Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Preparing for life in the twenty-first century. Uh, and a half.

The Tyranny of Clichés—Monday, May 25th, 2015

The subtitle is “How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas” but it’s really “How politicians cheat in the war of ideas”. I’m not going to say it’s an equal-opportunity cliché-killer, because it isn’t. Goldberg focuses his analysis on the left. But he acknowledges that many of these “placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood” are used by politicians regardless of ideology.

His choice to focus on the left is that outspoken progressives tend to claim not to have an ideology more often than outspoken conservatives, who acknowledge their ideology and argue from it. The left often tries to claim that their ideology is simply the default position, and that only other positions are ideologies.

For example, in the introduction, discussing the progressive belief that “laws and words have no binding power on future generations, [living constitution, for example] but once Team Progressive puts points on the scoreboard, they can never come off”, in the context of someone saying that social security is a covenant that cannot be broken no matter what, Goldberg writes:

There is nothing wrong and a great deal that is right with having ideological convictions. What is offensive to logic, culturally pernicious, and, yes, infuriating to me is the claim that it is not an ideological tenet. Progressives lie to themselves and the world about this fact. They hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to “what works.”

He starts his examples with Voltaire’s most famous dictum:

There’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument that vexes me… I’ve spoken to a lot of college audiences… During the Q&A session after my speech [a serious student] will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud…

…the kid is almost surely lying. He’ll take a bullet for me? Really?

Clichés like these are a way to earn bravery on the cheap, defending principles you haven’t thought through or perhaps only vaguely support. Or, heck, maybe he really would leap on a grenade so I could finish talking about how stupid high-speed rail is.

It would be interesting to try them out on their assertion: have someone bring out a gun and see if the student jumps in front of Mr. Goldberg. I’m going to go with Goldberg on this: I don’t think they would.

At my most cynical, I think they’d applaud the grenade—or at least start blaming Goldberg himself for its explosive nature.

All the President’s Men—Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

There is probably no event more foundational to the modern journalist’s self-image than that of Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post, shoe-leathering out the connections between a failed burglary and the President of the United States. All the President’s Men is an engaging and workmanlike look at what kind of shoe leather and stratagems were necessary (and what were, sometimes, unnecessary and, in retrospect, unreasonable) to get at the facts of the case: how the Committee to Reelect the President, with the explicit authority of President Nixon, broke some of the basic laws of both the country and general decency in order to ensure the reelection of the President and then to cover up their actions.

It’s a powerful story, and has entered the cultural lexicon mainly through the movie based on it.

One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is that the movie followed the book fairly accurately. Reading it after seeing the movie, it’s obvious when entering a section that made it into the film. Obviously the film had to cut stuff, and move a few things around, but what it kept, it didn’t significantly change.1

The other thing that struck me is just how deeply Woodward and Bernstein’s story have entered the national consciousness. Early in the book, describing how the Post works, they write:

The invariable question, asked only half-mockingly of reporters by editors at the Post (and then up the hierarchical line of editors) was “What have you done for me today?” Yesterday was for the history books, not newspapers.

That line was used verbatim when Jerry Hathaway discusses Chris Knights shortcomings in the great Real Genius.2

There are also some good tricks in here for investigative journalism. For example, the Washington Post had printed that one of the bugging participants had not yet been disclosed and had been granted immunity. Bernstein didn’t know who it was, but one of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP) people he was trying to get information from thought he did. She kept guessing names. Bernstein, rather than let her know he didn’t know, just kept saying, no, it wasn’t him, and was able to then get the names of people this person thought it might be.

The definitional war on satire—Thursday, May 14th, 2015
Censor Charlie Hebdo

“It is necessary to censor satire,” saith the anointed.

When I started The Walkerville Weekly Readerback in January of 20001 I did so partly because I knew that satire was in for trouble. I’d already written in What Your Children are Doing on the Information Highway that there was no satire so crazy that someone, somewhere, wouldn’t believe it, and that the Internet ensured that that gullible someone would in fact read it.

My formula was and remains pretty simple: start with something that might, maybe, be true, and slowly bring the pot to boiling until the final line is completely ridiculous. Basically, juxtapose actions and intentions2; then, throw in a pop-culture reference or two.

Many satire sites make a good living doing nothing more than repeating real-world actions, comparing them to a person or organization’s stated goals, and then constructing the logical conclusion—perhaps tossing in obscure pop-culture references at the same time.

We here at the Reader wouldn’t know anything about that, as we do not make a good living.

What I did not understand was that the elite would start questioning their very purpose of satire. Certainly, I understood and understand that many people dislike the idea, but I would never have expected to see the following description of when satire is appropriate:

Normally satirical works would be welcome on our marketplaces. However, we feel that there are situations where satire is inappropriate. For example, we do not think that a game released today that satirizes police killings of minorities in the USA would be appropriate. Regardless of how one feels about an issue like that, we feel that it is too current, too emotionally charged on both sides, and too related to real-world violence or death to make it an appropriate matter for satire.

If satire is inappropriate for current events that people care about, there is no purpose to satire. If satire is only appropriate after debate has ended on a topic, then what is the use of it?

Government oxymoron: anti-corruption laws—Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
Moses and the Tablets of the Law

There’s a lot to be said for chiseling laws in stone by hand rather than typing them at high speed on a word processor.

In the latest Weekly Standard, Jay Cost asks, So, what about money in politics?, taking Republicans to task for twiddling their thumbs while Democrats rant about Citizens United. He concludes that while the Democrats have enacted self-serving reforms that ban things they don’t use and exempt the corruption they rely on, conservatives shouldn’t just make fun of their hypocrisy nor rail against their counter-productive, corruption-causing laws. To win the minds of the public, conservatives “must promote ideas to constrain influence-peddling in politics, and then pressure the ever recalcitrant GOP to enact those reforms into law.”

Now, on the one hand, he’s right. When one person is doing something that makes matters worse, and another person is arguing against doing something because it is just making matters worse, there is a strong tendency in the modern world to side with the person who is at least acting.

But from the standpoint of actually reducing corruption rather than increasing it, he’s wrong—as described in an earlier article in the same issue, where Stephen Moore argues for simplifying the tax code because layer upon layer of laws “mostly benefit the wealthy and politically well-connected.”

The only people who benefit from a complicated, barnacle-encrusted 70,000-page tax code are tax attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, IRS agents, and politicians who use the tax code as a way to buy and sell favors. The belly of the beast of corruption in American politics is the IRS tax code.—Stephen Moore (Remember the Flat Tax?)

We’ve long passed the point where adding laws can have a beneficial effect; the problem is that our laws are so complex that only the wealthy and well-connected can understand them, and because of this they get to manipulate them. Get rid of the complexity and “D.C. becomes the Sahara Desert.”

This is hardly news. The philosopher Lao Zi described the process millennia ago when he wrote that:

The more the ruler imposes laws and prohibitions on his people, the more frequently evil deeds would occur.—Lao Zi (The Silence of the Wise: The Sayings of Lao Zi)

Learning from alcohol prohibition—Monday, May 4th, 2015
End of Prohibition in Mississippi

Mississippi waited until 1966 to end alcohol prohibition, learning the lessons of all other states.

Why does ending prohibition have to mean the government handing out cocaine, morphine, and heroin in the streets? When we ended alcohol prohibition we didn’t suddenly say, okay, you can now sell all the bathtub gin you want. We made it legal for states to start experimenting with legalizing alcohol, and for those that didn’t the federal government remained available to fight interstate traffic into those states.

Even today, sales of 95%-alcohol Everclear are banned in California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

A tentative end to the violence of the drug trade could be tested in the United States simply by making it legal for states to experiment with various forms of legalization of marijuana, coca, and, if that didn’t increase violence, opium.

If we were to make tobacco illegal today, the preferred form of users would quickly become pure nicotine or something even more powerful (as heroin is even more powerful than pure morphine from the opium poppy). But the dangers of pure nicotine would be a poor reason to avoid relegalizing tobacco, just as the dangers of pure cocaine and pure morphine are a poor reason to avoid ending prohibition of coca and opium, and certainly of marijuana.

Following the lessons we learned from relegalizing alcohol, some states would choose to continue making coca and marijuana illegal, and transporting those drugs into those states would continue to be a federal crime. Other states would experiment with the same process that allow us to go to the bar today and drink a beer or cocktail instead of killing ourselves on bathtub gin.

Some states will be as cautious as Mississippi, which didn’t end prohibition until 1966. Others would move more quickly. Those that moved more quickly could themselves choose to move only on marijuana, or both marijuana and coca, or marijuana, coca, and opium, perhaps experimenting with medical vs. recreational use: experimenting with ways to end the violence and corruption costs associated with prohibition without seeing a worse rise in other costs.

States would learn from each other, as they did when they began experimenting with ways to end alcohol prohibition. We would all be safer.

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine—Thursday, April 30th, 2015

While the book is framed with the intern scandal, and Kurtz does include some of the administration’s stonewalling on the other potential presidential sex scandals, the thrust of his analysis is the long-running fundraising scandal.

Spin Cycle was published in 1998, which means it mostly predates the Lewinsky scandal, which is too bad because that was the Clinton’s finest spin, when they convinced feminists to support an abusive boss, Democrats to vilify a young woman, and reporters to ignore scandal and report as if the prosecution was the scandal.

It is an insider’s view, literally. Kurtz describes the world through what he takes as the view of each participant, giving both Clinton spinmeisters and press a charitable reading. With the benefit of hindsight this isn’t quite as effective now as it probably was in 1998. The same press that he characterized as feeling “guilty for not stumbling on the finance scandal until just before the election” and so allowing Clinton and Gore to delay until after the election, deliberately and blatantly ignored the Obama credit card scandal until the fifth of never two cycles later.

The Clintons pioneered some unique defenses, defenses that only really work if the press is with you. For example, when Dick Morris was caught having had—and ignored—an illegitimate child, they simply refused to talk about whether the President, who had voiced “strong concern about child support” (read: deadbeat dads) knew anything about Morris’s troubles.

…the press secretary’s ploy paid off. Unable to confirm that Clinton knew of the relationship… none of the networks reported on Morris’s triple life. Nor did the New York Times or the L.A. Times or USA Today… Now that reporters knew the president had knowingly employed a political strategist who had fathered an illegitimate child—well, it was old news.”

“Old news”, however, doesn’t work if the media doesn’t play along.

The Clinton administration also used time-honored strategies, such as blatant threats. For example, there was a charge that “Craig Livingstone, a low-level White House aide… had once issued a memo chastising White House staffers for writing bad checks.” New York Post Reporter Deborah Orin asked about this memo at one of the “gaggles”, morning briefings at the White House, and was brushed off as having come from a proven unreliable source.

Twisted censorship from France—Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
Censorship stamp

Sometimes truth is far stranger than fiction, or, in this case, prose. Were I to write about this for The Walkerville Weekly Reader, even the name would sound too over the top. A writer for the Guardian, named Francine Prose—almost literally, “straight talk from France”—writes that Charlie Hebdo does not deserve their PEN award because the truth about what happened to them goes against the narrative of the anointed.

She compares them to Nazis in Skokie, and then says she admires their courage. Does she admire the courage of Skokie Nazis, too?

The award is the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. PEN has other awards that fit the other candidates she thinks more appropriate—awards for journalism and for merit and even for social justice. But the Hebdo staff literally died for free speech—they knew they were under threat and continued publishing, and then even after the threat was carried out and twelve of them died, the survivors continued publishing. They deserve this award or no one does.

But Prose’s rationalizations betray an even worse tendency of the modern left:

I abhor censorship of every kind and I despise the use of violence as a means of enforcing silence.

But why should this award not be given in the wake of the Hebdo murders? It isn’t just because they were satirists making fun of religion. It’s also because they’re white and their murderers were Muslim extremists.

I’m not paraphrasing or exaggerating:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.

I abhor censorship, says Francine Prose, but any truths that disprove my preferred narrative? Shut them down. Because that “narrative” she decries is what happened.

Salman Rushdie downplayed the failings of these authors. These are not “six authors in search of character”. In the case of Francine Prose at least, these are censors in search of a stamp.

The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 2—Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

I bought this magazine-sized collection of Omni fiction mostly out of nostalgia—while I loved reading Omni back in the day, and always looked forward to the next issue, I was never impressed by its fiction. Unlike its sister publication, which of course one bought for the articles, Omni was famous for its graphics and its science interviews and articles. Of all the science fiction I remember reading from that era as really affecting me—David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz come to mind, as well as pretty much the entire contents of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame—none are from Omni. But I also considered that perhaps they were simply over my then very young head and that they would thus be more interesting now; and also, of course, that this, being the best of Omni, would indeed be worth reading.

But Robert Sheckley’s introduction did not bode well. Sheckley was smarter than this:

Before the Eighties we lived in an apparently inexhaustible earth; now the end of our resources is in sight… American hegemony in space, once taken for granted, is now uncertain as the Russians move ahead of us in the exploration of space.

Malthus and Malthusians had been talking up the end of our resources since 1798 and science fiction has taken up Malthusian pessimism almost since it existed—from the moment Morlocks began feeding on Eloi.

In more modern science fiction I have, sitting right next to this collection in my to-read pile, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! from 1966, so obscure it was turned into the oft-quoted 1973 movie Soylent Green, in which, spoiler, the end of our resources results, yet again, in humans feeding on humans.1

And if “American hegemony in space” had ever been “taken for granted”, it must have been a very temporary window in the seventies—the space race began with the Russians snagging an early lead on us. And the fear remained even during and after Apollo that they might be ahead of us on the military applications of satellites and space travel while we were focused on moon landings and Tang.

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