Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Our only enemy was gold

The Castle
by Edwin Muir

All through that summer at ease we lay,
And daily from the turret wall
We watched the mowers in the hay
And the enemy half a mile away.
They seemed no threat to us at all.

For what, we thought, had we to fear
With our arms and provender, load on load,
Our towering battlements, tier on tier,
And friendly allies drawing near
On every leafy summer road.

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us in, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true...
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

Oh then our maze of tunnelled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Trust me, Mort

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Salem Harbor, 1853 by Fitz Hugh Lane

Salem Harbor, 1853 by Fitz Hugh Lane

Click to enlarge.

De Gustibus

From The Spectator, 24 March, 1990
De Gustibus
by David Cram

Who can explain why fish and chips
Taste better in the street,
Whale morning toast and marmelade
Taste better in bare feet.

Language standardization, literacy and innovation

From Language standardization and the Industrial Revolution by Leonard Dudley.

An interesting idea. From the abstract.
Why did the countries with the highest literacy rates fail to contribute to the innovations of the Industrial Revolution? Recent empirical research shows that people tend to mistrust those perceived to speak with an accent. Here the hypothesis of a link between language, trust and innovation is tested with a new data set comprising 201 urban regions and 117 important innovations between 1700 and 1850. In the three states that contributed almost all of these innovations (Britain, France and the USA), rising literacy was merely the first step toward the formation of large networks of people speaking standardized languages. These networks proved particularly important for advances requiring collaboration. Elsewhere, where language standardization was delayed, innovation also came later.
The standardization of German and Italian from many dialects into national languages is, I think, a reasonably well known story.

I suspect that the heterogeneity of the English language circa 1500-1600 (the time of Shakespeare) is less well known. It comes out in places like The Seeds of Albion by David Hackett Fischer and of course Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue - English and How It Got That Way in descriptions of very local usages, idioms, vocabulary and even grammar. Very local and highly varied.

I have read arguments that Shakespeare's commanding mastery and innovation in English usage was in part a reflection of London (where he was resident) being a petrie-dish of language consolidation as people moved to the big city of opportunity in the 1550s onwards, bringing rich and highly variant language dialects with them from all over England.

Standardizing a language likely has a dramatic impact on national productivity, initially through improved efficiency and likely later in terms of effectiveness (including innovation.) Dudley's hypothesis is logically attractive. It is an interesting question he is examining.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Post 6131, 2012 by Linden Frederick

Post 6131, 2012 by Linden Frederick

Click to enlarge.

Adonis Blue

From The Spectator 12 June, 1993

Adonis Blue
by Beatrice Garland

Today in a field of lucerne
ninety nine butterflies flew
around in shimmying circles,
daft and dizzy and blue;

hieroglyphs for recalling
the sky on the day it was planned,
these original jottings in Quink
dashed off by a master-hand;

or bits of a torn-up letter
airmailed into the blue,
to be caught and stuck together
with brushes and pots of glue;

an extravagant issue of stamps
released on a cloudless day,
curled by the sun on a desk top,
then brilliantly blowing away.

Like falling in love without asking,
the moment was suddenly there –
lambent with possibility,
gratuitous, open, like air.

Urban offices

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Richard Feynman, uncertainty and freedom

There is a necessary link between freedom and intellectual discovery via doubt and uncertainty.

Much public policy discussion founders on the inability to think in terms of degree, probability, and uncertainty rather in terms of declarative certainties. It is not just a matter of not understanding an opposing hypothesis or proposition, it is the incapacity to formulate that an alternative hypothesis is even possible.

Feynman has some well put observations on the links between intellectual freedom and intellectual doubt.

From The Value of Science by Richard Feynman
The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.

Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.
From The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman.
Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
From The Meaning of It All by Richard Feynman.
Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.


It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.


No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.
From The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman.
We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.
From The Relation of Science and Religion by Richard Feynman. Emphasis added.
For the student, when he learns about science, there are two sources of difficulty in trying to weld science and religion together. The first source of difficulty is this – that it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty: "It is very much more likely that so and so is true than that it is not true;" or "such and such is almost certain but there is still a little bit of doubt;" or – at the other extreme – "well, we really don't know." Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life we don't necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can – and that is what we should do.


I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions. This attitude of mind – this attitude of uncertainty – is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire. It becomes a habit of thought. Once acquired, one cannot retreat from it any more.
These ideas are especially relevant when we are discussing individual attributes and group averages. So often, we get confused and conflate the two as if the group is the individual and the individual is the group. We fail to acknowledge that the group average is never reflected completely in any one individual of the group and likewise, no individual perfectly mirrors the group average.

Exacerbating the situation, we then confidently and dogmatically proclaim our conclusion(s) derived from the erroneous conflation of group averages and individual attributes.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Moonlight by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Moonlight by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Click to enlarge.

Old Man Fishing

From The Spectator, 10 August, 1993

Old Man Fishing
by Kao CHi (1336-74)
translated by Graeme Wilson

In his short reed-cape that old man in his boat
Looks like some hedgehog floating on a duck
As, under river-skies and far from home,
He fishes, fishes, fishes without luck.

For the fish, deep-burrowed into winter mud,
Lie safe from sinking seine or trawling net.

When home at last to his wretched fishing-village
What kind of welcome can hope to get
But the barking of dogs and Hunger written large
On the moon's white plate by a pine-tree's silhouette?

Love in nature

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bath of Psyche, 1890 by Lord Frederick Leighton

Bath of Psyche, 1890 by Lord Frederick Leighton

Click to enlarge.

Dickens at Bonchurch, 1849

From The Spectator, 22 May, 1993

Dickens at Bonchurch, 1849
by Alan Ross

'The prettiest place I ever saw my life, at home or abroad –
Charles Dickens in a letter to his wife, Kate.

The sea curved like a cutlass,
Through pines a presentiment
Of blue. 'Invisible till 2'
He instructed, and stuck to it
Regardless, back to the view.

Later, visibility restored,
He held court: Carlyle and Tennyson,
Thackeray. 'Much good merriment,'
Rounders on the beach, swimming,
Diversions for the easily bored.

Not just writing. Daily he frolicked
Among bamboos and willow,
Showered under a contraption rigged
To his own design. The lace
Of the sea fretted around his feet.
And always Copperfield proceeding apace.

Problems with the paleo diet

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Picture Window, 2012 by Linden Frederick

Picture Window, 2012 by Linden Frederick

Click to enlarge.


From The Spectator, 10 August 1990

by Hsin Chi-chi (1140-1207)
translated by Graeme Wilson

Last night, among the pines, I was weaving-drunk.
'How badly drunk?', I asked some passing tree.
When it lurched with a kindly offer of its trunk
To steady my steps, I shoved it away for me.

Above the fray

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

c. 1930 Worker Smoking Cigarette and Carrying Bag While Pausing in the Middle of Steel Beam by Arthur Gerlach

Click to enlarge.

North Cape, on an Anniversary

From The Spectator, 22 May, 1993

North Cape, on an Anniversary
by Alan Ross

The ship reflected in their eyes,
Pink-rimmed and bloodshot as they row
To safety, it is not smoke that dries
On their cheeks but tears: a score
Of survivors unable to look back.
Screws rotate in air and, nose first,
Helpless against the Arctic thirst,
She plunges, churned waters suddenly slack.

Communication challenges

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

The phrase you're groping for is 'Thank you.'

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

There was a collusion of colluders.

I am trying to capture a couple of complicated thoughts without getting drawn too far into the feeding frenzy of the Weinstein revelations.

The first perplexity that Weinstein brings to mind is: Why is it that the Democratic Party and allies have been so prone to sexual predators? Granted that there was Bob Packwood back in the day and obviously recently Roger Ailes in conservative media. But they seem somewhat peripheral and there were few enablers and no defenders.

I do want to stipulate that all people are fallible. In that sense, this is a non-partisan issue. We all fall short of our own expectations of ourselves and from the expectations others might have of us. Not only do we fall short but we usually try to either deceive ourselves that we have not or we try and justify why we fell short. I am not focusing on aberrant peccadillos and the normal degree of human failure. A sexual predator is a different beast than an isolated tryst.

What started me on this trail is the obvious parallel between Weinstein and Bill Clinton. Indeed, Ann Althouse speculates that perhaps the Democratic coalition's actions that were necessary to protect Bill Clinton was what enabled Weinstein.

I think we can probably agree that with a couple of dozen women's accusations of affairs, assaults and rapes, that Bill Clinton warrants a moniker more than philanderer. I'll go with predator. Were there any other Presidents of such voracious and unconstrained physical appetites? Holding ourselves to the post-war era there are at least: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. All Democrats. Hmm. And there was the near, but never there, serial candidate Ted Kennedy, lion of the party but with his own trail of victimized women.

I leave aside Trump for two reasons. A lifelong Democrat, donor to Democrats, and socializer among Democrats, it is a little hard to make the case that he is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, as evidenced by the legions of Republican Never-Trumpers who view him as an interloper. Secondly, the documentation of his predatory habits seems skimpy which is odd given the virulent hatred of him by the press. If there were more concrete accusations, you would think they would have emerged by now. The most complete list I have come across is this piece from PBS. While it is lengthy, the bulk of the accusations are inappropriate touching and most of them are decades old. Most of the predator accusation seems to rest on a trash talking tape rather than direct accusations of victimization. Perhaps he is a predator but I would have thought there would be more substance than I have so far seen. Because of lack of specificity of charges and because of his mixed political heritage, Trump seems an aberrant.

Why would it be that Democrats are more accommodating of sexual predators? There were models of domesticity among Democratic presidents such as Truman and Carter so it is not like the whole party was infected. And goodness knows Republican presidents had their own failings. Just not, as far as I recall, that of being a sexual predator.

The irony is that equality of sexes has been a cornerstone of Democrats for decades and Kennedy and Johnson were architects of civil rights legislation that cemented rights of women in law. In addition, in recent decades, under the influence of postmodernism and third-wave feminism, the party has become increasingly puritanical (see college campuses as examples where government regulators have been attempting jesuitical arguments about where expressed spoken or physical interest crosses the line into physical assault.)

Is the frequency of sexual predators among Democratic candidates simply a function of contingent history as Althouse suggests? Once you become accustomed to defending one sexual predator it becomes morally easier to defend the next?

Or is it simply a brutal trade-off on the part of feminists? They are willing to betray their principles for Democratic sexual predators because they fear the principles of Republican even more?

Is it that the magic trinity of media, academia, and Democrats are so integral to one another that their joint success or failure requires them to all turn a blind eye for their coalition interests at the expense of their shared principles?

I have no settled idea why this has happened. And maybe it is simply a random fluke because the data set of post-war presidents is so small (thirteen). It just seems a profound irony that there is such a disconnect between the party's declared values and principles (equality, women's rights, freedom from harassment, believe the women, etc.) and the revealed preference they have for sexual predators.

The second oddity arising from the Weinstein revelations is even more complex.

There certainly seems an appropriate public revulsion because of the predatory sex (exploitation through power). And there is a related appropriate revulsion because of the cultural hypocrisy of media (saying one thing while tolerating another: accusing American as a group of being misogynistic and oppressive of women and yet accepting that as a norm among themselves).

What seems to be missing is that we are looking at this asymmetrically. Every crime has a perpetrator and a victim, sometimes an individual victim and sometimes a collective victim. In the public discussion so far, we appear to be focusing on those actresses physically coerced into sex with Weinstein and to a lesser extent, those whose careers were hobbled by their refusal of his advances. We are not considering the colluders. Those who went along with the bargain proposed by Weinstien.

Based on the evidence so far, it appears clear, reduced to its essence, that Weinstein offered a credible bargain to actresses. In return for sexual favors, he would enhance actresses careers but if rejected, he would destroy those careers.

So how many actresses accepted that bargain? Clearly there must be some. He seems to have offered this bargain indiscriminately. We are seeing those who were physically subdued and those who rejected the bargain. Who were the ones who accepted? This is a profession where there is one star for every thousand(s) of aspirants. That raises the stakes for the aspirants to cheat the system, to succeed by cutting corners.

For a societal system to function, it has to do so through consent. One of cultural cornerstones is rule of law. We seek a level-playing field for everyone to succeed or fail as their talents and abilities warrant. We reject collusion, monopolies, backroom-dealing, feather-nesting, bribery, rent-seeking, plagiarizing, etc.. All of these moral taboos/crimes are renounced because they represent a stealing of opportunity from the whole of the community on behalf of a subgroup.

If a group of companies band together (a subgroup) to set prices, they not only steal from the whole community through falsely elevated prices, but they also steal from the community by preventing other competitors entering the market to lower the costs.

These things happen even though we have laws against them. Often times these crimes are hard to prove and not nearly as many offenders are convicted and punished as we might wish. Criminal law is bolstered by cultural norms. In general, even if not convicted, a businessman, a politician, a scholar will be societally punished when they breach the cultural norms which call for level playing fields.

They are thieves who steal from all of us and to our collective detriment.

Collusions of this sort ultimately are sustained by the silence of participants. A purchasing officer in a large corporation insists on kick-backs from suppliers if they are to win a bid. Pay-to-play. The purchasing officer is clearly both a law breaker and a moral reprobate. But what of the vendor?

They are in a difficult situation. The system is rigged against them. If they hold true to their cultural compact and walk away, they will be good citizens but suffer financially and no one will know they were morally upright. If they become a whistle blower, all the institutional players, no matter what they say about ethics and good community citizenship, will come down on them like a ton of bricks and the vendor's business will be destroyed and no one will make them whole. Heck, even the federal government is unable to protects its own whistle-blowing employees from departmental retribution and punishment.

By the far the easiest thing for the vendor to do is to go along with the offered bargain of kick-backs for contracts. They are a victim but they are also a perpetrator. Honest vendors are the victims of their perfidy. They have become part of the problem.

And that is the position of these actresses whose careers were established by providing sex for success. They are victims of Harvey Weinstein and perpetrators against all the other actress aspirants.

Yes, in some ways they should be considered victims as well but they are also perpetrators. They entered into a bargain with Weinstein to deprive other actresses of a level playing field. Together they deprived others from succeeding based on talent and instead, some portion of those at the top of the acting profession are there solely because they cheated their way to success. They cheated on our societal norms. They circumvented achieving success through competition and talent and achieved it through private bargains which deprived others of their rights and opportunities.

I have not seen anyone discussing this aspect of the case. There is much fussing about how this could have happened so pervasively and for so long. There is much posturing about Weinstein's willingness to exploit those weaker than he. There is some discussion of the degree to which this was an open secret within the industry and Hollywood's collective turning of a blind eye.

What I don't see is discussion that Hollywood collectively, and the colluding actresses in particular, committed a crime against aspiring actresses and against our nation at large. Anyone who rigs the system and rejects the ideal of a level playing field is attacking the core of our culture. The tactical damage to our culture is not easily measured but it is real.

We look at the rest of the world and we can see that the most impoverished nations are those with the weakest institutions and the least trust. The more that leading heights of the nation are practitioners of the collusion and backroom dealing for personal profit at the expense of everyone else, the poorer and more dysfunctional is the nation.

We know academia is rigging the system for some students and not others (affirmative action and kangaroo courts). We know the media is selective in what they choose to report, suppressing some stories for partisan or ideological reasons and promoting others. We know that politicians are always prey to a smorgasbord of temptations. And now we know that Hollywood is rigged as well. The stars we see are the ones who chose to collude with the morally bankrupt to deprive other actresses of opportunity and to deprive the nation of the best acting talent. A pox on them all as betrayers of trust.

Hollywood was self-servingly silent about Weinstein. The media was self-servingly silent about Weinstein. Politicians were self-servingly silent about Weinstein. Academia was self-servingly silent about Weinstein. There was a collusion of colluders.

No wonder we have a revolts of the normals. Eventually the bulwarks have to be reinforced against the tide of lies.

Stray thoughts

It seems like Democrats have become the party of resentment and the Republicans the party of fear. Neither are a good match for the culture of America, strong, hopeful, and aspirational. Hence, the revolt of the normals.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Unknown title by Julian A. Dimock

Unknown title by Julian A. Dimock

Click to enlarge.

Listening to the Rain

From The Spectator, 10 August, 1991

Listening to the Rain
by Chang Chieh (fl. c. 1275)
translated by Graeme Wilson

When I was young I listened to the rain
On the Towers of Song:
Red candles glowed through thin gauze curtains,
Bedroom curtains, all night long.

In my prime of life, I listened to the rain
On the roof of a boat:
From the westering wind a wild-goose echoed
The exile's anguish dumb in my throat.

Now that I'm old, I listen to the rain
On the temple-tiles:
Hair flecked with white, I sit and wonder
Why meetings, partings, tears and smiles
Prove in the end to have had no meaning.

It is nearly day.
I sit and listen as the rain's pit-patter
On the steps below me dies away.

Bird business

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Daphnephoria by Lord Frederick Leighton

Daphnephoria by Lord Frederick Leighton

Click to enlarge.

The Measure

From The Spectator, 4 December, 1993
The Measure
by Francis Harvey

There's hardly a better way of doing
nothing than sitting on a Lough Eske wall
speckled with green and orange lichens and
overshadowed by foxgloves four feet tall.

Even better is to teach your children
this art of doing nothing at all
by may making them sit at the lake beside
you on top of a lichened drystone wall.

And after all that they'll probably leave
you sitting alone on your Lough Eske wall
with nothing except foxgloves to show you
what they were like when they were four feet tall.

Pyramids of appreciation

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Acknowledging limits can seem to be a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo

From American Heroes, Universal Evil by Andrew Klavan. He is quoting Mollie Hemingway.
We're pretending we're having a debate about gun control, but we're really having a debate about the nature of evil and whether a big enough government can contain it.
A great insight. Forget gun control, it is a marginal topic as it would not make any difference in virtually any of the mass murders that have occurred in recent years. See Glenn Kessler's fact check of a similar statement from Marco Rubio.

If we are not focusing on policy which would reduce or eliminate mass murders, then why are we discussing the policy. It is as if there are two tragedies that go in tandem - the first being the mass murder and then the wasted political capital discussing legislation which would not make a difference. Maybe there are policies which would make a difference. If so, why are those never the ones being discussed.

I think part of the reason goes to Hemingway's observation. This is not a discussion about effective legislation in the first place. This is a debate about 1) the relative size of government in an individual's life, and 2) the circumstances constraining public policy effectiveness and the acknowledgement that there are some problems which are either inherently unfixable, that some systems are too complex for workable solutions or that the trade-offs are too unacceptable.

It is a complex debate because acceptance that there are some problems that are unknowable and/or unsolvable creates an upper limit on the appropriate size of government. It is an especially difficult debate because acknowledging limits can also seem to be a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Police, 2016 by Linden Frederick

Police, 2016 by Linden Frederick

Click to enlarge.


From The Spectator, 10 August, 1991
by Su Tung-po (1036-1101)
translated by Graeme Wilson

Tonight, at Eastern Slope, I wined too well;
Half-sobered up; and then got drunk once more.
Home around midnight, bang, bang, bang at the gate
Brought no response but the house-boy's thunderous snore.
Persist? For what? I lean on my stick and listen
The sound of the river fretting its moonlit shore.

Not to to command oneself, to be shuffled around
At the whim of the world, it irks, it niggles me.
The night wears on. Wind drops. The surly river
Soothes from its snarl a rippled filigree.
I would give this arm for a boat, for a chance to wherry
My shored-in self to the widths of an open sea.

Poetry of war

Unknown source.

Click to enlarge.

Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate

From Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morison.
At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past.

Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. Every effort to recover the holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem, touchstone of Christian prestige, had been a failure. The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.


With the practical dissolution of the Empire and the Church’s loss of moral leadership, Christians had nothing to which they might cling. The great principle of unity represented by emperor and pope was a dream of the past that had not come true. Belief in the institutions of their ancestors was wavering. It seemed as if the devil had adopted as his own the principle “divide and rule.” Throughout Western Europe the general feeling was one of profound disillusion, cynical pessimism and black despair.


Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”

Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.
It feels like we have reached the end of a cycle. Our philosophies are exhausted, our political class are eunuchs scraping at the surface of history, our academies fight pedantic nonsensical battles.

We are about due a resurgence in hope and glory and revitalizing our institutions, breathing new life into our shared humanity, recommitting to the discovery of new ideas and realms and habits. Time to stretch our cultural limbs again and get up from the couch of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Postmodernism - A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality

In the original 1979 sci-fi movie, Alien, there is dialogue which brought to mind the phenomenon of postmodernism in Western Culture. Yeah, the mind works in curious ways.

The crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo have encountered an alien life-form which is exquisitely evolved to survive by killing all it encounters. In terms of evolutionary niches, akin in that respect to sharks.

Unbeknownst to the crew, the ship's science officer, an android, Ash has been tasked by the Company with special orders.
Ripley: What was your special order?

Ash: You read it. I thought it was clear.

Ripley: What was it?

Ash: Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.

Parker: The damn company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?

Ash: I repeat, all other priorities are rescinded.
And here is the passage that made me think of the phenomenon of postmodernism, the prion of the world of philosophy. So stripped down that they are hard to identify and yet insidiously successful in their niche.
Prion aggregates are extremely stable and accumulate in infected tissue, causing tissue damage and cell death. This structural stability means that prions are resistant to denaturation by chemical and physical agents, making disposal and containment of these particles difficult.
Postmodernism makes dramatic philosophical claims that appeal to the evolved empathy of humans but which claims cannot be supported by objective evidence. Like the misfolded protein of prions, postmodernism has a neat attribute which ensures its continuation in the face of failure. The prion has the misfolded protein and postmodernism has its motte and bailey form of argument combined with rabid ad hominemism.

Post modernism thrives because of those three attributes - it's empty appeal to the empathy of people, combined with its rabid ad hominem attacks on anyone who argues with them, combined with the motte and bailey form of argument in which extravagant (and incorrect) claims are made, retracted when disputed, and then remade as soon as the disputer is either incapacitated or moves on. It makes people feel good, it is unconstrained in destroying its opponents and it relies on convincing people through repetition rather than through evidence.

Much like the alien. Emphasis added.
Ripley: How do we kill it, Ash? There's gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?

Ash: You can't.

Parker: That's bullshit.

Ash: You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Lambert: You admire it.

Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Blühende Sonnenblumen vor Blauem Sommerhimmel by Minni Herzing

Blühende Sonnenblumen vor Blauem Sommerhimmel by Minni Herzing

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Numbers must mean its true

Forget sports, this is the favored approach for most policy debate.

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It’s really, really weird

Jonah Goldberg observes:
The Times has been running a series on Communism called “The Red Century.” It’s really, really weird. At times, it feels like the greatest high-brow trolling effort in recorded history. Some of the headlines read like they were plucked from the reject pile at The Onion. I particularly enjoyed “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” One wonders what all the women who had to service their prison guards for a crust of bread would think about that. With the exception of one essay by Harvey Klehr, the upshot seems to be an effort to rehabilitate Communism for a certain kind of New York Times liberal who desperately needs to cling to the belief that he was on the right side of an argument he lost.
This series has mystified me. Other titles: Lenin's Eco-Warriors; The Cold War and America's Delusion of Victory; and The ‘Bright Tomorrow’: Growing Up in the Brezhnev Era. There is some interesting reporting here and there among the pieces but not anything particularly new. It just comes across as nostalgia for a good idea that went wrong.

There is a backstory which makes this Red Century series even more puzzling. The New York Times is infamous for its Moscow Bureau Chief, Walter Duranty, and his misleading reporting from the Soviet Union 1922-36. Duranty was noted for his praise and admiration of Stalin, for his cover-up of the mass-starvation in the Ukraine, his excuses for the show-trials, his rationalizing of labor camps, etc.

Subsequent research and the opening of the Soviet archives after perestroika makes it apparent that his reporting was not a function of ignorance. He knew what was going on but did not ever steer too far from official Soviet propaganda. Since that time, historians have argued and disagreed on what might have been the reasons for his gross misreporting. Suggestions have included that he was a communist sympathizer, that he was being blackmailed by the Soviets over sexual peccadillos, that he was gullible, that he was lazy, and so on. There is, as far as I am aware, no consensus.

Anyone only relying on Duranty and the New York Times in the 1920s and 1930s would have the impression of a worker's paradise, making occasional mistakes but struggling under enormous odds against a global capitalist system. An awareness of mass murder, mass starvation, brutal repression, and systemic failure depended on having other sources of news.

This failure on the part of Duranty and the New York Times has been known for many decades. You would think that an institution with such a well-known failure of such startling magnitude and duration would be careful to not fall into a trap of appearing to be apologists for communism. But apparently not.

I have no real way to interpret the New York Times and what they are doing with The Red Century series. There is no scenario that makes sense. It is simply profoundly perplexing. But, then again, these are The Crazy Years. Things don't have to be rational to be true.

UPDATE: A first hand view of Soviet communism, distinct from the New York Times view: The Real Housewives of the U.S.S.R. by EdgeoftheSandbox.

Mr Bleaney

Mr Bleaney
Philip Larkin

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits — what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways —
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

Orange County

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Unknown title by Julian A. Dimock

Unknown title by Julian A. Dimock

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No ruined stones

Stanza from On A Raised Beach (To James H. Whyte) by Hugh MacDiarmid
We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace or pigsty
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.

From The New Yorker.

Click to enlarge.

A blur of grass, a rush of wind and Earth is gone! We are rising.

From High Flyers: 30 Reminiscences to Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the RAF, edited by Michael Fopp. This excerpt is by Cecil Lewis, author also of the classic, Sagittarius Rising.

Celebration is a jubilant word and the right one to mark the foundation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, older brother of the Royal Flying Corps (all but forgotten now except to the few who still remain) which had itself been hived off from the Army six years before.

But how to celebrate the beginning of such things, the feel of those earliest days when just to 'take off was a marvel and a mystery, and we who did it wore the paper crown of heroes?

Today it is a sort of secret, unique to all who flew the undiscovered air and now it whispers to us like the echo in a singing glass, evoking the memory of . . . a ritual, almost forgotten . ..

Back before dawn in the gloom of old Bessonneau hangars, mythical creatures are stabled. Stabled under roofs of dark brown canvas, flapping heavy in the dawn, roofs sloping crazily from iron poles held by ropes and tent-pegs tugging at the sullen grass. Stabled there like ghostly spirits haunting the damp without life or seeming- ly the remotest hope of motion, crouch awkward creatures, knocked up by children imitating insects, bits of linen, twisted wires, bicycle wheels, all sweating out the rancid breath of castor oil.

Along the hedge a row of these drab tentings stable each a pair of man-made miracles, the latest wonder of the age, an aeroplane. Around them young lads, like stable boys, are readying them for action, wheeling them out into the sunrise air. Lift- ing their tails high on their shoulders and slowly, carefully, pushing them out, so slim, so weightless — can this home-made toy of spruce and linen lift two young gods three miles high up into the infinite blue? — pushing them out so easily, tenderly, white wings swaying over the uneven grass, shiny cowlings catching the morning sun, to set them down in a line ready for the day's work.

Now the lads stand idle, worshiping their gawky dragons. Until late the night before they have been cosseting them by lantern light, trueing up fuselages, laboriously tightening turnbuckles, anxiously setting and re-setting tappets, polishing copper intake pipes, attending to their thousand and one imperious demands and needs. It is their pride and duty that these young strutters should be perfect in every detail, ready for the heroes who will whirl them away into the dawn.

Remember now! Recall those fearful days. Horizon haze hiding the battlefield. At hand French farmland, rolling, rich and easy, hedges of scented hawthorn, poplars lining the roads, river smells, a huge pale sky — but, under it, the dull thud thudding of ten thousand guns.

Romantic? Now, but not then. Then the dizzy catchbreath of expectancy, the won- der and the challenge of the days. What is coming? What awaits us? What is it fills the air? It is something escaping words, the dancing thrill of being alive, there, at that moment, the tumbril in the blood, life on a knife-edge, lived on the lip of nothing.

We are no gods, we young men of those days. Only the past gilds us in the eye of those who follow, gilds the stark simplicity of lonely death, gilds us with hero-gallantry and magic skill.

In life we are a scruffy casual lot. Fur- lined boots reach up almost to our thighs. Worn, tatty leather jackets flap about us as we walk. Fur-lined helmets, goggles and gauntlet gloves complete the shabby silhou- ette. So, strolling thoughtless, everyday, taking all adulation as routine, we shuffle over to our mounts, swing a leg over the cockpit and drop into our seats, turn on the petrol, set the altimeter and we are ready for take-off.

But not quite. First another ritual. Ten- sion rises now. A hundred horse-power jerked into life by a pair of strong young arms. The pilot stretches for the switch, outside, screwed to the body, in reach of his left hand and clearly visible. Mind. Down for OFF, up for ON, Careful. Make no mistake. A backfire can decapitate a man.

`Switch off. Petrol on. Suck in.'

Slowly the big heavy blades are pulled round backwards, priming the cylinders. Satisfied, the boy settles one blade high above his head and reaches up for it.

`Contact!' he calls.

Flipping the switch up, 'Contact!' the pilot echoes.

With all his strength the boy heaves on the blade, pulling it down. With luck — for it does not always happen — the engine catches with a roar and cloud of blue smoke. The pilot throttles back, runs it for a little to warm it up, then opens up testing his mags, and throttles down again.

Now this home-made toy, this gawky Pegasus, begins to pant hot breath and trembles, trembles all over with suppressed desire, trembles to be free, eager to be off, shakes with frustration, pawing against the chocks that hold the wheels, demanding to show his strength, his power, his speed. It is a moment full of wonder, never to be for- gotten, the end of all earthbound waiting and the way to heaven!

The pilot waves his arm from side to side. Chocks are pulled from wheels, an impatient run across the grass to face the wind, the engine opens up - And then!

A blur of grass, a rush of wind and Earth is gone! We are rising. Rising above the map-flat plate of Earth, up, up, up, into the everlasting emptiness of God! And, sitting there, holding my breath, hardly daring to believe, it is I who am here, master of power and speed and movement, I alone, lord of my purring Pegasus! The lightest touch, left, right, up, down. He swings, soars, sweeps, servant to my command, and free! Free of all bounds, all limitations, vouchsafed the miracle of liberty, sent forth a newborn god, a child, to bounce about the blue, turn somersaults in sapphire ...

We did not often have much time or opportunity to indulge these heady arabesques. The daily two-hour stints above the front line Somme (at 500 feet) had the knack of marvellously concentrat- ing the attention. It was a game to guess how many shots could puncture a machine without affecting it. Twenty to fifty was the usual count (the rigger carefully patching each with a neat square of irish linen, past- ed on). Shots came up through the floor, knocked the joystick out of the hand, but never (hardly ever) the one that cut the vital wires.

So, oblivious of the risks, we drifted there above it all, free of the horror, noting impartially the daily, dreary, deadly, drawn- out dance of death — and somehow uninvolved. Indeed I write it now with pain, remorse: it touched us not at all. We were . anaesthetised. Better so. Could we have faced it, witness to mass murder, done our jobs? No. We turned away, lit a cigarette, shrugged it all off. 'The old Hun's fairly going through it.' Don't look. Don't see what you are seeing. Carry on.

Such was our daily flying in those 1916 days until the odd machine-gun bullet or a passing shell brought down some luckless lad — another three-week hero, unknown, unsung, who died for King and Country.

Gadarene Swine Fallacy

Always something new to learn. I have never heard of the Gadarene Swine Fallacy. From The Philosophical Society:
The GSF is the fallacy of supposing that because a group is in the right formation, it is necessarily on the right course; and conversely, of supposing that because an individual has strayed from the group and isn't in formation, that he is off course. The individual may seem lost to the group but not off course to an ideal observer.

Background: Gadara was the ancient city of Palestine southeast of the Sea of Galilee and subsequently destroyed. The name was later adopted by a district east of Jordan and called Gadarenes, or Gergesenes. It was the site of the famous miracle of the swine, in which Jesus conjured demonic spirits into the body of swine and let them perish in the sea. The story is recounted in the Synoptic Gospels.

The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Contextual trade-off sensitivity drives the failure of issue polling.

A very interesting piece from Nate Cohn, Affirmative Action Is an Example of How Polls Can Mislead. I quit paying much attention to issue polling perhaps a couple of decades ago because such a high percentage of polls were push polls, designed in such a way as to elicit a predetermined answer. Even where there was some independence and neutrality, polls were incredibly sensitive to language, framing, and context.

From Cohn:
Based on its limited success at the ballot box and my own read of which poll questions make the most sense, my best guess is that affirmative action is fairly unpopular. But I’m troubled by a wider problem: It’s not clear that even a well-worded question would give us much insight into the politics of the issue.

Over the last decade or so, polls have shown that the public backs the liberal or Democratic position on just about every major issue. By these measures, comprehensive immigration reform, environmental protection, gun background checks and many other issues ought to have been political winners for the Democrats. And yet Republicans now hold full control of government in Washington. There’s a loosely held but widespread assumption that many of these same issues have been a part of the Republican resurgence.

It’s not just the issue questions that failed analysts. The poll questions on character also failed to tell the story of the 2016 presidential election.

In pre-election surveys, Donald J. Trump polled worse than Hillary Clinton on just about every question. Voters viewed him more unfavorably, thought he was unqualified for the presidency and, yes, even thought he was more dishonest than Mrs. Clinton. The most straightforward interpretation of the polling — that her clear lead was fairly solid, since it was underpinned by an advantage on whether she was fit to be president — simply did not pan out.

This isn’t a small problem. Journalists have traditionally relied on issue and character questions to frame the story of American elections. It’s how most public pollsters rationalize the cost of horse-race polling. Political consultants often take a similar approach to try to shape their messages, which winds up influencing the promises and programs of elected officials. But the seemingly clear story told by the polls has led us somewhat astray, and it’s probably part of why elected officials, journalists and pollsters were caught off guard in 2016.

So what’s going on?
There aren't any easy and obvious answers.

Over the years, I think we have begun to pay less attention to the specifics of proposed policies and more to the perceived underlying character of the individual proposing the policies. We know that circumstances are always changing and therefore whatever might be promised in a campaign can not be anticipated to be delivered, sometimes at all, sometimes in the original proposed fashion, eighteen or thirty-six months later. We have, I think, gotten a little more sophisticated than we used to be in that regard.

So if we can't take the specifics at face value because we know the details will necessarily have to change, how do we adjudge the proposer of the policy? It has to be based on their perceived character. Is the proposer sincere in their intent? This is related to Salena Zito's observation in the recent election about Trump that "When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."

I think this reflects an underlying dynamic, the public were willing to believe in his good intentions, never mind the details. Trump's opponent believed that by being more specific she would be seen to be more credible. Her loss was due to many things in tandem but the deeply rooted perception of her as a self-promoting opportunist with no integrity probably was a difference maker at the margin. I don't think the public trusted either candidate, they just trusted her less because she had a longer track record of reasons to distrust her.

Cohn discusses multiple possible causes for the polling errors and I don't particularly disagree with his analysis. I do, however, think there is something else going on which he doesn't address directly. The issue is how people, individually and collectively, deal with the complexity of goal definition, goal prioritization and goal trade-offs.

I first encountered this issue decades ago working with corporate executive teams as they sought to effect major corporate change; mergers, demergers, acquisitions, turn-arounds, new product deployments, changes in strategic direction, major system implementations, etc.

What I noticed early in my career was that there are three major points of contention that had to be resolved early in order for projects to succeed. Goal definition, goal prioritization and goal trade-offs.

Goal definition sounds easy but is surprisingly challenging. How many goals do you have? How many goals should you have? How do you define them? How will you measure them? It can take a long time to get a team to agree to a singular, workable list of goals.

Even when you get everyone on the same page with the same goals, you still are not out of the woods. Say there are five primary goals and five subsidiary goals. Once everyone is agreed on the list of ten, you have to get them in synch with one another on the ordinal ranking.

If one person ranks Goal A as number one priority and a second person ranks it as number ten in priority, you still have a team out of agreement with one another. Major projects are so inherently risky that you can afford no dissension among the sponsoring executive team. You still have to get them aligned behind an ordinal ranking of the goals.

But there is still an issue. You have to get agreement not just on the ordinal ranking but also on the relative trade-offs between the goals. You are guaranteed to get to a stage in the project where if you give a little on Goal F, you can gain a multiple of Goal C. Is such a trade-off worthwhile? You have to figure out in advance, and get agreement among the executives, on the relative trade-off value among the different goals. It is technically challenging to do this and it is sociologically even more challenging to get a team of stakeholders into alignment.

To be successful, you have to have team endorsement of the defined goals, their ordinal ranking, and their relative trade-offs.

Having done this many times, one thing that is observable is that no matter how long the list of goals, there is a sharp decline in trade-off value among the first two or three goals and the rest. Yes, all the others are very desirable, but their relative trade-off value is small compared to the importance of the first couple or three goals.

And I think this is one of the key challenges with issue polling. There is no way to establish and work through the defined list of issues (goals) or their ordinal ranking or their relative importance.

My sense is that broadly, the top three issues of public concern, year in and year out, are prosperity (aspects of the economy), security (crime and international relations) and health/risk/uncertainty/confidence.

Take a look at Gallup's current list of most important problems identified by Americans. Over time, manifestations of prosperity, security and health/risk remain at the top with heavy ratings and then there is an ever changing constellation of issues which might be perceived as having merit but which show up so far down in the ordinal rankings as to be irrelevant. And some of them are volatile. Over a multi-decade time frame, race relations tends to be steadily down there around 5-10% but in any particular month it can jump to 15-20%.

Look at a couple of those that are far down the list - Education is a most important problem for 2-4% as is Lack of respect for one another. I'll guarantee though, that the trade-off importance for education is far greater than for mutual respect. If there is a proposal to choose between spending $100 billion on education and $100 billion on mutual respect, 99% will make the trade-off of spending the full amount solely on education.

The point of all this is that you lose nuance and context when you do issue polling. Is climate change important? Sure. Is criminal sentencing reform important? Sure. Is welfare reform important? Sure. While all of them are legitimate issues of significant moral importance and sometimes economic importance, they pale against the big three and they all have very weak trade-off values. I have $50 million in the city budget - will I trade-off possible future reduced criminal offense commission by investing in sentencing reform which might reduce recidivism or will I plunk it down on hiring more police.

I think the electorate is relatively sophisticated and, within parameters, understands instinctually some of the trade-offs. In that particular scenario, I suspect that there is a general inclination towards sentencing reform which is swamped by tactical security concerns and the money goes towards hiring more officers. Sentencing reform is well regarded but has a weak trade-off ratio.

Finally, issues are almost always solely described in terms of their upside potential and rarely in terms of their associated probabilities of success, cost, and risks of unintended consequences. I may regard criminal sentencing reform as morally compelling and communicate that to a polling firm so that it appears relatively high in priority. At the same time, the history of such efforts has been rife with consequential failures. I may think it is important and morally compelling but have little confidence that it will be done well, or maybe even can be done well.

The polling firm sees my regard for its importance and will therefore conclude that the candidate that has a well crafted policy on criminal sentencing reform would appeal to me. In reality, because of my skepticism, even though I regard it as important, it might be far at the margin as an issue in terms of influencing my selection of a candidate.

The upshot is that, out of context and not considering trade-offs, costs, risks, etc. any issue that is polled is likely to be erratic and disablingly sensitive to context and wording. Essentially, the polls are meaningless.

For a politician, you can have commanding support among the electorate on well supported issues that are low on the ordinal ranking and which have low trade-off propositions. You can be firmly for gay marriage, trans bathrooms, Dreamer legislation, common sense gun control, environmental protection, etc. But when those are put up against the economy, security, and health/risk, not only are they low in prioritization but they have weak trade-offs. No one is going to invest in trans bathrooms if given the choice of more police (as an example).

This then becomes a particularized political example of Simpson's Paradox. Your polling can show you as dominant among a large number of low ordinal issues, but if you are not also strong on the big three (prosperity, security, and health/risk) then you are going to lose because even though large in number, the lower ranking ordinal issues have fatally weak trade-off propositions.

Reading in Bed by Sally Storch

Reading in Bed by Sally Storch

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In the hierarchy of cognitive ability, the amoeba apparently outranks the college administrator.

Even simple life-forms like amoebae have the capacity to respond to negative external shocks. It would seem that institutions of higher learning ought to exhibit the same capacity to recognize and respond to negative feedback. But no.

From Mizzou warns against 'exclusionary' colors, ‘triggering’ events by Anthony Gockowski. This is the university whose craven response to ignorant student postmodernist demands led to the resignation of the president, the chancellor, the drop in enrollments of some 25-30% and the closure of seven dorms. Having demonstrated fear of anarchists, capitulation to foolish and unwarranted postmodernist demands, having sheltered professors who abhor free speech, the university, unlike an amoeba, seems a glutton for punishment.
The University of Missouri recently released a set of guidelines on how to host inclusive events, asking students to consider having “a counselor present” for “potentially triggering” events.

The guidelines, broken up into six sections of “who, when, where, why, what, [and] how,” offer students an examination of sorts for “how to think inclusively when planning an event,” listing dozens of questions they should ask themselves during the planning stages.

“If my event is potentially triggering, have I consulted with someone from the counseling center or have a counselor present?” one question asks, followed by another that implores students to consider whether “a ‘safe’ or ‘brave’ space” is necessary for the event.

Another series of questions deals with appropriate advertisements for events, warning students to be “conscious of the colors and how they can be exclusionary or stereotypical” while considering if the language used on advertisements “can potentially be bias [sic].”

“Am I conscious of not tokenizing individuals, but still working to actively reflect your program/initiative?” another item reminds students to ask themselves.

Yet another set of questions focuses on the “decorations” used at events, which students should assure “aren’t culturally appropriative or misrepresenting to other cultures” by “doing my research on a culture I am attempting to appreciate.”

The guidelines also caution students against non-”welcoming” locations, noting that “bars, churches, temples, etc. may not feel exclusive, but may be perceived as such by some.”

Similarly, the school even advises students to be judicious about serving refreshments, telling them to ensure that there are vegetarian options and to consider “having Kosher food, Halal food, or periods of fasting.”

Following the extensive list of questions, the document concludes with a disclaimer cautioning that “this list is not an end all be all checklist for inclusion.”
This is the paragraph that especially grabbed my attention.
The University of Missouri recently released a set of guidelines on how to host inclusive events, asking students to consider having “a counselor present” for “potentially triggering” events.
What sane student would wish to have a counselor present at a party or other event? When did commissars become a feature of university life? I know postmodernism has many of its roots in various branches of marxism but I never anticipated that American universities would be so brazen as to have figures of authority interjected into student events in order to police speech and behavior to ensure adherence to sanctioned ideology. For those of us who lived in the shadow of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of commissars into American universities is a chilling development.

And is there not one sane person in the Mizzou administration who might not have considered that if a little postmodernist repressive claptrap was bad that perhaps more postmodernist repressive claptrap would be worse? Apparently not. The grey face of college bureaucratic administration apparently has less an instinct for survival than the lowly amoeba.


From The Spectator, 27 June, 1992
by Otomo no Yakamochi
translated by Graeme Wilson

What agony, our dream–encounters.

Can you not understand
How pitiably a man is torn,
How utterly unmanned,
To wake with hand stretched out for one
Beyond the reach of hand?

Cross-cultural relationships

From The New Yorker

Click to enlarge.

He has never thought of the other view; and therefore does not even know that he has never thought of it.

From The Thing: Why I am a Catholic by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1929. The essay is, The Slavery of the Mind.

Chesterton has an interesting perspective and the essay is worth reading but it is cluttered with digressions and illustrations. Stripping the brief argument down to its essence:
I have chosen the subject of the slavery of the mind because I believe many worthy people imagine I am myself a slave. The nature of my supposed slavery I need not name and do not propose specially to discuss. It is shared by every sane man when he looks up a train in Bradshaw. That is, it consists in thinking a certain authority reliable; which is entirely reasonable. Indeed it would be rather difficult to travel in every train to find out where it went. It would be still more difficult to go to the destination in order to discover whether it was safe to begin the journey. . . . What I mean by the slavery of the mind is that state in which men do not know of the alternative. It is something which clogs the imagination, like a drug or a mesmeric sleep, so that a person cannot possibly think of certain things at all. It is not the state in which he says, "I see what you mean; but I cannot think that because I sincerely think this" (which is simply rational): it is one in which he has never thought of the other view; and therefore does not even know that he has never thought of it. . . . The thing I mean is a man's inability to state his opponent's view; and often his inability even to state his own.

Curiously enough, I find this sort of thing rather specially widespread in our age, which claims to possess a popular culture or enlightenment. There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things. For instance, as history is taught, nearly everybody assumes that in all important past conflicts, it was the right side that won. Everybody assumes it; and nobody knows that he assumes it. The man has simply never seriously entertained the other notion. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact than that, when the issue was undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides; and the Jacobite theory is not in any way disproved by the fact that Cumberland could outflank the clans at Drummossie. I am not discussing whether it was right as a theory; I am only noting that it is never allowed to occur to anybody as a thought. The things that might have been are not even present to the imagination. But in this age of free-thinkers, men's minds are not really free to think such a thought.

What I complain of is that those who accept the verdict of fate in this way accept it without knowing why. By a quaint paradox, those who thus assume that history always took the right turning are generally the very people who do not believe there was any special providence to guide it. The very rationalists who jeer at the trial by combat, in the old feudal ordeal, do in fact accept a trial by combat as deciding all human history.


I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage. It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters; who must not be moved from their stiff symbolic attitudes. Even their bad qualities are sacred. . . . To a simple rationalist like myself, these prejudices are hard to understand.
This deficit is widespread: "The thing I mean is a man's inability to state his opponent's view; and often his inability even to state his own."

The courage required to utter any other stale quotation from the cant and convention of the moment

Continuing to mine The Thing: Why I am a Catholic by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1929.

The following passages seems relevant to our campus snowflakes today, crying that other people's opinions, knowledge and speech are physical threats to their safety; "literal" threats. Chesterton is speaking, in 1929, of the debasement of language and the meaning of words. We have seen this trend reach absurd heights today where children are steeped in the feel-good ethos of affirmation, self-esteem, and "everyone is a winner" and then seasoned with the postmodernist idea that words are as bad as wounds.
Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as "daring," though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

The dramatic critic of a Sunday paper, a little while ago, lashed himself into a frenzy of admiration for the "courage" of some dismal and dirty play or other, because it represented a soldier as raving like a hysterical woman against the cruelty of those who had expected him to defend his country. It may be amusing that his idea of courage should be a defence of cowardice. But it is the sort of defence of it that we have heard ten thousand times during the reaction after the War; and the courage required to utter it is exactly as great as the courage required to utter any other stale quotation from the cant and convention of the moment: such trifles as the absurdity of marriage or the sympathetic personality of Judas Iscariot. These things have become quite commonplace; but they still pretend to be courageous.

That is a typical thing which men attack, not because they can see through it, but because they cannot see it at all.

One of the blessings of the internet is that we are now able to go to source documents in seconds to verify quotes or to understand a writer's fuller point by reading it in context.

Such is the case with Chesterton's fence. For a couple or three decades I have been aware of and respect G.K. Chesterton's parable of the fence, a call to not change or destroy something without understanding why a thing exists in the first place. Where I first read of Chesterton's fence I do not recall but it has always been in the hands of another writer. Hearsay evidence if you will. Or would that be eyeread evidence? Something known, not directly, but through the mind and words of another.

It turns out that Chesterton's passage is from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, published in 1929. The Thing is a collection of 35 essays addressing criticisms or misunderstandings about the Catholic Church.

The metaphor of the fence is in the fourth essay, The Drift from Domesticity.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion. We might even say that he is seeing things in a nightmare. This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction. It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one; it was exactly the sort of person, like St. Francis, who did sympathise with the feast and the fireside, who was most entitled to become a beggar on the open road. And when, in the general emancipation of modern society, the Duchess says she does not see why she shouldn't play leapfrog, or the Dean declares that he sees no valid canonical reason why he should not stand on his head, we may say to these persons with patient benevolence: "Defer, therefore, the operation you contemplate until you have realised by ripe reflection what principle or prejudice you are violating. Then play leapfrog and stand on your head and the Lord be with you."

Among the traditions that are being thus attacked, not intelligently but most unintelligently, is the fundamental human creation called the Household or the Home. That is a typical thing which men attack, not because they can see through it, but because they cannot see it at all. They beat at it blindly, in a fashion entirely haphazard and opportunist; and many of them would pull it down with out even pausing to ask why it was ever put up. It is true that only a few of them would have avowed this object in so many words. That only proves how very blind and blundering they are. But they have fallen into a habit of mere drift and gradual detachment from family life; something that is often merely accidental and devoid of any definite theory at all. But though it is accidental it is none the less anarchical. And it is all the more anarchical for not being anarchist. It seems to be largely founded on individual irritation; an irritation which varies with the individual. We are merely told that in this or that case a particular temperament was tormented by a particular environment; but nobody even explained how the evil arose, let alone whether the evil is really escaped. We are told that in this or that family Grandmamma talked a great deal of nonsense, which God knows is true; or that it is very difficult to have intimate intellectual relations with Uncle Gregory without telling him he is a fool, which is indeed the case. But nobody seriously considers the remedy, or even the malady; or whether the existing individualistic dissolution is a remedy at all.
Chesterton's defense of tradition and the importance of knowledge as a predicate to change is very Burkean, much as he reviled Edmund Burke.

That last paragraph has a couple of powerful observations. Though he was writing half a century before the events, Chesterton captures the tragic irony of the overthrow of bourgeoise values in the 1960s and the undermining of social norms by postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s. They chose to see the Household as a constraining, repressive environment and attacked it, directly and indirectly, with hatred and outrage. And with some success. There were indeed many individuals who were freed from some particular tyrannies and blossomed with their new freedoms.

But as we have discovered, the fence of the Household did indeed exist for well-grounded reasons. While some gained by the attacks on the institution of the Household, even more came astray, drifting into violence, illness, madness and poverty. The association between social dysfunction and poverty and the decline of the Household has now been exhaustively documented across the civilized world. The Household family is never perfect but it serves purposes which the youth of the 60s and the anarchists of postmodernism did not understand.

The other observation is a very rich one and which has perplexed me in our modern times. We are surrounded by self-regarding people preaching the anarchistic evils of postmodernism, marxism, multiculturalism, etc. and yet who are not themselves, fairly, to be described as postmodernist or marxist. Regrettably, these poseurs of goodness are strategically placed in universities and the media to propagate their particularly lazy forms of postmodernist nostrums which only procure consternation and destruction. Chesterton captures these cognitively barren bien pensants well.
But they have fallen into a habit of mere drift and gradual detachment from family life; something that is often merely accidental and devoid of any definite theory at all. But though it is accidental it is none the less anarchical. And it is all the more anarchical for not being anarchist.
The flower children of the 1960s and the corrosive postmodernists of the 1980s, in two waves of ignorance and bitterness, tore down the fences of society and we are still paying the price. Indeed, the postmodernists are only now beginning to be confronted for their cultural vandalism.

And Chesterton was describing it all half a century before it occurred.