May 27, 2010

Time for a Break

Have a great weekend and honor the brave men and women who put it all on the line to defend America and the world. Pull for BP and the topkill; there needs to be a limit to selbstschadenfreude. Consider, for just two things, the pelicans and the dolphins. When we get to the point where "shorting the biosphere" seems like a good play, we have surely lost our minds completely.

Lines from a great mind about the nature of overload and the failure to appreciate the beauty of the world, which is how we get into these jams:

THE WORLD is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, 5
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather’d now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,— 10
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├ęd horn.

h/t William Wordsworth

May 26, 2010

Sweet Home, America

(Click on the box to see the whole thing, if necessary.) Oddly enough, for such a hip, urban, secular guy (I don't care what you think, I was describing me), I'm originally from Alabama, the Heart of Dixie, as was my mother and a bunch of ancestors before me. Where the magnolias bloom and the oil-soaked waves gently lap the shore in Mobile. However, I've been in California since the age of six months or so (with a brief timeout in Denver, CO), so I don't retain much in the way of Southernness. Goes to show the power of acculturation; I've got all these wacky ideas most closely associated with Northern California, which for many people in the USA may as well be an alternate universe. We think differently out here, that's for sure, and the gap widens as time passes.

Changes occur to the whole country over time, of course. I'm old enough to descry significant changes in American culture which have occurred over my lifetime, brief as it's been. Sometimes such moments of recognition happen when I'm reading a book written during my time here on Earth but from a significantly different era, such as the Fifties or Sixties. These can be good sources of comparison, more reliable than a contemporary book written about the same era, because a modern writer is influenced by his immediate environment. I have a lot of old books around the house which have somehow managed to survive my periodic purges, which take the form of (a) throwing away (recycling), (b) lending and never seeing again, and (c) donating to the local public library. I found one the other day by Richard Feynman called The Meaning of It All, actually a transcribed series of lectures (the John Danz Lectures) given in April, 1963, which Professor Feynman gave at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Feynman's reference to the "meaning of it all" should be taken literally: that's what he was talking about, life's meaning. In his characteristic no-nonsense, colloquial, simple (yet profoundly deep) way, Feynman spoke about the effect of science education on belief in God. Feynam was an atheist, but he had no difficulty accepting religious belief in others. He did share some of the attitudes of the modern "atheist movement" (Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris), but he didn't get too worked up about it. He saw religion's pernicious qualities, its tendency to encourage dogmatic irrationality, pogroms, the Inquisition, religious wars, et cetera, but he was not on a crusade. It's amusing to wonder whether he would have the same equanimity now.

Anyway, in his usual brilliant way, Feynman describes what happens to the thinking of an intelligent person when he encounters formal scientific education at the college level. He first learns the advantage of doubt and skepticism in general, as necessary for scientific thinking. The tentative nature of theory and hypothesis, epistemological uncertainty in general. This creates a scientific "attitude" of questioning everything, even religious beliefs. The student then learns about the actual structure of the Universe, the speck of dust on which humans live, our similarity to animals (and to plants, such as the benzene ring found in chlorophyll, the benzene ring found in hemoglobin), the fact that our speck of dust orbits one star among billions of such stars in our own galaxy, and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of many billions of galaxies in the known Universe...and the student begins to wonder, wasn't this a rather complicated arrangement for Somebody to put together if the whole thing is just about humans? Doesn't the religious view make more sense as the anthropocentric (not that Feynman would ever use such a ten dollar word) conceit of primitives who didn't know about all this other stuff?

I didn't know exactly what was going on in my own mind when I traveled that journey myself, but that describes pretty well how it all happened I think. Feynman concluded part of the lectures by saying, "There was another tremendous argument when it was found likely that man descended from the animals. Most religions have retreated once again from the metaphysical position that it wasn't true."

April, 1963. I think it's important to note the month, because all of us who were alive and cognizant of what was going on at the time remember what happened about 7 months later. That was a watershed in American history. I don't think the country was ever the same after the Kennedy assassination. In some ways, I think the whole Kennedy conspiracy industry is an unconscious revolt at the idea it can be explained as the act of one madman, because the effects were too momentous. A pall hung over the nation, a pall that has never really lifted. Before Kennedy died, the country was in its stride; after...not so much.

I think Richard Feynman might be surprised to see the rise of Obscurantism in modern American society. When you analyze the Pew Poll above, you come away with the dismal realization that today, 2010, only about 26% of all Americans actually subscribe to the sunny generalization in Feynman's lecture. 74% of Americans do not believe in a straight-up, secular, scientific belief in human evolution occurring through random mutation and adaptation. States want to outlaw its teaching in schools, or "supplement" it with education in Intelligent Design or Creationism. A sea change has occurred in America since April, 1963, and I don't know how to describe it exactly, but it is definitely a movement away from the scientific Enlightenment that Richard Feynman was talking about. It is a rejection of (or reflects the inadequacy of) American education in general, and a popular movement toward superstition and myth. History counsels us that such things usually don't end particularly well.

May 25, 2010

Obama at the Fillmore

I'm working full-time again, the way a New American should; that is, an American disabused of retirement fantasies based on exponential annual increases in the value of his house. I see this new regime as on a continuum with the lifestyle "chosen" by my Greek immigrant grandfather Milteadis, who ran cafes until well into his 70's. I'm seeing now what he saw then: a man who chooses to work for himself can never be fired, and perhaps can never be retired either.

Well, what of it? I can steal a moment from my creditors to write my blog, can't I? Certainly, since I'm doing my patriotic duty in hoisting the national GDP back to its former greatness. Someone has to do it. I just never thought it would be me, back in that halcyon period between 2000 and 2006. Those were the days, my friend. Well, Saint Paul advised that in whatever state a man finds himself, therein be content. I like that. Go with the flow. h/t to Paul and his Apostle peeps.

It seems to this amateur economic analyst that the naysayers, the Dr. Dooms, the Econobummers -- their arguments have carried the day. They have made their case convincingly, and routed all others from the field. America is settling down into a new way of being, which will probably mutate into one of two future states. State #1 is the Japanese-style lengthy deflation/recession, lasting a decade or two; or, State #2, which is the hyperinflationary Zimbabwe Zombie Jamboree. Knowing my fellow Americans as I do, I find it hard to imagine that a country as fundamentally whacked-out as this one would actually approach a lengthy period of hard times and just getting by in the stoic, long-suffering, honor-revering style I associate with the land of the Rising Sun. That's just not us, you know? Know-nothing economists, some of whom have even won Nobel Prizes, throw the analogy around - we're going to have "Japan in our future," but I don't think they're thinking it through, as usual. They're too wedded to their charts and recession-cycle calendars.

No, the Tea Party is more our style. Protestors who rail against Big Government and over-regulation, and its negative effect on Big Business, except that Big Business (Wall Street) should not be bailed out by Big Government, so Big Government should simply stop meddling in the free enterprise system and allow Big Business to fail, except that's no good because the Tea Party people are pro-business, and especially pro-gun, and guns should never be regulated, especially in National Parks, which Big Government owns and generally the Tea Party believes that an owner of property should be allowed to do with that property whatever they want, including telling a Negro he can't take a leak in the gas station on this blue highway here in Kentucky, and he should try further up the road, say in Newark, New Jersey. Where was I? Yeah, that's right -- guns must be allowed in National Parks!

Americans, in other words, are completely out of their minds, and the idea that our undereducated & seriously confused (and massively well-armed) citizenry is simply going to accept Japanese-style deflation quietly and unobtrusively is crazy. Nope, different strokes for different folks (h/t Sly). And as we head for uncertain times, perhaps as uncertain as the Antebellum Days....

I've been thinking about a historical comparison for the Presidency of Barack Obama, and I think I've found my man: Millard Fillmore. Millard served one term between 1850 and 1853, far enough in advance of the Civil War that you can't say he was completely undone by national divisions, but the rumblings were definitely there. He succeeded Zachary Taylor as President when Zack died of gastroenteritis, or something like that. Millard's big problem, a precursor to the War Between the States, was enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required slaves, as property, to be returned to their owners when apprehended (and not to permit them to use any gas stations along the way which might have belonged to Rand Paul's ancestors). From WikiPedia, here is how Millard sought to finesse the issue:

Fillmore's greatest difficulty with the fugitive slave law was how to enforce it without seeming to show favor towards Southern Whigs. His solution was to appease both northern and southern Whigs by calling for the enforcement of the fugitive slave law in the North, and enforcing in the South a law forbidding involvement in Cuba (for the sole purpose of adding it as a slave state).

I'm wondering if you find that a little reminiscent of anything. It has the salient features of an Obama compromise: (a) it is devoid of any underlying principle; (b) it attempts to give something to everyone except a group of people (slaves) whose rights can be safely overlooked; and (c) it didn't work, because everyone wound up despising Fillmore anyway. It reminds me of the exact way that Obama's Justice Department, for example, handles the problem of habeas corpus rights for detainees shipped to Bagram in Afghanistan, to wit, they don't have any habeas rights.

If a terrorist suspect is picked up in Thailand and shipped to Guantanamo, the detainee has habeas rights, under Boumediene vs. Bush, the 2006 Supreme Court decision ruling the habeas-stripping provisions of the Military Commissions Act unconstitutional; and he has a good chance of winning his "right" to freedom (though not actual freedom itself, since Obama has decided that "preventive detention" forever is okay, without charges or trial), since detainees, at last count, had won 35 out of 48 habeas reviews (73%) in federal court.

A simple remedy for this inconvenience (to the government) is instead to ship them to Afghanistan, where the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled (at Elena Kagan's urging as Solicitor General and with Obama's blessing) the detainee has no such rights. Which is curious, because here's Senator Obama railing against the Military Commissions Act, with its habeas-stripping provision, in September, 2006:

As a parent, I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence. . . .

By giving suspects a chance -- even one chance -- to challenge the terms of their detention in court, to have a judge confirm that the Government has detained the right person for the right suspicions, we could solve this problem without harming our efforts in the war on terror one bit. . . .

Most of us have been willing to make some sacrifices because we know that, in the end, it helps to make us safer. But restricting somebody's right to challenge their imprisonment indefinitely is not going to make us safer. In fact, recent evidence shows it is probably making us less safe.

I suppose there are ways to reconcile the seeming conflict. Is Obama no longer a parent? Did he only mean that he would feel terror if Malia were sent to Guantanamo, but not to Bagram? See, you have to be wary of analyses that seem too easy on the surface.

Other explanations come to mind, such as, Obama doesn't give a shit about detainees in Bagram, Afghanistan because they're politically unimportant, just as slaves were to Millard Fillmore, except he was trying to find the most politically popular way of mistreating them.

Millard was the last Whig President. His party died, really, before the 1856 election, and so Millard served one term, followed by another one-termer, James Buchanan. Then all hell broke loose under Lincoln. Maybe the moral of the story is that a President may as well be principled, if he has it in him, during office because you never really get away with unprincipled compromises. Your former supporters desert you because you seem weak, and your enemies go right on hating you anyway, adding to their hatred a measure of contempt. And then everyone is done with you, because a blatant hypocrite is never anyone's true friend.