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This post has two virtues. First, I demonstrate my britpop cred in light of Eric’s surprisingly strong challenges, and, in doing so, remind you of a song that rhymes “Balzac” with “prozac”; second, I point toward this blog and this NY Times article about the small-house trend, which I find nifty. Small houses are great, not primarily because of their environmental impact, but because they encourage minimalism and tidiness.

All of us remember what happened on this day in 2001.  Or at least, most of us do.  My 12-year-old daughter, who has no memory of what we’ve come to call 9/11, has been asked by her junior high school to wear red, white, and blue today. Though her school is teaching her to “remember” this day in a prescribed, patriotic way, in fact one third of Americans remember 9/11 in a very different way.  They blame their own government for what happened that day.

Immediately after 9/11, some veteran conspiracy theorists began spinning familiar stories about the terror attacks. The Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke argued that agents of Israel had either carried out the attacks or “at the very least they had prior knowledge”; the John Birch Society blamed communists, the “global power elite,” and the forces of the New World Order.

These early theories came from the fringe, and stayed on the fringe, for most of 2001 and 2002. But then something caused broad segments of the American public to consider them.  And that something, in short, was the revelation of Bush administration lies about the war in Iraq.

First, there was former ambassador Joseph Wilson, explaining in the New York Times what he didn’t find in Africa.  The Bush administration, he charged, had “twisted” the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Then there was former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who, in his book, sworn testimony, and media appearances, portrayed an administration that willfully ignored its own intelligence experts. “On the issues that they cared about,” he wrote, “they already knew the answers, it was received wisdom.”

In the two years following Clarke’s testimony, other insiders came forward to charge that Bush administration officials, and especially the vice president, had “cherry-picked” intelligence to support their predetermined course for war. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s top officer for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, went public with his argument that the administration had “misused” intelligence “to justify a decision already made.” More forcefully, Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said that his former boss had been used by a “cabal” led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Then there were the Downing Street Memos, which revealed that the head of the British secret service told Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002 that Bush was set on war and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

In other words, administration officials intimidated and manipulated the intelligence community into supporting its deceptive case for war. This was a real conspiracy: a conspiracy to perpetrate a fraud on the American public by lying about the intelligence for war.

So, the 9/11 skeptics wondered, what else did they lie about? Could the Bush administration have planned the attacks itself? The Internet helped the alternative 9/11 theories to mutate and spread rapidly. My students began emailing me links to sites that “proved” a U.S. government conspiracy by citing real historical episodes: the Maine, the Lusitania, and, most often, Operation Northwoods, a crackpot scheme by the U.S. joint chiefs of staff at the height of the Cold War to fake attacks on Americans in order to provoke a war with Cuba.  Soon, even The View, a network TV talk show aimed at women, became an unlikely venue for propagating alternative 9/11 theories.  The premise of these theories was always the same: if we can prove that the government lied or conspired in one case, who’s to say they’re not responsible for other crimes and deceptions? “I have one thing to say,” said Rosie O’Donnell, after suggesting a possible government conspiracy involving British sailors in Iranian waters. “Gulf of Tonkin. Google it!”

The first national poll on alternative 9/11 conspiracy theories, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service in the summer of 2006, found that 36 percent of Americans believed that Bush administration officials either helped the terrorists or consciously took no action to stop them. Sixteen percent embraced the most extreme theory: that explosives, not airliners, brought down the towers. Moreover, a majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine believe these theories.  For them, recent U.S. history is full of historical precedents for their beliefs – precedents they can learn about instantly, with the click of a mouse, and then alert their friends.  Operation Northwoods, dude.  Google it.

[hushed voice] Um, we’ve got an important announcement. [steals a quick glance around the room] Kathy Olmsted will be posting under her own name for the first time in just a few moments. [checks windows and doors] So I hope you’ll warmly welcome the newest member of the blog. [wipes brow] We reserve the right to expand our numbers again should the need arise. [looks over shoulder] And if Eric doesn’t begin pulling his weight, we may have to contract. [/hushed voice]

. . . or does something seem different around here?

I once had a conversation with colleagues in which we discussed philosophers of the early modern period and whether their life stories made us hate ourselves, or made us feel better. The general rule was this: if the philosopher had published his* great work at an age younger than our own, cry. Hume, whose first great work came in his twenties, makes us despair; Locke holds out false hope that we will yet revolutionize the field in our fifties. Leibniz, who wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and then invented the calculus while doodling on a napkin because his flight from Paris to Hanover was delayed**, makes us want to quit.

On this day in 1839, a philosopher was born whose brilliance and prolificacy makes everyone cry. Even Leibniz. Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism, wrote in mathematics and logic and metaphysics and chemistry and biology and economics and social science and evolution, and wrote nearly 12,000 typewritten pages and another 80,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts.***

Most of Peirce’s lasting contributions are in logic and mathematics, and Peirce certainly thought it to be important:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men.

He goes on to ridicule the scholastics for thinking that all a boy needs to master logic is a syllogism.

But what I find especially fascinating is the relationship between his metaphysics, his philosophy of religion, and his philosophy of science.**** It’s bizarrely beautiful.

Peirce was concerned about the rise of social Darwinism; he thought that the assumption that evolution worked by strife, struggle, or survival of the fittest was leading both scientists and public policy down the wrong path. Instead, he proposed that the guiding principle of evolution was agape, unconditional love that he identified with God; sacrifice for one’s neighbor can affect survival. (This takes care of some of the religion-science debate. It also makes evolution telic.)

Peirce believed the universe itself evolves. Spontaneity is part of the fabric of the world. Peirce was a fallibilist about scientific knowledge, believing that not just that our scientific knowledge could turn out to be wrong through our own error or limitations, but because the laws of the universe themselves could change.

The aim of the scientist, therefore, was not to discover universal laws, but to describe the data and analyze it statistically, taking it as true as long as it yielded useful results. It’s a sensible view. Even modern, maybe. But he arrived at it through a crazy cosmology.

I don’t know why I find that so fascinating. Peirce certainly isn’t the only philosopher or scientist who had a wacky metaphysic and managed to make astounding breakthroughs; it’s perhaps more common than not. But it never fails to produce a sense of wonder.

*It’s the early modern period. It’s mostly a sausagefest.

**Okay, so the airport part is made up. One of the technical difficulties with Leibniz scholarship is that the majority of his written work is in letters dashed off in a hurry. Even the best scholars haven’t read all of it. It’s like trying to figure out Eric or Ari’s positions by looking at blog comments.

***It makes my brain hurt just thinking about how many dissertations 12,000 pages would be.

****It’s not just Peirce, of course. Check out Newton’s theology sometime, and then see how it affects his physics.

When you’re all watching Jay Smooth on your own, I’ll stop posting this stuff. But here, from a roundup of old posts he has, is some genius media criticism on the difference between Fox News’s failings and CNN’s.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

As I said before, it’s worth the wait till Joe Jackson comes in.

Because, even if we all have a little Elvis in us, I think Shatner has more than most.

Matt Damon: “Or if she tried to ban books. We can’t have that.”

We are still not now, nor have we ever been,
Ambrose H. Bierce, III. None of us is.

No matter what some of you may think.

This message will repeat as necessary.

Video. From here obviouslam.

“Some of you may have — I’m assuming you guys have heard this, watching the news,” Obama said. “I’m talking about John McCain’s economic policies, I say, ‘This is more of the same, you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.’ And suddenly they say, ‘Oh, you must be talking about the governor of Alaska.’

“See it would be funny, it would be funny except — of course the news media all decided that that was the lead story yesterday. They’d much rather have the story — this is the McCain campaign — would much rather have the story about phony and foolish diversions than about the future.

“This happens every election cycle. Every four years. This is what we do. We’ve got an energy crisis. We have an education system that is not working for too many of our children and making us less competitive. We have an economy that is creating hardship for families all across America. We’ve got two wars going on — veterans coming home not being cared for — and this is what they want to talk about. This is what they want to spend two of the last 55 days talking about.”

“You know who ends up losing at the end of the day? It’s not the Democratic candidate. It’s not the republican candidate. It’s you, the American people, because then we go another year or another four years or another eight years without addressing the issues that matter to you. Enough.”

“I don’t care what they say about me, but I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and swift-boat politics. Enough is enough.”

Preach it, brother. I’m having an incredibly optimistic moment believing that enough people will hear this and say: yes, that is how it should be. At some level we all know that so much of this is bullshit, and we want it to stop. Now is the time.

In a few minutes I’ll stop being Ari and go back to sobbing quietly in the dark.

I have a lot to say about the McArdle post Neddy just posted on, because the culture wars make me want to pull out my hair. But I’ll limit myself to a couple of quick hits and thoughts:

  • What’s the matter with Connecticut? This is interesting, because it breaks the red-state, blue-state narrative down by income within the states and finds that rich people in red states tend to vote Republican. Rich people in blue states? Not so much.
  • I wish I could go to this. Provocative list of bullet points, that I’d summarize as the culture wars aren’t between rich and poor, but between rich people with different tastes, and income still matters.
  • There’s no such thing as Eastern Iowa State, McArdle.
  • Also, NASCAR isn’t really a redneck sport these days. Either that or ‘redneck’ just means ‘doesn’t live in NY or DC.’

It’s not that there isn’t sneering; I’ve been sneered at, by both bluish and reddish snobs. But it’s barely a glimpse of a section of the whole picture. One of the weird things about the culture wars is that the idea that everyone who goes to an Ivy or works in New York or gets a PhD is an elitist arugula eating snob contrasts with the idea that a local kid who gets into an Ivy is something to celebrate, something that shows the parents did right in rearing their child. The narrative is a lot more complicated than ‘out on the coasts, everyone goes to private schools and then the Ivies, where we are taught to sneer’ and ‘in the heartland, we all go to public schools and State then go into working class jobs and love Jesus and hate the coasts.’

It’s very lazy and inaccurate, the red states are like this and blue states are like that story. Time to let it go.

Megan McArdle gets paid to write stuff like this:

Let’s be honest, coastal folks: when you meet someone with a thick southern accent who likes NASCAR and attends a bible church, do you think, “hey, maybe this is a cool person”? And when you encounter someone who went to Eastern Iowa State, do you accord them the same respect you give your friends from Williams? It’s okay–there’s no one here but us chickens. You don’t.

The obvious point: she’s responding to Krugman saying

What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception — generally based on no evidence whatsoever — that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.

So this is just a conflation of Democrats or liberals– a political affiliation– with coastal elites, people who went to private colleges, and so on– a class/SES kind of thing. Ironically, this sort of conflation is just what Krugman is complaining about. And when I think about Democrats– the party of labor unions and social security– I sure do think “contempt for just-folks.”

On a personal level it’s hard to overstate just how obnoxious this sort of thing is. I’m as in the tank for the Democratic Party as anyone.* I have a BA, MA, and PhD from state institutions. My co-author sends me as many MMA clips as thoughts on our draft. But because of my job and my taste in coffee products I think I count as “cultural elite.” What’s this “you” shit, white man woman from a private school?

Via Roy, who says what needs to be said.

*Once I bought the argument that even nice Republicans caucus with the national party, and the national party is lead by some real nutjobs, there was no going back.

Oops, forgot the Pulp videos. Video. Live at Glastonbury. TotP. For a while I really wanted to be Jarvis Cocker.

Let it be noted that we of the West are evenhanded in our treatment of the candidates. Pictures and some commentary from a McCain rally below the fold.
Read the rest of this entry »

From the day’s papers:

Berkeley protesters come down from the trees peacefully, after nearly two years.

Overnight stay for two at Hearst Castle, up for auction on eBay.

Photo by Flickr user brainchildvn used under a Creative Commons license.

During the first half of the US/North American survey I teach every fall semester, I dread the 30 minutes or so I’m forced to devote to the 16th century French colonial project along the St. Lawrence.  I dread this not because the French were, and remain, the greatest sissies on the planet as well as the enduring inspiration for generations of American wine-track sophisticates; no, that part of the story brings great shudders of joy to my feeble heart.  Indeed, I revel in cheap jokes about the dandified follies of western Gaul.*

What distresses me is that I have yet to discover a way to bring rhetorical finesse to the subject of French traders and their gargantuan appetite for beaver.  Seriously.  It’s fucking embarrassing.  I explain how the French would not have had much use for North America were it not for the beaver, which they pursued with a single-minded devotion; we read affectionate and breathy accounts of the great commerce in beaver that enriched so many; we look at French illustrations and woodcuts of beaver and discuss how Europeans — having driven the animal to ruin on their own continent — renewed their commitment to beaver in the Western Hemisphere; we consider the self-defeating complicity of the Huron and other tribes, who pandered to the undeterred French enthusiasm for castor canadensis.  After about three minutes, half of the students in the room are digging their fingernalis into their wrists to avoid laughing.  Today, a young man and woman were literally mashing their hands into their faces, eyes misty with crude and juvenile delight.  At those moments, I understand why this school had no choice.

And don’t think that I could just euphemize my way out of this dilemma.  I try referring to them as “those animals,” or “the fur-bearing nocturnal dam builders,” or “the creatures whom the French sought for their pelts.”  But the dodge always sounds conspicuous, and for some reason it seems to make the snickering worse.  When we shift focus to the English and their incompetent Chesapeake fumblings, I’m swept up by an awesome wave of relief.

I should note that I have similar troubles each spring when it’s time to chat about the Four Minute Men.

Oh, stop it.

*  Not really.

Life-altering erudition in honor of Britney Spears of his day can be found here.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a changed man.

(I should start a series.)

Talk of “taking out” terrorists, juxtaposed with a stout defense of habeas corpus, confuses me; it’s like an episode of 24 mashed up with a Con Law class. And yes, I know, I’m guilty of pre-9/11 thinking. Regardless, starting around 3:55, Senator Obama’s on fire*. And from 4:30 on, he brings tears to my eyes**.

* Not literally. Don’t worry.

** Literally. You can worry if you want to.


Over at Yglesias we read,

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: I would certainly favor doing away with the Department of Energy and I think that given the origins of the Department of Education, I would favor doing away with it as well.

I was under the impression that the “origins of the Department of Education” lay with Republican Congressman of Minnesota Ignatius Donnelly*, who introduced this resolution to the House of Representatives on December 14, 1865:

Whereas republican institutions can find permanent safety only upon the basis of the universal intelligence of the people; and whereas the great disasters which have afflicted the nation and desolated one half its territory are traceable, in a great degree, to the absence of common schools and general education among the people of the lately rebellious States: Therefore,

Resolved, that the joint committee on reconstruction be instructed to inquire into the expediency of establishing in the capital a national Bureau of Education, whose duty it shall be to enforce eduction, without regard to race or color, upon the population of all such States as shall fall below a standard to be established by Congress; and to inquire whether such a bureau should not be made an essential and permanent part of any system of reconstruction.

A while back Ari asked where was the Amity Shlaes of Reconstruction. Maybe it’s John McCain.

*Who was, yes, crazy, but not about this.

On this day in 1909, two of the least evidently funny men in American history claimed to appreciate, deeply, the jokers. President William Howard Taft told the American Press Humorists’ Association, in his most jocular vein,

Tell them for me that they can be engaged in no better vocation than making people laugh. Humor is like the buffer between two heavy railroad cars. It relieves the jolts of life. It is a shock absorber. It makes the journey through the years easier, and brightens the pathway all along the route. We Americans could not get along without humor.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but when someone tells you earnestly how important humor is, it’s because they’re not very humorous.

Taft was, perhaps, too often the butt of unfair jokes. Despite his legendary bulk, he was an energetic man; when governor of the Philippines he cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root, “Just rode a mule a hundred miles over the mountains. Feeling fine.” Which of course prompted Elihu Root to ask earnestly by cable, “Glad to hear you are well; but how is the mule?”

The other man who sent his good wishes was John D. Rockefeller, who showed a glimmering of wit by avoiding Taft’s homiletics and sticking to business:

Please present my kindest regards and best wishes to the American Press Humorists’ Association, assembled in Buffalo for their annual meeting. I regret that I cannot be present.

But then, the Times added, “Mr. Rockefeller is a member of the association.”

As a biography of Nelson Rockefeller says, “There is no accurate record to show the quality of Mr. [John D.] Rockefeller s humor,” though Nelson and the other grandsons gave a general description of the old man’s jests:

Often his stories were deadpan accounts of some sad cir
cumstance into which an acquaintance had fallen, and occasionally he would lift the napkin to wipe an imaginary tear from his eye. But the stories always ended up with an unexpected twist that made it all a huge joke and sent the children into screams of laughter.

Which sounds about right.

“Taft Praises Funny Men,” NYT 9/10/09, p. 7.

Bitch PhD finds that when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, victims of sexual assaults had to pay for their own forensic examinations (so-called rape kits). This apparently was a cost-cutting measure designed to save Wasillans money. And yet, B points out, around that same time, Palin oversaw the construction of a massive taxpayer-funded boondoggle white elephant sports complex for her hometown. I’d like to make a joke here. I really would. But words fail me. What is there to say about a politician who believes that government should be big enough to provide people with hockey rinks but small enough that citizens in their darkest hour must spring for the cost of investigating the crimes committed against them?

This is officially an award-winning blog

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