5.31.2010

Where All the Great Ones end up

It's kind of embarrassing to admit that I didn't know this until now, but given the my recent post on LOST ending in a Unitarian Church, I thought this worth posting. It's from the journal Leviathan, and was written by Gail Coffler in 2006:
Herman was brought up in the strict Calvinism of his mother's Dutch Reformed Protestantism, with its stern emphasis on sin and damnation and the belief that one could be saved only by faith in Jesus Christ, and probably not even then. On the other hand, his father had been a Unitarian. Herman's wife Elizabeth was also a Unitarian, like her father Judge Lemuel Shaw, who had been Herman's father's close friend. When in New York, Lizzie and Herman attended All Soul's Unitarian Church; in Pittsfield, the family attended St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. Back in New York, after Pittsfield, according to Rev. Walter Kring, who was a minster of that church not too long ago--and a former president of the Melville society--evidence shows that Herman became an official member of All Soul's Unitarian Church toward the end of his life. As Dr. Kring explains in his book, Herman Melville's Religious Journey (1997), the Unitarian church would not have required Melville to subscribe to any creed or belief in order to become a member.
This almost makes it seem like I'm taking my religion second-hand, doesn't it? Anyway, I know you'll eventually be tempted if you love Freedom and Truth and Justice (and if you're still reading my blog, you do), so make sure to "favorite" the link above, and listen to the podcasts when you get time. Or just--here's a link to the podcast page.

Now: when is somebody going to smarten up and ask me: "Okay, Casey, if you like Unitarianism so much--which requires no adherence to any creed--why can't you like a poly-cultural America with no foundations or "national" mores?"

Because I'd really struggle with that question. It does seem to me that an institution needs to require something of its members in order to maintain its identity as an institution (so I don't object to being excluded from the Catholic rites, for example), but it also seems to me that an institution that requires adherence to any creed will eventually turn to coercing confessions and so forth, and that seems worse than exclusion to me.

So: by that logic, we should require "illegals" to show their papers, and to jump through some hoops if they want to become "legals." Because the alternative is... wait, I feel like I broke this parallel somewhere?

5.26.2010

Hmmm...

Although, honestly (however religion-ist this is), I wish this came out of Judaism rather than Islam, it sure is fascinating.

Democracy is a religion! I see! An obviously polytheistic one. Now... is that bad? I'm not sure.

5.25.2010

Couple Things from Talk Radio in the form of a Tirade

Two things are just stunning me today. The first is Obama from a 2001 radio interview. Here's a link to the audio file:
OBAMA: If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.

But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren court interpreted it in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can’t do to you, it says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted. One of the I think tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributed change and in some ways we still suffer from that.
I can not believe that I never heard this clip before I voted for Obama. I'm sick to my ears of the notion that governments are/should be in the business of "distributing" wealth. Slaves accept distributed wealth. Peasants. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised--all of the French theorists I was made to read in graduate school seemed to enjoy referring to people that any right-headed American would've called "citizens" as "subjects."

The second thing that's stunning me today is a 2009 article by Thomas Friedman, who is the New York Times' much-lauded favorite-op-ed son. In fact, most of my academic colleagues describe Friedman as "a centrist" or even as a conservative (!). Here's what he thinks:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.
Anyway, I'm just sick of people on the left telling me that Obama's not done anything crazy, and that the views of the left are not extreme or radical. Obama himself points to the fact that re-conceiving of the Constitution as (somehow!) describing "positive" rights is a major reversal of historical precedent. Rights are now gifted by the government, and not defended by it. I heard a commentator on the radio describe the unconcerned attitude most liberals express when hearing of things like the government infringing on property rights by forcing businesses to outlaw smoking--"it's in the interest of public health," they say. But if the situation were reversed--if you owned a restaurant and the government required that you allow smoking, could that possibly be just? Even if the majority wanted it?

We have grown comfortable with the idea that we are a "pure" democracy -- but the Constitution was designed specifically to protect us from mob-ocracy... from the tyranny of the majority as much as from a dictatorship of one. It's so deeply disheartening to me to hear such disregard for individual freedom from sources considered mainstream -- to hear Tom Friedman say that China is run by "a reasonably enlightened group of people."

I'm not into polemics anymore -- mostly because I've never ever ever seen anyone I know change their opinion because of an argument. But I guess I just want to go on record (again) saying that if you think of all of this as negligible stuff, you and I are from different cultures, and don't tell me you respect mine while you're willing to legislate it out of existence.

5.23.2010

Just Sayin'

I'm just saying... LOST ended in a Unitarian Universalist Church. (You could tell by the stained glass windows)

5.22.2010

More from Melville's CLAREL

"To Cicero,"
Rolfe suddenly said, "is a long way
From Matthew; yet somehow he comes
To mind here--he and his fine tomes,
Which (change the gods) would serve to read
For modern essays. And indeed
His age was much like ours: doubt ran,
Faith flagged; negations which sufficed
Lawyer, priest, statesman, gentleman,
Not yet being popularly prized,
The augurs hence retained some state--
Which served for the illiterate.
Still, the decline so swiftly ran
From stage to stage that To Believe,
Except for slave or artisan,
Seemed heresy. Even doubts which met
Horror at first, grew obsolete,
And in a decade. To bereave
Of founded trust in Sire Supreme,
Was a vocation. Sophists throve--
Each weaving his thin thread of dream
Into shroud for Numa's Jove.
Caesar his atheism avowed
Before the senate. But why crowd
Examples here: the gods were gone.
Tully scarce dreamed they could be won
Back into credence; less that earth
Ever could know yet mightier birth
Of deity. He died. Christ came.
And, in due hour, that impious Rome,
Emerging from vast wreck and shame,
Held the fore front of Christendom.
The inference?--the lesson?--come:
Let fools count on faith's closing knell--
Time, God, are inexhaustible.--"

5.19.2010

Sigh...

For all the latest news regarding the anti-democratic agenda (!!!).

Well, at least they're saying it straightforwardly now. In a thousand years, when the idea of individual rights is rediscovered, somebody wake me up.

Sometimes I feel like everything I've ever talked about on this blog (or in 215) was an effort to get somebody to stand up and say, "I'm against democracy." I mean hell, Plato was hard on democracy. What's so holy about democracy?

But now that I see it in print, I'm getting a chill.

5.15.2010

My Ideal Student -- A Monologue

My kin--I blame them not at heart--
Would have me act some routine part,
Subserving family, and dreams
Alien to me--illusive schemes.
This world clean fails me: still I yearn.
Me then it surely does concern
Some other world to find. But where?
In creed? I do not find it there.
That said, and is the emprise o'er?
Negation, is there nothing more?
This side the dark and hollow bound
Lies there no unexplored rich ground?
Some other world: well there's the New--
Ah, joyless and ironic too!
--the character of Celio, from Melville's epic poem, Clarel (1876)

Order 6102 -- Again?

As gold is now the de facto currency of the world, look for governments to start trying to pervert that natural system of value. Prediction: the U.S. government will, once again, make owning and trading gold illegal, as it did between 1933 and the mid-70s.

5.14.2010

On (More!) Government Intervention... (and, on Cultivating Contentment)

Academics aren't good at taking doses of their own medicine (link). Here are the main four points of the recent "anti-ethnic studies" law, for consideration:
A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals.
I do have a problem with this bill, because I'm a consistent libertarian who doesn't believe the government should meddle in all things. But some people are less consistent. If the government should set interest rates, should encourage & discourage behaviors like smoking and hybrid-car buying, should prevent irresponsible corporations from failing, should fund public education, then of course it should intervene in what can and cannot be taught in public education. It already does that. It's always done that. Ever since the government got in the business of educating our children for us.

For the record, this law would've banned at least a third of the courses I took in college and graduate school, if only because of point #2. Instead of racial resentment and "solidarity," I'm with the Dalai Lama, who wrote in his 1999 book, Ethics for the New Millennium,
In order to overcome our tendency to ignore others' needs and rights, we must continually remind ourselves of what is obvious: that basically we are all the same. I come from Tibet; most of the readers of this book will not be Tibetans. If I were to meet each reader individually and look them over, I would see that the majority do indeed have characteristics superficially different from mine. If I were then to concentrate on those differences, I could certainly amplify them and make them into something important. But the result would be that we grew more distant rather than closer. If, on the other hand, I were to look on each as one of my own kind--as a human being like myself with one nose, two eyes, and so forth, ignoring differences of shape and color--then automatically that sense of distance would fade. I would see that we have the same human flesh and that, moreover, just as I want to be happy and to avoid suffering, so do they. On the basis of this recognition*, I would quite naturally feel well-disposed toward them. And concern for their well-being would arise almost by itself... Cultivating contentment is therefore crucial to maintaining peaceful coexistence.
*[Casey's note]: this turn, hinging on the phrase, "on the basis of this recognition," is a very articulate defense of the idea that ontology must precede ethics (or that ethics will follow naturally from "right perception," as the Buddhists would phrase it).

5.13.2010

"Science," the Liberal Arts, and... stuff.

Oh, I can't resist: I love an article like this once in a while. That first paragraph is like a nice dip in cool Lake Michigan. From a Georgetown associate professor.

The Others

Ah. I've got it now.

Wrangler's recent comments have me thinking. Thinking through my experience.

What/who do you think of when I say "other?" Honestly. Who is "other" to you?

One way to answer that is to say, "Well, we know who the others are: they're minorities. Black people. Gay people. People from 'third world' countries."

But another way to answer that is to think structurally: what does the other make us feel like, usually? Answer: uncomfortable. Like we'd rather be out of their presence.

Who does that for you?

For me, these days, the "other" (conceived that way) is the upstanding Southern Baptist, who tucks his shirt in and shaves every morning. Who speaks with clarity and brightness. Who greets you with a smile. Who was actually a virgin until he was married.

Now, again: who is the other? Who is the other if you feel much more comfortable around a gay foreigner who happens to be wearing a big-bird costume than you do around a Southern Baptist preacher? And if the views of big-bird and the preacher conflict, which other do we defer to first? Whose political perspective is more important? Let's not pretend that Southern Baptism has a more pervasive cultural influence these days than homosexuality. When was the last time you saw anything but a Sunday-morning sermon that even hinted of Southern Baptist culture? But have you seen MTV? Or a sitcom? Or the internet?

We talk in abstractions about "the other," but I'm not sure we're thinking about the same things.

5.12.2010

Sexuality and Culture

There's been a little flap over the photograph published recently in the Wall Street Journal of Elena Kagan playing softball. In case you haven't been around much in the last thirty years, "softball" is code for "lesbian." Here's one article on the supposed controversy.

I link to the story just because I think it's an interesting question whether the public has a right to know about a supreme court justice nominee's sexuality.

I know the inclination of most academics will be to say "No," sexuality is not the public's business. But in an age where "identity" has been highlighted as an indicator of ideology, and because it's easy to anticipate at least one case making it to the supreme court related to same-sex marriage or gay rights in general, I kinda wonder.

Haven't academics treated culture as closely tied to issues of identity? There's black culture. There's gay culture. We know Kagan's religion. Why not her sexuality?

I'm sort of devilishly advocating here, but I'm actually 50/50 on this.

Also, I'm accepting tasteless remarks about her looks in the comments section, but I can't bring myself to make one.

5.10.2010

Wow. Surprise.

So... I'm not saying I'm totally convinced, but "science" has found no evidence that our fasting yogi ate or drank anything over the 15 days of the experiment (nor did he use a bathroom). And if that weren't enough, his brain is as good as a 25-year old's.

On Ending the Philosophy Department

Discouraging article about the increasing accountability that academic departments are feeling to cater to "business."

Bummer.

If any of ya'll who aren't comfortable with this order of things want to start a school where education is an end in itself, rather than a preparation for paper-pushing and greed-mongering, let me know. I'm on board. As long as you're not locating in Nebraska.

The Learned Professors...

I don't mean this to open an argument, but only to highlight an aesthetic preference: it's from Thoreau's journal, May 6th, 1854. Nothing ever changes, does it?:
All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love,—to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. This alone is to be alive to the extremities. It is a pity that this divine creature should ever suffer from cold feet; a still greater pity that the coldness so often reaches to his heart. I look over the report of the doings of a scientific association and am surprised that there is so little life to be reported; I am put off with a parcel of dry technical terms. Anything living is easily and naturally expressed in popular language. I cannot help suspecting that the life of these learned professors has been almost as inhuman and wooden as a rain-gauge or self-registering magnetic machine. They communicate no fact which rises to the temperature of blood-heat. It doesn’t amount to one rhyme.

5.09.2010

Seriously...

When I'm elected President, prison reform will be my #1 issue. Sound like a winner?

Today's story reminded me of one that pissed me off so hard when I listened to a talk about it on C-Span about three years ago. [Watch what I watched on C-Span here.]

Seriously. "Corrections" shouldn't rely on a fear of rape and absurd violations of religious rites. Babylon, your throne gone down...

5.07.2010

Proof Positive, in case you missed it.

Did you see this?: Cheech Marin is a finalist on celebrity Jeopardy. Of course.

5.06.2010

Follow-Up

For anyone interested in the science of the matter, and not just wild claims that rely on antiquated superstitions (grin-smirk), here's an interesting citation:

Kirsch, Irving. "The Emperor's New Drugs: An Analysis of Antidepressant Medication Data Submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration." Prevention & Treatment, Vol. 5, Article 23. 2002.

Quote:

The present article reports analyses of a data set to which these objections do not apply, namely, the data submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval of recent antidepressant medications. We analyzed the efficacy data submitted to the FDA for the six most widely prescribed antidepressants approved between 1987 and 1999 (RxList: The Internet Drug Index, 1999): fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), venlafaxine (Effexor), nefazodone (Serzone), and citalopram (Celexa). These represent all but one of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) approved during the study period. The FDA data set includes analyses of data from all patients who attended at least one evaluation visit, even if they subsequently dropped out of the trial prematurely. Results are reported from all well controlled efficacy trials of the use of these medications for the treatment of depression. FDA medical and statistical reviewers had access to the raw data and evaluated the trials independently. The findings of the primary medical and statistical reviewers were verified by at least one other reviewer, and the analysis was also assessed by an independent advisory panel. More important, the FDA data constitute the basis on which these medications were approved. Approval of these medications implies that these particular data are strong enough and reliable enough to warrant approval. To the extent that these data are flawed, the medications should not have been approved.
Oh, snap! And more:
Although mean differences were small, most of them favored the active drug, and overall, the difference was statistically significant. There were only 4 trials in which mean improvement scores in the placebo condition were equal to or higher than those in the drug condition, and in no case was placebo significantly more effective than active drug. This may indicate a small but significant drug effect. However, it is also possible that this difference between drug and placebo is an enhanced placebo effect due to the breaking of blind.
Uh... man. It's so much easier to just trust the people who claim to have read all of this stuff and understood it, isn't it? Okay. I give up. I don't know what this stuff means. Too hard. I'll let it rest if there are no other directions to look than scholarly publications.

5.05.2010

The Problem with Sophistry AND Psychiatry, All at Once

Salon recently published another article undermining -- and honestly, Wishydig, at some point these articles add up to something -- the foundations of contemporary American psychiatry. Read the original, but here are a few interesting excerpts:
Salon: And yet many studies have shown that antidepressants can treat depression, especially in severe cases.

Robert Whitaker: In severe cases, you do see that people benefit from antidepressants, and that shows up consistently. But you still have to raise the question, even in that severe group: What happens to those medicated patients in the long term, compared to what happened in previous times? One thing that surprised me, looking at the epidemiological literature from the pre-antidepressant era, is that even severely depressed, hospitalized patients could with time expect to get well, and most did. Today, however, there’s a high incidence of patients on long-term drug therapy that become chronically ill.
And later...
Salon: Are you suggesting that psychiatrists are beholden to pharmaceutical companies?

Robert Whitaker: Not exactly, although most of the leading academic psychiatrists act as consultants, advisors and speakers for them. The problem is that psychiatry, starting in 1980 with the publication of the DSM-III, decided to tell the public that psychiatric disorders were biological ailments, and that its drugs were safe and effective treatments for those ailments. If it suddenly announces to the public that a long-term NIMH-funded study found that the 15-year recovery rate for schizophrenia patients was 40 percent for those off meds and 5 percent for those on meds, then that story begins to fall apart. By not reporting the results, psychiatry maintains the image of its drugs in the public mind, and the value of psychiatrists in today’s therapy marketplace.
So, psychiatrists are worried about losing their place in the therapy marketplace... so they spin some sophistic defenses to keep themselves relevant. But I'm sure my sophistic friends will tell me I should've titled this post, "The Problem with Psychiatry and ineffective Sophistry." Yeah, maybe.

Or somebody could just tell the unvarnished truth once in a while, to everyone's benefit: "Ladies and Gentlemen, your mental and emotional problems are real, and perennial, and difficult. With patience and discipline, you have a good chance at significant recovery. Good luck. These pills don't help much. And they might turn you into a chronic head-case, whereas staying off them gives you a chance at recovery."

5.03.2010

Breatharianism

I love a story like this. I just hate that a reporter covers it with seriousness, and that "scientists" have to ruin it by "testing" the claims.