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The question: How many houses does John McCain really have?

Leni Riefenstahl was born on August 22nd, 1902.

Her artistic career began in dance, but, after a knee injury, she turned to film, starring in a number of silent pictures before her directorial debut, Das Blaue Licht. Her real artistic breakthrough, of course, was Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg. (Though “documentary” is perhaps inapt–the rally itself was planned with the film in mind, so the two seemed to have a symbiotic relationship.)

But, hey, you can read the wiki page yourself.

What interests me about “Triumph of the Will”– a film I’ve never seen– is that, at least on the surface, it looks like a case of a work of art that has aesthetic value while being morally bad. So it comes up a lot in conversations about the relationship between those sorts of values.

You might endorse that evaluation: you might say it’s aesthetically but not morally valuable. If so, there are incompatible values here. Presumably being a morally ideal person will involve reacting with horror and revulsion at a celebration of the Nazi party.* Being an ideal aesthetic judge means being a less-than-ideal moral judge, because fully appreciating the aesthetic value means not reacting with horror.

(Balthus is another artist who comes up in these debates. Here‘s something you don’t want to be caught looking at– Guitar Lesson.)

The same issue comes up with questions about offensive-but-funny jokes. Want to generate examples? Think of a kind of value, then imagine a case where it might be morally wrong to enjoy it.

Aristotle has this cute argument early in the NE where he says, more or less, that the virtuous person would judge things a certain way, therefore that’s the truth of the matter, because the ideally virtuous agents are the best judges. I like this because of two interrelated thoughts. First, the ambiguity of “best” in this context– do the virtuous agents have the morally best responses, the comedically best responses, or…? (Aristotle of course thinks there’s no conflict, but we should be skeptical of this claim.) Second, the argument draws our attention to the danger of conflating different sorts of reasons. There might be moral reasons to feel horror, aesthetic reasons to feel awe, in response to “Triumph.” (An analogy I’m tired of making: this is like pragmatic vs. epistemic reasons to believe in Pascal’s Wager, or pragmatic vs. something-like-epistemic reasons to intend in the toxin puzzle.)

Anyway, I have no ax to grind in the area, but I think it’s a neat issue. Two good things to read: Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism” and Dan Jacobson’s long but rewarding paper on immoral art. (PDF.)

Leni Riefenstahl, one of the few things not younger than John McCain, passed away on September 8, 2003.

*Don’t be dumb, be a smartie.

Tracking down a citation for the still unfinished dissertation of mine, I came across the title of a book likely to be sufficient.  The book had the title of The Comprehensive History of Psychology.

“I only need to know what the e and b in the initials of E.B. Titchner’s name stand for,” I thought to myself.  “So the first link to a book returned by Google Book Search should be ample discrimination for my scholarly purposes.”

When I read the “Brief Life-Sketch of Edward Bradford Titchner” I learned I was wrong.  A discriminative act resulting in this book lacked sufficient discrimination.  What I learned was:

Titchner was born in the English town of Chichester.  His family had little money.  With the help of scholarship, he got admitted into Malvern College and then entered into Oxford University from where he took his bachelor’s degree.  This also completed his training as a physiologist.  But he was dissatisfied with what he had learned till now.  Therefore, he went to Germany at Leipzig University to get training with famous Wilhelm Wundt.  He studied with Wundt for 2 years, that is, from 1890 to 1892 and obtained his doctorate degree in 1892.  His dissertation was on binocular effects of monocular stimulation.  Although Titchner spent only two years with Wundt, he (Wundt) made a great impression on him—an impression which was never obliterated.

After returning from Leipzig, Titchner became an extension lecturer of Oxford.  He would have liked to remain at Oxford but the English were not ready to show any sympathy or even were not ready to accept the “new” psychology of Titchner.  Therefore he decided to immigrate to America at Cornell University where he remained for the rest of his life, that is, for nearly thirtyfive [sic] years.  […]  During his thirtyfive [sic] years [sic] brilliant career at the Cornell University [sic sic sic], he established his system, wrote articles and books and guided research students.  […]

During the last years of his life, the interest of Titchner turned from psychology to numismatics or coin collecting.  He died in 1927 probably [!] due to a brain tumor.

Although Titchner was such an Englishman who never gave up his British citizenship, he was very Germanic and much like his teacher, Wundt, even in having a beard [!].

Knowing that someone, somewhere thought this should be published is a powerful mental enervation.  I can finish the dissertation which will have been written for seven years, that is, from 2001 to 2008.  Then I think I should compose a profoundly amusing quiz for you readers in which I present passages about Francis Galton, cousin of the famous Charles, from my Twain chapter alongside excerpts from this book and have you guess what is their origin.  Here are two sentences maybe or maybe not written by me:

Like Darwin, [Galton] also believed in these families in past there must existed a great variations of mental abilities and the outstanding ones were able to survive and pass on to the next generation.

Despite his misgivings with the efficacy and applicability of analysis as means of identifying criminals from a database of strangers, for the time he worked under the inspirational thrall of the book, he it seems had adopted the applied essentialism of its argument.

Which one do you think wrote which?  I decline to answer because the results of my experiment may cripple me with the depression.

Tired of all the talk? Sick of the speculation? Well, shoot, there’s only one cure for what ails you: get in on the act. Start talking and speculating. So, who’s it going to be? And what makes you so sure, bub? The first person to guess both Obama’s and McCain’s choices gets an Edge of the American West coffee mug. (Which I’m pretty sure exists at cafépress. But I can’t find it now. So I’ll get back to you.)

As the night closed on August 21, 1831, a small group of enslaved Virginians prepared to launch a massacre in Southampton County, a stagnant and isolated region comprised of small farming families and the people whom they owned. Led by the religious enthusiast Nat Turner, the insurgents wielded guns, axes, pitchforks, rakes and other farm implements, which they used to dispatch the souls of more than fifty men, women and children over the next 48 hours. Beginning with the family of Joseph Travis — whose nine-year-old stepson Putman Moore was Turner’s legal master — the so-called “banditti” traced a circuitous route throughout the surrounding farms, their slaughter conceived with the intent of stimulating a wider revolt among Virginia’s bondsmen and bondswomen. Read the rest of this entry »

Even McCain is unsure. The “McCain Portrait” was right to remain agnostic on the precise number of McCain’s houses, and Yglesias is right to say this is partly a question of mereology. (I know a guy who knows more than pretty much everyone in the world about what Abelard thought about mereology. Hot. The jokes about Abelard and parts and wholes, they fly fast and furious.)

Two thoughts. First, in the “I can’t believe we might lose to this guy” category, seriously, think about what it would be like to wake up in the morning unsure of how many houses you own. I own one, for example. I know some people who live in one house and have some rental properties. Two, maybe three houses. Ok, that’s cool. It can be a good financial move. But they know.

Remember when people thought it mattered that a candidate didn’t know the price of a gallon of milk?

Second, it would be great if Obama’s new ad were slightly wrong about the number, so that he had to correct it publicly. “Oops, my bad– it’s really six not seven. So sorry. Let’s talk at length about how I made this mistake. About McCain’s many, many houses.”

I remember being at a talk where the speaker (I think it was Timothy Williamson) was discussing examples where the antecedent of a conditional provided evidence for the consequent, and he pointed out that in these cases there’s often a way in which the antecedent can be false that provides even more evidence for the consequent. E.g., “if a touchdown was scored, they’re playing football”– suppose the touchdown didn’t count because of a holding penalty. Ah, now there are refs and flags and this is definitely a game of football. Apparently GE Moore once gave his “here is one hand, here is another, thus there’s an external world” talk but improvised by replacing holding up his hands with pointing to a skylight while saying “that’s a skylight, thus…” only it wasn’t really a skylight but a trompe l’oeil thingie. Anyway. So too with “if McCain owns seven houses, he is one rich dude.” Oh, wait, it’s really eight? Or five? Please, let’s get into that conversation.

From the Atlantic, an article defending the use of beta blockers as performance-enhancing drugs. An article, which, I have to say, only shores up my belief that academics need to play more sports.

Beta blockers reduce the physical effects of nervousness. The reason the North Korean shooter who has been stripped of the gold took them is that a tiny tremble can mean the difference between gold and missing the target. Elliott argues that the beta blocker simply levels the playing field*; why should people who feel more nervous lose simply because they tremble?

What Elliott doesn’t understand is that not trembling is arguably the entire physical challenge in target shooting. The mental game is important in many sports, but it’s the entirety of shooting. The pistol is not terribly heavy. One does not need the strength to throw the bullet at the target. Shooters learn to squeeze the trigger slowly, to calm their racing pulse, and remain perfectly still. The beta blocker might as well be a wooden rest given the benefit it provides.

Arguing that they’re not performance enhancing is rather like arguing that since I swim much slower than Michael Phelps, I should get to use flippers. Or an outboard motor. Or that steroids are okay, because why should a weightlifter with a good work ethic lose out just because he can’t build muscle?**

The beta blockers only look innocuous because Elliot doesn’t understand the game.

Update: And this is just weird, on rereading.

In a sport like basketball, where a player’s performance in public under pressure is critical to the game, taking a drug that improves public performance under pressure would feel like cheating. So the question for pistol shooting is this: should we reward the shooter who can hit the target most accurately, or the one who can hit it most accurately under pressure in public?

Now that makes no sense at all. It would be cheating to take a beta blocker in basketball to reduce the effect of pressure, but not in a sport that is 90% mental.

*Not clear, from the article. It seems like people who don’t feel nervous, but are nevertheless steadied, gain a performance advantage, too. His argument seemed to depend on distinguishing eliminating nervousness (bad) from eliminating the effects of nervousness (permissible.)

**If we want to allow doping, that’s a separate issue. It’s just that there’s no principled way to distinguish between banning steroids and permitting beta blockers. And we’re certainly not going to claim that steroids have no enhancing effect, because even a philosopher can understand the performance effects of being stronger.

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the final contest in one of the least remembered wars in American history

In one sense, the Northwest Indian War — fought between the U.S. and the assorted tribes of the Western (Wabash) Confederacy — actually represented the conclusion the American Revolution. As the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant famously described it, the end of that war resulted in the sale of Native people to the US Congress. Although the British never enjoyed practical control over the Ohio River valley — nor, for that matter, did the French before them — England did not hesitate to offer it to the US as part of the Treaty of Paris. The subsequent war for the Ohio River valley was prompted by the widespread recognition among Indian people that political independence for the colonies would prove catastrophic to their long-term interests. During the war, the United States had employed scorched earth tactics to break the power of an already divided Iroquois Confederacy; after 1783, the Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo among other groups correctly understood that British concessions left them vulnerable to further white encroachment.

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Occasionally we publish innocent slice-of-life pictures that somehow elicit monstrous green-eyed retorts about the immoral ease of California life. To you readers persuaded that California suffers insufficient hardship, I offer this portrait, titled “The Curse of California,” published in the San Francisco Wasp bearing this date in 1882. (You can see it at full size by clicking on the little image.)

Gaze upon the fearsome Octopus, also known as the Central Pacific Railroad, which clutches in its dreadful arms the stage lines, the lumber dealers, the fruit growers, the farmers, the miners, the winemakers, the post and telegraph, the shipping industry, even the financial resources of the United States Treasury itself, shoveling them all with the power of monopoly into its maw. The rotten apples of its eyes are its grim pilots, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker1, who built and occupied the luxurious mansions on Nob Hill (at the upper left) using as foundations the dead settlers murdered for squatting on railroad land at Mussel Slough (at the lower left).

The Wasp distinguished itself by illustrations like this one, by Frederick Keller, who had worked for the magazine since the brothers Korbel started it. Yes, those brothers Korbel,2 who also owned a cigar-box business, which put them in the position of appreciating lithographers. And the pictures they printed generally disapproved of the Central Pacific Railroad, which had its fingers in and on and soiling everything in the state, if not indeed the nation. This anti-railroad feeling only intensified after the Korbels sold the magazine to a new owner, who hired Ambrose Bierce to edit it in 1881.

To Bierce, the engineering feats of Crocker were “merely a natural instinct inherited from his public spirited ancestor, the man who dug the postholes on Mount Calvary.” Stanford was $tealand £andford. The railroad itself “conducted the business … of promoting dyspepsia and disseminating death, hell, and the grave.”3

After leaving the Wasp in 1886, Bierce landed eventually with William Randolph Hearst, whose fortune ensured his immunity to mere monetary corruption, and who let Bierce continue his crusade against the Octopus. Bierce won a great battle in 1896, when the Central Pacific sought to get a bill through Congress effectively excusing it from paying its debts to the United States. With proto-muckraking4 Bierce helped ensure the bill’s defeat.

Yet the Octopus5 lived on. Four years after “The Curse of California” depicted it as a monstrous living entity, a Supreme Court Justice declared the Central Pacific6 was a rights-bearing living entity, and with that tool and Huntington’s ever-ready bag of bribes, it defended itself, surviving into Frank Norris-ification, into the years of E. H. Harriman’s ownership and through litigation and regulation, its tentacles become the lineaments and ligaments of the state, inseparable from and indeed constituting the reality underneath the California dream.

And so indeed does Ambrose Bierce, or a descendant of his yet live, interested now not in the railroad, but the American historical profession. But that’s worth a whole ’nother post, isn’t it?

1I think. And I don’t know why Collis Huntington should get off the hook here, but anyway. Mark Hopkins probably gets off the hook because seemed relatively mild. And was dead by then.
2A-and, we’re back to California as insufferable paradise. Look, just, if you want to hate, I can’t stop you. Haterz.
3Quoted in Daniel Lindley, Ambrose Bierce Takes on the Railroad: The Journalist as Muckraker and Cynic (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 81 and 85.
4See Lindley and also Carey McWilliams on this too.
5Yes, I know it seems to have ten tentacles. I didn’t draw the picture or title Norris’s novel.
6Yes, I know the case is Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific. But (a) the Central and Southern were largely a single thing, separate mainly in name and (b) the Court bundled this case with a case involving the Central Pacific.

Well, the Kobe beef cows probably wind up being struck with a cattle-stunning hammer of some kind, but life up to that point seems occasionally preferable to my own.

And while some suggest I offer Henry something more delectable than a cranberry lambic, I’m proud to say I won’t be butchering him and peddling his steaks for $25 an ounce.


Does Obama want to win? I mean really win? As in, a landslide? Then he needs to ignore the people pressuring him to make his pick now and instead pitch a Veepstakes reality show to the nets. It would feature challenges, feats of derring-do: “Sen. Biden, can you point to Kamchatka on this Risk map.” “General Clark, are you man enough to extinguish this lit cigarette in the palm of your hand?” “Governor Sebelius, using only your wits and a Leatherman, you must survive a hunting trip with Dick Cheney. And you’re the quarry!” You get the picture.

Then, in the final episode, just a week before the election, the American people could vote by phone and pick a winner. That way, if the choice comes down to Evan Bayh or a dolphin trapped in a tuna net, we get Vice President Flipper.

[Author’s Note: I stole this post from myself (source material here). I mention this because I’ve never understood the ethics of when one should footnote oneself.]

On this day in 1963, James Meredith received his bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Mississippi, becoming the first African-American graduate in the school’s century-plus history. The ceremony, which the New York Times described as “relaxed and informal,” took place approximately 100 yards from the site of riots that had greeted Meredith when he had arrived at Ole Miss the previous fall.

Meredith, a veteran of the United States Air Force, had decided, while attending Jackson State in 1960-61, to try to integrate Ole Miss. On January 29, 1961, after speaking with Medgar Evers, NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi, Meredith wrote to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the organization’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. In that letter, Meredith noted, “My long-cherished ambition has been to break the monopoly on rights and privileges held by the whites of the state of Mississippi.” He also explained that he lacked the financial resources to fight what he assumed would be “difficulty with the various agencies here in the state which are against my gaining entrance in the school.” In closing, Meredith assured Marshall, “I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way to a degree from the University of Mississippi.”

He could not have known how bad things would get. After he applied to Ole Miss for admission, state officials used a variety of methods to keep him out. The University first sat on his paperwork, neither admitting nor rejecting him. Meredith then contacted the Justice Department about the delaying tactics. In an impassioned appeal, he explained why he was writing: “I feel that the power and influence of the federal government should be used where necessary to insure compliance with the laws as interpreted by the proper authorities.” Noting the Kennedy administration’s lukewarm engagement with the civil rights movement to that point, Meredith prodded, “I feel the federal government can do more in his area if they choose and they should choose.”

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I know Bill Donahue does not speak for all Catholics. But I kinda wish the rest of us could come up with a way to sit on him until he stops embarrassing the faith. There’s seventy million of us in this country, give or take a lapse. We could go in shifts. Make it an event at the parish picnic.

The latest conniption Donahue is throwing concerns the invitation of Bitch Ph.D. and Towleroad, as press-bloggers, to the Democratic convention. His complaint about the latter seems to be that the site is aimed at gays and criticized the trim of the robe of the Pope. Fashion criticism of the Holy See was cited in Anselm’s Proslogion as one of the seven mortal sins.

Even better (by which I mean even more asinine) are the reasons for protesting B’s inclusion: she finds circus balloon Jesuses to be offensive, which I’m reading as “tacky as all get out.” What’s beautiful about this? That it’s identical to the complaint Donahue & company made themselves about the Chocolate Jesus sculpture.

I could riff for a while on the metaphysical importance of permitting the Crucifixion to be depicted in squeaky latex but not luscious chocolate. I could go on about how watered down the concept of “defamation” must be if someone saying ‘I’m a really crappy Catholic…” counts as an offense.

But I think I’m going to just stand in silence and in awe, brought low before the majesty and the hilarity. On second thought, just one little question for Donahue: how bad was your religious education that you thought you were supposed to emulate the whiny letter-of-the-law types in the Gospels?

Noble beast. Who, you know, eats dirt and stuff. But still.

On the Cross-Marin Trail in Samuel P. Taylor State Park.

Somehow, Matt Yglesias writes about this article on the Watchmen movie and manages not to freak out at this bit:

Over many months, and many meetings, Snyder persuaded Warner Bros. to abandon the Greengrass/Hayter script and hew as faithfully as possible to the comic. The key battles: retaining the ’80s milieu, keeping Richard Nixon (Moore did consider using an era-appropriate Ronald Reagan, but worried it would alienate American readers), and preserving the villain-doesn’t-pay-for-his-crimes climax.

!!!! Changing the ENTIRE POINT was on the table? The hell?? Were they also considering making Rorschach kind-hearted and mentally balanced? (You know, for kids?)

I’d say something snarky about how maybe it would be like doing Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, but Hollywood’s gone and done that.**

*Stupid Matt Stupid “who watches the $foo” title joke already taken.

**Stupid Hollywood taking my backup title joke.

Pass it on. Or don’t. Whatever. It’s only the future of the republic on the line.


[Editor’s Note: Ben Alpers has returned for another foray into film history. Ben’s excellent book can be found here. Ben himself, looking very serious, can be found here. Unless he’s still abroad. Regardless, we are, as ever, grateful for his efforts.]

Sixty-nine years ago today, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Capitol Theater in New York. Like many major movie premieres of the day, this was a gala event. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney provided live entertainment. Crowds had begun forming outside the theater at 5:30 in the morning. By the time the box office had opened at 8:00, police estimated that ten-thousand people were waiting to get into the 5,486-seat theater. “Two-hours later,” the New York Times reported, “the street queues, five and six abreast, extended from the box-office at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, west on Fifty-first Street, down Eighth Avenue to Fiftieth Street and east on Fiftieth Street back to Broadway.” About an hour later, the theater sent ticket sellers out into the crowd to help speed sales. Due to the enormous crowds, the Capitol presented five shows each weekday and six on Saturday and Sunday. Garland and Rooney continued to perform for over a week.

Today The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved films from one of Hollywood’s greatest years.(1) Gone with the Wind (which would win the Best Picture Oscar), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, and Young Mr. Lincoln were among the many other significant movies that appeared in 1939. Those of us who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s remember The Wizard of Oz as an annual television staple. Watching on my family’s small, black-and-white TV, I was totally unaware of the film’s central visual conceit: Kansas appears in sepia-tones, Oz in glorious (and innovative) Technicolor. Nevertheless, the movie captivated me….though as a young child I was scared to death of the flying monkeys!

But how was The Wizard of Oz received at the time of its initial release? Readers of this blog are doubtless aware of Henry Littlefield’s famous 1964 reading of the film’s source material, L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), as a “parable of Populism,” an idea that was later elaborated by a variety of other scholars….until Michael Patrick Hearn pointed out that Baum had actually been a staunch McKinley supporter in 1896.(2) Did critics and audiences in 1939 see any hidden meanings in MGM’s film?

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Sifu Tweety has a new blog. And this post includes links to some cool tools that allow one to calculate the incredibly high cost of driving even short distances. It looks like people can save bushel baskets filled with money while they help save the planet. Who knew? Also, if you’re gonna drive, you should probably keep your tires properly inflated. Either that, or make fun of conservationists.

Commenter Jason B, whose blog name and tagline cracks me up, ponders a Crooked Timber comment that draws a distinction between religious belief and regular belief and asks: huh?

(The Crooked Timber discussion doesn’t require the distinction, just the belief that Christians have no idea in Hell (ha) when the Antichrist will show up, so even if one believes in the Rapture literally, one might as well take out the 30-year-mortgage. But what’s the point of the Internet if not tangents?)

The distinction the commenter is trying to draw is not a new one, and is usually presented not as the difference between religious belief and regular belief, but as a difference between believing that something is true, and believing in a person. It comes up in philosophy of religion in the context of justifying one’s faith, and in evaluating evidence for the existence of God, and again in considering the problem of evil. The first kind of belief is sensitive to facts and evidence and testimony in the usual way.* It’s the belief of science, where testing and proving and gathering facts is virtuous, and believing something without adequate proof is vicious.

The second kind of belief is a little trickier. Believing in is fundamentally about a relationship of trust between persons. C. S. Lewis argued that in such relationships, not demanding scientific evidence is a sign of virtue. The scientist who sets out little loyalty tests for his wife to prove her fidelity as he would prove a chemical compound is (I paraphrase) a dick.

And so, Lewis argues, the religious person who would want evidence of God’s love or promises or what have you, would be acting inappropriately, like her relationship with God was just affirming a set of propositions.**

I think that answer is a bunch of baloney. And I think it might be enough to scrap the distinction entirely. (I could go either way on this.)

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By a six-to-one margin. Roy thinks maybe it’s because Republicans do not tend to back legislation supporting the troops. Ackerman thinks it’s because the troops are young and Obama appeals to the young.

If Obama wins among Christians and the military, what demographic is supporting McCain?

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