nation," an idea in action as introduced in the first paragraph, and  is captured by the conditional "might live."

The movement from idea to action--being in the latter part of the second paragraph the consequence of death--and back to idea continues in that paragraph's final proclamation of complete decorum and appropriateness: "It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." In that proclamation resides, again, a lesser significance. For foremost in importance is the sacrifice of the dead for the sake of the nation's existence, which is also to say, for the sake of its animating idea. And, so, the living who memorialize and consecrate stand, in a sense, in the shadow of the sacrificed dead. They, the sacrificed dead, paradoxically in death will assume a greater significance than the living  "We," who can do no more, ostensibly, in relation to them than commemorate, which is to say,  register propriety, for as important that is: "it is altogether fitting and proper."

Propriety, as noted, is, in one sense a shadow, paling in significance compared to the transcendent subject of the commemoration. And so propriety and decorum, "fitting and proper," for all their importance, have their limit. That limit, and the sharp contrast between rite and subject of the rite find expression in the Address's  act of intellectual negation, heralded by a "But," as the prose of the third paragraph becomes less aphoristic and declarative and becomes more expository, the "But" as if to say, "Wait, stop. We must understand something":

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

The "larger sense," overshadowing the "altogether fitting and proper," is the idea that the "We" the remaining living, have no power over the dead, have no power to limit them and where they lie by the very acts of dedication, consecration and hallowing. For consecration is dedication, singling out, for a sacred purpose; and to hallow, too, is to set apart as holy. So immense and profound are the power and significance of those who sacrificed that they, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here," cannot be confined to, delimited by, memory and rite, however sacred.

No, continues the argument of the Address, in an act of intellectual inversion, turning rite and propriety upside down, "the brave men" by the immensity of their sacrifice for the nation as idea in action have done the dedicating, the consecrating and the hallowing. "We" the living can do only little, if even that, in relation to their consecration in our act of ritual commemoration: "far above our poor power to add or detract."

The argument continues: what and who the world will remember are the dead and their perdurable sacrifice. And in this reasoning lies the basis for what dedication ought to consist of and that surpasses "altogether fitting and proper." The sacrificed do not so much need rites accorded to them by the living "We." What they need, rather, is for their bravery and giving up of their lives to be continued in ongoing action, in dedication and re-dedication, in the ongoing singular commitment, of the living to the very idea the dead died for: "that all men are created equal," the very idea in action, "conceived in liberty," that binds a people together, and together to a place, which is to say, a nation.

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

As the argument of the third paragraph speaks its content, the prose moves in the paragraph's last few lines from the more expository back to the more formal and the more declarative in fulfillment of the Address's reaching out for capaciousness, its "larger sense."

Officialdom, an act of near to institutional will, is implicit in "we here highly resolve." And in that resolution lies a further paradox: for all the immense sanctifying and consecrating significance of the dead's sacrifice, that significance is, too, a dependent fragility. For without the dedication and re-dedication of "We" the living to the fulfilment of the idea for which they died, again, a nation-creating idea, the dead "will have died in vain." "We" the living thus become subject to a powerful obligation. Meeting that obligation, striving to fulfill America as an idea, the idea "that all men are created equal," is what will make the sacrifice of the dead have ongoing lived meaning and substance. And so if the world takes little note of the Address, it will remember the sacrifice of the dead by the ongoing acts of "We" the living.

The continuation of the nation as an idea, the officialdom and institutionality implicit in "we here highly resolve," "here" rooting us in these people, at this place, at this time, continues in the concluding, subsuming and synthesizing idea of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Where, at its origins, the nation was "conceived in liberty" and dedicated to equality as a proposition, tested and fought and died for by too many, now equality and liberty both find re-creation in "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." And both find their place in the idea of a certain kind of government, of, by and for the people.

So what "We" the living highly resolve," "resolve" itself signifying national will and a near to an institutionally moved purpose, has three related and culminating constituents, each folding into the next: "that these dead shall not have died in vain;" "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom;" and "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." That last looks and goes back and meets what has been said to have been tested, "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

The final vision of democratic government, as the Address has it, goes beyond America itself to sweep into its large embrace "any nation," all nations really, which dedicate themselves to this democratic idea, which houses liberty and equality, implicitly by the concluding words and thoughts of the Address inextricably linked.

As said, God watches, but He leaves it for men to do.

And so the Address moves from a founding idea anchoring the creation of a nation, to the testing of that nation as idea in an awesome and tragic war, to the appropriate rites and dedications to the dead by the living, to the inversion of that idea in the dead in effect consecrating the ground where they lie by their sacrifice so long as the living ongoingly fulfill the purpose for which they died, to the high resolve of dedication to that ongoing task, which then holds within itself an idea of democratic government and its promise of liberty and equality for any nation, all nations, dedicated to this idea for all historical time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Note On Joseph Epstein's Out Of Action

Out Of Action, a recent short story of Joseph Epstein, a master of the form, follows the deep struggle of an addicted gambler to keep from downing in his addiction. Eddie Rothman, the gambler, goes weekly and steadily to Gamblers Anonymous, meets other addicts and the story turns on his relationship with one of them.

Remarkable in the story is the unsparing, almost dry, compelling account of the gambling life, how it drives those addicted, how life is plain and grey "out of action," how being "in action," "in the life," juices life up, gives it a raison d'être in the excitement big time, expensive betting generates, and how, as the losses inevitably mount, marriages and lives get laid bare and destroyed. Epstein describes how some addicted gamblers mark their shirt collars with lipstick so their wives will think money is being spent on an affair rather than on gambling, understood as worse.

The narrative prose seems expository in its account of the gambling life and the attempt to keep it under wraps. It is plain spoken and has an unrelenting matter of fact quality to it. There is artfulness in that. The blunt reality of the prose penetrates gambling's allure and conveys inevitable loss and wreckage of human life as if to say, "There is no gainsaying these unglamorous truths, which consist of the desperation, the plain desperation to which addicted gambling reduces human life." The flat, spare, unrelenting prose conveys both that plain desperation and the prosaic day by day will that is necessary to try to survive it.

I will leave it to others to judge for themselves the ultimate literary strength of Out Of Action, but, as I say, the depiction of addicted gambling is remarkable.

The story is paywalled or otherwise I'd link to it. But for anyone wanting to read it it can easily be found. Here's the abstract.

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/out-of-action/

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Basman On Dennett on Wieseltier And Pinker In The New Republic




http://www.edge.org/conversation/dennett-on-wieseltier-v-pinker-in-the-new-republic

Part 1

Me to another guy on Dennett on Wieseltier linked to below:


Dennett....It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities....

Me.....But it's "true enough" says Dennett. He may not have liked how W gets to the point, how he merely asserts it, whatever, but it's his whole case in a microcosm. It's a (self evident?) premise his argument is built on.

Dennett..... Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation....

Me....Don't we need to distinguish between the social science part of the humanities, which W doesn't do, and the arts part of the humanities? And while accumulated knowledge likely, I don't know enough to comment, leads I guess to progress in the social science, it surely doesn't for literature, art, music, dance, film, etc. or for philosophy. And that's his point here.

Dennett...but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism. Consider, for instance, this obiter dictum from Wieseltier:

...It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.....

Me....In what sense irreducible? What inwardness, exactly, are we discussing? How has its autonomy as a category been established? In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope. And notice the ambiguity: is the study of those many expressions itself a matter governed by the rules of empirical research, or is it just another set of expressions of inwardness, interpretations of interpretations of interpretations?

Part 2

Dennett.....Philosophical matters are those that demand answers that can stand up to all things considered and hence cannot be addressed without suspending the enabling assumptions of any more specific field of science or inquiry. Wieseltier seems to believe that these matters are the exclusive province of philosophers, professionals who have been licensed to hold forth on them because of some advanced training in the humanities that qualifies them to do this important work.

That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it, but the plain fact is that every discipline generates philosophical issues as it advances, and they cannot be responsibly addressed by thinkers ignorant of the facts (the findings, the methods, the problems) encountered in those disciplines....

Me.....I'm just not following this in relation to W nor simply in what some of it says. For example, and to start, what is the meaning of the first sentence. I'm struggling with it. I understand the first part, I think: philosophical conclusions, or reasoning along the way, must be capable of withstanding any fair attack from any vantage point--"all things considered." It's the part that follows in that sentence that confuses me. So if one, say, wants to address philosophically the idea, W's main point, that the sciences and the humanities proceed incompatibly in approaching reality, neither having much to offer the other, then a quantitative psychologist would have to do what to address W's point: suspend his discipline's operating/enabling assumptions?

I'm lost.

But what does any of that, whatever it means, have to do with W's argument?

Dennett takes W's argument that what comprises the place and limits of science is not the province of science as such but of philosophy as such:

....The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science...

to mean that only in the cloistered precincts of philosophy can science's limits and place be defined and that scientists have nothing to add to it.

....That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it...

But that's, I think, a nonsensical, off stride view of what W is saying. He's saying, rather, that when scientists speak of the limits and place of science they aren't *necessarily* in virtue of being scientists in a better position to pronounce on them than any others, as they necessarily are when they speak scientifically about things, that the limits and place of science is a philosophical question not a scientific one. (And Dennett, you'll recall, begins by agreeing, dismissively mind you, that W is right: ...This is true enough...)

Part 3

Dennett....A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn't read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments.

Me:....I used to study English literature up to getting an MA. I have kept up a little in the trends in academic literary criticism, albeit increasingly as an amateur, a layman, someone increasingly distanced from the field. I know slightly there has been some movement in it to read neuro-science and cognitive into the critical reading of texts.

My academic friends don't think much of it. I really can't comment but remain skeptical and report that reaction for what it is worth.

Here the best eaten pudding for proof is made up of the examples Pinker offers as evidence for how applying science enriches the study of the arts. I can't think of any examples that are in the least persuasive and, going from memory, recall W decimating his example of the learning of psychology deepening  our understanding of the beginning of Anna Karenina on the sameness of happy families and the singularity of unhappy families.

There's another point to be made here that shows why Dennett is off base. Literature, other arts,  remain to be studied in their own terms. I can't tell you how many essays I've read, for example, about Keats's two lines about truth and beauty, which essays became an extended discussion, in the way of philosophy, of those lines wrenched from poetic context.

They're nonsense as a matter of a proper, as the academy would have it, critical appreciation of the poem, the nonsense stemming from the disjuncture between the understanding those lines as part of and integrally connected to the poem and the essays' philosophical excursions.

Northrop Frye wrote correctly in The Anatomy of Criticism, paraphrase, that critical emphasis should bear proportion to the emphasis in the text. A corollary of that proposition is art that should be critically understood by reference to the artistic use of the artistic materials being considered, language and its usage, paint and its usage, etc. I'd venture the thought that neuro science or psychology, other sciences, have not much to tell us about the critical appreciation of texts unless the author incorporates that content into his work.

Dennett concluding .......Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

Me.....Dennett  here misreads W and distorts his argument. (A circumstantial indicator is that W wouldn't use the word "problematics" and disdains those who do, just as he disdains Pomo as jargon ridden distraction.)

W has no fear of thinkers from the outside invading protected turf and I'd ask for textual evidence of this in his essay. Nor, in the same vein, does W want to "defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs." This distortion, as noted, runs through Dennett's short piece.

W isn't in the academy and he has no territorial turf to defend as such. He is concerned to stand against wrong claims that science has something to offer the "internal" study of the arts, I.E. not the sociology of them, the economics of them, the neuro-cognitive nature of our responses to them, and so on, but the critical appreciation of the arts on their terms.

Behind W's position lies his confrontation with Pinker's claim that Stephen Jay Gould was wrong, (as was C.P. Snow), that the sciences and the humanities are not distinct realms of experience, do not approach experience fundamentally differently. These themes are different from what Dennett ascribes to W.

 I'll end this by repeating a just made point. Let Pinker or Dennett give good examples to support how the insights of science aid us in the critical appreciation of the arts, and then we'd have something more fruitful to discuss.





Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dershowitz On Approval Now For Iran

From Haaretz, 9,6,13


Congressional approval for a punitive-deterrent strike against Syria’s use of chemical weapons should not be misunderstood by Iran, Israel, or anyone else. The decision, which involved many moving parts, was not intended to show any weakened resolve to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nor was it intended to represent any American trend toward increasing isolationism, either in relation to the world in general or the Middle East in particular.

The president’s decision to take his case to Congress was the result of a complex of reasons, both constitutional and political. It was made by a president who had campaigned on the principle that congressional approval for non-emergency military actions is generally desirable and sometimes legally required. But it was also made by a president who had committed our nation to a red line, which if crossed, would demand a response.

Hence the conflict: A president cannot commit his nation to a red line if he is also committed to securing congressional approval before responding to the crossing of that red line. What if Congress denies approval? Must the president still keep his red line commitment? If he does not, what does this say about other red line commitments, such as that made regarding Iran’s efforts to secure nuclear weapons? How will Iranian mullahs interpret the president’s decision to go to Congress? And how will the Israeli government respond to it? Will misunderstandings increase the likelihood of a military confrontation with Iran? These questions and the uncertainty of the answers reflect the dilemma posed by the president’s decision to go to Congress after drawing a red line that Syria has crossed.

There is a way out of this dilemma, at least with regard to Iran and its future actions. The president should secure congressional approval now as to the red line with Iran.

President Obama should ask Congress for authorization now to take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program if it were to cross the red line he has already drawn. If Congress gives its approval, that action will increase the deterrent threat currently directed against Iran, by underscoring the red line as having been drawn both by the president and by Congress. It should leave no doubt in the minds of the Iranian mullahs that the president not only has the will to enforce the red line but also has the authority from Congress to do so.

Having the authority to engage in military action does not require that the president take such action; it only empowers him to do so if he chooses, without further action by Congress. But as President Obama has repeatedly warned: he does not bluff; if he says he will not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons, he means it—unless Congress stops him. If Congress were now to give advance approval to the red line with Iran, the mullahs will understand that there will be no stopping the President from keeping his word. Only if the mullahs believe that President Obama will attack their nuclear reactors if they cross the red line will there be any hope of deterring them from doing so. The goal is not to have the President actually attack Iran. It is to persuade Iran that he will do so if they defy the will of Congress, the President and the American people by crossing the red line.

President Obama has already shown Iran that he is willing to take military action against Syria without the approval of the UN Security Council, Great Britain, NATO, the Arab League and other representatives of the international community—as long as he has the approval of Congress. This is especially important with regard to Iran, because Congress is more likely to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program than is the international community.

There are dangers is drawing red lines too far in advance of them being crossed. A president who commits his nation to taking action if the line is crossed ties his hands, as the events in Syria demonstrate. But President Obama has already tied his hands on Iran—and properly so. He has made a commitment not only to the American people whose national security would be placed at risk by a nuclear armed Iran, but also to the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel, for whom a nuclear armed Iran poses an even greater threat. And Israel has acted—or forborne from acting—in reliance on that firm commitment. Now these American allies must be assured—and America’s enemies, especially Iran, must be warned—that President Obama is capable of keeping his promise, and that Congress won’t stop him from doing so.

Iran is different from Syria. America’s national interest would be directly weakened if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons. It has not been directly weakened by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. The case for a red line against Iran is far stronger than it was for a red line against Syria.

Congress should first authorize the president to keep his commitment with regard to Syria. Then it should authorize the president to keep his far more important commitment with regard to the red line against Iran. This dual congressional action will strengthen America’s position in the world and will help to prevent the game-changing disaster of a nuclear-armed Iran.



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wieseltier vs Basman: Boston Bombing: Don't Move On

Wieseltier TNR, 4, 24, 13

...Almost as soon as the bombs exploded on Boylston Street the calls were heard to move on. “Repair the sidewalk immediately,” exhorted one commentator, “fix the windows, fill the holes, and leave no trace—no shrines, no flowers, no statues, no plaques—and return life to normal there as fast as possible.” Anything less would be a victory for the terrorists, who should not be allowed, as if it is within our power to disallow it, to leave “even the smallest scar” on our cities and our psyches. “The best response to a tragedy such as the one in Boston,” declared another commentator, “is to go on with your life, eyes open.” 

The advice was perfectly anodyne—but who, except the victims of the atrocity, was preparing to do anything else? A security expert pronounced that “this is a singular event, and not something that should drive policy.” His certainty that there was nothing to be learned from the attack was expressed long before we learned very much about the attack. There was a lot of uplift, too, in the discussion of the horror, which was understandable, since there is nothing as comforting as cliché; but it seemed similarly panicked by the prospect of a rupture in quotidian American existence, of a disruption in the inertia of a good life. Some of this silly balm consisted in local chauvinism: suddenly everybody was singing the Standells. “They picked the wrong city,” 

President Obama said, along with many others. Which city would have been the right city? He also proclaimed proudly that “Americans refuse to be terrorized.” But Americans were terrorized, on the day of the bombing and on the day of the manhunt; and they were right to be terrorized, because what they had in their midst was terrorism.

Moving on is of course one of the quintessential expressions of the American spirit, and of the American shallowness. Our religion is the religion of movement; stillness offends our sense of possibility. We dodge the darker emotions by making ourselves into a moving target for them. We feel, but swiftly. This emotional efficiency, this cost-benefit calculus of the heart, is at once a strength and a weakness: you cannot be damaged by what cannot sink in. And so we acquire resilience through transience, and stoicism through speed. We cling desperately to the illusion of our immunity, even after it has just been disproved by experience, and to the fiction of the pastness of the past: we call it “closure,” which is just a decision not to care anymore, and not to let experience intrude any further. 

We need desperately to know that our insulation is intact. Hence the haste to get the marathon massacre behind us, to hold the memorial service and plan the next marathon. We are sometimes so anxious not to overreact that we underreact. Perhaps some people worried, in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, that if we lingered too long over the outrageous fact of what had been done to us, if we were patient with fear and tolerant with anger, then we, I mean our government, might be tempted to do something, and some airborne division might be dispatched for some more shock and awe. After all, if any past is not past, it is 2003. (The worry is plainly ridiculous, as our government prefers highly analytical inaction.) In any event, we decided that every detail of our lives before the bombings was now sacred. Americans do not like to be inconvenienced by history. 

We sometimes comport ourselves as if history is itself an inconvenience.
I remember reading these vicious lines by Frank Bidart, in 2002 in The Threepenny Review, in a poem called “Curse” about the terrorists of September 11: 
May what you have made descend upon you.
May the listening ears of your victims     their eyes     their

breath

enter you, and eat like acid
the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.
I greatly admired their wrath. 

Sometimes anger is apposite, a sign that you have accurately understood what has befallen you; and the absence of anger a sign of intellectual or moral confusion. Most of the curses I heard during the week of Boston’s ordeal were directed at the allegedly heavy hand of law enforcement! The same with fear: it may have a basis in reality, and when it does it should be respected. Sometimes it is fearlessness that is unintelligent, and its consequences are not always laudable.
 
Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken. Only a stupid society would refuse to acknowledge that its safety, and its peace of mind, may be affected by resentments and metaphysics that come from far away—from what Fouad Ajami recently described, in connection with the Tsarnaev brothers, as “the seam between countries and cultures.” Even though we must harbor no fantasy of invulnerability, we must not be glib about our vulnerabilities. Keep calm and carry on, sure—but also think strategically, and make adjustments, and learn lessons. 

Are there really no policy conclusions to be drawn from Boston? I do not believe it. The professors of risk, who peddle reassuring probabilities and are more anguished about whether cigarettes should be seen in the stores that sell them, measure evils only quantitatively, which has a certain consciousness-lowering effect.
Vigilance, increased and intense, is not a victory for the terrorists. Mourning, and the time it takes, is not a victory for the terrorists. 

Reflection on all the meanings and the implications—on the fragility of our lives—on terrorism and theodicy—is not a victory for the terrorists. A less than wholly sunny and pragmatic view of the world is not a victory for the terrorists. What happened on Boylston Street was not a common event, but it was not a singular event. There is a scar. Taking terrorism seriously is not a victory for terrorism.

Me:

...I didn’t like it much better second time round. “Why?” nobody asks.
For one, the premise isn’t earned: the anecdotal “Let’s move on” exhorted by a few commentators is hardly a firm for the premise of a deeply engrained American impulse here to get past it, forget it, assume again delusions of relative imperviousness, get closure, and make the passed past, in a word or two “Move on.” How does Wieseltier propose to demonstrate, provide the metrics by which to gauge, the accurate, singularity of American sensibility here.
For two, why the condescension towards what would be a universal desire to get some purchase on some relative sense of normalcy, to get back to daily life, to a “good life” or the best life lone can manage?
For three, consider the logical fallacy of the excluded middle between the binaries of moving on or dwelling with, absorbing, internalizing this latest terrorism on American soil. How does the desire for such normalcy in the wake of it entail just moving on without dwelling on it, considering it, absorbing it, internalizing it? Why can’t the desire for some daily normalcy coexist with dealing with the terror?
For four, why the snotty condescension to Americans, Bostonians, and the President wanting to vaunt the muscularity of Boston in the face of the attack? Isn’t that standing strong and municipally proud a good symbolic fist in the face of would be terrorists and their enablers, however ineffectual? And why the snotty condescension in the phrase “the silly balm of local chauvinism? Why “silly?” As just briefly explained, it’s understandable, all to the good, and it’s people seeking meaning and healing via civic pride and via certain touchstones of iconic local popular culture. /// For four, what’s with the pedantic mincing, chop logic and slicing of the meanings of words and phrases? Is this man so indwelling in his own convoluted head that he cannot recognize the attempt at invigorating sentiment in “They picked the wrong city?” Does he want to suggest Obama was in some way implying that there might have been “a right city? Does he want to suggest that Obama is saying Bostonians and Americans were not terrorized when he said “Americans refuse to be terrorized.” Is he buried so deep inside his own convolution and presumed superior sense of things that he fails to understand Obama’s words as a call to strength, as encouraging the refusal of the public to be cowed by these acts? Does he want to suggest that these words are a call to mindless obliviousness, immune from accommodating th meanings and consequences of what happened?
For five, the entirety of the second paragraph is a highly impressionistic paean to nothing so much as Wieseltier’s patently self congratulatory assertion of his own profundity, superior sensibility, and brilliance in diagnosis of the American sensibility. Evidence please to shore up that diagnosis, of the lack of a sense of living history in the American mind, of dodging the darker emotions, of clinging desperately to “an illusion of immunity, of the panic-stricken desire for indifference, that Americans aren’t lingering enough over the bombing, and all the other items so sneeringly laid out. And what of the utter abstracted stupidity that closes the second paragraph: the surmise that perhaps some are worried if Boston is too long lingered over America might be moved to reiterate some iteration of attacking Iraq—...some airborne division might be dispatched for some more shock and awe... Is he really positing that as an imaginable possibility, or is it just a disingenuous rhetorical ploy to give context to a snivelling swipe at Obama—The worry is plainly ridiculous,-- (as though anyone sane is harboring such worries)—as our government prefers highly analytical inaction...? (To be noted that this is about the 9.569th time Wieseltier has faulted Obama for not doing more war like things, without ever once hinting at one concrete detail of what these things might include.)
For six, evidence please: for the lack of righteous anger, for intellectual and moral confusion, for the curses directed at the “allegedly” heavy hand of law enforcement. My Canadian’s sense of the response from the wall to wall cable television coverage, from such of the American conversation within earshot via American radio, from reading news papers and magazines, from watching the investigation unfold, the beginnings of the administration of criminal justice, the mooting of the related questions of rights and liberties in the specifics of the case, from seeing these questions raised, from, most genrally, sensing the burning desire to have satiated the overarching preoccupation with “Why?” with “How from the shadow of thought to the act?” is a screamingly loud refutation of the entirety of Wieseltier’s diagnosis and his “superior” recommendations. Recommendations to do what specifically? Why nothing really.
For seven, evidence please of this society’s sense of its security left unshaken, of its stupidity to be inferred therefrom, of its fantasies of invulnerability, of the refusal to try to draw policy conclusions, of an Administration, as representative of its people, and its agencies not trying to do their best to cope with, deter, defend against terror at home and aboard, all lost in a complacent miasma of inactivity. For six, I have no doubt, I assume, I would bet on it, those is whose duty it is to consider what the policy consequences of this terrorism might be are doing their due considering. But please Wiesletier, so sure of the nascent policy consequences waiting full birth, gives us a hint. What policy consequences occur to you that you’d care to detail? I’m equally certain, assume, would bet on it, that one this question, you have nothing to say.
So I’ll finish where I began a few comments above: ... this is one of stupidest, most supercilious, overwrought, going nowhere things Wiselseltier has ever written in these pages...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

On Theme In Literature: A Response To A Friend


First of all, for Aristotle plot, the causality among events,  which I previously suggested is, as causality, an aspect of my conception of theme as world view--theme NOT BEING a moral or homily to be ascribed, tacked on, simple-mindedly to a text, as in an Aesop fable-- is more important than character. That's against you saying: ...  I follow the fortunes of characters, sympathizing, mocking, admiring, puzzling over motives, but with the expectation that it will lead somewhere significant.... And what you say, now that I've considered it, seems in fact inconsistent with an Aristotelean notion of plot. 

I think Aristotle is right that plot is more important than character. I may not understand what he meant, only having in my mind what has been said commonly about him, but it makes sense in the context of what I mean. 

Character doesn't exist outside world. It is a function of world. It is in a good book an effective representation of people so that we are interested, affected, aroused, moved, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes distraught and so on. That's what responding to literature involves. But moving from response to critical response means to think through one's feelings, which itself involves necessarily asking what it all means. That involves understanding character in light of what it all means. For that, what you "follow," which is of course fine, is inadequate to critical understanding, I'd respectfully argue.

And it is in the context of this understanding that "Trust the teller..." Is to be understood. The issue is of course the tale itself as contra-distinct from some external stated intention. But that trust needs a refinement beyond what you say you follow. The tale itself in its literary properties, in all its complexities, in understanding why sometimes just what you feel about say one character  is insufficient when seen against the whole, is what engenders resolutionary meaning, even if ambiguous and paradoxical--those qualities part of the essence of good literature.

Not to cavil, but saying stories are different from life, to escape truism, must mean that stories represent a vision life. For a God based writer, that representation may be of a universe determined by a God. His fiction may cleave to that. If the author wants to project a world of chance, of contingency, he will represent that. And one more point, your distinction between life--as chance, "no coherent pattern"-and literary art--as presumably constituted by "coherent patterns," my very argument in fact--needs the addition of the complicating fact that we in life see the world in coherent patterns, however things impinge on us, and literary art is of a piece with us in the nature of things seeing what's around us as world, as coherent pattern.

It's in these terms that I'd speak about the theme of Lear, or, more to immediate hand, Gatsby. For Lear, I'd have to give it some thought. For Gatsby, which I've been thinking about lately for obvious reasons, I'd conceptualize it as a matter of intellectual shorthand as something like irretrievably blackened idealism. 

I don't agree at all with your notion of theme, needless to say.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines


I thought it was great. For all its length I didn't want it to end. It had me from the first long opening shot to the final lingering shot of the place the kid rides away from, leaves the place beyond the pines behind to get to a place beyond the place beyond the pines.

I've heard people say the third part is a let down. Not to me. I think it's a fitting complement to, and resolution of, the movie's themes as they expand in scope, complexity, intensity and depth from part to part to part.

I'm going from imperfect memory here.

I ask myself what's the movie about, as well as how it's about what it's about, as Ebert used to say. I think it's about a great many things but a central and rather slapping-one-across-the-face thing is the theme of fathers and sons and the generational consequences of fathers' acts and omissions. So Gosling's father, absent as one, leaves a drifting wayward son. Gosling is determined, partly in reaction to that, to do right by his son, who is some of the wages of the drift of his life. 

He's so elemental that unnuanced linearity is of his laconic  essence. He will do right by his son. He quits his job. He tells Eva Mendes to be with him. She asks, trying to maintain and ascend a more complex linear path, how will he take care of them. Bourgeois stability, the opposite of what he has been in his life, is important to her even if she struggles with her deep attraction to him: she has a man, a house, a job, schooling she's doing. Her return fling with him is mostly that. So now he sees he needs more money than his bust out job can possibly provide him, seeing materially with what he needs to compete for her. So he cottons on to Mendelsohn's original suggestion of robbing banks, which he does with his own extreme, fear-induced excitable, flair.

Now he feels he can get Mendes and his child to be with him. He thinks it will just happen. And we expect, at this point not realizing how tis movie goes, that he will confront her new man, and beat his time. His simple mindedness has him unable to understand propriety. He just shows up at her house, owned by her partner. He in effect busts in to her house with a crib and starts assembling it thinking nothing of it. Her man confronts him, with due shock at his mindless temerity, just coming in, thinking to turn their lives upside down, just like that. And the new man's more bourgeois stability, house, job, providing for his "family" proves no match for the muscled, outlaw, outlier strength  and violence Gosling wreaks of. But just at the point that one might think he's done what he needs to to dispose of the competition, Mendes is utterly shocked and repulsed by him and lovingly tends to her man.

As we ascend class to the next part of the movie, we move into greater moral murkiness and complex ambiguity. Cooper, a bar passed patrol cop, the son of a well regarded judge, who he's driven to react against in his life, is of his essence a morally divided man, so restlessly ambitious he rips off his hospital tubes and aids and tries immediately to get out of bed. His shooting of Gosling is, *to my mind,* his attempt to jet himself ahead in his career. He had no need to enter the home, having called for back up. He probably broke protocol by doing so. He knew Gosling was upstairs. He needn't have entered the room as sirens signalled other police arriving. He made a desperate lunge for the career propulsion of heroics. He burst into the room shooting first.

The scenes between him and Bruce Greenwood, especially the first one, are marvels of nuance and levels of meaning consistent with ambiguous morality. Greenwood ambivalently investigates him in that first interview while signalling explicitly to him what to say. 

Then the intensity of Cooper's desire to one better his father is steeped in naïveté when he tells his commanding officer he wants to be made Lieutenant and the head of a squad. And his simmering reaction against his father is evident when he says in his speech, with his father watching, that he wishes to act to serve justice rather than sit and talk about it.

His marriage fails and his overweening ambition and guilt ridden moral ambiguity seem to be part of what wrecked it and in seem in significant part to have yielded his complex, morally deficient son, who is so self-alienated that, in his absurd wiggery, he can't be any kind of authentic self. Gosling's son, absent a biological father, a source of some inner emptiness, still has the benefit of a father in Mendes's partner, who's shown as an uncomplicated good man who has made a stable good life for Mendes, their daughter, and Gosling's son. In Gosling's conception of family, Mendes, their child and his motorcycle all have pride of place.

Generational circles start to close in the complicated relationship between the sons and in Gosling's son's growing realization of who his biological father is and was, learning of it from Mendelsohn--note the bike riding as an echo of his father's motorcycle riding--the kind of brilliant outlaw, outlier gifts Gosling had, his outlawry itself, and how he died at the hands of Cooper. 

But lineage isn't destiny, though virtually necessary to, but not sufficient for, the kind of man a son will be. So transcending any necessary fate, that aided by the fathering he's gotten from Mendes's partner, Gosling's son murders neither Cooper, who is both politically triumphant and abject when kneeling before Gosling's son in his grief out of his love for his son who he imagines has been shot, nor murders Cooper's son. 

And in the end, lighting out, Gosling's son, on his motorcycle, literally and metaphorically leaving the place beyond the pines for a place beyond that point, sets out to seek to make his own new destiny out of the soil of both his complex past and who he understands himself to be as evidenced in not getting imprisoned within the enclosing of the generational circle around him. In leaving and riding he is both his fathers and he is own young man too.