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Because Ordinarily He’s Out Clearing Brush!

[ 0 ] May 5, 2007 |

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg seem to have mistaken King Ralph for reality:

How does George W. Bush, a towel-snapping Texan who puts his feet on the coffee table, drinks water straight from the bottle and was once caught on tape talking with food in his mouth prepare for a state dinner with the queen?

With tips from an etiquette guide, of course — and a little gentle prodding from his wife.

The White House is atwitter over the visit on Monday by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. This is the first visit by the queen since 1991, when Mr. Bush’s father was president. White House aides say the state dinner in her honor is not only the social event of the year, but also of the entire Bush presidency.

It will be closely watched by the social elite for its collision of cultures — Texas swagger meets British prim. Dinner attire is white tie and tails, the first and, perhaps, only white-tie affair of the Bush administration. The president was said to be none too keen on that, but bowed to a higher power, his wife.

Wow; I hope that George “Cletus” Bush doesn’t use the salad fork to slaughter a hog during dinner. I see the potential for high comedy! Isn’t this part of an unused Parker and Stone script for “That’s My Bush!”?

Let’s review: George W. Bush is not a country bumpkin. He is not a stranger to formal affairs. He didn’t spend most of his youth clearing brush. He knows how to use all of the forks at the table. He’s not going to accidentally hock a loogie into the Queen’s hair while aiming for the White House spitoon. He probably even knows how to tie a bow-tie. He is a very wealthy man, the product of a long line of New England aristocracy. His heritage and upbringing are every bit as WASP-ish as that of John Kerry. The Queen has been dining with Presidents since Eisenhower, and apart from his father Dubya is probably the most aristocratic of any of them. The central achievement of his political life has been disguising all of that beneath a thin veneer of “rustic Texan”, but the New York Times shouldn’t have respected that nonsense in 1999, and shouldn’t take it at all seriously now.

It’s all affect. I suppose that’s all he has left.

Evolution Wars

[ 0 ] May 5, 2007 |

For anyone remotely familiar with the history of Darwinian thought as a prop for socially recalcitrant views of “human nature,” there’s not much new in this Times piece — though it’s always heartening to hear conservatives returning with childlike wonder to the great intellectual debates of the 1880s.

All that aside, there’s also nothing new in the sloppy invocations of “fascism” and “communism” in the effort to undermine the very notion of Darwinian theory. And so:

Skeptics of Darwinism like William F. Buckley, Mr. West and Mr. Gilder also object. The notion that “the whole universe contains no intelligence,” Mr. Gilder said at Thursday’s conference, is perpetuated by “Darwinian storm troopers.”

“Both Nazism and communism were inspired by Darwinism,” he continued. “Why conservatives should toady to these storm troopers is beyond me.”

It’s good to know that between servings of warm bean paste and pureed bananas, William Buckley can still mumble the cliches that sustained him for all those years. [Evidently, all the time I've spent not grading this week has ruined my reading comprehension skillz. As pointed out in comments, the "storm troopers" line was from Gilder, who isn't quite old enough for a bean paste and bananas diet.] It’s also good to know that the meaning of phrases such as “storm troopers” has been so diluted from overuse that it can now apply to science educators and school boards. Still, it’s worth pointing out that statements like Buckley’s reveal what I can only see as willful ignorance of the history of biological and social thought. The basis of the error is pretty simple. Nazism and communism are teleological, perfectionist narratives; the Darwinian view of adaptation and descent with modification is not. The problem is that many intellectuals — like Republican presidential candidates paying worship to the name of Ronald Reagan — attached Darwin’s name to ideas that owed little to Darwin himself.

From the 1860s through the 1940s, nearly everyone with an elaborate social vision claimed — however implausibly — to be influenced by “Darwin,” most of whose writings they had not apparently bothered to read. Aside from some speculative remarks in The Descent of Man, Darwin didn’t much bother to apply his ideas to contemporary civilization in any systematic way. Racists, socialists, patriarchs, single taxers, vegetarians, feminists, robber barons and philanthropists each borrowed selectively from Darwin and drew their own lessons, all of which claimed the authority of science. Same for communists and Fascists, whose visions of human destiny were in any event always more Lamarckian than Darwinian, no matter what their advocates claimed in public. (Nor does this fact mean that Lamarck was responsible for the horrors of the death camp and the gulag; it just means that fascists, on top of their other flaws, were deeply stupid as well.)

As a product of 19th century European culture, there are certainly some teleological, “progressive” elements to Darwin’s work, but I’ve always been struck by the degree to which Darwin’s writings describe a natural world that’s disorderly and unpredictable and not the servant of human “will.” If Darwin’s ideas validate any particular social arrangement, then, I think the old leftist complaint about Darwin still applies — at times, The Origin of Species reads like a science fiction novel about the virtues of classical liberalism. But this certainly doesn’t “prove” that classical liberalism (or contemporary conservatism) is the appropriate way for creative, dynamic, pluralistic human societies to order their business. Any idiot can see that.

As for Darwin’s later work on vegetable molds and climbing plants, though, I think there are many relevant lessons there for anyone seeking to understand the rise of the New Right. In the very least, those books help explain why William F. Buckley continues to find an audience.

45 Days?

[ 0 ] May 4, 2007 |

I can’t believe they’re sending Paris Hilton to jail for 45 days. Staggered, really. What’s most surprising is that the judge’s order specifically excludes the special segregation jails detailed in an NYT article last week:

Anyone convicted of a crime knows a debt to society often must be paid in jail. But a slice of Californians willing to supplement that debt with cash (no personal checks, please) are finding that the time can be almost bearable.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few.

Many of the self-pay jails operate like secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

“I am aware that this is considered to be a five-star Hilton,” said Nicole Brockett, 22, who was recently booked into one of the jails, here in Orange County about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and paid $82 a day to complete a 21-day sentence for a drunken driving conviction.

Apparently, this opportunity is most often taken advantage of by late 30s and early 40s white men who are sent to jail on drunk driving offenses. Although such a program offends some non-specific sensibility of mine, I must say that upon reading the article I immediately began to think about how much segregated time I’d be willing to pony up for at $100/day; a week maybe, but six months would leave me virtually bankrupt. One commentator at the most recent Lexington Drinking Liberally observed that such a program might dramatically cut down on the potential targets for a “kick someone’s ass on the first day” strategy for prison social success. Of course, I’m told that they use guys like me as currency on the inside…

Friday Cat Blogging

[ 0 ] May 4, 2007 |

Inspired by recent works of genius, Mungojerry and Rumpleteaser prepare to film their own parody of an Althouse vlog. (Not pictured: wine glasses, television, dignity, etc.)

(Image link)

Legitmate Thee-yater Reporting

[ 0 ] May 4, 2007 |
  • I saw the much-raved-about, almost certainly Tony-winning Spring Awakening last night. The first half was objectively pretty awful–as you would expect based on the composer rather than the reviews, the Duncan Sheik music was third-rate generic mush, the high-density-of-cliches book little better–but for some reason (the will and energy of the cast, just being at the theater in good seats) I wanted to like it. My friend was less optimistic, and her instincts were much more sound. The second half was remarkably dire, featuring an embarrassingly flaccid and pretentious closing ballad and a forced attempt to rock out with carefully enunciated “fucked”s. Any goodwill I had vanished with the old suicide-as-an-inorganic-plot-device scam; like the undertones of sexual violence, it carried no emotional weight at all. It was appropriate that the same two actors played all of the repressive adult figures, since they were all indistinguishable anyway (although New York theatergoers unsure about where they stand on the great healthy sexuality vs. philistine late 19th century German repression question will I’m sure learn a Valuable Lesson.) Seriously, it was like Dead Poet’s Society: The Musical! except (if such a thing is possible) even less soulful and more crudely overdetermined. The puzzle for me is what on earth the slobbering critics saw in this crap. Are they just incompetent? Is there only experience with contemporary music in dentist’s offices and the occasional Starbucks? I don’t get it.
  • Seeing the bizarre gap between review and accomplishment also makes me upset about the lukewarm, imperceptive review the Times gave to Julian Shepard’s Los Angeles, which featured as part of the Flea‘s fine company of actors some obscure blogger. I would have written about it earlier, but I thought I had seen it on the last night; fortunately, is was extended another month, so it seems as if audiences found it anyway. Admittedly, the coke-fueled-decline-in-LA premise is scarcely more original, but it did something with it. Adam Rapp’s direction was imaginiative–Amelia Zirin-Brown’s torch song commentary was a particularly nice touch, and the deconstruction-of-the-Nice-Guy (TM) ending was a nice touch, particularly since endings in art about addiction is always difficult. Katherine Waterston–daughter of Sam–was in every scene, and she will be very interesting to watch. The play was structured as a series of individual scenes with someone who feels protective of the insecure lead character but can’t help exploiting her vulnerabilities anyway–which placed demands on the actor to implicitly provide the information about the character we learned or will learn but wasn’t evident in that particular interaction. She did this very well; Roy told me that her performances gave something more powerful to react to as the show ran on, and I believe it; it was a thoughtful, detailed performance. Seeing this as a tiny TriBeCa theater is certainly a better part of the NYC theater experience than the white elephant musical.

[ 0 ] May 4, 2007 |


Friday Cat Blogging… Starbuck and Nelson

Atlas

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

Maybe if you don’t want to get banned from YouTube, you should take the wad of Big League Chew out of your mouth when you’re talking to yourself in a hotel mirror, you pig.

Just sayin’ is all.

Indeed…

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

Mark Dery:

OK, so maybe I’m overstepping the bounds of my Learning Annex degree in pop psychology. But the hidden costs of our overcompensatory hypermachismo are far worse than a few politicians slimed by pundits. The horror in Iraq has been protracted past the point of lunacy by George W.’s bring-it-on braggadocio, He-Ra unilateralism and damn-the-facts refusal to acknowledge mistakes — all hallmarks of a pathological masculinity that confuses diplomacy with weakness and arrogant rigidity with strength. It is founded not on a self-assured sense of what it is but on a neurotic loathing of what it secretly fears it may be: wussy. And it will go to the grave insisting on battering-ram stiffness (stay the course! don’t pull out!) as the truest mark of manhood.

It’s the enchantment with political masculinity that lends credence to arguments about Will and Green Lantern Theory; the idea that reality doesn’t make a difference as long as we’re tough enough and want something badly enough. There’s a weird communal aspect to it, too. The unwashed hordes of right blogistan seem terrified that admitting the truth about Iraq will directly undermine their own tightly held masculinity.

Since When is Chess Cool?

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

Has youth chess become a really big deal? The need for a classic Slate contrarian-style rebuttal would seem to suggest so. Back in my day, high school chess had most certainly not acquired any kind of prestige or institutional support. Our club had about seven members (out of a population of 2000 or so), and while elements of the dance team (believe it or not) did in fact show up for one match, getting any attention even for what was a remarkably successful team (two consecutive league championships) was like pulling teeth.

I suppose it is odd to think that mastery of chess would have a meaningful effect on academic performance. The intellectual tasks are quite different, and the entire relationship may be built on a sterotype and some fairly mushy statistics. Frankly, I would imagine that participating in a complex role-playing game would do more to develop various academic skills than analyzing a chess position. As the article suggests, the chess team did not overlap significantly with Oregon City High School’s academic all-stars, but rather contained mostly marginal academic figures. On the other hand, it certainly wouldn’t be correct to say that chess was a cause of poor academic performance; the one simply seemed to have little to do with the other.

On the other hand, the Oregon City school district had no youth chess infrastructure. Even in my day, certain Portland high schools had coaches who had taken the time to establish chess programs at feeder elementary and junior high schools. This resulted in those teams becoming extremely competitive, and it might also, I suppose, have left some residual analytical skills in the population as a whole. I’m not convinced, though; I need some plausible causal logic…

No, Not Syria!

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

I can’t believe that Condi Rice is going to betray America by meeting with Syria’s foreign minister. Doesn’t she understand that this legitmizes the Assad regime? Isn’t there some kind of law that she can be charged under?

The Problem With the Anti-Choice Ultrasound Policy

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

To follow-up on my recent post about William Saletan running interference for anti-choice ultrasound policies, NTEW explains in further detail why the moral inferences Saletan draws from ultrasounds don’t actually follow, a persistent problem with his arguments on the subject. One is reminded of another recent definitive episode in wingnuttery, in which the fact that Terri Schiavo’s involuntary movements and facial expressions were erroneously treated as evidence of consciousness:

Of course, nothing is morally significant about squirming — ours or the fetus’. What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours. If it has no mind, or a mind of such a primitive level that it can’t even feel pain, there’s no reason to have attitudes of moral concern for it. The neural hardware for pain perception only starts to show up around week 23, and isn’t in place until week 30 of the pregnancy. So having moral concern for a first-trimester fetus on the basis of the squirming you see in an ultrasound is a mistake.

[...]

For my part, I think there’s room in the world for paternalism, but if you’re going to be a paternalist you need to be better-informed and more rational than the people you’re trying to impose your paternalistic requirements on. By letting his own squirming get the better of him and push him to support a useless and expensive procedure, Saletan fails this test. Instead of requiring ultrasounds before abortions, perhaps we should require him to reread the medical research on fetal pain before he does any more punditry.

I would also add that if paternalism is to be acceptable, it cannot treat men and women differently as a class, so it should also be common for male-exclusive surgeries (like vasectomies, say) to be subject to a wide array of regulations premised on the idea that most people who obtain them are irrational and should be dissuaded from obtaining the surgeries in question. Needless to say, this is unlikely to happen.

Of course, Saletan claims that he favors only voluntary, state-funded ultrasounds, which are in theory much less objectionable (whether or not Neil or I think that ultrasounds provide useful information, women can certainly look at them if they choose to do so.) But there remain two problems. First of all, he never bothers to ask why these proposed regulations generally don’t come with funding attached, and are also part of a wide array of regulations which make abortions more expensive and time-consuming to obtain and/or provide. (He always seems to accept the good faith of anti-choicers, no matter what the evidence, in ways he would never dream of doing for pro-choicers.) And even if his magical pony plan rather than the regulations that might actually pass were enacted, we still need to know how this fits into the scarce resources of our medical system. What medical services does Saletan propose to cut, or taxes Saletan propose to increase, in order to pay for this very expensive and largely useless information? These are questions to which I’m not anticipating answers.

Buy maybe I’m being too harsh. He has, after all, shown signs of recognizing that when American “pro-lifers” are presented with a conflict between preventing unwanted pregnancies (and hence fetal life) and regulating female sexuality they will almost always choose the latter, even when they’re presented with the innovative pro-contraception policies Saletan originated only 60 years after the founding of Planned Parenthood. Maybe in a year or two he’ll briefly realize he’s being played for a sucker yet again.

Conservative Sob Stories

[ 0 ] May 3, 2007 |

Lots of folks are writing about this Sun “expose,” which details the sad plight of Mark Moyar, a self-professed conservative military and diplomatic historian who — unlike anyone else orbiting the planet with a Ph.D. — found the academic job market to be a hard row to hoe.

If you’re the cries-at-Old-Yeller type, now would be a good time to grab a tissue:

Mark Moyar doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a disappointed job seeker. He is an Eagle Scout who earned a summa cum laude degree from Harvard, graduating first in the history department before earning a doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England. Before he had even begun graduate school, he had published his first book and landed a contract for his second book. Distinguished professors at Harvard and Cambridge wrote stellar letters of recommendation for him.

Yet over five years, this conservative military and diplomatic historian applied for more than 150 tenure-track academic jobs, and most declined him a preliminary interview. During a search at University of Texas at El Paso in 2005, Mr. Moyar did not receive an interview for a job in American diplomatic history, but one scholar who did wrote her dissertation on “The American Film Industry and the Spanish-Speaking Market During the Transition to Sound, 1929-1936.” At Rochester Institute of Technology in 2004, Mr. Moyar lost out to a candidate who had given a presentation on “promiscuous bathing” and “attire, hygiene and discourses of civilization in Early American-Japanese Relations.”

As always, I’m not as stunned as I’m apparently supposed to be to learn that yet another Eagle Scout, Harvard graduate and published author has failed to land a job in the historical profession, where a glut of qualified Ph.D.’s — conservative or otherwise — are either working part-time, laboring away in non-tenure track positions, or abandoning the profession entirely for law school. I’m also quite literally yawning as I reflect on the fact that he’s applied to 150 positions in five years. Only 30 jobs per year? Who does this fellow think he is?

Seriously now. The job market for historians is a humiliating, soul-spindling meat grinder, a fact to which I would happily attest more specifically off the record and over multiple strong drinks with anyone who feels like looking at the clock every five minutes and wondering when this guy is going to shut the fuck up. That said, I obviously can’t speak to the specific reasons why Moyar failed to receive interviews or job offers from Iowa, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Old Dominion, or any of the other schools who rejected him (although I assume from the tone of the article that I’m supposed to be annoyed that someone who studies culture received an offer instead of the almighty Mark Moyar.) Now I’m hardly an expert on the vicissitudes of the job market, and I’m pretty much a non-entity in my field, so the appropriate caveats apply here. But I’ve served on five search committees in five years, and I’ve seen highly intelligent, qualified applicants who were not moved along for all kinds of reasons. The fact that he received letters from “top scholars” tells us nothing — most credible applicants to these schools would also enjoy such endorsements. The fact that he’s published two books is also not necessarily meaningful. I know a well-regarded lit scholar — a radical environmentalist, no less — who teaches in a highly undemocratic nation because his two books (published by two very good university presses) weren’t enough to land him a decent job in the US. Unlike Moyar, though, this fellow isn’t suing one of the schools who rejected him.

Perhaps Moyar didn’t receive a preliminary interview because his areas of expertise didn’t mesh with departmental needs (I’ve seen that plenty of times); perhaps he received a preliminary interview and was completely unprepared (I’ve seen that at least once a year); perhaps his job talk was an incoherent disaster (seen it three times); perhaps he came to campus and wouldn’t shut up about how amazing and interesting his research was (seen it once); or perhaps he just rubbed everyone the wrong way and — all else being equal — just didn’t seem like a good colleague.

And sure, maybe at the end of the day, it didn’t help that Moyar’s scholarship argues that Ngo Dinh Diem was a capable South Vietnamese leader who could have prevailed in an anti-communist counterinsurgency if only American journalists like Neil Sheehan, Stanley Karnow and David Halberstam — communist dupes to a man — hadn’t persuaded Americans that Diem was a font of corruption and brutality. Maybe scholars are a bit suspicious of someone willing to argue that the Kennedy administration was justified in asking the New York Times to fire Halberstam in 1963 because his reporting paid insufficient tribute to US “national interests.”

Whatever the reason Moyar is now happily employed at the US Marine Corps University, it isn’t because he’s an academic pariah, nor is it true that the Sun‘s story is “a blockbuster that breaks a scandal hiding in plain sight.” If anyone reads the article, it’s clear that Moyar’s job search was frustrated by an idiosyncratic combination of factors — none of which add up to the liberal conspiracy for which Moyar himself will now become a willing poster child.

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