The Tea Party’s Sacred Cows and the Privilege of Absurdity

Scott Atran in the Huffington Post:

Tea-party-protestor Recent research into seemingly intractable conflicts indicates that, for better or worse, radical movements that have attempted revolutionary changes in society do truly act on what they believe to be their sacred values — core moral principles that resist and often clash with rational calculations. Once locked into sacred values there is a denial of the validity of opposing positions no matter how logically or empirically well-founded. Market fundamentalism — irrational belief in the rational wisdom of the market — is one case that Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman and financial analyst Nassim Taleb have debunked.

Congressional Tea Party holdouts against raising America's deficit ceiling behave as if any compromise on the issue would violate a sacred commitment to honor the Founding Fathers' wishes that government be as disentangled from people's personal lives (and from foreign adventures) as much as the defense of their physical safety allows. This “existential” commitment is a rebellion against “the tyranny of government,” symbolized by increasing taxation. They believe their way will buck the republic's historical trend over the last 235 years toward larger government, and ultimately produce a leaner, downscaled federal authority despite almost certain immediate damage to America's economy and power.

More here.

Autophagy is an old trope of advertising

Justin E. H. Smith in his eponymous blog:

Untitled Surely there must be a name, in advertising parlance, for the figure of the anthropomorphized food item that happily consumes a non-anthropomorphized version of itself? I first noticed Yocco years ago when driving through central Pennsylvania, and I admit he's haunted me ever since. What could he be thinking? What would existence as Yocco, the Hot Dog King, be like?

He is delighted, it is clear, but does his delight flow from the fact that human beings, the true anthropomorphs, enjoy eating his lesser brethren, the hot dogs that were destined to remain mere hot dogs? Or is he delighted because he himself is free to eat his lesser brethren? Do they constitute him, like the subjects of Hobbes's Leviathan? Is Yocco aware of this? Does Yocco not know what, exactly, he is? And, if he does, does it not horrify him?

Of course, autophagy is an old trope of advertising. We see it in abundance on the signs outside barbecue joints: the pig joyfully digging into a plate of pork, or, even more absurdly, the pig delighted to present itself as an already prepared pork product. Now the former possibility is not all that unverisimilar: pigs do resort to cannibalism regularly and without qualms.

More here.

Harmony of Means and Ends

Henry Farrell has started an interesting blogosphere discussion of 'left neoliberalism' and about a 'theory of politics. The post has provoked responses from Delong. Cosma Shalizi's take on the whole thing is worth a read:

What Henry means when he talks about “a theory of politics” is a theory about how political change (or stasis) happens, not about what political ends are desirable, or just, or legitimate, which is much of what I take “political theory” to be. “What are the processes and mechanisms by which political change happens?” is, at least in part, a separate question from “What would a good polity look like?”, and Henry is talking about the former, not the latter. Of course the answer to the first question will tend to be context-dependent, so specialize it to “in contemporary representative democracies”, or even “America today” if you like.

The first importance of such a theory is instrumental: if you want to have policies that look like X, a good theory of politics would help you figure out how to achieve X-shaped policies. But the second importance is that the theory might change your evaluation of policies, because it would change your understanding of their effects. The U.S. tax deduction for mortgage interest is arguably economically inefficient, since it promotes buying housing over renting, for no very clear economic rationale. But in so doing it (along with massive government intervention in forming and sustaining the mortgage market, building roads, using zoning to limit the construction of rental property, etc.) helps create a large group of people who are, or think of themselves as, property owners, possessors of substantial capital assets and so with a stake in the system*. If the deduction were, for instance, means-tested, it would not be nearly so effective politically.

Or again, if, for instance, you like material prosperity, you might favor policy X because (you think) it promotes economic efficiency. (Some other time, we can and should have the conversation about “economic efficiency”, and the difference between “allocating scarce resources to their most valuable uses” and “allocating resources to meet effective demand”, i.e., about the injustice inherent in the market's social welfare function.) But if you are also egalitarian, and policy X would make it easier for a small group of already-privileged people to wield political influence, then you might decide that policy X is not, after all, worth it, because of its inegalitarian political effects. (At a guess, some, but not all**, of Brad DeLong's reaction to Henry's posts is explained by letting X = “Clinton-era financial deregulation”.) If you value a certain kind of distribution of political power as such (democracy, aristocracy, the vanguard party, rule by philosopher kings central bankers, etc.), a theory of politics would becomes an important part of how you gauge the value of different policies, at least ones which you think would tend to change how much power different individuals, or groups of individuals, would have.

Seven Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (If They Weren’t So Wrong)

Ff_swr2_f In Wired Magazine (via Rationally Speaking):

When scientists violate moral taboos, we expect horrific consequences. It’s a trope in our storytelling that goes back at least to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: However well-intentioned our fictional scientists may be, their disregard for ethical boundaries will produce not a peer-reviewed paper in Science but rather a new race of subhuman killers, a sucking wormhole in space-time, or a profusion of malevolent goo.

In the real world, though, matters aren’t so simple. Most scientists will assure you that ethical rules never hinder good research—that there’s always a virtuous path to testing any important hypothesis. But ask them in private, perhaps after a drink or three, and they’ll confess that the dark side does have its appeal. Bend the rules and some of our deepest scientific conundrums could be elucidated or even resolved: nature versus nurture, the causes of mental illness, even the mystery of how humans evolved from monkeys. These discoveries are just sitting out there, waiting for us to find them, if only we were willing to lose our souls.

What follows are seven creepy experiments—thought experiments, really—that show how contemporary science might advance if it were to toss away the moral compass that guides it. Don’t try these at home—or anywhere, for that matter. But also don’t pretend you wouldn’t like to learn the secrets that these experiments would reveal.

The Jargon of the Novel, Computed

Bkr-Zimmer-t_CA0-articleLarge Ben Zimmer in The New York Times:

We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his 1966 book “The Colloquial Style in America.” “Whereas in the 19th century a very real distinction could be made between the vernacular and standard diction as they were used in prose,” Bridgman wrote, “in the 20th century the vernacular had virtually become standard.” Thanks to such pioneers as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, the story goes, ornate classicism was replaced by a straight-talking vox populi.

Now in the 21st century, with sophisticated text-crunching tools at our disposal, it is possible to put Bridgman’s theory to the test. Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast?

Scholars in the growing field of digital humanities can tackle this question by analyzing enormous numbers of texts at once. When books and other written documents are gathered into an electronic corpus, one “subcorpus” can be compared with another: all the digitized fiction, for instance, can be stacked up against other genres of writing, like news reports, academic papers or blog posts.

One such research enterprise is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA, which brings together 425 million words of text from the past two decades, with equally large samples drawn from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English. The fiction samples cover short stories and plays in literary magazines, along with the first chapters of hundreds of novels from major publishers. The compiler of COCA, Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, has designed a freely available online interface that can respond to queries about how contemporary language is used. Even grammatical questions are fair game, since every word in the corpus has been tagged with a part of speech.

On Ethics, Part I: Moral Philosophy’s Third Way

Morality Massimo Pigliucci in Rationally Speaking:

Ethics, its implications and its justifications keep appearing at Rationally Speaking in a variety of forms, from my critique of Sam Harris’ scientism to my rejection of Objectivism, from Julia’s skepticism about meta-ethics to Michael’s criticism of the non-morality of markets. This is, of course, inevitable because ethics is both a crucial component of our lives and a topic that can — with due caution — be approached rationally, which means it does belong to this blog.

So, I have decided to take the bull by its nasty horns and do a multi-part series on ethics (haven’t decided how many parts just yet) with the following objectives: a) make as clear as possible my “third way” between moral relativism and objective moral truths (this essay); b) systematically explore the differences among the major ethical systems proposed by philosophers: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics and egalitarianism; and c) apply the method of reflective equilibrium to my own thinking about ethics to see whether I need to revise my positions about moral philosophy (I am starting this quest with a marked preference for virtue ethics, but mixed with the apparently not so easy to reconcile with egalitarianism of John Rawls). We’ll see how far we get, yes?

The starting point for my discussion of what I will refer to as ethics’ “third way” is a recent thoughtful article published in The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy blog. There, NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian does an excellent job at summarizing the perennial discussion between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Boghossian introduces an interesting contrast to make his readers think about the differences among moral absolutism, moral relativism, and nihilism. Consider first the ancient concept of witches. We (well, most of us) no longer believe that there are witches in the world, so we have dropped talk of witches altogether, engaging in what Boghossian calls “eliminativism” about witches (analogous, of course, to the much more debatable eliminativism in philosophy of mind proposed by Patricia and Paul Churchland).

Dummy Land

From The Paris Review:

BLOG_threesome I’m waiting for the elevator in a medieval-themed hotel in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, when the elevator doors open to reveal a heated exchange between a bald man in a Hawaiian shirt and a puppet shaped like a toucan. My presence brings an uncomfortable end to their private imbroglio. Both stare at me silently as I enter the elevator, and for five awkward floors I’m brought into direct contact with what George Bernard Shaw described as the “unvarying intensity of facial expression” of puppets, an attribute he believed makes them more compelling actors than humans. I’m at the Vent Haven ConVENTion where, each July, hundreds of ventriloquists, or “vents,” as they call themselves, gather from all over the world. For four days, they attend lectures on the business, getting advice on AV equipment, scriptwriting, or creating an audience through social networking. They listen to a keynote address by Comedy Central’s ventriloquist-in-residence, Jeff Dunham, who exhorts his notoriously defensive colleagues to “quit complaining that people say we’re weird. We talk to dolls. We are weird, ok. Just own it.” They eat at a Denny’s off the highway and visit the creationist museum down the road. And they don’t go anywhere without the accompaniment of their alter egos.

At the convention, the puppets are a slim but boisterous majority. They crowd in around you. They critique you. They grope you. They chatter continuously. Being around them approximates what it would be like to read people’s minds. It is a most unpleasant experience—a great deal more unsettling, of course, isn’t what they say but that they say anything at all. All over the hotel, in conference rooms, in hallways, at the bar, ventriloquism is practiced in its purest form: not as a stage show, but as an ongoing, unscripted social interaction, a live conversation between humans and their golems. At a drunken party one night, in the hotel’s “hospitality suite,” I witness one dummy operating another dummy, as the human source of both voices sits silently nearby, pretending to compose a text message. The mini bar has lips, which cruelly insult anyone who walks by, the origin of its voice impossible to determine. Almost as soon as I join the party, I am molested by a busty lady puppet, a faded showgirl. She swoons onto my shoulder. “Godaaamn,” she slurs. “Where have you been?” Her vent is a burly, unsmiling dude with a shaved head, a muscle shirt, and camo shorts. He smells strongly of whiskey.

More here.

Pakistan through a journalist’s lens

Zubeida Mustafa in Dawn:

Naf Aboard the Democracy Train — a title borrowed from Benazir Bhutto’s campaign by train for the 1988 election — is an account of politics in Pakistan through the experiences of a female reporter, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, working in a predominantly male environment. As a Dawn staffer from 1984 to 2000, she had access to people and places which gave her a ringside view of politics in Pakistan. It goes to her credit that she put her knowledge to good use. What has emerged is a remarkably readable and anecdotal account of events in Pakistan. For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a journey down memory lane. By skilfully weaving in the story of her own life in journalism — the society she grew up in, her westernised upbringing in an elite and privileged family, her English medium school education and her disconnect from her Sindhi linguistic antecedents — Hoodbhoy provides an excellent perspective to a foreign reader of life in Pakistan when, in spite of many dichotomies and contradictions, people co-existed in relative harmony.

Hoodbhoy puts forth her opinion on why Pakistan failed to develop as a stable democracy: “the over-indulged state had, since the creation of the nation, taught political leaders one simple lesson: when they fell out with the military, they could be shaken down like dates from a palm tree.” The period covered in the book was a unique era of transition from press controls to relative freedom that came with the abolition of the hated Press and Publications Ordinance.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Bamboo Bridge

We cross the bridge, quietly.
The bathing girl does not see us
till we've stopped and gaped like fools.
There are no catcalls, whoops,
none of the things that soldiers do;
the most stupid of us is silent, rapt.
She might be fourteen or twenty,
sunk thigh deep in the green water,
her woman's pelt a glistening corkscrew,
a wonder, a wonder she is; I forgot.
For a moment we all hold the same thought,
that there is life in life and war is shit.
For a song we'd all go to the mountains,
eat pineapples, drink goat's milk,
find a girl like this, who cares
her teeth are stained with betel nut,
her hands as hard as feet.
If I can live another month its over,
and so we think a single thought,
a bell's resonance.
And then she turns and sees us there,
sinks in the water, eyes full of hate;
the trance broken.
We move into the village on the other side.

by Doug Anderson
from The Moon Reflected Fire
Alice James, 1994

Jerome Liebling, 1924 – 2011

Jerome_liebling_014_000-300x298 Randy Kennedy in the NYT:

Jerome Liebling, whose subtly powerful pictures and the lessons he drew from them influenced a generation of socially minded photographers and documentary filmmakers, died on Wednesday in Northampton, Mass. He was 87.

His death was announced by Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he taught for more than two decades.

Mr. Liebling was among a wave of pioneering photographers — including Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Gordon Parks — who took to the streets of New York in the 1930s and ’40s to make art by turning their cameras onto corners of urban life that had mostly been ignored by the photographers before them.

His experience as a child of the Depression growing up in Brooklyn, Mr. Liebling said, formed an impulse throughout his career to “figure out where the pain was, to show things that people wouldn’t see unless I was showing them.” Over a half-century much of his work depicted painful subjects far too directly for magazines or newspapers to show them: mental patients in state hospitals, cadavers used by New York medical students, blood-drenched workers at a Minnesota slaughterhouse.

Jerome Liebling was born in New York on April 16, 1924, the son of a waiter. After serving in the Army in North Africa and Europe during World War II, he returned to New York and studied art and design at Brooklyn College with the painter Ad Reinhardt, whose fledgling photography program provided Mr. Liebling with his first camera. He joined the Photo League, the socially minded photographers’ cooperative, and worked with Paul Strand, whose complex, hard-edged compositions exerted a strong early influence.

The Storm after the Calm

Px1990c_thumb3 Michel Rocard in Project Syndicate:

Could the financial crisis of 2007-2008 happen again? Since the crisis erupted, there has been no shortage of opportunities – in the form of inadequate conclusions and decisions by officials – to nurture one’s anxiety about that prospect.

Over the course of the three G-20 summits held since the crisis, world leaders have agreed to tighten financial regulation slightly, but only for banks, while leaving other market players free of restrictions and scrutiny. As was true before the crisis, no one is monitoring the almost limitless “virtual” market for derivatives, where money moves freely without official rules or contact with the real economy.

And large players have plenty of cash with which to speculate, especially given the United States Federal Reserve’s decision to inundate the world with a sea of liquidity. The result has not been investment in productive assets that boost employment in the US, as the Fed intended, but rather a run-up in global commodity prices and a growing bubble in the housing markets of the major emerging economies.

Simply put, there are no brakes that could stop the global economy from blundering into another financial crisis.

Fooled by Science

Brooks_david-081811_jpg_230x825_q85 H. Allen Orr on David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement in the NY Review of Books:

The Social Animal is more ambitious and, in some ways, more serious than his earlier books. Gone is the focus on what are likely passing fads in American culture and gone, at least largely, is the irreverent wit that characterized his previous efforts. Instead, The Social Animal is an attempt to write an accessible treatment of a set of weighty topics, many of which require Brooks to stretch in a distinctly scientific direction. The book, which was excerpted earlier this year in The New Yorker, focuses on big and somewhat diffuse questions: What has science revealed about human nature? What are the sources of character? And why are some people happy and successful while others aren’t?

To answer these questions, Brooks surveys a wide range of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, education theory, and even the findings of marriage experts.

Given all this, you might expect The Social Animal to be a dry recitation of facts. But Brooks has structured his book in an unorthodox, and perhaps unfortunate, way. Instead of a chapter on evolutionary psychology, followed by one on child development, and so on, he tells a story. Following Rousseau’s approach in Émile, Brooks makes his larger points within a fictional narrative. This literary conceit is presumably intended both to keep the reader’s attention and to provide a natural frame for all the research that Brooks reports. So as the characters in his narrative live through childhood, we hear about the science of child development, and as they begin to date we hear about the biochemistry of sexual attraction. Nothing if not thorough, Brooks carries this conceit through to the death of one of his characters.

The Milkman in the Night

The-Milkman-in-the-Night Marina Lewycka reviews Andrey Kurkov’s The Milkman in the Night, in the FT:

Andrey Kurkov’s new book is a surreal tale of post-Soviet Ukraine, in the same vein as his cult novel Death and the Penguin but with less poignant irony and more straight farce.

The Milkman in the Night opens with a night-time murder, followed by the interception at an airport of a suitcase full of mysterious ampoules and some bizarre goings-on at a private clinic where impoverished single mothers are paid to express their surplus breast milk. From there the plot unwinds in a complex helter-skelter of more and more improbable events. Sometimes the inventiveness is exhilarating, at other times the sheer implausibility of the narrative can grate.

The characters who unleash these extraordinary plots are humble people eking out a precarious living in the unglamorous corners of Kiev and its impoverished hinterland. Irina, a single mother, travels into Kiev every day from the snowbound village of Lipovka to sell her breast milk. Dima, a sniffer-dog handler at Boryspil airport, tries to change his luck by stealing a dodgy suitcase. Semyon, a private bodyguard to a parliamentary deputy, is revealed to be a sleepwalker with a separate nocturnal life of which his daytime self is completely unaware; his wife Veronika makes friends with the eccentric widow of the pharmacist whose murder opens the book.

In the best absurdist tradition, the priest who comes to exorcise Dima’s house and car charges extra because there are no airbags, while the murdered pharmacist had developed an elixir called Anti-Wimp, which stimulates not only courage but also an exaggerated sense of social justice (politicians order it by the bucket-load). If this isn’t enough, the pharmacist’s widow has his body plasticised and seats him by the window in her apartment until it begins to smell; her friend does the same with her dead husband and the two women finally bury their spouses next to each other. And so it goes on.

Beauty and Mumbai’s beastly trade

From The Independent:

Bombay Sonia Faleiro was simply in search of a story she could sink her teeth into. A campaigning reporter on a number of Indian newspapers, the 33-year-old from Goa adhered to one overriding credo: “To convey information about people we know nothing of.”

And so, when she came across a small news item about dance bars in Mumbai, dens of iniquity in which disadvantaged young women were used and abused by the city's elite, she knew that here was something worth delving into. “I met with one of the girls, Leela,” she says, “a 19-year-old who had no doubt suffered [as a child, her father sent her out to be gang-raped by the police] but who, since arriving [in Mumbai], was so alive, and so optimistic.” Faleiro spent several months shadowing this engagingly self-dramatising heroine, convinced that she was worthy of far more than a mere article. The result, six years after they first met, is Beautiful Thing, a book that throws the doors open on Mumbai's sex trade.

More here.

Know Thyself: Easier Said Than Done

From The New York Times:

Book A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him — he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.

Why are we so bad at knowing — in this case remembering — what passes through our own minds? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.

More here.