Monday, August 28, 2006

New Orleans Yartzeit

yartzeit candles2

A year ago this week a city died.

Now cities, unlike people, can return to life; and there are signs that this will happen to New Orleans.

But we must still mourn the dead.

And we should remember that while it was the storm that struck the blow, it was our government that left it half-dead by the side of the road -- saw it and passed by on the other side; and it was our government that had so weakened its defenses that a storm could take it from us.

For the dead: rest in peace.

For the living: Remember:

New Orleans Yartzeit2

Other reports, analyses, remembrances, reflections, eulogies:

Greg Palast did an astonishing report on Democracy Now! about the "planning" done for New Orleans evacuation. It is, as a former city councilman says in the report "the kind of negligence for which an individual would be indicted, prosecuted, tried, convicted, and spend their life in jail. Negligence that killed people, lots of people." (The link above is to audio & transcript of part one; audio & transcript of part two is here.)
Shakespeare's Sister has a post with a huge number of links; and another post here.
Publius thinks about how "In America, everyone is outraged for fifteen minutes."
Teresa Nielsen Hayden on what hasn't been done in the past year.
Frank Rich on Bush's return to the scene of his crime, and Paul Krugman on the broken promises of the past year.
Via Majikthise, Think Progress and Uggabugga both have Katrina timelines.

(I may add others as I come across them.)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Changes, The Book (Part Two)

(This is part two of a two-part post; read part one here.)

By the end of part one I had gotten to the following question: given that the I Ching is useless for actually predicting the future, what value, if any, does it have?

Well, the first answer is simple: it has literary value.

For example, Frances FitzGerald's 1972 book on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake drew its title from the I Ching. She quotes in her book from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of Hexagram 49, "Revolution (Molting"):
Fire in the lake: the image of REVOLUTION.
Thus the superior man
Sets the calendar in order
And makes the seasons clear.
A striking image, without a doubt.

A far more complex literary use of the I Ching occurs in Philip K. Dick's splendid novel The Man in the High Castle. I shan't go into all the details here, but Dick uses the I Ching frequently in the book: many of his characters appeal to it, and its text shapes their choices -- literally, in fact, since I believe that Dick himself cast hexagrams when his characters did, working the result into his novel. Whatever one thinks of the I Ching's fortunetelling, its use in Dick's novel is superb. (PKD, ironically (but characteristically) didn't always agree: he once blamed the I Ching for the novel's ambiguous ending.)

Okay. So the book has had some literary uses. But is that it? Is there any more to it?

Well, maybe. Yale law professor Jack M. Balkin, at least, argues that there is.

Balkin's argument can be found in his 2002 book The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life. First off, props to Professor Balkin for writing something so far outside of his field of expertise: I am against intellectual tunneling, in general, and find it refreshing when people produce uncharacteristic works. Interestingly, it also got good reviews from serious I Ching users, which is pretty impressive. Balkin's book is a hundred-page introduction to the I Ching -- its history, its philosophy, its use -- followed by a translation and commentary.

Balkin's argument for why the I Ching is useful for things other than fortune telling is made throughout his book, but perhaps is most concisely put in this blog post wherein he asked the I Ching about the war in Iraq. (And check out what it said. Seriously.) There he wrote:
The I Ching does not predict the future. All it does is give you something to chew on, stimulate your unconscious mind. There is absolutely no evidence that randomly throwing coins predicts future events. But reading selected passages from the book itself is quite good at shaking up your accustomed patterns of thought. And sometimes it can be eerily on point, in part because the reader brings his or her own unconscious thoughts and desires to the reading of a text that is by nature ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.
This -- as I trust will be clear -- is a perfectly reality-based argument for the I Ching's use. There's no mysticism here: just a sense that, when one is stuck, picking up a random text can "stimulate your unconscious mind" and "shak[e] up your accustomed patterns of thought."

Okay. But why the I Ching then? Why not open any book randomly?

For that, we turn to Balkin's book. On page 6, he writes:
What is truly important is the underlying philosophy of the book. By formulating specific questions, contemplating the answers, and applying the book's principles and metaphors to their own situation, people who use the Book of Changes are gradually introduced to its characteristic philosophy of life in concrete contexts. Precisely because the book is structured not as a treatise but as an oracle, its philosophy is revealed not through memorizing a specific set of abstract doctrines, but through application and problem solving. In this way people assimilate over time an intuitive understanding of the book's approach and its distinctive take on the laws of change.
In other words, the reason to consult the I Ching rather than simply pick up a random text is its quality as a text -- not simply its literary quality, but its philosophical quality. This is not quite "philosophy" in the contemporary academic sense (which he describes in a truly bizarre way -- do any philosophers " memoriz[e[ a specific set of abstract doctrines"?) -- in fact, it is more like the common popular use, the one invoked when people talk about a 'philosophy of life'. It is a set of principles towards the problems of living a life -- principles best absorbed, Balkin says, in concrete situations.

Is the text as good as Balkin claims? I don't know. Or, perhaps I should say: I don't know yet. Because I must admit I am intrigued. Unlike the fortune-telling use, this description of a possible use is perfectly plausible: one can imagine a handbook of maxims for life that, over time, guides and shapes one's outlook in a positive direction. I don't know it much better than the I Ching, but my sense is that the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is one such book. There's no reason that the I Ching couldn't be another.

Thus I think that the scorn that the Raving Atheist (who, it should be remembered, is quite raving, and seemingly less atheist than he used to be) had for Balkin was unwarranted. RA pooh-poohed Balkin's disclaimer about not predicting the future -- unfairly, I think: I take Balkin at his word -- and certainly does not offer any answer to the notion that a particular text might in fact be a useful stimulus for thought and decisions.

I'll digress a moment to note that this is hardly a unique idea of Balkin's. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Samuel R. Delany's Nova, an SF novel, first published in 1968, but set in the Thirty-Second Century. ("The Mouse" is just a nickname that one of the characters goes by.) The characters are talking about the Tarot deck:
The Mouse dared half the distance of the rug. "You're really going to try and tell the future with cards? That's silly. That's superstitious!"
"No, it's not, Mouse, Katin countered... "Mouse, the cards don't actually predict anything. they simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations--"
"Cards aren't educated! They're metal and plastic. They don't know--"
"Mouse, the seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialog about a given situation. There's nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than guide and suggest."
The Mouse made that sound again.
"Really, Mouse! It's perfectly logical; you talk like somebody living a thousand years ago." (p. 101 of the Bantam paperback edition)
This isn't precisely what Balkin is saying, but it's certainly in the same ballpark: an attempt to understand fortunetelling devices in a non-superstitious way. I would be extremely skeptical about the idea that astrology can do this, and fairly skeptical about Tarot -- but Balkin has talked me into the idea that, maybe, the I Ching has something to say even for those who believe that it doesn't "actually predict anything "

Okay. But why random? What's the point of that aspect (which is the other part that the Raving Atheist most aggressively sets into)? Balkin's defense of it is as follows:
First, the book began as a divinatory text and it has traditionally been understood as one. Second, many people prefer a more mystical approach in which the book appears to speak directly to them. The third reason, however, is the most important. Life is often simply very complicated, and it is often quite difficult to know how to characterize events. The best reason to choose a hexagram at random is that you do not know the sort of situation you are facing. Moreover, a great advantage of random consultation is that it opens you up to possibilities on the situation that you may not have thought of. (p. 75)
The first reason boils down to tradition. The second could be misread as approving of a mystical approach, but I don't think that that is what Balkin means: he says that people prefer "a more mystical approach in which the book appears to speak directly to them". In other words, for the I Ching to do what Balkin claims it can -- shape one's philosophy of life through encounters with it in specific situations -- one has to take it seriously as a text: the appearance of mystical connection helps one take the text seriously, to truly open one's mind to whatever unconscious stimulation it has to offer. In other words, the appearance of the mystical helps us get at what is real -- wisdom, if the book has to offer it.

The third reason -- which is offered, I should explain, in the context of the frank suggestion that "if you already know what sort of situation you are facing, you can simply consult the hexagram judgment that is closest to the situation" (p. 74) -- also makes sense given Balkin's claim for the text. The point here is to use a random stimulus to jog one's thinking, in connection with a rich, stimulating and wise text. This is simply taking an aspect of how the human brain works, and manipulating it to one's advantage. (Nor is it that dissimilar from other things people do -- lots of artists, for example, employ random stimuli to get themselves going (which is one reason why the I Ching in particular probably worked for Philip K. Dick.))

Okay. But is the text that good? Is it really worthwhile?

Only one way to find out. I've purchased a copy of Balkin's book, and intend to ask it questions when the occasion arises, and see what I think. I've already asked it one question -- no, I won't tell you, it's private -- and it's advice was, I suppose, good. So we'll see.

There is, of course, a danger to doing this -- a danger, that is, apart from wasting a little time (which is easily compensated for by the fact that it's kind of fun, in a parlor-games way -- and no harm in that). The danger is that one might find oneself -- perhaps unconsciously -- taking the book seriously as prophecy. That the book can tell the future is, as previously mentioned, a totally nonsense notion. But the human mind has a tendency to be overawed by (imagined and imposed) connections -- there's a reason why psychics' random mumblings seem prescient -- and one might find oneself thinking that it actually all means something. When, of course, it doesn't.

This isn't to say that the advice the I Ching offers mightn't be good advice -- of course it might, just as Marcus Aurelius's Meditations do. From what I've seen thus far, it's a sensible, balance-and-moderation-is-key Confucian* approach to life. It's just that one shouldn't get too hung up on the idea that the particular hexagram(s) one tossed are particularly meaningful for that situation -- since they could just as easily have been any others.

Still, while I certainly think I could be hoodwinked -- I try to be rational, reasonable and reality-based, but people are weak and I'm no exception -- I think I'm aware enough of the dangers here to risk it.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Though come to think of it, there's a second danger, too. My immediate assumption is that anyone who takes astrology, Tarot or I Ching seriously is a flake, an idiot, someone not worth taking seriously. And that's probably largely true... since normally what 'taking such things seriously' means is to believe in their mystical powers -- which is, once again, sheer nonsense. Now, I think that the argument in this post (Balkin's argument, basically, that I've summarized) is a good one -- that there are some ways of taking (at least) the I Ching seriously which are not necessarily stupid: that, basically, even if it clearly can't predict anything, it might still be a text worth reading. Nevertheless, people of sense have a knee-jerk reaction against such things -- and reasonably so, since they are largely used for silly purposes, or in silly ways. (I presume that this is what was going on with the Raving Atheist, for instance.) I bet that the moment most people read "I Ching" they'll think "bozo" without even pausing to hear the nuances -- or rebutting the argument.

Oh well, maybe I just won't tell anyone. It's not like I've posted an essay about it on a public blog or anything. Besides, it seems that one ought to have the courage of one's convictions, even in the face of ridicule. (Balkin, for instance, did quite well at this.) I'm not particularly courageous -- nor am I particularly convinced. But perhaps I'll try anyway.

Incidentally, if anyone else is interested, Balkin's book seems to be a good place to start. The review I linked to above says that Balkin's book is "a good choice for anyone who is beginning to get into the I Ching". Another review on an I Ching site says that "I can't think of any other published book with so much I Ching information in one place," and that while "some of the commentary will sound very familiar: there are parts that are basically just rephrased and elaborated from Wilhelm/Baynes. But... [T]here's also considerable use of modern scholarship (though nothing radical) - and then there's Balkin's own insight." So the reviewers like it. Of course, they all note that Balkin doesn't take the fortune-telling aspect seriously -- but, for me, that is a feature not a bug.

If you're interested in buying Balkin's book, it was published by Shocken Books, and it is ISBN: 080524199X. It was originally published for the exorbitant price of $32.50, but now there seem to be a bunch of copies floating around for $5 - $6, and you may even find one a dollar or two cheaper. Try the various used book aggregators I recommended here.

The Wilhelm/Baynes, by the way, is an older translation that was standard for a long time -- it's Baynes's English translation of Wilhelm's German translation. You can find it online here. Balkin's translation is reportedly heavily indebted to it. But it's not the same. Just for a sense of the difference, the quatrain quoted above (from the Wilhelm/Baynes translation) reads as follows in Balkin's version:
Fire in the lake:
This is the image of Revolution.
Thus the superior person
Sets the calendar in order
To illuminate in accordance with the times.
-- Largely the same, but a key change in the last line.

To be continued -- maybe.

* I'd be far more worried that I was misapplying my ignorant sense of what Confucius actually said -- I've never read him -- if I hadn't learned from Balkin's introduction that the classic commentaries on the I Ching (parts of which are translated along with the base text -- sort of like the Gemara to the Mishna,** I think -- and which shape all subsequent interpretations of it) were, for many centuries, actually attributed to Confucius; and, while this is apparently no longer believed, they were in fact written by various Confucian disciples.

** Less you think that that is an overly grandiose metaphor, Balkin says that "to the Chinese the Book of Changes is as important as the Bible is to the West." (p. 3)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Changes, The Book (Part One)

When I was a kid, my parents used to play the I Ching once a year.

I say "play" because that's the term they used. But the I Ching isn't a game; it's an oracle. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the I Ching is an ancient Chinese text. Its name translates as The Book of Changes. (The familiar English form, incidentally, is the old, Wade-Giles system of transliteration (the one that brought you "Mao Tse-Tung"); in the currently-fashionable Pinyin system (the one that brought you "Mao Zedong"), the book's name would be "Yi Jing".) It's an ancient text -- the oldest part is from approximately 800 B.C.E. -- which one uses by asking a question, and then making a casting -- tossing yarrow sticks, throwing coins, or the like.

My parents, as I said, did this once a year: on New Year's Eve. They had a particular old friend who would come over, and the three of them would drink champagne and ask the I Ching about the upcoming year.

Now, they didn't take it seriously. I think they said that they "played" the I Ching because they thought of it sort of as a game: a fun thing to do that sparked the usual New Year's old-year-out-new-year-in sort of thinking, but nothing that was, you know, real. Certainly they didn't take it seriously as prophecy.

(I found out some years later that my mother had, as a young woman, had a brief period where she was infatuated with the I Ching, consulting it daily; what can I say, it was the early sixties. At the time, the old friend who used to come over on New Year's Eve was one of her best friends, and it was a joint fascination. (It was the early sixties.) So I suspect a lot of the New Year's Eve ritual was a sort of nostalgia, indulging in the silly games of youth.)

As my parents consulted the I Ching, my sister and I would play -- allowed, on this one night, to stay up until midnight, a rare treat -- and then come down just before midnight to toast in the New Year with ginger ale.

Then, one year I asked if I could play the I Ching with them.

They said no. I'm not sure why. Possibly it was because they were drinking -- but of course they often drank wine with dinner when we were around, and it's not like they were getting rip-roaring drunk. Most likely it was because this was one of the few times each year they got to see this particular old friend, and they wanted to have a conversation with her; if my sister and I had joined them, it would have been a distraction.

Those are, as I said, just guesses. But of course at the time I asked why not? What they said at the time was, "You're not old enough to play the I Ching."

I was, predictably, furious. I stormed off to my room where I decided that I could make up my own fortune-telling mechanism. My parents used the method of tossing coins, so I did too; but I didn't know how it was done, so I approached it in its simplest form, as a branching tree: the first toss would go in direction A or B; if the former, then you'd toss again to decide between A1 and A2, and if the latter then between B1 and B2; and so forth. I didn't get very far: it wasn't much fun making the chart up, it was hard to think up enough fortunes, and of course I soon enough calmed down and went on to something else.

It was from this incident that I got the idea that the I Ching was somehow an adult book -- filled with some mysterious wisdom that would corrupt the mind of a mere youth. So of course the first chance I got I pounced on it and read a few entries. From this point of view, it was decidedly disappointing. It was no more "adult" than your average fortune cookie, if possibly a bit more interesting. I didn't see what the big deal was (and, indeed, I still don't, which is why I presume that the reason my parents gave was a pretext for something else).

And, eventually, when I was seventeen, I was finally deemed old enough to play the I Ching with them. I was delighted to be able to do it at last, but like many forbidden things, violating the stricture was the only exiting part. It seemed, otherwise, dull, even a bit silly. I had been right all along, I decided: my private little fortune-telling game had been just as good as the I Ching.

Was I right? Was my little game just as good as the I Ching?

Yes and no.

Insofar as fortune telling was concerned, of course it was: they were (and are) both absolutely useless. Fortune telling by the I Ching is just as silly as astrology or fortune cookies or reading entrails. It doesn't -- it can't possibly -- work at all. That's why my parents treated it, properly, as a game. Which was precisely what my little homemade version was too.

But -- and this is the "no" part of the answer -- my little homemade version was, not surprisingly, not as good a game. My method for picking fortunes was far less elegant and aesthetic. And, most importantly, the fortunes themselves were far poorer: instead of poetic little enigmas -- good for application to many situations (as any long-standing oracle would have to be) -- I had, as I recall, single words that seemed vaguely prophetic. Not nearly as fun to get. Even fortune-cookie slips can be fun or dull, well or poorly written.

Which leads to the other question. Let us agree (since I try and write for those in the reality-based community) that the I Ching is utterly useless for fortune telling. You might as well flip a coin -- indeed, by the most common method, you basically are flipping a coin. But does that exhaust the book's value? If the I Ching is an ancient text that is used as a fortune-telling device, does that mean that it has no other uses? No other value or worth?

I shall explore that latter question further in part two.

(This is part one of a two-part post; part two has now been posted.)

Pluto, We Still Love You!

"Pluto Demoted to 'Dwarf Planet'"
-- NY Times, August 24, 2006.

Despite Christine Lavin's charming argument, Scott Westerfeld makes a depressingly good case that this was the right decision. (He'd better watch out for Cthulhu, though.) And Chris Clarke agrees with Scott. As do, now, Astronomers.

Alas, poor Pluto!

Pluto's reaction is here. (Update: And here.)

(Several links via this thread.)

Pluto Mourns (with Charon)
Pluto Mourns (with Charon)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Best of the Blogosphere, Part 4: David Neiwert on Pseudo-Fascism

(Fourth in an occasional and entirely whimsical series. . Other entries here.)

And now for something completely serious.

David Neiwert is a journalist who has covered, among other topics, the far-right militia movement in the 1990's (the people who brought you the second worst terrorist attack in American history). For the last several years, he's been running a blog named Orcinus. One of his key topics has been the increasing rise of something he calls pseudo-fascism: something that is -- to be clear -- not yet fascism, but something that is also clearly on its way. He's written many posts about this, including ones which document the rise of what he terms "eliminationist" rhetoric -- and its increasing use on the mainstream right in this country.

Neiwert's work is important because of its care and rigor as well as its forcefulness. Neiwert isn't just some grumpy lefty throwing around the term "fascism" -- indeed, he opposes such careless usage because it makes authentic fascism harder to see and warn about (for all the obvious boy-who-cried-wolf reasons). So he goes out of his way to note with care precise definitions of fascism from people like Robert Paxton, and to evaluate the ways in which the right wing in this country has and has not adopted fascist forms of rhetoric, thinking and action.

Neiwert's work is a call to action. Fascism, he notes, is almost impossible to stop once it gains control of a country; so it is important to recognize fascist thinking as it develops. And on those grounds, we have a lot to worry about in this country.

If you're worried about what the right has become in this country -- if you, too, wonder what happened to those boring-but-unthreatening Republicans you used to know -- you owe it to yourself, and your country,* to read this series.

Neiwert has written a lot of important posts on this topic, but none has been more important than two of his multi-part series, "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" and "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism" . My only hesitation in linking to it, honestly, is that they are well celebrated in the blogosphere, winning the left-blogosphere's highest award, the Koufax Award**, in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Heck, even I've linked to them before, in my own post on pseudo-fascism. But I think that a few people read my blog who don't read other blogs regularly -- and, hell, it's my award. So I hereby declare that the fourth official Attempts Best of the Blogosphere™ award goes, in a tie, to David Neiwert's two most important series.

Indeed, so well-recognized are these series that you can actually read them in multiple formats and places. First, they are available as their original, plain-old blog posts. The first post of each is here: Rush, Newspeak and Fascism and The Rise of Pseudo Fascism; the last post of each (which contain handy links to the entire set) are here: Rush, and Pseudo Fascism.
Second, each post has been reformatted as a pdfs, although for those downloading the pdfs, Neiwert requests a five dollar donation (information at his blog.) You can get the pdf versions here: Rush, Newspeak and Fascism and The Rise of Pseudo Fascism. Finally, for the first of these only (and the more complicated one, since it is in fifteen (!) parts instead of only (!!) seven), you can read it at Cursor, reformatted and with added art: Rush, Newspeak and Fascism -- that's probably the easiest way to read that first series.

These are not only two of the best pieces the blogosphere has produced to date; they are two of the most important political essays for understanding the last decade.

If you haven't read them, go read! And even if you have, read them again: they're worth rereading. And then, in whatever way seems best to you, join the struggle against the forces that, in Neiwert's words, "could very well devastate the world."
* This is true even for any non-American readers, since your country -- whichever country it is -- would be terribly threatened if the pseudo-fascist right continues to metastasize in this country.

** Why "Koufax"? Because Sandy Koufax was one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Call for Boycotts

Via 3quarksdaily, I see that there is now a renewed call to boycott Israeli cultural institutions to protest the occupation of Palestine:
We call upon the International community to join us in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict.

I was going to dissent from this. But perhaps I should embrace it instead. Yes! Israel is doing evil things -- so let's boycott Israeli writers and artists!

But why stop there?

The U.S., of course, is brutally occupying Iraq. Are Iraqi lives worth less than Palestinian ones? Clearly not. So we have to boycott the U.S., too. This might be difficult for those of us who live in the U.S. -- we could go to no cultural events at all -- but morality is morality.

But, of course, Britain is occupying Iraq too. So add it to the list.

Then there's China. China has been brutally occupying Tibet for longer than Israel has been occupying Palestine. So obviously Chinese artists and writers are out. And many people say that India has no right to occupy Kashmir. Better to be on the safe side; so India's out, too.

But why stop at occupying states? Surely states which do other evil or criminal things should be subject to boycott, too. For instance, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran brutally oppress women and gays, killing the former for crimes such as getting raped, and the latter for crimes such as existing at all. Those countries will have to be boycotted.

For that matter, I just saw the other day that Iran's fatwa against Salman Rushdie is still in effect. Calling for the murder of writers -- can't have that. But oh, wait -- Rushdie is British. Or does he live in America now? Or should we consider him Indian? Doesn't matter: one way or another, we won't be reading The Satanic Verses any time soon. Fortunately, Iran's already on the list, so no worries there.

It's getting to be a long list. People may worry that there will be no writers or artists left at all. But do not fear! There is an out! If institutions, or specific writers and artists, speak out against the occupation, they're exempt. (At least according to most versions of this idea.) So all we need to do is make sure that writers and artists speak out against the various atrocities in their countries -- but wait, isn't the whole idea here human solidarity? Better make that speak out against all the various atrocities. In fact, what if they miss one, or speak out in insufficiently outraged terms? To be on the safe side, we should prepare a statement for every artist and writer to sign. Hell, to read outloud: let them give their literal voices to the cause.

In fact, isn't it wrong to speak of anything else while such cruelties go on? Perhaps artists and writers should be allowed to read only our prepared statement until the cruelties of the world are ended.

The question of whether artists and writers are allowed to use personalized expressions in their readings, to highlight certain passages, is still in committee. Stay tuned.

I know this sounds extreme. But oppression is oppression, after all. If we let artists and writers speak on whatever they choose, despite whatever evils they may be associated with, how can we ever be free?

(Update: For more serious discussion, a commentator and I exchange views in the comment section.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Best of the Blogosphere, Part 3: Kung Fu Monkey Misses Republicans

(Third in an occasional and entirely whimsical series. Other entries here.)

I know that so far this "best of the blogosphere" series has been "best of the funny blogosphere", and that this is, which makes three in a row, which by Talmudic principles means that they all will be -- but really, they won't, and I promise that the fourth entry in this series, whenever it happens, will be Something Serious.


But in the meantime, I want to introduce you to Kung Fu Monkey. It's written by a stand-up comedian/physicist/screenwriter/comics writer named John Rogers, and he writes a lot about writing, which is smart but probably limited in its audience, and he rants about politics, in a way that is not only hilarious, but also (as the best comedy is (as KFM himself has pointed out)) smart, telling us things we need to hear.

He's written a lot of great posts, but the one that I'm here to talk about today is "I Miss Republicans". It's a particularly good post because it puts into words what a lot of us have been feeling for many years (how many depends on who you are, but there are a lot of us). KFM puts it this way:
No, seriously. Remember Republicans? Sober men in suits, pipes, who'd nod thoughtfully over their latest tract on market-driven fiscal conservatism while grinding out the numbers on rocket science. Remember those serious-looking 1950's-1960's science guys in the movies -- Republican to a one.

They were the grown-ups. They were the realists. Sure they were a bummer, maaaaan, but on the way to La Revolution you need somebody to remember where you parked the car. I was never one (nor a Democrat, really, more an agnostic libertarian big on the social contract, but we don't have a party ...), but I genuinely liked them.

How did they become the party of fairy dust and make believe? How did they become the anti-science guys? The anti-fact guys? The anti-logic guys?...
-- Of course the sub-text behind this is not only missing Republicans, but being frustrated as all !@#$% with those Republicans who don't see what has become of their party.

The rest of the post is wonderful, too -- funnier, if mostly on one specific example of this phenomenon (mostly, because he ties it back together at the end.)

KFM's politics are not mine -- for one thing, he lists John McCain as one of his exceptions, which is clearly wrong. (I wonder if he'd say the same thing now?) And... well, other things, too. But that's not the point. The basic point, the key point -- that Republicans Are Missed, with the all-crucial implication that this is because They Aren't Here Any More -- is right.

So it is well worth a read -- and, if you came across it before, it is well worth a reread; hence (for that is the key criteria) I hereby declare that the third official Attempts Best of the Blogosphere™ post is Kung Fu Monkey's I Miss Republicans. Go read it; you won't be sorry.

And if you like it, there are a lot more where that comes from. Some I would recommend in particular are Lunch Discussions #145: The Crazification Factor; Bar Talk (previously linked in my Dershowitz round-up); and Learn To Say 'Ain't', but really, there are a lot of good ones. Still, I Miss Republicans is a great place to start. Check it out.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hooray for the Good People of Connecticut!

Publius has the most interesting analysis I've seen so far. What should be the conventional wisdom -- I don't think it is, in TVland, but it is in the left blogosphere; and it's right -- is well summarized here (via).

(Update: Crooks and Liars has the video of John Stewart's coverage. "If not nominated, I will run; if not elected, I will serve." Brilliant.)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Recent Flurry Followed by a Lull

I think I have blogged more in the last six weeks or so than I have in any equivalent period. Wages of procrastination. I doubt I'll be able to keep it up -- so if I'm not putting up as much stuff in coming weeks, I haven't quit, I'm just easing off a bit. But it's been kinda fun.

In any event, six weeks or so ago, on my one-year blogoversery, I made a collection of my more substantial posts from my first year. Early though it is, I thought I would do the same (more for my benefit than anything else) of my recent postings. As before, I will be organizing these by category.

Israel/Lebanon/Just War Theory (my posts)
The Problem with Disproportionate Responses
Lawyering for the Slayers of Civilians: a Link Round-Up
Hierarchies of Power
Lo Tirtsach
An Unspoken Admission?
The Enemy of my Enemy is Not Necessarily My Friend

Lebanon: Letters from My Sister-in-Law
Report from Beirut
Report from Beirut 2
Report from North of Beirut
Report from North of Beirut 2

U.S. Politics
For Want of a Nail a World Was Lost
Fascism, Pseudo-Fascism and the Real Danger
And As Things Fell Apart Nobody Paid Much Attention

Religion Posts
Reality-Based Theists and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer
Reality-Based Theists and Petitionary Prayer: Replies to Some Replies

Cultural Posts
Rant (On Comics, Reviewers and the NYT)
In Which the Author Distracts Himself from Impending Global Disaster with Minor Literary Research
A Few (Fairly Random) Thoughts on the Unaired Buffy Pilot
On Not Reading Leo Strauss

NY State Politics/Gay Marriage
New York is Officially a Discriminatory State
Spitzer for Governor

Wacky Wikipedia Lists

Perhaps I will note, for no particular reason, that most of these can also be read at my page at a site called

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Wacky Wikipedia Lists

Gretchen: You're weird.
Donnie: Sorry.
Gretchen: No, that was a compliment.

-- Donnie Darko (by Richard Kelly)
I love Wikipedia. I really do. One of the many great things about it is that it has all of these wonderful lists -- wacky, useful, delightful, terrifying, or all of the above -- that you probably won't find elsewhere. (Even if, in some cases, you can find them elsewhere, you won't. They're too obscure. But you might stumble across them on Wikipedia.)

Here are some lists you can find on Wikipedia. (Some of these are within another page, or are a "category" list, or whatever. They're still great.) Wikipedia has lists of...

Chalkboard Gags from The Simpsons (okay that one you might find elsewhere)
People Known as "The Great"
Eponymous Diseases
Films that Most Frequently Use the Word Fuck
Exclamations Used by Tintin's Captain Haddock - also in the original French
Songs Over 15 Minutes Long
Different Albums with Identical Titles (but not books, oddly...)
Candidates for the 51st State
Novels Whose Action Takes Place Within 24 Hours
Interstate Highways Sharing the Same Name
Joke Religions
Songs Parodied by Weird Al Yankovic
Lists of Cliché Lists (not a list of clichés, but a list of lists of clichés)
Unfinished Boooks
Real People Appearing in a Fictional Context
Crossovers Between People from Different Fictional Settings
Misquotations (technically on Wikiquote, not Wikipedia, but who cares?)
Symphonies Known By Name Rather Than/In Addition To By Number
Personal Names That Contain Numbers (and, more generally, Unusual Names)
Television Series that Include Time-Travel
Books At Least Partially Set in Ithaca, New York
Famous Trees
Unusual Articles on Wikipedia (a particular fun list, obviously)
Incomplete Lists on Wikipedia (huge, this is only first 200)
And, of course: Criticisms of Wikipedia

Some of my personal favorites are lists of fictional things (that link is to a list of lists of fictional things, natch.) Here are some lists of...

Fictional Apes (note this is apes only; fictional monkeys are on a separate page)
Fictional People Who Were Cremated
Fictional Books (also films and musical works)
Fictional Islands
Fictional People With One Eye
Fictional Butlers
Fictional Cities (That's A-M only; N-Z are here)
Fictional Expletives
Fictional Diseases
Fictional Artists
Fictional Games
Fictional U. S. Presidents
Fictional Languages
Fictional Clergy, including fictional Rabbis, Priests and Clergy of Fictional Religions
Fictional Fictional Characters (i.e. characters who, within the world of a fiction, are fictional)
Fictional People Known as "The Great" (a subset of the above-linked list)
Fictional Road Numbers (although not, as of now, Highways)
Fictional Rabbits (also Elephants, Ducks and Frogs -- the latter not to be confused with Frogs in Popular Culture)
Fictional Oxford Colleges (and, more generally, Fictional Schools)
Fictional Characters Predominantly Seen Wearing Sunglasses
Fictional Laws and Rules (which sadly notes that it "may never be able to satisfy certain standards for completeness")
Personifications of Death
Fictional Plants
Fictional Jews (sadly pegged for possible deletion -- vote to save it!)
Fictional Elvis Impersonators
Fictional Robots
And, finally, Fictional Universes

Sad to say, though, these sorts of pages seem to be at a high risk of extinction. Since I started bookmarking lists for a post like this (some time ago), the we've lost the following pages:

Ambiguous Three-Letter Acronyms
Musical Groups Named After References From the Simpsons
Miscellaneous Portmanteaus
Running Gags

RIP. May they return, speedily, in our days.

If any occur to you, please post additional fun Wikipedia lists in comments.

Update: a few lists added.

Update 2:
The following are all from the above-linked page of unusual Wikipedia articles. Couldn't resist adding them:

Historical Cats (as opposed to fictional cats, natch)
English Words Containing Q Not Followed by U
Nicknames Used by George W. Bush
Films that Have Been Considered the Worst Ever
Misleading Food Names
Famous Tall Women
Scandals Described as "-gate"
Strange Units of Measurement
Sexually Active Popes
Names For Characters Mentioned but not Named in the Bible
Unusual Deaths (also Premature Obituaries)
People Who Became Famous Only in Death (also through Being Terminally Ill)
Animals Displaying Homosexual Behavior
Districts of England by Percentage of Self-Proclaimed Followers of the Jedi Religion
Self-Referential Songs; also Songs Whose Titles are the Entire Lyric
Equivalents of "Oink" in Various Languages
People Widely Considered Eccentric

I'm gunning for a place on that last one.

Again, leave any favorites in comments...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Enemy of My Enemy is Not Necessarily My Friend

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

-- W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

It's such a simple mistake that one wonders that people continue to make it.

Fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good.

And, of course, a corollary of that truth:

One can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side.

Maybe people are going to deny this, I don't know. But it seems pretty bloody clear to me.

It is a fundamental moral mistake of our times -- maybe of all times -- to think that because you look at a conflict and see that side A is doing something horrific, that must mean that side B is good -- not "defending against something bad at the moment, possibly even in partially illegitimate ways", but actually good. This is most often expressed by using the evil of side A as an argument that side B is not doing something wrong.

Perhaps people will say I'm attacking a straw man here. But it seems to me that you see this sort of thinking all the time:

- America's war against Vietnam was justified because the North Vietnamese government was despicable.
- We should have cheered for North Vietnam to win because America was committing war crimes in Vietnam.
- Bush's attack on Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator.
- The insurgents in Iraq are fighting for a good cause because the American occupation is wrong.
- Israel's attack on Lebanon is justified because Hezbollah is an evil organization.
- Hezbollah is a good organization because Israel's attack on Lebanon is brutal.

I won't bother to give citations for most of these; these are paraphrases of common positions, and anyone should be able to find them with a little googling. (Hint on number four: don't only check American media sources.) But just as a sort of existence proof, let me give examples of the final two points. For an example of the first, you can read Martin Perez making a version of the penultimate point here ("any demo against Israel is a demo for Hezbollah"). I won't list more, as they are all over the U.S. media; go have a look. For examples of the second, read the signs of demonstrators in London making a version of the final point here ("we are all Hezbollah"), or check out what George Galloway said at the London demonstration ("I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, and to glorify the resistance leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah"). For that matter, at a New York demonstration, signs included "Allah (swt)* will destroy the terrorist state of Israel" and "Islam will dominate."

Hezbollah is committing war crimes, firing rockets into cities at random. They are also led by Nasrallah, a man who has said "If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.". Israel, on the other hand, is murdering huge number of civilians, and has lots of commentators calling for more blood than there is already. We don't need to support the other side to say that either is wrong.

Now, my guess is that the first half of this simple truth -- fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good -- is actually less controversial than its corollary, that one can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side. A lot of people who are willing to agree with the former will deny the latter. They will say that, yes, even if on some ultimate level both sides can have moral problems, ultimately we must pick a side, decide who we wish to win and who we wish to loose. This is how one gets silly statements like the idea that those who opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq were "objectively pro-Saddam" and similar slanders.

But the second half is equally important, I think. To say that we must make a choice forces us to provide active support for evil, one way or another, in far too many situations. It's a terrible idea, and it needs to be opposed.

Why is it not true? Because, very simply, it presents a false dichotomy that denies the possibility of other options -- and, even more destructively, can actually actively prevent the rise of other options. At the very least, it keeps us from being critically supportive of one side -- trying to change the behavior of whichever side we are supporting. But more often it simply blinds us to other alternatives, or even kills them before they can emerge.

The U.S. blocked at various points other outcomes for the Vietnam war -- such as the creation of an independent, neutral South Vietnam with the NLF as part of the government -- because it wasn't sufficiently anti-communist: the U.S. wanted someone to fight the North, not simply not oppress the south. So evil governments were supported -- indeed, imposed -- to fight an evil government.

There are ways to oppose Israel's actions besides supporting Hezbollah; there are ways to increase Israel's safety besides supporting Israel's attack on Hezbollah.

Indeed, as many of these examples suggest, not only is this sort of dichotomous not necessary, it can be actively counterproductive. Israel is currently increasing support for Hezbollah in its attack; to say that one must support Israel's assault because Hezbollah is evil is simply self-defeating. On the flip side, Hezbollah's rocket attacks are increasing support in Israel for its assault; to say that one must support Hezbollah because Israel's assault is evil is likewise self-defeating.

Now, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't say that, at any given moment in time, there might not be one side in a conflict that we have to support, despite evil on both sides. I don't think anyone of good will could help supporting the Soviet Union when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, despite the former's being one of the most viscous dictatorships of the Twentieth Century. But it is a serious mistake to leap to such conclusions; situations like this are extremely rare. Usually, there are other options. We must look long and hard for them before we decide that it's one side or the other.

And, if we do, finally, decide that, at this point, it really is one side or the other, we need to constantly keep in mind that this does not mean the side we are supporting is good. Since one of the problems with not accepting the corollary that one can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side is that a failure to do so can, over time, trick us into forgetting the central point, that fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good, by giving our support more and more strongly, more and more blindly, until we are supporting evil that is no longer necessary.

After all, which side is right in a conflict in which both sides have plenty of wrong can change on a dime. A defender against aggression can keep going and fight its way into its own aggression.

Indeed, we must be particularly wary of, and critical of, the side we support. "Now is not the time to criticize" is never true: we must always check our moral bearings.

Anyone who responds to this essay by saying that, yes, but Israel/Hezbollah is the real problem here (because Israel's killing more people, because Hezbollah struck first, or whatever) has missed the point. And is, at the least, in danger of loosing their moral bearings -- fighting against evil in such a way that will corrupt you to become evil yourself.

* In case you're curious, as I was, "swt" apparently is an abbreviation for an Arabic phrase meaning "Glorified and Exalted is He".