Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Far Side

Update below.

I am in a FB group "The Best of 'The Far Side.'" I always loved the comic but didn't have all the books so about 20% are ones I have never seen before.  I may unfollow it soon, as it does produce half-a-dozen posts a day and it's getting a little repetitive. It's been a good two months.

Injecting political or social commentary is punished swiftly: instant banishment from further commenting, no second-chances. It's there to be funny. But people just seem unable to contain themselves.  They have to find hidden sermons in Gary Larsen's work, or relate the cartoon immediately to how stupid some group of people is. They insist to us what his philosophy, his politics, and even his theology must be, as revealed in the panel. It's bad enough when they do this jumping off from the main point, but sometimes it is dug out from unimportant details. People project their own opinions on to the cartoonist. I think opinion X is good.  I like Larsen. Therefore he must also think opinion X is good.  Aha! See there is evidence right here. 

It is nearly always liberals who do this, especially environmentalists.  I would have thought there was a slight tendency in that direction, but this is not slight. I traced back the last month and it's over 90% of those banned. And note, there are some God-portrayals that religious people might not like, plus some consistent rooting for the animals over the hunters that could be taken amiss by gun-rights people. I think he was just going for the irony. I'm not offended.

There may be a sample bias.  The group might be 90+% liberal, so the more frequent banning isn't significant.  But I doubt it.

Upon further review:  I was interested in more precision on the environmentalist vs general liberal question, and decided it gives a different impression that way. Reflexive environmentalists are not entirely contained in the liberal circle if you did it as a Venn Diagram. I was assuming they were liberals and were counting them that way, but that's not entirely defensible.  The more exact numbers are 3 liberals, 1 conservative, 7 environmentalists.  With that 3-1 being a very small sample size, so a single addition or subtraction - or a single misinterpretation on my part - changing the impression drastically, it would be more accurate to conclude this is more of an environmentalist than general liberal issue.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Have You Forgotten? Bush v. Gore 2000

I am not going to try and sell you the idea that everything Bush and the Republicans did was noble and aboveboard while Gore and the Democrats were motivated entirely by cheap partisanship. It's all very complicated, and mixed motives are the norm, not the exception in such circumstances.  However there is a continuing narrative that still gets put forth as obvious, with repercussions down to the present day.  Attorneys reading should feel free to chime in to correct or expand, but my intent is not to give a legal summary but to challenge the received narrative.

Bush v. Gore  Please note there is an error in the Wikipedia article, which claims in paragraph 4 that while Bush would have won anyway under the type of recount Gore was advocating, Gore would have won under a full-state recount. This is not known to be true. If you read the whole thing it is difficult to see where this is anything but speculation based on "Well, what if we counted the overvotes?" Counting spoiled ballots which nonetheless showed the clear intent of the voter might indeed have resulted in more votes for Gore.  I'll refer back to this at the end.

The narrative I have read and been told many times is that five SCOTUS justices appointed by Republicans voted down four objective and honorable justices on the basis of nothing but partisanship, awarding the presidency to Bush undeservedly. It remains a shameful episode in the history of the court, and undermined the public's confidence in that institution. That Jeb Bush was governor is also mentioned darkly, that he was in on the fix, too, though exactly what he did isn't identified. Just the usual Darth Vader music in the background.

It's hard to prove a negative, so yes, perhaps, if we had a Motive-o-Meter and scanned each of the justices as they were deliberating, we would see dark stains on the souls of Rehnquist, Thomas, O'Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy contrasting with crystal hearts of Souter, Breyer, Stevens, and Ginsburg.

There are some facts which are usually left out of the discussion, however, which suggest that at minimum, there is another side to this which is not easily dismissed. First, the justices ruled 7-2, not 5-4 on the question of whether there had been an Equal Protection Clause violation, as Bush claimed. Five of those justices said the deadline is the deadline, we're done. Two justices joined that decision, Souter and Breyer, agreeing that there was a violation, but thought it should go back to the Florida Supreme Court to decide what to do. I don't think that's crazy, by the way.  Yes, it is possible to impute partisan motives to them, because the Florida Court had all been appointed by Democrats and had tipped its hand what it might do. Yet without mind-reading we are back at the same finger-pointing with no evidence. I am nowhere near informed enough in the law to tell you whether that is the best, or even a defensible position, but on the surface it seems reasonable the SCOTUS tell Florida to sort out its own mess, after noting there had been a finding there was a violation, contrary to that court's earlier ruling.

Let me hit that key point again:  7-2 on Equal Protection, which to me looks like the central issue.  Not 5-4.  5-4 was for "What remedy?"

The legal arguments at this point revolved around whether there should be a deadline extension for recounts, whether Kathryn Harris had the authority to shut the thing down, whether started recounts that had been shown to be not-quite-right should be resumed, abandoned, or restarted. The popular arguments were much simpler: "You're cheating!" "No, you are!" As usual, everyone was suddenly an expert on Florida election law, the intent of the Florida legislature, Article II of the US Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Who says the schools aren't doing their job in civics?  Why, we can produce millions of experts overnight, with no additional training.

Let me jump back just a moment to the Florida Supreme Court. It's not in the Wiki article, but they had ruled 7-0 that there should be statewide manual recount, according to their interpretation of the law and the intent of the legislature.  Gore had only asked for four Democratic counties to be recounted, but they thought it was better to recount everything.  Bush appealed, and the SCOTUS sent that back quickly saying "What was your reasoning there? Show your work."  At the time, I was told this was a major slap in the face, but I don't know if that's true.  However that was, when asked to produce the reasoning, three of the seven changed their mind. The court ruled 4-3 for the statewide manual recount, and Bush appealed that, claiming that the rules for what was a legal vote varied from county to county. The Gore team countered "So what?  It's the intent of the voters that matters, not whether the technical definition of a legal vote is the same."

Back to the SCOTUS just for a moment, and then we're nearly done. In the 5-4 decision of "What remedy should there be for this violation of the Equal Protection," three justices (Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas) really wanted to sock it to the Florida Supreme Court that they had acted contrary to the will of the legislature, while two (Kennedy, O'Connor) said, "No, we wouldn't go that far" and didn't sign on.  The four dissenting justices (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer) said the opposite, that the Florida Supremes had jolly well not acted contrary to the legislature, they had gotten it right the first time. I can see some sense in all the sides here. The rulings of the justices sort of break down 3-2-2-2, depending on what question is being asked. Rather like arguing the Crusades, which popular imagination pictures as having two sides, when really there were at least four.

The irony piece.  Had the Gore team dared to take a long-term political risk, they likely would have won.  Spoiled ballots are three times more common in black districts. They could have tried to sell that idea as black voters being undercounted (there's that thing about overvotes, which I don't believe are counted anywhere) thereby, and had they won that, broadening the standard for what constituted a legal vote, Gore would very likely have gotten more votes. But to bring that up would be insulting to black voters, which might have cost them in the long run.  I don't think it would have, myself, but I am notoriously bad at this sort of horse-race analysis in politics.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

American Inventors

There is sudden irritation, perhaps even outrage at Google because the search term "American Inventors*" shows mostly black inventors, which people are interpreting as propaganda on the part of that search engine. I think that is unlikely.

First, I think Google is capable of skewing the results of things, but they are more clever than that.  They aren't going to do obvious stuff.

Secondly, Bing and Duckduckgo return similar results, perhaps not so bad. It is therefore unlikely that any of them are intentionally skewing the results. What is likely happening is that people do not often search for "American Inventors" as a category, they search for an individual inventor. But people do search for "Black American Inventors," as they are looking for these lists for school papers, self-esteem based programs, whatever. Except for George Washington Carver, those names are not going to come to mind very quickly, unlike Thomas Edison, or Alexander Graham Bell. Those search results will be included the general pile of "American inventors" because the algorithm will see them as a near relative. It's not a put-up job by Google or the others, it is a natural result from a data base where there actually aren't that many black inventors, but people want to find some.

Caveat: As the job of the Assistant Village Idiot is to notice the obvious when everyone else is making things too complicated, I am treading into territory that is not my assigned task.  Adjust your estimate of my credibility on this accordingly. 

*There's something about screwy results for "white couple" and some similar things, but I haven't checked that out and didn't do any of those searches. I'm guessing something similar is occurring.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Coins of Worth - Again

I discussed the various attributes that were valued by earlier cultures, and which are valued now, in The Gold Coin of Worth. It later occurred to me that the ability to keep a clear head under stress, or even in an emergency is also highly valued in our culture. I imagine it has been valued at least somewhat in all cultures, yet I think it has elevated higher in ours, because of our fast pace and time-awareness. That would place its ascent from one of the many virtues to one of the top virtues at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, say 1700. It was certainly recognised in Kipling's time
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

It is a quality that is mentioned often among people who are actually doing a particular job, but I don't think it is much in the national conversation of what we should teach children or "what skills employers are looking for."  It is as if we forget about it when discussing abilities in theory, but have face-palm moments when we suddenly need it in practice. We very much admire it in others.

I have heard that it is a military saying that "You will not rise to the occasion; you will revert to the level of your training."  That is very much true in dealing with acute psychiatric crises. While it is true that some people seemed to be better wired for calm and others for panic, training, rehearsal, and forethought are not optional.

As our pace increases, I expect the importance of this quality will likewise grow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


As children, we have heroes.  As young adults, we learn they have flaws. They all have flaws. Sometimes we then reject them, sometimes we keep them in more complicated fashion. Over the years they drift one way or the other in our minds.  We decide that their flaws are too great to ignore and move them to the rejection pile (though we might continue to admire a particular aspect), or we decide that their flaws are not that important in the long run and we continue our admiration. We also acquire people to admire who we never thought we would. This can only occur when we have had to face the disillusionment of our childhood heroes. From those wounded figures we learn to look beyond to core character, in a real context.  This is a cultural cliche in how we later look at teachers or parents, gaining a respect for them that we did not believe they deserved when we were young.

Years and years ago, shortly after I had children of my own, I read something about black actors in the movies and in vaudeville, who played stereotypical and demeaning roles and were now coming under criticism from younger African-Americans for their lack of standards.  The author - I think it was a book, though it may have just been a long magazine article - had become much more sympathetic and forgiving. As I recall it (which may be wildly divergent at this point from what was written) he quoted an older black actor who spoke with some heat "I had a family to feed.  None of you know what it was like." Working in a low-status, poorly-paid job at the time, with two young sons, I got it immediately.  Some heroes come in by the back door but they settle down to live in your house and become family.

By that point, we don't really need heroes to get on with our lives.

Yet we did need them once. I worry very much about the rage* to unmask heroes to children.  It seems to draw a lot of energy from those who are young enough to be disillusioned themselves but not old enough to have made their peace with an ambiguous world.  Sophomores teaching freshmen is dangerous.

*I just noticed in proofreading that there is a second meaning to rage, and it is likely not accidental.  "All the rage" is a positive, though a bit condescending.  Rage in its other meaning is not.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Novels and Statues

I went down a Wikipedia rabbit-trail - rather literally, come to think of it - about Watership Down. Amidst all the accolades reported, there were also criticisms, especially of the lack of interesting female characters, and the attitude of the male rabbits regarding the does almost entirely as breeding stock.  Only Hyzenthlay rises above that, and she, not much. At one level I get this.  When we belong to a group, even a fictional representation of "us" is taken seriously. We treat it differently depending on whether we feel the characterisation is intentional or unconscious, but we notice.  If all the pigs or rats belong to our group - Buddhists, professors, soldiers, musicians, husbands, we take offense.

The complaints are thus not entirely unfair, yet there are weaknesses. They can be taken too far, and not balanced, if your group is weasels while an opposite or complementary group is skunks, say. Or the fictional group representing you may be more ambiguous, like dwarves or action figures or toys.

But mostly I think "Then write your own story if you don't like it.  No one's stopping you.  If you don't like how females are being portrayed, your only real solution is to do better."  We covered this somewhat in my post Sexism in Narnia, reacting to JK Rowling's irritation at how she felt Susan had been portrayed. I thought Rowling misunderstood something important, rendering her complaint less valid. However, she responded in what I believe is the best possible way: she wrote her own books and she made the female characters behave as she thought best. Rowling's efforts certainly fits the culture of the last twenty years better.  Whether that will have staying power for a third generation remains to be seen. (She has some popularity into a second era of children, but I don't think a book can be called a classic until hit is loved by a third generation.  Parental nostalgia can carry a movie or book or musician unto the next generation, but usually not beyond.) Philip Pullman also responded to Lewis, by subcreating a world that was expressly non-Christian. He had first-pass success at this - we don't know whether that will endure - but that is also the proper response.  If you don't like it, write your own.

This is my eventual response to the desire to remove statues as well.  I get it that if you live in a town, a public statue in the town square represents you at some level, and you might find some things beyond the pale. Your church should be expressing things you agree with.  If you are part of a school, you are allowed some voice.*  Someone else's town, church, school, I think you have less authority. There's an historical marker to Hannah Duston up above Concord commemorating her scalping Indians after she was captured.  We regard that with more ambivalence these days, but I regard that as mostly Boscawen's problem.  It is a New Hampshire state marker, so I have some connection with it representing me, but I don't feel I have much ground to go complaining at the state house. Not that I would anyway.  Moral ambiguity isn't enough for me for something to be pulled down.  Once it's up, I think you need to go much farther to just evil before you can yank it. Chesterton's Fence may apply to art more than anything else.

But even more, my response to a statue you don't approve of is "So put up your own statue."  Or even more to the point "Go do something that is worthy of commemoration in that way. No one is stopping you, with your own mixed bag of moral history, from going and doing something heroic or laudable."

Hey, artists need the work.

*Though here we see how the sales job of a college calling itself a community in order to hit you up for money later (yes, okay, some good motives too) affects the entire culture going forward.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Secret People - GKC

(Notes at the end.)

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.
There is many a fat farmer that drinks less cheerfully,
There is many a free French peasant who is richer and sadder than we.
There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise.
There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes;
You laugh at us and love us, both mugs and eyes are wet:
Only you do not know us. For we have not spoken yet.

The fine French kings came over in a flutter of flags and dames.
We liked their smiles and battles, but we never could say their names.
The blood ran red to Bosworth and the high French lords went down;
There was naught but a naked people under a naked crown.
And the eyes of the King’s Servants turned terribly every way,
And the gold of the King’s Servants rose higher every day.
They burnt the homes of the shaven men, that had been quaint and kind,
Till there was no bed in a monk’s house, nor food that man could find.
The inns of God where no man paid, that were the wall of the weak.
The King’s Servants ate them all. And still we did not speak.

And the face of the King’s Servants grew greater than the King:
He tricked them, and they trapped him, and stood round him in a ring.
The new grave lords closed round him, that had eaten the abbey’s fruits,
And the men of the new religion, with their bibles in their boots,
We saw their shoulders moving, to menace or discuss,
And some were pure and some were vile; but none took heed of us.
We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

Chesterton made a few stereotypical and rather insulting comments about Jews  in his writings.  Very common prejudices of the era, but still rank. He was called on it, thought about it, wrote an apology, and never did so again.

It is telling that GKC thought the newest (1915) group of elites who ignored the common Englishman worse even than Cromwell and the Puritans, against whom he held an especial dislike. That may be dramatic, but I doubt it is true or fair. The poor of Chesterton's time, hard as their lives were, were much better-off than those of the early Victorian era and before. He captures something important about Albion and the spirit of England that does indeed extend far back in its history.  Yet he nonetheless is writing from a position of relative wealth.  He also does not quite understand the bulk of the poor, even as he takes up their defense.

All that said, it's a powerful piece.  GKC does not fit 21st C categories well, which is part of what makes him worth reading.