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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wow. Newspaper advertising revenue 60-year low: Publishing in the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

From the (very conservative) blog Carpe Diem:
"The chart above displays total annual print newspaper advertising revenue based on actual annual data from 1950 to 2010, and estimated annual revenue for 2011 using quarterly data through the third quarter, from the Newspaper Association of America.  The advertising revenues have been adjusted for inflation, and appear in the chart as millions of constant 2011 dollars.  Estimated revenues of $20.7 billion in 2011 will be the lowest annual  amount spent on newspaper advertising since $19.5 billion in 1951, exactly 60 years ago."

 If you follow the link, you'll find the comments generally celebrate the decline of newspapers, which the conservative commenters seem to regard as nothing but a propaganda machine for liberals. And, of course, they heap scorn on the remaining newspapers for not spending enough on reporting, ignoring the fact that the chart clearly shows what's happened to the resources needed for such reporting.

I wonder, if television news suffers a similar fate, how will they regard the fall of Fox News?

The question remains, how will we find a business model that supports reporting the news? If we can't do that, we'll find that only propaganda remains.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Dominionism, environmentalism, and giving up moralizing for Lent

by John MaBeath Watkins

I've given up moralizing for Lent, but perhaps I will permit myself to comment on the moralizing of others.

We discussed Rick Santorum's Dominionist insistence that there should be no separation between church and state in this post, but did not really delve into his views on environmentalism, which also rise from Dominionist theory.

Asked to justify his claim that President Obama's policies stem from a "phony theology," Santorum added a critique of environmentalism:

“When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth …  it’s just all an attempt to centralize power, to give more power to the government.”
This, like his view of the separation of church and state, is based on a peculiar interpretation of a passage from Genesis:
And God blessed [ Adam and Eve ] and God said unto them, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." —Genesis 1:28 (KJV)
 From Santorum's point of view, this means that we are supposed to lord it over the earth, not "serve" it. Of course, he misrepresents the environmentalist point of view in claiming that it elevates the earth above man. No parent I know would give a child a puppy unless the kid agreed to take care of it. Would Our Father give us an entire world to look after with any less expectation? After all, he didn't tell Adam and Eve to be damned fools about it (surely the extinction of a species is likely to earn at least a short "time out" in purgatory.)

Liberals have tended to respond to Santorum's claims with bemusement, but why not take them seriously and examine them in light of what the Bible actually says?

After all, Genesis 1 is pretty early in the Bible, and he may have provided additional guidance. In fact, later in Genesis, he made a covenant with Noah and his descendents. From Genesis 9:

12And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
 13I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
 14And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:
 15And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
 16And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.
 17And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
God, then, essentially put Noah and all the creatures he had saved in the same boat. The covenant is, he says, "between me and all flesh that is upon the earth." He has promised not to destroy life on earth with a flood, and given us the rainbow as a symbol of this peace.

Does this in any way give us permission to destroy life?

Nor was this the last word. In Jeremiah 31, the Lord says he will make a new covenant with man.

He continues:
33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
And what law is that?
35 Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for a light by day,
The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night,
Who disturbs the sea,
And its waves roar
(The Lord of hosts is His name):
36 “If those ordinances depart
From before Me, says the Lord,
Then the seed of Israel shall also cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”
This was about making man subject to His law. But it was not the last word, either. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that the covenant described in Jeremiah 31 is realized in the death of Christ. This is the new covenant that supersedes Leviticus, which is why Christians are no longer required to sacrifice animals, view blended fabric as an abomination, keep kosher or otherwise follow Leviticus. If you are a Christian, surely the sacrifice of Christ is your means to salvation, not following whichever laws of Leviticus you find convenient or going all the way back to Genesis 1 and ignoring the rest of the Bible.

Hebrews 7:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second.
Well, if God says that first covenant was flawed, shouldn't we take his word for it?

Hebrews 13:
13 In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Mr. Santorum is conservative, and I understand that he does not want what is becoming obsolete and growing old to vanish away. But his view of man's pact with God, and the moralizing he has based on it, was obsolete before the whole of Genesis was written.

Harold the Crow

by Jamie Lutton

I have not written a post for a while; I have been working on a book, and also very busy in my business. But I have been feeding the crows every morning, and sometimes middle of the day, as they visit my shop and caw at me.

Today, though,  a crow and I got a bit closer to each other. I will call this crow 'Harold', as it may be the same crow an acquaintance told me about.

I was getting my coffee, and he landed on the top of an electrical box near the coffee cart I go to. I knew he was a pretty brave crow, as someone walked by between us, and the crow ignored him I had some dog biscuits with me, and  I slowly extended my left hand up, with a biscuit in it. He extended his neck, and gently took the biscuit out of my hand, stuffed it all the way down his throat so it made a bulge in his neck, then flew away.

The man at the coffee cart went 'wow' and said I was like Saint Francis. He went on to talk about St. Francis for a moment; that the birds trusted him, and would fly down and land on him, that is how they know he was a saint. It is interesting that people have a memory of St. Francis, and not of other Catholic saints. Perhaps it is because we all look up at the birds with a wistful eye, wishing we could be their friends, but the birds (mostly) are having none of it.

This is not the first time I have encountered this crow. Last Tuesday,  I saw him perched on a yellow fire hydrant, and he was so still, that  I slowly turned toward him, and extended my left hand, and gave him a biscuit. He gets a bit closer than other crows do, so right off he stands out. Also, he is still, and stares back at me, not with his head down, crouching, and turning away like most crows do when they are close to me. That is a pose of submission. This crow is upright, and not afraid of me. Looks me in the eye.

There is other bird news to report - I have observed someone else feeding birds, who takes the matter further than I would think to do.   I may have reported this man before on this blog, a man who feeds the seagulls at dusk.  Well, he is still doing this, and quite frequently.

I have run into him the most when I duck down an ally to feed crows, and I see him going though the trash bins, looking for food scraps. He bags them up, in plastic bags, and put them in a black suitcase he has with him, the type that has wheels. It is a smallish suitcase, the type with wheels at the far end and a pull out handle.  He is very intent on his work, but I stopped and asked him how he was, a few days ago.  He talked to me about the seagulls, that he had been feeding him for 12 years, every day except Thursday and Friday. He pointed at the building across from the alley, and there were about 18 seagulls perched up there, watching him. He pointed at the four gulls at the end, saying those followed him home.

My practical streak came out. I asked him if he had a hepatitis shot, and noted that he wore a hat. He said that he had, and laughed about the hat, saying it was a good idea.

When he feeds the crows, behind a local restaurant, at dusk, the thunder of the gulls is so loud you can  hear them two blocks away.  The dying light catches the grey-white of their wings, as they settle and rise over the scene. You don't realize just how loud gulls can get, till you hear hundreds cry out all at the same time.

Up close, they thunder like the sea, a crowd of hundreds of gulls, rising and landing, many dozens on the ground, and many more in the air. They bring the sea to Capitol Hill on their wings.

The man fetches out the rotten food he has wrapped in plastic bags earlier in the day, and tosses it into the air. He spins as he does this, so the food does not go in the same direction twice. Gulls fly close, snatching the food out of the air, crying and wheeling in the air.  He does this till he has no food left, then the gulls fly off, crying as they go, a great cacophony of grey and white  in the growing dusk.

I won't identify the restaurant, as I don't want some public health official decide to hunt this man down and stop him, writing him  a ticket or locking him up for violating some law.

The crows are in their tree-beds by the time this man comes out to feed the gulls. The gulls stay up later than the crows; they must have different visual abilities. They are up earlier and go to bed later than the crows, you can observe this if you are up at dawn. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Guns, dungeons, taxes and favors

by John MacBeath Watkins

Now, here's an interesting perspective on money:
The government has men with guns and dungeons. The armed men will throw you in the dungeon unless you pay taxes. So if the government chooses to accept random pieces of paper as payment, the pieces of paper become valuable. The point of collecting taxes isn't that the government needs money (it can print money) it's that if the quantity of taxes is too low relative to the stock of money, then the money loses its value and the price level rises. 

Of course, Mr. Yglesias is having a bit of fun here. This statement is true only if you consider the signifier (paper bills) to be identical with the signed (money.) We call the bills that represent the meaning of money "money," but that's really just a bit of shorthand. The problem Yglesias is talking about is that for money in the form of paper bills to have the meaning of money, they must represent the labor, resources, and the genius of the people.

As we discussed in this post, what money represents is a favor owed. If you have a lot of dollars, you are owed a lot of favors -- food when you need it, and in the case of government, guns and soldiers when it needs them. For the government to do the things we ask of it, the government must be owed favors, so we transfer some of our favors to it.

Thinking of money this way allows you to make sense of the basic paradox of money -- that it represents wealth, but is created through debt.

Not only does the central bank create money through creating debt, banks create money of a sort through debt as well. From Wikipedia:
When a commercial bank loan is extended, new commercial bank money is created. As a loan is paid back, more commercial bank money disappears from existence.
A chipmunk's wealth is represented by the seeds and nuts it accumulates, and this wealth is not dependent on other chipmunks. But financial wealth represents a stored obligation, so can only exist in a society. However much we may wish to believe in our autonomy, and boast of our individualism, money, like language, is incoherent for the autonomous individual, valueless because it is useless without the social fabric it is woven into.

The nature, strength and give in that fabric is important. Germans have a larger part of their economy in the government sector than the Greeks, but they can maintain this because they are willing to pay for it. Tax cheating in Greece is endemic. When the Greek Finance Ministry started using Google Earth to spot swimming pools that were not declared on property taxes, Greek homeowners responded in the only rational way. I know what you're thinking: They paid their taxes.

No, no, no. They started hiring contractors to disguise their pools with green tarps so that they could continue to evade the tax. The Greek people may have a smaller state sector than Germany, but they still aren't willing to pay for it.

Does it conceal a swimming pool?
With our relatively small (by European standards) state sector and more successful tax collection, we're not exactly Greek. But we do have a party that keeps trying to convince people they don't have to pay for the government they want: The Republicans, who are constantly floating tax plans that collect less revenue, but castigate anyone who wants to save money on Medicare (unless it's the Ryan plan) or the Defense Department.

Now, given that modern governments, in terms of expenditures, are pretty much an insurance company with an army, telling people you can lower their taxes without cutting those costs is pure snake oil. It is part of a deliberate strategy, called the two Santa strategy. The idea was that instead of telling people they wanted to cut government, Republicans would offer to cut their taxes. And with the Laffer curve, they argued that this would not require cutting government.

You can spend a little or a lot on the government sector of the economy, but it isn't free. Just as a restaurant cannot survive if it doesn't recover the cost of serving food, a government cannot survive unless it recovers the cost of the services it provides. If it just prints money, the money will have no meaning. It must be part of the web of obligation that is the meaning of money.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bad religion: Santorum as Mary, Queen of Scots

by John M. Watkins

Rick Santorum, currently leading the polls in his run for the Republican nomination for president, has said that President Obama bases his administration on a "phony theology:"

Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.
He later elaborated on this theme by tying the comment to environmentalism:
 “When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth …  it’s just all an attempt to centralize power, to give more power to the government.”
 This is recognizably a Dominionist critique. Dominionists believe that the Bible says that Christians are given dominion over the earth, and must rule over it rather than serve it, and should also rule over all civil authority. From Wikipedia:
Dominionism is a term used to describe politically active conservative Christians that are believed to conspire and seek influence or control over secular civil government through political action, especially in the United States, with the goal of either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law.

The basis for this belief is the book of Genesis:
And God blessed [ Adam and Eve ] and God said unto them, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." —Genesis 1:28 (KJV)
Santorum has also made the argument that mainline protestants are not real Christians. In 2008, he was asked if maybe some people are sincere, believing Christians in the liberal tradition. He answered that in that case, “You’re a liberal something, but you’re not a Christian.” He continued, “When you take a salvation story and turn it into a liberation story you’ve abandoned Christiandom and I don’t think you have a right to claim it.”

In short, he considers the current president unfit to rule because he is, in Santorum's view, and apostate.

Our civilization has been through this before, in the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War. Thomas Hobbes, realizing that states with religious division could not have a leader whose authority depended on divine right without some large part of the population considering you an apostate, and therefore illegitimate, sought a secular basis for the legitimacy of the ruler. The book he wrote about his ideas on this, Leviathan, is one of the basic documents in the evolution of liberal democracy, as we discussed in this post.

Hobbes himself, of course, might have been hanged for blasphemy were it not for the protection of Charles II, who had been his pupil.

The separation of church and state brought peace to European states where Catholics and Protestants -- and Church of England and Dissenters -- had once fought over whose religion should be the basis for civil authority.

That separation of civil authority from ecclesiastic authority was enshrined in our constitution in the first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We also, in article six of the constitution, included this language:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Santorum, clearly, thinks that only his sort of Christian is fit to serve in public office. He wants a religious test for who is qualified for office. In short, he is not just running against President Obama, he is running against the constitution and our entire tradition of government.

Should he actually be elected, we could expect him to be about as divisive as Mary, Queen of Scots, under whose Catholic rule the Protestant lords rebelled.

This is an old battle, and one most people thought was settled. Granted, George W. Bush thought God had chosen him to lead the country to a perilous time, but that was his private grandiosity, and he did not attempt to extend the reach of his co-religionists to have dominion over our entire government. A president who believed in that could open wounds we thought were closed centuries ago.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea

by John MacBeath Watkins

History ended on a Tuesday afternoon, October 14, 1806. We know this because Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel told us so.

It was about 1 p.m. that Napoleon made the decisive move that defeated the forces of the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena. To Hegel, that meant that the ideas of the French Revolution had triumphed in the world, by which he apparently meant the German-speaking part of northern Europe, and we would henceforth take as our standard of good government liberty and equality, rather than the custom, faith and force that had legitimized the Prussian monarchy.

Never mind that the French Revolution had devolved into the Terror and reformed itself into a despotic and aggressive empire, Napoleon never the less represented the triumph of liberte, egalite, fraternite and that meant that man's long evolution from stone-age tribe through its various eras was at an end.

Sure, history as it is usually understood, people doing stuff and people writing about it in an effort to shape how people remember them, would continue to occur, but history as envisioned by Hegel, a dialectic that worked to a definite end, had reached that end.

Hegel was a dialectical idealist. He is unfortunately largely remembered as the precursor to Karl Marx's dialectical materialism, but he is actually part of the liberal tradition rather than the Marxist one. Marx used his idea of thesis meeting antithesis, and the conflict producing a synthesis that became the new thesis, but he used it to advocate for a quite different system than Hegel admired.

However, unlike Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Hegel saw mankind not as the product of a fixed nature, but as an evolution of history. As a result, instead of the sort of thought experiment about what sort of government was natural to man, his philosophy was teleological, one in which man aspired to greater perfection and worked through the dialectic of history to the goal of the perfect form of government.

Oh, sure, there were still monarchs, Oriental despots, dictators and aristocrats in the world, but they were atavistic after the Battle of Jena. Edmund Burke fought a gallant rear-guard action with Reflections on the Revolution in France, maintaining that custom and prejudice were the organic wisdom of society, but he could not claim history was on his side, and one of his intellectual heirs, William F. Buckley, in 1955 wrote of his own publication, “….if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Conservatives have defined themselves as backward-looking, even those who follow the radical logic of Ayn Rand or libertarian thinkers.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Frances Fukuyama wrote his famous essay analyzing  the delegitimation of Communism as The End of History, published in the summer, 1989 issue of The National Interest.He later expanded this into a book.

The 2011 Arab Spring saw history ending again in another part of the world, and the efforts of the Green movement in Iran showed that the theocratic state was none too solid. In China, a Communist Party that no longer practices Communism is clinging to power and trying to justify one-party rule through solid economic growth and nationalism, which is certainly more stable than Napoleon's attempt to justify his rule through military victory and chauvinism, but may not be as enduring as a form of government that has the relief valve of letting the people peacefully choose a new leader.

Even the worst dictators often seem to feel a need to hold rigged elections, because if they cannot make even the most implausible claim to be chosen by the people, they have no other claim to legitimacy. Why is this? Why do other forms of legitimacy fail, when for most of history, mankind has been ruled by force and faith?

I maintain that this represents a change in our dominant mode of thought. Much of the wisdom of ancient civilizations was transmitted in a mytho-poetic manner, explaining the world through the actions of capricious gods and spirits, coordinating civilization through religion and custom.

The weird, wonderful word of symbolic thought that we live in with our minds and our culture while our bodies inhabit the animal world of food, sleep and sex brought awe to the human mind before it brought reductionist logic. The mythic world of beauty, grace and terror has a pull on our minds that appeals no matter how logical we attempt to be. At a time when our practical, problem solving abilities were primarily aimed at making better tools and growing crops or hunting game, our minds were exploring the virtual reality of the imagination, and the ancients were organizing their lives around symbols of power, beauty, strength and fear.

We will, I hope, never be free of this world of songs, poetry, faith and art, nor should we aspire to be. But as wealth increased, and our problem-solving selves were evidently the reason for it, reason itself became recognized as a source of power. And if reason could solve the problem of how to build better ships, could it not also solve the problem of building better ships of state?

As we discussed in the first installment of this series, the religious conflicts of Enlightenment Europe made continued reliance on mythic justifications an untenable source of legitimacy for governments. If half your people belong to one religion and half to another, neither will stand for being ruled by an apostate, and the wars will be without end, or at least for thirty years.

Reason was on the rise outside the realm of government already. The Black Plague had killed off a third of Europe, and since arable land was the main source of wealth, this meant that the survivors were wealthier. It also meant that there was plenty of used clothing to make rag paper. Earlier generations had engaged in palimpsest, erasing ancient texts because they needed the velum to make a new psalter or such, but  Johannes Gutenberg found plenty of paper on which to use his moveable type.

In addition, wealth had begun to feed on wealth, and Europe had begun its great era of exploration, which resulted in the European settlement of much of the rest of the world, including the conquest (or if you like, theft) of three continents. Reason increased our wealth, not just through business, but through the instruments of navigation and improved ships of exploration and improved weapons of conquest. Europeans gained material benefits, it seemed, wherever reason was applied, and as reason began to dominate the way we organized our societies, making myth and custom seem old-fashioned.

We called the rise of reason as an organizing social force the Enlightenment. But of course, the light shined brightest in European culture, and the light cast some strong shadows as well.

Those who were not enlightened by European culture, that culture viewed as benighted. That included the first peoples of the conquered continents, who were viewed as a lower order of human, and could only be "enlightened" by giving up their old culture and adopting the new one, even if this had to be forced upon them by removing children from their homes and punishing them any time they spoke their native tongue.

In addition, while reason can be used to solve problems, it can also be used to justify what you want to believe, which is how the Fascist movement gave a scientific sheen to its racism (although really, they were about tribalism, and the doctrine of blood and soil.) And it can be used to take a false premise and logically move from there to a wrong conclusion, which I maintain is pretty much the story of the Communist project.

David Hume, the most powerful thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, said that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions." After all, my computer doesn't think about anything I don't tell it to, because it lacks passion. My car does not drive itself, because it has no destination. If it had appetites, it might be as fractious as a mule when I run the gas tank low, but it doesn't care if the engine is starved for fuel because it lacks the capacity for caring.

This capacity for caring is the main restraint on those powerful ways of organizing our world, faith and reason. Marx saw that the faith of religion sometimes produced injustice, and concluded that religion should be done away with, saw that the logic of the market sometimes produced injustice, and concluded that markets should be done away with. The results were disastrous, as the main organizing principles of society were abandoned and the only remaining organizing principle was force. Marx had the same goals as the French Revolution, liberte, egalite, fraternite, but his philosophy brought on even more spectacular Terrors. Such is the nightmare of reason.

Liberalism is a term that usually is taken to mean a belief that society should be organized around liberty, free markets, and free and fair election of government representatives. But the way the word is used in American politics has another element. Conservatives advocate traditional religious views and somewhat radical free market functioning, with the claim that these produce just outcomes.

Liberalism has come to mean that the capacity for caring, an empathy with one's fellow citizens, acts as a restraint on the excesses of markets and religious doctrines. Burke thought the ascendance of reason and the excesses displayed in the Terror could only be restrained by clinging to tradition and custom, maintaining that they were the organic wisdom of a civilization.

But there are reasons no one today offers the forthright defense of "prejudice" Burke did, because prejudice itself is in need of restraint. You don't have to know the sad history of lynching in America or the struggles of the civil rights movement to understand this. You need only have a little empathy for the kid who gets beat up for being a "queer," or the customer treated badly because of race.

It is this very empathy that modern conservatism disdains in modern liberalism, yet in the end it is the main restraint on the excesses of faith, the cruelty of prejudice and the nightmare of reason.

But is liberalism the end of history? It is hard to imagine a new force organizing society with greater legitimacy, but the old forces remain potent. New mythologies are arising, as noted in my post about the Rapture of the Geeks. At the time of this writing, the Republican candidate leading the polls in the selection of a nominee to run for president is Rick Santorum, a sort of pre-Vatican II Catholic who has trouble imagining any governing idea not based on religion.

In a campaign stop in Ohio Feb. 18 2012, Santorum said our current president bases his rule on the wrong theology. From the New York Times:
“It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology,” he said. “But no less a theology.”
This is a sort of paleo-conservative view that finds it impossible to imagine any source of legitimacy other than religion, and it appeals to conservatives who share that view. There may be enough of them to nominate a presidential candidate, and probably there are more of them now than there were when John F. Kennedy ran for president. During that campaign, he found it necessary to give the following reassurance:

"...These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.

"But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

"I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."
Barack Obama  had to give a speech demonstrating that he also would not shape his rule to suit his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. But Santorum represents a kind of tribalism, and for him his faith is the right one to be a part of the tribe. He portrays President Obama as the Other, because he sees faith and tribe as the sources of legitimacy for the presidency.

This means that history has not ended. It has instead entered a recursive loop, in which we must choose time and again between tribe and faith on the one hand and reason and empathy on the other. The first can fall prey to the doctrine of blood and soil, the second to the nightmare of reason, so the loop serves a purpose.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The progressive movement and the Muslim Brotherhood

by John MacBeath Watkins

Some American pundits have been clutching their pearls over the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Since I've remarked before that for most of history, most of humanity has been ruled by force and faith, you might think I'd be one of them.

But I see every reason for the Egyptian in the street to trust the Brotherhood. Consider the parallels to the Progressive movement from the late 19th century through the 1920s.

The progressives wanted to unseat established and corrupt power. The organs of the movement were magazines and newspapers that exposed public corruption and worked to change the institutions that gave power to the political machines. Progressives attacked the spoils system with civil service legislation and attacked the political power of the robber barons with trust busting and the progressive income tax.

They were also "values voters" who considered the family the foundation of American society and wanted to encourage family values. That's part of why the progressives were for the most part prohibitionist, although that also crossed some other lines -- many opposed saloons because they were a locus of power for political machines, and the Anti-Saloon League had a lot of cross-membership with the KKK. Immigrants and ethnic minorities provided many of the votes that kept the political bosses in power, and that was offensive to racists and nativists as well as progressives.

The Muslim Brotherhood is one institution in Egypt that has a reputation of not being corrupt, and supports family values. Much of Egypt's economy is controlled by the army and people allied with it, all of which were part of the alliance that oppressed the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood has also taken up the family values standard, opposing alcohol consumption and providing welfare services where the government did not.

There are, of course, many differences between the Progressive movement and the Muslim Brotherhood. Progressives were big fans of science and technology and their dark side, which included an unhealthy interest in eugenics, reflected this. The Brotherhood will no doubt display a dark side connected with excesses  born of their faith.

At present, force and faith are not allies in Egypt, although that could change once faith is in power.

So there you have it. The Egyptian voter is faced with the choice of voting for the representatives of the old, corrupt regime, or new, secular parties that have not existed long enough for people to know if they are corrupt or incompetent, or the Muslim Brotherhood, the only opposition institution to survive under the dictatorship, which has a reputation of not being corrupt and of caring for the welfare of society's less fortunate.

Which would you choose?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A History of Ireland in 100 Excuses

1. Original sin.

79. It was a complex but legitimate business arrangement.

82. I regarded it as a loan.

97. It started out as a joke.

98. There was drink involved.

99. One thing led to another.

100. The dead man was known to the Garda.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Rapture of the geeks, a continuation of the Abrahamic tradition

by John MacBeath Watkins

Science fiction writer  Vernor Vinge invented the term "the singularity" to describe the future evolution of a super intelligence, possibly from enhancement of human minds or the arising of consciousness in the linked nervous system of the computer network (the enchantment of mechanical minds?)

Ray Kurzweil has taken the concept further, imagining that the most important intellects of the technological world can gain unlimited lifespans by having their personalities uploaded into this new intelligence.

And the development of cloud computing makes this all seem more credible, as the memory of our civilization is increasingly stored in the cloud.

So the idea is that the elect will be taken up into the cloud and be given eternal life by an omniscient being. I kid you not.

It's the Rapture of the Geeks.

I wonder if the computer cognoscenti are even aware of the fact that they are translating the notion of the Rapture into the world of technology? Do they look forward to gazing down at those who are not saved, in a sort of agonistic fancy?

I've written before about how the real overarching intelligence, the world of abstract thought that lives on in language and culture, gives us archetypes that recur in our culture. The amusing thing is, we are sometimes quite unaware of how this is reflected in what we choose to believe.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ammonius, Coming to an Understanding, and the murderous thinkers of Foucalt's Pendulum

by John MacBeath Watkins

I am delighted to learn, via Slate, of the existence of the Ammonius Foundation. It exists to encourage people to engage in philosophy, and not the sort of logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy that has made the field seem so irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people.

A Slate article, The Mystery of the Millionaire Metephysician, discusses a curious incident in which a number of philosophers were paid a princely sum to review a 60-page document called Coming to an Understanding. It was a paper on metaphysics, done, the philosophers involved decided, by a talented amateur.

Some reviewers went through the motions and collected their checks, others actually became engaged in the work. I recommend going to the link above, and reading the full story, it's priceless, and reveals much about why philosophy means so little to so many.

The document turned out to be written by Marc Sanders, a Princeton-area businessman. Once James Ryerson had discovered that Sanders wrote Coming to an Understanding, Sanders pleaded that he not reveal this to the world:

"Now that you have discovered that I am Ammonius," he wrote, "I know that you will think it your job to inform the world." He had chosen to remain anonymous, he explained, so that his "failure to become a professional philosopher" would not come to light and thus tempt professional philosophers to "simply dismiss the idea of reviewing my work out of hand because the work was known to be by a devoted amateur."
One might think, so what? T.S. Eliot was a banker, and seems to have liked being a banker. Socrates was a stone carver and former soldier. Baruch Spinoza made his daily bread as a lens grinder (silicosis from the glass he ground may have been the reason he died at 44.) Did being successful in the insurance business make Charles Ives a less important composer?

But the tribes of knowledge are as close knit as the crime families of New York and Sicily. When I was a freshman in college, I took the required class in philosophy, as it happened from the chairman of the department. He told me I seemed to have a talent for this, and should consider majoring in philosophy.

At his urging, I attended a conference and saw some real philosophers. I also looked around at the future philosophy offered.

I came to two conclusions. Academics must become wise to survive. The way to become wise is to narrow the scope of your enquiries to the point where few people are interested enough to bother with them, and at that point, you can become the person who knows the most about it.

And if you are not willing to narrow your thought in this way, well...let's just say I wasn't a good enough waiter to be a philosophy major. Waiting tables is a performance, if you do it well, and I am not a performer.

Besides, the project of the logical positivists was proved impossible by a slender volume called Gödel's Proof. And as to ordinary language philosophy, well, the Wikipedia article captures the futility of it:
Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use.
Nothing to see here, move along, philosophy is just a big misunderstanding. Not exactly a way to tell people your field is vital to human happiness, is it?

What made philosophy important enough to have its own departments in the best universities was its willingness to attack the big problems, to bring in the best minds and try to determine what it all really means.

Well, that was then. And by then, I mean about 400 BCE.

I thought I might find something more important to people by studying political theory, which at least is tied to human society. But at the time I was in grad school, you essentially had two flavors of political theory. There were conservative theorists who viewed the state as a sort of criminal enterprise (at a political science convention I saw one paper that talked about the social contract as if it were a protection racket, which I suppose is one interpretation of Hobbes' Leviathan) and the Marxists who, this being the 1980s, disparaged the "vulgar Marxists" of the Leninist/Stalinist variety and preferred the delicate lacework of theory the French and a few Germans were building as a rejection of both capitalism and the form Marxism took in all the actual societies where it took root. Oh, and they viewed the right kind of government as okay, but the private sector as criminal

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I'm a liberal, of the sort reviled by both Marxists and conservatives, the sort that considers neither the private nor public sectors as criminal. So not surprisingly, I was not attracted by an academic milieu dominated by delusional Marxism and criminal conservatism (I use the term because much of conservatism seemed dedicated to manufacturing justifications for policies favoring the rich, which made it seem a corrupt enterprise.)

On reflection, I suppose I could have built a career by professing to believe what it was most profitable to believe, but then I'd be no better than Mitt Romney.

So I'm rather delighted to see that there is at least one foundation out there that values things like intelligibility (take that, Derrida!) and epistemic progress (the notion that there is progress in human understanding.) I admit to reservations about teleology and monism, but they are clarity incarnate compared to deconstructionists who won't reveal their method (they don't have one, sort of like the ironic ending to Foucault's Pendulum, where the secret societies try to get the truth from a character who refuses to reveal that they are pursuing a nonsensical concoction.)

But will we ever get past nonsensical concoctions? They seem to play an important part in the academic and political spheres of our society, but I have to think that much of the philosophy of the 20th century will be looked back on with less regard than we give to those theologians who wondered how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. (None. They have no sense of rhythm, and if they get one, they fall right down to the gambling hells and jazz clubs where the rebel angels recite scandalous poems about Bishop Golias, the father of all bohemians.)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Blue Man speaks of octopus ink, and all I see in link rot and the Rapture of the Geeks (Publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued)

by John MacBeath Watkins

He wore blue jeans and a blue windbreaker over a blue shirt, I wonder what his favorite colour was, but his beard was grey and his frame was wiry. He stood in my bookstore and spoke with great authority on the subject of octopus ink (I live where the largest octopuses live, and yes, that's the proper plural, Octopi is either akin to eel pie or pi to the eighth power.)

One day, he warned, we won't be able to get ink, and the only permanent ink is octopus ink, he said he was extracting it somehow (what's in it for the octopus, I wondered) and saving it in vials he buried in his yard (eccentrics: America's renewable resource.)

Now, once, in Yunnan province, I saw one of the last priests of the Dongba religion writing a sacred book with ink made from soot and water, the pictograms looked like something Matt Groening might draw, and I had to wonder as the blue man spoke, when will we run out of soot and water?

But he saw the future clearly, a future with permanence stolen from us, no memory hole needed, it's inherent in the technology, we can edit this post, this very post (which for all you know once contained a terrible blood libel against someone we no longer can recall, someone denied the immortality of words, another example of the death of ghosts.)

People tell me things live forever on the Web, but when did footnotes fade from books? The links I use instead on the blog rot like madrona logs lying languidly after the pollen has fallen in a climax forest. (Without Freud, remember Freud? that sentence would be more meaningless than it is.)

This fellow named Franzen, he wrote that Oprah book, says that the permanence of print is all that protects us from an Orwellian future. Without print, how will we remember? Every word can be changed, just pixels with all the conscience of pixies in a pixellated world.

I sold a book from 1640, I know it said when I sold it what it said when first it saw the light of day. It said it in Latin, it was a travel book, a Baedeker for Beatrice about Italian cities.

But should this blog be all that survives some future cyber war, or the Singularity, that Rapture of the Geeks, would it remain coherent, as the links all rotted away? I've seen dry rot in the deadwood, seen nature have her way with with the timbers of the mast step, seen a Daphne turned to timber that I loved, and had to very nearly give away.

But link rot is the death of all the proof that secured the love of truth in those readers who took the time to follow all the trails that I had blazed in my research. It's a memory palace built of spider silk, more fragile even than the human mind which moves around in a bundle of nerves walking on (two legs bad, four wheels good,) ready to be run down for the crime of pedestrianism, no, it would not even take that act of violence, it could be just eliminated by a power surge, or that fatal key stroke that wiped out the fourteenth century.

But books are a sensual pleasure, and we are efficient people, so we know what will win in the end. We can only hope for the samizdat to survive in the drawers of roll-top desks and not be lost like Hemingway's luggage.

I spoke with a man of the Bai people, who told me that much of his people's culture was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. His name translated to "The East is Red," so he was certainly a product of those times.

The Chinese did not suffer this fate, because in their culture, there was a custom of hiding important works in interesting times. The works of Confucius, suppressed during the Qin dynasty,  were hidden in the walls of a scholar's home.

Will some future culture recover all it's ancient works, or will it have to rebuild based on copies of Rush Limbaugh's Complete Works preserved in some survivalist bunker?

Will all knowledge one day live in the Cloud? The future lasts forever, and in the depths of time will the server farms always be tilled? Some future drought of knowledge could evaporate the Cloud, and leave the server farms all fallow, and then, will screen shot samizdats of some future Analects be found in the walls of a rebel scholar's home?

Sometimes even the mightiest river drowns somewhere deep in the sand.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self