Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create"

Crooked Timber is currently having one of its seminars on a book called Red Plenty, of which I had not previously heard. It sounds fabulous -- heck, any book that can plausibly be described as history, or a novel, or a collection of short stories, or a book on economics, or a fairy tale -- and Red Plenty has been called, in all honesty, all five of those -- sounds fabulous. That it's SF about the past just adds gravy. And when a writer like Kim Stanley Robinson says it is "a very beautiful novel" -- well, I'm more or less sold. (KSR, incidentally, was apparently one of the book's influences.)

But that's not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about the draft. (No, wait, that's Alice's Restaurant.)

The most recent entry in the seminar is by the fabulous Cosma Shalizi. It's very technical, but interesting insofar as I followed it. But then -- like some of the technical chapters of Moby Dick -- it veers off into sheer poetic brilliance at the end.

The brilliance starts, appropriately enough, with a quote from the novel/history/fairy tale itself. As context, most of the very technical post is explaining, in computer science terms, why a planned economy, such as was tried in the USSR, is simply impossible, even in theory (for, basically, Hayekian reasons). So it's only after that's settled that Shalizi quotes Red Plenty as follows:
Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. … And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.
And then Shalizi says the following:
There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and loose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or running screaming.

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision or through other institutional arrangements. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

These are all going to be complex problems, full of messy compromises. Attaining even second best solutions is going to demand “bold, persistent experimentation”, coupled with a frank recognition that many experiments will just fail, and that even long-settled compromises can, with the passage of time, become confining obstacles. We will not be able to turn everything over to the wise academicians, or even to their computers, but we may, if we are lucky and smart, be able, bit by bit, make a world fit for human beings to live in.
All rather extraordinary, IMHO.

This is the place where I'd normally say read the rest. And, y'know, do. Why not? But unlikely as it seems, this lengthy, brilliant blog post is not even the best lengthy blog post Shalizi has written at Crooked Timber this week. That honor goes to this post (technically put up by Henry Farrell), which is a rough draft of a paper co-written by Shalizi & Farrell called "Cognitive Democracy", which is all kinds of fabulous. So if you want to go over to Crooked Timber, and read several thousand words of brilliance by Cosma Shalizi.... read Cognitive Democracy. Which I couldn't even begin to excerpt; it has to be read entirety. So go read it.

But if that just whets your appetite for more, then go read In the Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You. Just don't complain when you find out I've already quoted you the best bits.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Obama Stands In a Proud American Tradition

The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

-- Attributed to General Philip Sheridan

If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC.

-- Saying among American soldiers in Vietnam

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants...

-- The New York Times, today (link to Greenwald's discussion of the article; part two here.)

And to think some people think Obama's not American enough. (See also.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Whitman's "Reconciliaition"

Angus Fletcher, in his article on "Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass" in The New Literary History of America (1999, Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors, eds.), says of Walt Whitman's "Reconciliation" that it is "as powerful as anything [Whitman] ever wrote". (p. 312) (Fletcher mentions this, by the by, as a counter-example to the rule that Whitman's best poems tend to be his longer ones.) He quotes it, in its entirety. I'd never read that poem before (although some Whitman poems are among my favorite poems of all time, I've never read all of Leaves of Grass straight through), so I read it, liked it, and decided to put it up on this blog.

But I found something odd. Different sites with the text -- say, Barttleby's presentation of it and the ebook available on Project Gutenberg -- punctuated it differently, -- quite differently, in fact. It occurred to me that this might simply be the sloppiness of online texts; but since I also knew that Whitman rewrote his poems between the many editions of Leaves of Grass, I thought I better check out the originals. Fortunately that fabulous site has page images of the various different editions that Whitman put out of Leaves, so I could go straight to the source. And, indeed, the difference in punctuation do date to the difference between the editions.

I thought I'd show you both.

Here is the poem as printed in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass:

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in
time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly
softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:
…For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I
draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face
in the coffin.

-- Walt Whitman, 1867

And here is the poem as published in the so-called "deathbed edition" of 1891:

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the

-- Walt Whitman, 1891

If you want to see the actual page images, click on the links on Whitman's name and it will take you to the pages where you can see them.

So far as I can tell, there is only one difference in the actual words (as opposed to punctuation) of the poem: in the very last line, the 1867 version omits an "I" which can be understood. Thus, the 1867 version reads "I draw near;/I bend down and touch lightly...." where the 1891 version reads "I draw near,/Bend down and touch lightly....". Apart from that, the words are the same.

But, to me at least, they read as very different poems. The punctuation changes the rhythm, the focus, the tone, even (arguably) in places the plain meaning of the words. It's really quite astonishing. I've noted before how much punctuation can change the feel and meaning of a poem, but this is pretty dramatic.

I'd always thought that, for Whitman, you were pretty much covered if you had the first (1855) and the last (1891) editions of Leaves. But here is a real, significant, interesting change between two fairly late editions. -- O dear.

Which do you prefer? Why? Leave thoughts in comments.

And please insert here your preferred form of the pun (salt to taste) that this poem is called "Reconciliation" (meaning between the North and the South after the Civil War), and that this post is about reconciling two different versions of the same poem.

Update: this post accidentally posted while I was still writing it, so if you read it in its first few minutes, the ending may have changed and a few infelicities may have been corrected.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New York's 23rd Congressional District's Democratic Primary

Since my wife and I moved to Ithaca -- more than a dozen years ago now -- it has been represented by a Democrat, Representative Maurice Hinchey. He's a quite progressive Democrat, and I've always been happy with him as our Congressman. Sadly, after the 2010 census, New York lost two Congressional seats, and, since Hinchey is 73 and has just dealt with a case of cancer, he's decided to retire, letting the Democrats try to save other seats through redistricting.

So as of this upcoming election, Ithaca, New York will no longer be part of the 29th Congressional District, but will instead be part of the 23rd District. Tom Reed, a Republican first elected to Congress in 2010, is an incumbent in the district -- which is to say, even though Ithaca's not been represented by him before, he's running for reelection. And there's a primary, with three Democrats running, to be his opponent in the newly-organized district. The primary is a month from today -- Tuesday, June 26.

So I thought I'd ask if anyone knows anything about any of the three. Any thoughts?

Here's a set of brief interviews with each of the three on The three candidates are (in alphabetical order) Leslie Danks Burke, Melissa Dobson and Nate Shinagawa. (The links are to their official campaign web sites.) My slight bias is towards Shinagawa, because he's cross listed on the Working Families Party ticket, so I'm guessing that he might be the most progressive of the three. But that's not a great heuristic and my preference is weak. So I'd love some more information, if anyone has nay.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Paul Fussell (1924 - 2012)

I just saw that Paul Fussell died yesterday. It's probably inarguable that his masterpiece is The Great War and Modern Memory, one of the great books about World War One and a superb melding of literary criticism and history. A book to read if you have any interest in WW1 at all -- or even if you don't, perhaps.

But I've read a number of his other books too -- Class, The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, and Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. (I feel like I at least read a bit in Abroad and BAD and maybe even one other, but those are the books of his I really remember.) Class is just descriptive, and is out of date, and would doubtless not impress me now as it did when I first read it as a teenager, when its accuracy and insight into my own life and social circle rather stunned me. The two essay collections are uneven, but have a lot of great material in them. Even his defense of the bombing of Hiroshima is extremely well done, given that it is (I think) arguing on the wrong side. (Rather to his credit Fussell reprints a reply from Michael Walzer in his collection, which does a good job making the basic case on the other side.) And his book on, well, poetic meter and poetic form is really good introduction to its subject.

A good writer over a wide range of material, who happened to write one truly brilliant book in addition to a number of simply good ones. We all should be so lucky.

Rest in peace.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Slyly Self-Undermining Sentence of the Day

He recognises no hierarchies, according to his assistant.
This is from a Telegraph interview with Noam Chomsky from two years ago. To be fair, do note this isn't Chomsky making the claim, or even his assistant, but the interviewer, Nigel Farndale, paraphrasing Chomsky's assistant. Not to mention that it's at least a small piece evidence of being a pretty cool guy if your assistant is willing to say that. All that said, however, the sentence itself struck me as funny. (Intentionally on the part of the interviewer? It doesn't sound like it., but maybe.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Quote of the Day: the Political Lesson in Obama's Endorsement of Gay Marriage

From Conor Friedersdorf:
What civil libertarians, medical marijuana advocates, anti-war activists, Occupy Wall Street protesters, and every other interest group with a stake in [Obama's] actions should do is what gay activists did: pressure him relentlessly, without regard for his supposed inner thoughts and feelings, until he delivers. When he comes through on a small issue, keep pushing on the bigger ones. When he's proceeding slowly push him to go faster. Criticize his shortcomings. Credibly threaten to abandon him.

Repeat as necessary.
(Via Sullivan, who the main piece spends a lot of time getting into it with. Much less interesting, to me, than the main point, which is encapsulated in the post above.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Many Shadows of Lǐ Bái Drinking by Moonlight

Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn): There was a Chinese poet who was drowned while trying to kiss the moon in the river. He was drunk.
George Kittredge (John Howard): I'd say as much.
Tracy Lord: But he wrote beautiful poetry.

-- The Philadelphia Story (1940), by Donald Ogden Stewart (directed by George Cukor)
The poet that Katherine Hepburn's character refers to is 李白 Lǐ Bái* (701 – 762), one of the major poets of the Chinese Tang dynasty. I don't know the origins of the legend about his death, which is apparently fairly widely known, but it does seem that both drinking and the moon are recurring images in his work. In particular, one of his most famous poems, 月下獨酌 (Yuè xià dú zhuó), is about both. It has been quite widely translated -- as this fabulous post amply demonstrates by presenting 43 (!) translations (from which I've taken most of the translations I'm including here). I thought I'd share some with you.

But first, here's the original Chinese (via A. Z. Foreman):


-- 李白
And, in somewhat nicer calligraphy, here's an image of the poem from Wikipedia:

The following pinyin reflects how it would be spoken in modern Mandarin -- which, of course, is way off: Lǐ Bái wrote earlier (or around the same time) as the Beowulf poet,** and of course the language's changed. But it's still interesting, I think. (Again, via A. Z. Foreman)
Yuè xià dú zhuó 

Huā jiān yī hú jiǔ,  
dú zhuó wú xiāngqīn; 
Jǔ bēi yāo míngyuè,  
duì yǐng chéng sān rén. 
Yuè jì bù jiě yǐn,  
yǐng tú suí wǒ shēn;  
Zàn bàn yuè jiāng yǐng,  
xínglè xū jí chūn. 
Wǒ gē yuè páihuái,  
Wó wǔ yǐng língluàn; 
Xǐng shí tóng jiāo huān, 
Zuì hòu gè fēnsàn. 
Yǒng jié wúqíng yóu, 
Xiāngqī miǎo yúnhàn.

-- Lǐ Bái
If you want to hear what that Mandarin sounds like, there are a number of readings of it on Librivox here.

Ok, let's look at the English. First, here's a character-by-character gloss (which I first found here):
moon, under, alone, pour wine

blossom, among, one, pot, wine
alone, pour wine, without, one another, intimate
to lift, cup, invite, bright, moon
couple, shadow, complete, three, people
moon, since, not understand, drink
shadow, disciple, follow, my body
temporary, companion, moon, shadow
to go, cheer, must, to reach, spring/joy
I, song, moon, irresolute, wander
I, to dance, shadow, remnant, in confusion
to be awake, accompanying, to make friends, joyous
intoxicate/finally, each, divided, scattered
forever, to bind, not, merciless, to travel/roaming
heavenly river/Milky Way, profound/remote, cloud, man

-- Glossed by Jordan Dickie
That's not a translation per se, but again, I find it interesting. But now let's look at some real translations.

First, here's a translation by Witter Bynner, an early Twentieth Century American poet who worked from glosses by Jiāng Kànghú (江亢虎) on an anthology of translations called The Jade Mountain.
Drinking Alone with the Moon

From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me—
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends.

To cheer me through the end of spring . . .
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
. . . Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.

-- Translated by Witter Bynner
If you want to read more of Bynner's translations of Lǐ Bái, there are a bunch of them online here.

Next, here's a translation by A. Z. Foreman, from whom I took the Chinese and pinyin versions above (and whose translation is, unlike most of those I reprinting here, not in the 43-translation roundup):
Pouring Myself Drinks Alone By Moonlight

Amid the flowers: a jug of wine.
I pour alone and friendlessly
Raise my cup to invite the moon down
Then face my shadow to make us three.
But the moon just doesn't know how to drink
And my shadow just follows me the whole time.
Still I must make friends with moon and shadow,
Enjoy, while I can, the year's brief prime.

I sing: the lit moon swings along.
I dance: my shadow jumps and sways.
While yet lucid, we share our pleasures;
Blacked out, we go our separate ways,
By feelingless wandering bound forever
To meet back up in the deep Sky River.

-- Translated by A. Z. Foreman

And a translation by Ezra Pound:
Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine

Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine
I pour alone but with no friend at hand
So I lift the cup to invite the shining moon,
Along with my shadow we become party of three

The moon although understands none of drinking, and
The shadow just follows my body vainly
Still I make the moon and the shadow my company
To enjoy the springtime before too late

The moon lingers while I am singing
The shadow scatters while I am dancing
We cheer in delight when being awake
We separate apart after getting drunk

Forever will we keep this unfettered friendship
Till we meet again far in the Milky Way.

-- Translated by Ezra Pound

And one by poet and novelist Vikram Seth:
Drinking Alone with the Moon

A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.

The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I’ll make merry with them both–
And soon enough it will be Spring.

I sing–the moon moves to and fro.
I dance–my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk–and we’ll go our separate ways.

Let’s pledge–beyond human ties–to be friends,
And meet where the Silver River ends.

-- Translated by Vikram Seth

And one by Elling O. Eide:
Drinking Alone in the Moonlight

Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.

Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
But forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.

-- Translated by Elling O. Eide

And, finally, another one not in this great translation round-up, a translation by David Hinton (who calls the poet Li Po*):
Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.

Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,

though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.

Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I've found a joy that must infuse spring:

I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.

Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:

intimates forever, we'll wander carefree
and meet again in Milky Way distances.

-- Translated by David Hinton
For a great many more translations, you should see this fabulous blog post I've already linked repeatedly. (I probably wouldn't have bothered with this post myself, save that some of the things I've included -- the pinyin, the literal gloss, the Foreman and Hinton translations, a few links -- aren't in that post.)

See you in the River of Stars.

Update, June 1: I stumbled across yet another poem not in the above-linked set of translations, so I thought I'd add it here. Frederick Turner, a poet who is the author of two science fictional epic poems, The New World and Genesis, has also done an entire book of translations of Tang poetry, freely available online (albeit in pretty awkward formatting, but hey, it's free). Here's his version of 月下獨酌:
Drinking Alone under the Moon

Among the flowers with one lone jug of wine
I drink without a friend to drink with me.
But I’ll lift up my cup, invite the moon,
So with my shadow we will make up three.

The moon’s immune, though, to debauchery,
And my poor shadow follows me in vain;
Still, Moon and Shadow are my company–
The joys of spring may never come again.

So as I sing, Moon wanders aimlessly,
And as I dance, poor tangled Shadow reels;
Sober, we were in perfect harmony,
Now, drunk, there’s no connection of our heels;
But, careless of this world, we’re bound, one day,
To meet together in the Milky Way.

-- Translated by Frederick Turner

* There seem to be two readings to the second character of 李白's name (I have no idea why), so that it can be transliterated in pinyin either as Lǐ Bái or as Lǐ Bó. This is in addition to the fact that you'll see other transliteration systems used, the Wade-Giles system for example, in which the poet's name is written either as Li Pai or as Li Po. All four are the same poet, and are represented by the same characters, 李白.

** Beowulf is dated to sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries; Lǐ Bái wrote in the eighth. Still, it seems like a good point of chronological comparison for English readers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Quote of the Day: a Kantian Argument for Objective Knowledge

Kant frequently used a puzzling argument form to establish quite abstruse philosophical positions (φ): We have X -- perceptual knowledge, freedom of the will, whatever. But without φ (the transcendental unity of the apperception, or the kingdom of ends) X would be impossible, or inconceivable. Hence φ. The objectivity of local knowledge is my φ; X is the possibility of planning, prediction, manipulation, control and policy setting. Unless our claims about the expected consequences of our actions are reliable, our plans are for nought. Hence knowledge is possible.

-- Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World, p. 23
The problem with arguments of that structure, it seems to me, is that our evaluation of the preconditions of X's possibility or conceivability are pretty poorly grounded; I fear that, without meaning to, one's arguing for φ on the grounds of one's own lack of imagination. But in the case of Cartwright's argument, it certainly seems sound.

(You might possibly with the addition of the phrase ("we know from experience that our plans are (not always) for nought", to clarify that one is making it on empirical grounds rather than "we can't bear it" grounds. Although that might raise charges of begging the question, I suppose. Hmm. I wonder if they're there anyway?)

Incidentally, I was interested enough to look at Cartwright's book because of the fabulous title, which I thought (and hoped) she'd taken from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: she did, and, to her credit, she quotes it in its entirety.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Real LIfe Parent-Child Dialogue

Me, reading from Gerald McDermott's (wonderful) children's book, Papagayo: The Mischief Maker: "...the moon was now just a slender crescent."

Joseph, interrupting and pointing at the picture: "No! It's a waning gibbous!"
...This would be a perfect story had he been correct; sadly, honesty compels me to note that, alas, as best as I can tell he was mistaken. Nevertheless, in all honesty, I don't think I could have come up with the phrase "waning gibbous" at all without a brain extension. Until now, that is: now I imagine I'll never forget it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Anyone Who Doesn't Have a Job Should Realize It's Because Our Politicians Decided It Didn't Matter Whether They Have One or Not

And if you're afraid to leave your job because of the recession, it's because politicians have decided that they don't care if there are more jobs or not.

And if you know anyone who's suffering due to the economy, it's because politicians have decided that they don't care if there are more jobs or not.

The horrible situation is not a natural event we can't control. It's something that is being allowed to happen because the people who rule our country don't care enough to change it.

All of this by way of introducing this quote from Paul Krugman:
It has been more than four years since the US economy first entered recession—and although the recession may have ended, the depression has not. Unemployment may be trending down a bit in the United States (though it’s rising in Europe), but it remains at levels that would have been inconceivable not long ago—and are unconscionable now. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens are suffering vast hardship, the future prospects of today’s young people are being eroded with each passing month—and all of it is unnecessary.

For the fact is that we have both the knowledge and the tools to get out of this depression. Indeed, by applying time-honored economic principles whose validity has only been reinforced by recent events, we could be back to more or less full employment very fast, probably in less than two years. All that is blocking recovery is a lack of intellectual clarity and political will.
"Somebody chose their pain, what needn't have happened did", as Auden famously put it.

Rage would not be an unreasonable response.

Oh, and while I'm at it, another juicy quote from the same article (which is worth reading in its entirety):
And recent experience also teaches us a crucial political lesson: it’s much better to stand up for what you believe, to make the case for what really should be done, than to try to seem moderate and reasonable by essentially accepting your opponents’ arguments. Compromise, if you must, on the policy—but never on the truth.
...In other words, Obama was an idiot to crow that the stimulus he got passed in early 2009 was enough when he knew, or ought to have known, that it damn well wasn't.

(I have to say, Krugman was right about Obama back in 2008 when a great many of us were wrong. It was the first time since I've begun reading his journalism that I've thought, on a major issue and in a sustained way, he was wrong about something... and it was I who was wrong. Just sayin'.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Oh Please Don't Go -- We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So!

...And Max said "No".

Terribly sad news: Maurice Sendak has died. (h/t)

In addition to his masterpiece, Sendak wrote or illustrated a great many other wonderful children's books too. I mentioned one I dearly loved, The Bat Poet, last year.

Rest in peace.

Update: Via Gerry Canavan, the blogger I steal the most links from the bestest blogger in the whole wide internets, here's a New Yorker profile of Sendak from 2006, and here is a two-page Art Spiegleman cartoon depicting a conversation he had with Sendak. Even if you don't have time for the former, I highly recommend the latter. Update to the Update: The cartoon is apparently from a 1993 issue of The New Yorker; and it was co-drawn by Sendak and Spiegleman, rather than just Spiegelman reporting a conversation they'd had. (You can see both signatures at the bottom, Sendak on the left, Spiegleman on the right.) I learn both these facts from Neil Gaiman, by whose good efforts (well, Tweeting) the cartoon was apparently unlocked upon Sendak's death. Well done, NG.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Do Libertarians Believe in Slavery?

Let me first start by clarifying my question in several ways.

First, while it is, to some extent, a rhetorical question designed to point out (one of the many of) the disqualifying-level problems with libertarianism as an ideology, it is also meant, quite sincerely, as a genuine question. Which is to say, assuming that anyone responds to this post*, I'd expect mostly combative responses trying to show why the implication behind my question is wrong. And that's fair. But I'd also be interested in genuine responses, i.e. answers to the question. I'm particularly interested in whether or not any famous libertarian thinkers has addressed this question -- because I suspect they have, and I'd be curious to read it.**

Second, my question is theoretical, not historical. "Libertarians" as such did not exist in antebellum America. It seems clear to me that in any but a question-begging, no-true-Scotsmen sense, libertarians' closest ideological ancestors from that time were defenders rather than opponents of slavery. I'm sure there are lots of counterarguments. But it's not the question I'm asking nor something I want (right at this moment) to explore.

Next, let me clarify a few premises behind my question.

First, it seems to me that one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from anarchists is that they believe that the government ought to enforce contracts. This isn't mentioned quite as much as the maintenance of armed forces and police, but my sense is that it's pretty universally agreed by most miniarchists that enforcement of contracts goes along with those things as proper roles for the state. (If there are libertarians who don't think, in general and on principle, that the state ought to enforce contracts, then let me know -- I'd be interested -- and please mentally amend this entire attempt so that wherever it currently says "libertarians" it reads instead "that subset of libertarians who believe that government ought to enforce contracts".)

Second, it seems to me that one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from liberals is that they don't believe that governments ought to enforce their opinions about what contracts consenting adults ought to make. That's why they're fine with prostitution, for instance: they see it as, in Nozick's memorable phrase, a "capitalist act[] between consenting adults". So while governments ought to enforce contracts, they oughtn't to regulate what contracts ought to be enforced. (Again, where I say "libertarians" here I mean the subset to whom this applies, an identification which seems warranted to me by the fact that (so far as I know) most libertarians will fall into this category.)

Finally, it seems to me that another one of the key things that distinguish libertarians from liberals is that they don't think that the government ought to step in to prevent non-state coercion -- the sort of coercion that comes from desperate poverty, for instance. If they did, they'd believe in alleviating desperate poverty (so that the poor people were not coerced by it), which would mean erecting some sort of a welfare state, which would make them (at least in this respect) liberals, not libertarians. Now, this may be less generally true than the other two premises -- I know that some libertarians believe in a certain level of minimum income which ought to be guaranteed by the state, for instance -- but my sense (and, again, I'd be interested to know if this seems unfair to anyone) is that most libertarians these days are, at best, apathetic about whether such a thing happens -- they don't work on pushing it -- and in fact spend most of their political energies in this area trying to cut back the welfare state and similar things.

So -- with that in mind -- imagine a libertarian utopia. (Where libertarian is defined as agreeing with those premises.) Then imagine a person so desperately poor -- someone starving, say -- that they will do anything to survive. And imagine such a person being offered a contract to submit to slavery for the rest of their life.

It probably wouldn't be called slavery. But it's easy to imagine, in such a world, a contract being drawn up to replicate all but one of the essential features of slavery in its familiar American form. Such a contract would stipulate that it is unbreakable; that the person signing would have to obey their owner in all the ways that slaves had to (live where ordered, do what they were ordered, etc); that they consented (by signing the contract gave future consent) to whippings should they not obey, etc. The only feature of American slavery that wouldn't be replicated would be its inheritability -- since libertarians, presumably, wouldn't think that a person could sign away the rights of their children. But while that feature was a key component of American slavery, I don't think you could argue it's necessary for slavery -- a childless slave is still a slave.***

So: in a libertarian utopia, would such a contract be enforceable? It's an act of capitalism between consenting adults (for libertarian notions of consenting, i.e. of age, not obviously mentally incapacitated, etc., where economic coercion is considered irrelevant.)

If so, it seems all but inevitable that slavery would rapidly appear in a libertarian utopia, and would be a permanent and recurring social feature.

I suspect that any libertarian who grants my premises but still wishes to deny this fact will do so by denying that such a situation will occur, arguing that in a society free of government coercion everything will be good enough that no such dire poverty (lacking other remedy) will emerge. This strikes me as obviously wrong -- do libertarians not believe people, even without government help, make dumb decisions? Get in bad situations? -- but anyone who is wild enough to suggest such a thing is probably unpersuadable.

And, of course, such slavery would really be slavery in the classical sense: the police would track down runaways, since that, after all, would be a breach of contract.

On the other hand, if such a contract would not be enforceable, then it seems to me the purity that is the essential rhetorical appeal of libertarianism ("it's none of your business what I do!") has been thrown away, and all that is left to negotiate is the precise balance of the arguer's liberalism, i.e. precisely how desperate do the circumstances need to be before the government helps, and how horrific does the private contract need to be before it's declared unenforceable? Think about these things long enough and the next thing you know you'll be for a minimum wage and government regulation of working environments... that is, a liberal, at least on these issues. Sure, some ex-libertarians might have different ideas about where to draw the line. But then it's just a question of pragmatic juggling -- no longer a question of grand (and grandly announced) principles.

So? Anyone have any answers?

Do libertarians believe in slavery?

: A liberal view on this, incidentally, doesn't seem to me very hard. Speaking personally, on this matter I would quote John Locke:
As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.

-- John Locke, Two Treatises Upon Civil Government
...but it seems to me a libertarian would want to make the former (one's own title to the product of our honest industry) vitiate the latter (others' title to our industry to stave off want). Which means they support slavery.

Or, if not... why not?

Update: Meaning-altering error (meant one word, typed another) fixed.

Update 2: Anyone interested in this blog post should make sure to read the long and fascinating comment left below by philosopher Dan Hicks.


* Unlikely, I'll admit: I get very few comments (he said self-pityingly)

** A very quick glance at Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia turned up only the following sentences on the topic:
...The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery. I believe that it would. (Other writers disagree.) It also would allow him permanently to commit himself never to enter into such a transaction. (p. 331)
And so far as I can tell, that's it -- a brief reference in a section devoted to unanswered questions. But I might well have missed something. But there you have it: Robert Nozick was pro-slavery.

*** And who would have a child, if they had any choice (although remember they wouldn't) under these circumstances? For that matter, what possible chance would such a child have to be in anything less than desperate circumstances when they attained whatever the age of consent in the society was? (Although, of course, we've already stipulated that our libertarians don't care about non-state -- in particular, economic and social -- coercion. They might well just wave that away -- with perfect consistency, I might add.)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

It Seems That There Are Fashions In Student Errors Too

This spring a fair number of students, from both of my classes, have been repeatedly using the word "advancement" when they just mean "advance", e.g. "The law was a huge advancement for African Americans". My guess is that they think it sounds 'sophisticated' or something, since it's longer. But I don't have any idea why that particular error has had a sudden spike in popularity. Has anyone else seen this?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

List of the Day: 5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds

Via Kevin Drum, this list by David Wong at Cracked is spot-on. They have commentary on each item, but the list itself is as follows: "you can safely ignore any story if..."
5. The Headline Contains the Word "Gaffe"
4. The Headline Ends in a Question Mark
3. The Headline Contains the Word "Blasts"
2. The Headline Is About a "Lawmaker" Saying Something Stupid
1. The Headline Includes the Phrase "[a] Blow To"
...if you are in doubt about any of these five, or have grading to procrastinate on, I urge you to read the full explanation.

But, because it's a righteous rant on an important topic, let me give you a little bit of Wong's commentary on the last item:
...when the Supreme Court recently threatened to completely overturn this gargantuan piece of legislation, how did it get reported?
Supreme Court's health care ruling could deal dramatic blow to Obama presidency.
-- Washington Post
The ruling could deal a blow to the "Obama presidency"? Fuck you.

I don't give two shits about the "Obama presidency" except in terms of what legislation it gets passed and how it changes the country and my life. I'm not following this story because I think it's a freaking Barack Obama reality show and I'm really eager to see how his life turns out. I don't see no goddamned crab boat. I'm following it because I want to know what it means for my own goddamned life and for the lives of the people I care about....

It's not only following the issue as a horse race/fight/reality show, it's actively prohibiting you from seeing it any other way. After all, if the building were really on fire, somebody would be telling me to evacuate. They wouldn't be calmly speculating about how this fire alarm is going to be a "blow to" the landlord. Not unless the person giving me the news had gone completely freaking insane.
In the omitted portion, he goes on to present examples from a wide rang of other issues. Read the rest.