Sunday, February 27, 2005

Good and evil

At Hullabaloo on February 25 ( ), Digby had a long post incorporating excerpts from a speech by Lincoln. Let me paraphrase:

Republicans are the party of resentment, they are the ideological descendants of the slave holding interests, and they are bent on converting the country to their views (just as Lincoln said the slavocrats would not rest until everyone acknowledged that slavery was good). Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of equality and moral progress and the ideological descendants of the Lincoln Republicans.

I have to admit that this was pretty provocative, and I tried hard to read it without being offended that my southern heritage was being conflated with right wing politics. I also decided to suspend my belief in the implausibility of the historical argument and read the post as comparing Lincoln's points about slavery with the inability of right wingers to tolerate dissent. Having rewritten the post in my imagination in this light, I find that there is much to agree with in the imaginary revised post.

Naturally, as a self professed anarchist, I do not see the political struggle in the US as Good versus Evil; rather, I see it as Evil versus Evil. This enables me to note the irony in Digby's post that he has, in the final analysis, done pretty much what he accuses the right wing of doing in that he characterizes the two sides in terms of good and evil, truth and falsity, resentment and hope. It seems to me that Digby (and his commentariat) are particpating in the public discourse feedback loop with the left accusing the right of being evil and/or stupid which feeds right wing resentment which makes the left think the right is getting even more evil and stupid and so on.

I suspect that the right wing (whenI speak of politics, I speak of the operatives and intelligentsia, not of the millions of duped voters) does not actually believe its own output and that it cynically pursues the consolidation of power. I am not so sure about the left, but I am equally unsure whether cynical powermongering is worse than sincere belief in a statist platform. Given that the two wings are almost indistinguishable ideologically, it probably does not matter. In any event, we can look forward to the downward spiral of public discourse, and this is probably due more to the lack of genuine substantive disagreement than to any other factor. Framing the struggle as a manichean battle of good and evil helps to obscure the lack of choice (as South Park viewers know, voting is always a choice between a giant douche and a turd sandwich). Digby seems to hold that the voters of each wing are themselves ideologically committed to their chosen wing; however, I think it is more likely that they have been conned by one of the parties into believing that their interests are served by the party of their choice. Of course, Digby seems to believe that there is a significant difference between the major parties.

I am ambivalent about the level of public discourse. It is hilariously entertaining yet deeply disturbing. The public is probably not equipped to appreciate anything better since half of us are of below average intelligence and most of the rest of us are just about average. For now, my hope is that anarchist and libertarian intellectuals will figure out a way to sloganeer their way into a position to influence politics.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Power relations in musical chairs

I took graduate courses in conflict management and dispute resolution at Columbia University. A number of courses were devoted, at least in part, to "identity based conflict". In these courses, it was stressed that conflict emerged mainly from entrenched power relations. These power relations served to perpetuate existing inequality.

One group exercise involved allocating chairs among students. One student had 10 chairs, several others had 2 or 3 chairs, and most had no chairs. We were asked to discuss how this made us feel and were told that the unjust allocation of chairs created conflict. Presumably, the simple fact of having more chairs was what made it unjust, and how the chair tycoon came by his wealth was not specified. Moreover, the chair tycoon was asked to sprawl out and take up as many of his chairs as possible and to gloat at his good chair fortune to excite the envy of the chairless. This was supposed to raise our consciousness about economic injustice.

Where I come from, justice means "to each his own"; therefore, how the folks came to have many or few chairs would be relevant to assessing the justice of the matter. Moreover, to make the exercise more realistic, the chair tycoon ought to have been able to rent out his chairs or sell them or otherwise make productive use of them. He would not hoard his chairs any more than a real world tycoon would keep his wealth under his mattress.

The most frustrating aspect of the courses, and indeed of all the egalitarian tendencies in the conflicts program and anthroplogy department in general, was the failure of my fellow students or even faculty to acknowledge that institution of the egalitarian utopia that they envisioned would necessarily entail a new set of power relations with a new set of conflicts associated with the tyranny required to enforce equality. Their thought processes seemed to be that eliminating differences in wealth, income, power, prestige and eliminating normative judgments about cultural and lifestyle choices would be enough to establish peace on earth and goodwill to men.

But what happens on day 2 in the egalitarian Eden? What if my neighbor is productive and enhances his wealth through labor and voluntary exchange? What if he has good luck? Will this excess wealth be confiscated and distributed among the idle and unlucky? In that case, who would produce anything beyond his immediate needs?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


The wife and I saw "Sideways" recently. It is a rare treat to see a film about adults with adult themes. The screenplay was well written, and the film was superbly acted by the entire cast. I thought Virginia Madsen put in an exceptional performance. The scene on the porch where Madsen and Giamatta discuss their love of wine (Giamatta's character explains why he is obsessed with pinot noir, and Madsen's character talks about how wine is "alive") is one of the best moments in film for years.

Giamatta and Haden-Church play forty-something old friends who go on a vacation to the California wine country in the week before the latter's wedding. Both are failures, one an unpublished novelist working as a schoolteacher, the other a former soap star now doing commercial voice over work. Giamatta's character is deeply depressed and negative, Haden-Church's character is outwardly optimistic. Both are trying to come to terms with the lives they find that they are living.

Despite the melancholy subject matter, this was one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.

I was inspired by the film to try some Califironia pinot noir. Artesa 1999 was the best wine I have ever tasted. A 1998 Tasmanian pinot noir under the name Ninth Island was also pretty good- both wines were highly structured and complex. (This comes from a man whose wine usually comes in a box.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

War Between the States

I have been following discussions about the Tom Woods book (Politically Incorrect Guide to American History) and am planning to read it in the next couple of weeks.

Many critics of the book appear to get hung up on the War Between the States and are willing to argue endlessly on the question of what that war was "about". I submit that it was "about" as many things as there were participants. To say that a complex interaction among millions of people was about some small set of things or concepts is to impose an interpretation. Such interpretations necessarily involve selecting a few facts out of the infinite sea of facts and serve the interpreters' present purposes. Dr Woods' book appears to rankle many of his critics because it challenges the received and officially sanctioned interpretation of history. This alone makes the book worth its weight in gold.

In discussing the War Between the States, I have encountered quite a few folks who claim that the war was about slavery and that this is not subject to debate. Moreover, to say otherwise is to condone slavery. This is patently absurd. It takes no courage to oppose slavery, and to cut off discussion by playing the "you must be pro-slavery" card indicates intellectual cowardice.

The same folks almost invariably argue that the cost in life and property and the destruction of the Constitution were worth it to end slavery, assuming that there was no less destructive alternative. Such statements from the comfort of a century and a half after the events in question manifest a disturbing indifference to the suffering of the particpants in the WBTS and contemptible intellectual sloth.

This issue is somewhat personal to me since all my male ancestors of the right age range fought for the CSA. None of them owned slaves, and almost all of them hailed from mountain counties where slaveholding was rare. Family history indicates that these men fought out of love of their country and to defend against an invading army. Slavery was reportedly not part of their justification for service to the CSA. I have every right to honor the memory of my ancestors and to defend this heritage from historical interpretations which gratuitously demean it.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Dealing with Bigotry

How do you deal with people whom you otherwise respect but who are in some way "bigoted"? I have many acquaintances who are anti-homosexual to some degree or who are prejudiced against one or more categories of people. Otherwise, they seem to be reasonable and courteous.

My anti-homosexual acquaintances generally have a religious basis for their views, and religious views are not really all that arguable. To them, homosexuals are sinners, end of story. My homosexual acquaintances dismiss them as "homophobes". There seems to be little chance for any kind of dialogue to develop so as to permit any kind of mutual understanding between these two views.

I find that I understand both points of view and can tolerate and respect both homosexuals and those who dislike them. In a free society, these two categories of people would never have to confront one another. Both could pursue happiness as they saw fit without imposition on the other. Now, the folks in these categories struggle to force recognition of their point of view on others through political means.

Perhaps advocacy of the free society would be the best way to reconcile the opposing positions.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Time preference of childless people

I have been following some discussions about UNLV Professor Hoppe's having offended a gay undergraduate by suggesting that homosexuals tend to have a high time preference. This is supposed to be partially a function of childlessness. Parents are supposed to save more and plan for the future. It is unclear whether this assertion is predicated on the idea that having a child is an investment of sorts and indicative of a future orientation.

What if parenting is seen an act of present consumption and deferred childbearing is a manifestation of low time preference? Many parents are less able to save currently because they have to support their offspring in the here and now. It seems to me that, in industrialized society with child labor restrictions, children are usually on the receiving end of the intergenerational flow of wealth.

Pit bulls are the best dogs in the world, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not a good person

My large American Bull Terrier is the best natured dog I have ever known. Given his size and strength, I suppose that a bad natured dog would have been hunted down by angry villagers with torches and pitchforks long ago or that he would be employed in illicit dog fighting. In my work with shelter and rescue dogs, all the pits are great.

My spouse has been advocating for the placement of pit bulls in sitcoms in order to counteract the bad press they get all the time.