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The “Only Joking” Defense

[ 92 ] June 3, 2014 |

One would think that Paul’s observations on Zizek’s remarks about teaching would be unassailable.  But among other things personality cults generate defenses of the transparently indefensible, so Bob is Boring in comments:

Dang, that’s a lot of Zizek-hate.

I think he’s delightful. I certainly don’t always agree with him, and not all of his writings are great. I loved Looking Awry. That was the most I ever understood about Lacan.


And I find the statement in the OP to show clear signs of hyperbole. You know: rhetoric, for effect?

Ah, yes, the delightful scamp was Only Joking!  (I speak here only of the comments under dispute; I also don’t know enough to take a position on the quality of his theoretical work.)  And, indeed, one doesn’t need high-level critical skills to spot “hyperbole” in his remarks.  So let us say he kinda was Only Joking and is not literally indifferent to whether his students kill themselves.  How far does that get us? Well:

  • Were his comments funny?  Good God no, they were witless in a self-impressed way.  Among other things, good comedy rarely punches down.
  • Was the point the hyperbole was trying to make (“My shitty inferiors, I will gladly take the money that will leave many of you debt peons, so long as you expect nothing in exchange for it”) a good one?  No, it was a reprehensible one, and one that as Paul says actually says a lot about the role of arbitrarily selected “superstars” in academia.

Obviously, the point of this kind of half-joking hyperbole is to preempt criticism; by taking the remarks seriously you mark yourself as the square, the butt of the joke.  But it’s a chickenshit rhetorical move, and the sentiments the quasi-joke reflect reveal a problem that’s entirely serious.

…as djw reminds me in comments, I forgot about the best part of the comment:

Plus, I love that there’s a public intellectual willing to go on Brazillian talk shows and rant about Marx – we need more crazy bloviators moving the Overton window back to the left.

As a connoisseur of arguments that use the phrase “Overton Window” to assume multiple can openers,  I must agree that he will be a real game-changer on steroids.  I can now move on to awarding commenter Nick today’s internets:

Q: how many Slovenian Lacanians does it take to move the Overton Window in the US?

A: just one — as long as he appears on Brazilian talk shows.


Treason In Defense of Slavery is the Ultimate Patriotism

[ 149 ] June 2, 2014 |

From the description of a new biography of traitor in defense of slavery (although he privately opposed them both, Scout’s honor!) Robert E. Lee:

In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.

Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor? Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week? I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads. (Admittedly, this does seem to track with the definition of “American” that Republicans have been pushing for years — i.e. it would seem to exclude anyone who isn’t white, lives above the Mason-Dixon line, lives in a city, doesn’t have at least five possessions decorated with Confederate flags, etc.)

Whether this book is as terrible as the description suggests, I can’t say. It was excerpted in the Daily Beast, and while the content isn’t abominable the sub-headline certainly is. (Robert E. Lee “saved the union” by protecting slaveholders before the Civil War, doncha know. I guess it didn’t take.) Either Korda has been really badly served by various copy-writers or this book will be epically awful.

…via comments, Eric Foner’s review. 

For the Republican Policy on Climate Change, See the Republican Policy on Health Care

[ 28 ] June 2, 2014 |

As part of a post arguing (correctly) that Obama’s environmental record has, on balance, been excellent, Jon Chait has some links to people assuming that the regulations issued today would never come:

The lingering conclusion that Obama simply did not care about the environment made many of my fellow liberals doubt that Obama would ever take such a risky step. “I think this has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of actually happening, but don’t let anyone tell you Obama has no options,” wrote Matthew Yglesias. The failure of the EPA to immediately produce regulations prompted Joe Romm to conclude Obama was “delaying action.” When Obama’s budget did not include power plant regulations — which are not a budgetary item — Ryan Lizza wrote, “Nothing in his new budget follows through on that promise. And if that doesn’t, what will?” in a column headlined, “Has Obama Already Given Up on Climate Change.”

As Chait implies earlier, I assume this ultimately baseless pessimism has essentially Green Laternist roots. To some people, the fact that climate change legislation didn’t pass can be taken as ipso facto evidence that Obama didn’t really want it to pass. At any rate, we can now presumably proceed to an argument that the standards are inadequate, which you can bet will mostly ignore the Anthony Kennedy’s veto power over them.

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein, while (again, correctly) noting that the regulations are “probably at the outer limit of what can be done,” argues that there’s some basis for optimism in that they’re less ambitious than what Republicans nominally favored a few years ago:

The power plant regulations the Obama administration will announce today are far less ambitious than the proposal McCain offered in Oregon in 2008. They’re less ambitious than the proposals Newt Gingrich championed through the Aughts. They’re far less than what’s required to keep the rise in temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

But they’re probably at the outer limit of what can be done so long as the Republican Party refuses to even believe in climate change, much less work with the Obama administration on a bill. The good news, if there is any, is that the Republican Party hasn’t always refused to believe in climate change. There was even a time when its key national leaders were committed to doing something about it. Those leaders are still around today. They could still do something about it today.

I think the problem here is the word “committed.” Given Republican control of the government from 2001-06, plus (on this issue) a Congress that would have worked with Republicans on climate change in 2007-8, we can have a very good idea of what Republican elites actually favored on climate change. Their actually policy preference on climate change, like their policy preference for health care reform, is “worse than nothing.” The record of the Republican Congress on climate change under George W. Bush was terrible, as was the record of George W. Bush’s EPA. There is less than no chance that a McCain or Romney administration would have issued anything like these regulations. The fact that the McCain campaign pretended to favor some good climate change action and the fact that a notably uninfluential Republican buffoon favored some decent policy proposals while the Republicans who actually governed the country were making things worse is really neither here nor there, and it’s hard to imagine this changing anytime soon.

And the Climate Battle Begins

[ 39 ] June 2, 2014 |

Here we go:

President Obama will use his executive authority to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants by up to 20 percent, according to people familiar with his plans, which will spur the creation of a state cap-and-trade program forcing industry to pay for the carbon pollution it creates.

Mr. Obama will unveil his plans in a new regulation, written by the Environmental Protection Agency, at the White House on Monday. It would be the strongest action ever taken by an American president to tackle climate change and could become one of the defining elements of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

Republicans will, of course, use the Supreme Court as a backdoor to try to stop a policy that Congress has authorized the executive branch to make and that they lack the votes to overturn, so this is just the beginning of the road.

Game 7!

[ 59 ] June 1, 2014 |

It would be an exaggeration to say that tonight’s game is the de facto Stanley Cup championship. The winner will be playing a decent, better rested team with an exceptional goaltender that certainly can beat tonight’s winner in a 7-game series. Nonetheless, it is a Game 7 between the best two teams in the league, either one of which will be an overwhelming favorite to beat the Rangers. Hopefully it’s a great one.

Anniversary Reflections

[ 50 ] May 31, 2014 |

It’s amazing that it’s been ten years since Rob, Dave and I started this project. (I’m proud of it in part because it’s one of the few times I’ve ever come up with a good title.) As my quantity of posts makes clear, I still love it.

Rather than further navel-gazing, I wanted above all to thank the readers, who make this all worthwhile. I especially wanted to thanks our commenters. We have that increasingly rare thing, an actual community that’s big enough to generate good discussions while not so big as to be entirely dominated by trolls. It’s a delicate balance, as anyone who’s read blogs for a while is well aware, and we’ve been very lucky. I have to particularly single out Howard, who has done so much to build up my jazz collection although his anecdotes about music and baseball are more than enough of a gift. (I’m still working through the remarkable David Murray set he recently purchased me, and I can’t think him enough.)

I also wanted to thank the other bloggers who engaged with LGM when we were a guppy in the ecosystem of the blogosphere. In a non-exhaustive list, let me thank Duncan Black, Roy Edroso, Lindsay Beyerstein, Matt Yglesias, Brad DeLong, and Ezra Klein. I assume a fairly high percentage of readers have discovered the blog through one of these sources who found us early, and we’re grateful. And, of course, we’re grateful to those who have continued to engage with us over the years, which remarkably enough now includes at least two New York Times columnists.

There wouldn’t be much point in doing this without you. We immensely appreciate the support.

A Perfect Marriage

[ 15 ] May 30, 2014 |

I didn’t know that the reactionary contrarian Armond White had ended up at the National Review, but it’s certainly logical. (His proverbial cocktail party isn’t even apocryphal!) I love Roy’s take on John Simon too.

The Horror

[ 330 ] May 29, 2014 |

Elliot Rodger’s failed pick-up artist buddies: just what you’d expect, alas.

…I think perhaps the most telling detail is the fact that George Sidini was referred to positively 17 times.

Well, At Least It Was Nothing Trivial!

[ 134 ] May 29, 2014 |

I can’t read about Aaron Hernandez’s “motive” for killing two people without “Atlantis” playing in my head:

A spilled drink in a Boston nightclub led former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez to kill two people in a drive-by shooting two years ago, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Prosecutors said Hernandez felt disrespected after a stranger bumped into him and spilled his drink, prompting him to follow the man and his friends then open fire on their car at a red light.

“I think I got one in the head and one in the chest,” Hernandez told a friend as they fled the intersection, prosecutors said at the former gridiron star’s arraignment.

I hope some good journalists are still poking around and trying to find out how much Hernandez got away with in Gainseville.

Adult Tweets I Don’t Understand

[ 170 ] May 29, 2014 |

Exene Cervenka is, inter alia, a UCSB troofer. I’m not sure Jackie Susann meant it that way…

Today In Violent Misogyny

[ 243 ] May 28, 2014 |

Jared Remy will be spending the rest of his life where he should be spending it, in prison.  You will probably not be surprised that he used his statement to engage in some blaming of his victim:

He described himself as “the bad apple” and called Martel “an angel,” but also appeared to blame Martel.

“I would like you to know that I always told Jen she could leave, but don’t threaten me with my daughter,” he read from a hand-written statement. “That night, Jen had a knife in her hand* and threatened me with my daughter, so I killed her.”

Putting “angelic” women on a pedestal where they will be violently knocked off if they don’t do everything you want — MRA logic in a nutshell right there.

And it’s worth noting that Martel would still be alive if the relevant authorities actually took violence against women committed by well-connected white guys seriously. It’s not surprising that Remy would retain this kind of logic when he was implicitly told again and again that it was acceptable.

*As rea notes in comments, it’s overwhelmingly likely that this detail is made up.

The Eighth Amendment and the “Emerging Consensus” Standard

[ 36 ] May 28, 2014 |

I have a piece up at the Prospect about yesterday’s modestly encouraging Eighth Amendment case:

The fact that someone as clearly mentally impaired as Hall had his death sentence upheld by the Florida courts is a grim illustration that using the IQ number as a rigid cutoff creates an enormous risk of false negatives in Florida’s tests for mental impairment. For a court that takes Atkins at all seriously, this should be an easy case.

Justice Alito’s dissent, speaking for the Court’s four most conservative members, responds to this clear logic with an essentially tautological defense of Florida’s system. There is not a clear consensus among states that a rigid, bright-line IQ rule is invalid, Alito asserts, and “in the absence of such a consensus, we have no basis for holding that Florida’s method contravenes our society’s standards of decency.” Alito’s characterization is, in its own terms, defensible. But while the Court has in my view but too much emphasis on the consensus of state governments in its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, it has never claimed that the current consensus or lack thereof is the only criterion relevant to Eighth Amendment cases. Executing the mentally impaired, for reasons eloquently explained by the majority, inherently conflicts with the individual dignity and fairness required by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. By creating an unacceptably high risk of executing a mentally disabled individual, Florida’s standards violate the Eighth Amendment, and this would be true whether one state used them or fifty did.

The dissent’s response on this more important point has nothing to offer but the hostility to scientific expertise that is becoming increasingly ascendant in the contemporary Republican Party. “Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases,” charges Alito, “what counts are our society’s standards—which is to say, the standards of the American people—not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite.” But Florida cannot have it both ways; it cannot rely on the IQ test as a scientifically valid way to evaluate mental impairment and then ignore scientific evidence about what the IQ test means.

Giving the Florida essentially unlimited discretion to determine who is mentally impaired would render Atkins a dead letter. This, of course, is the outcome desired by the dissenters, but it’s not an outcome consistent with the Eighth Amendment. The Court’s opinion today is a welcome step in the right direction that signals to the states that Atkins should actually be taken seriously.

I can’t blame the Alito dissent for focusing on the highly contestable assertion of consensus on the part of the majority. This standard has been a major part of the recent holdings restricting use of the death penalty, most problematically in Kennedy’s opinion in Roper v. Simmons. Kennedy’s opinion yesterday focused more on substantive considerations than on the question of “consensus,” which is appropriate. State policies aren’t entirely irrelevant, but they should be a peripheral consideration. The idea that the constitutionality of particular forms of punishment should hinge on whether 5 or 8 states use it has always been odd.

The cruel and unusual punishment clause is a vague principle that requires the use of discretion to be applied. This isn’t because of a drafting error; an Eighth Amendment that tried to to specify particular punishments to be prohibited would be worse than useless at the time of ratification. (It would essentially be a road map for torturers — if you want to inflict a cruel and unusual punishment, make sure you think of something we didn’t.) This problem would get worse over time, both because of technology and the development of moral standards. Attempts to turn the Eighth Amendment into the laundry list the framers wisely avoided through “originalism” have similar problems. (Justice Stevens: “While Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old, the Court wisely rejects his static approach to

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the law.”) Despite some hand-waving towards an “emerging consensus,” the Court yesterday essentially made a substantive, independent judgment about the meaning of the Eighth Amendment, and this is entirely appropriate.