Notes on how things seem to me from out here in Hollywood... As seen from Just Above Sunset
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Photos and text, unless otherwise noted, Copyright 2003,2004,2005,2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Sunday, 8 February 2004

Political Evaluations from the "Bush Is As Good as it Gets" Side of Things

One of my friends has followed the career of the journalist-gadfly-intellectual Christopher Hitchens in some detail. Hitchens seems to have been everywhere and seen everything, and has morphed for a left side critic to an ardent supporter of George Bush and this war against the fanatical Islamic world. Here he sizes up the opposition to Bush. And it is curious:

See All Against Bush: Whom should the Democrats nominate?
Christopher Hitchens, SLATE.COM, Posted Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004, at 9:39 AM PT

First of all, the surprise. He likes the man from Cleveland!
Dennis Kucinich is the sort of guy who we need in politics. He thinks long-term, and he doesn't think that in the short or long term it pays to trade principles for compromises. That's the attitude one wants in a president, of any party. This, however, is probably not the year for a man who basically believes in the downsizing of the United States.
Well, that's matched by this mixed review of Wesley Clark.
Wesley Clark is a loss to the United States armed forces, and President Clinton and Defense Secretary Cohen ought to have been excoriated for firing him when they did, as well as for how they did it. Many Kosovars owe their lives to Clark, and the victory won in that war also helped to bring at least a semblance of democracy to Serbia. But there's something bizarre about a conceited man in uniform who now can't remember which regime-change he favored or why, which party he belongs to, or which "faith-based" community he espouses. He also has a weakness for half-cooked conspiracy stories and gets snappish when he's questioned on the last weird thing he said. Again, beware of those who run to pacify their internal demons.
Yeah, yeah.

But the real surprise is this:
A couple of years ago I wrote a profile of Sen. John Edwards for Vanity Fair and decided that he is a good man who is in politics for good reasons. He voted for the essential measures on Iraq, but has also made some trenchant criticisms of the Homeland Security farce. I'd add to this that he has since - unlike Joseph Lieberman, say - given up his very promising Senate career in order to run. I leave to you the calculations about his Southern roots, his trial-lawyer connections, and all the rest of it, except to say that he earned his money from fighting large and negligent corporations rather than from fawning on them. I'm totally bored with the idea of "small town" origins, since for generations most Americans have lived either in big cities or suburbs, and it's high time for someone to advertise himself as urbane. However, a good man can be glimpsed even through the necessary hypocrisies of election time. He has a terrific wife, as well.
But then, he's why he thinks you'd be a fool not to vote for George Bush.
I'm a single-issue person at present, and the single issue in case you are wondering is the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism. If in the smallest doubt about this, I would suggest a vote for the re-election of George Bush, precisely because he himself isn't prey to any doubt on the point. There are worse things than simple mindedness - pseudo-intellectuality, for example. Civil unions for homosexuals, or prescription-drug programs, are not even going to be in second or third place if we get this wrong. And presidents can't make much difference to the stock market or the employment rate or to income distribution. But they can and must uphold their oath to defend the country. So, having said that "issues" are only tangential to campaigns, the best estimate I can make is one about the seriousness of individuals. I was open-mouthed at the idea that anyone would even consider entrusting the defense of the United States and its Constitution to Howard Dean, but that problem appears to have taken care of itself, even if only through the sort of voter-intuition that one is ultimately forced to recommend.

Make up your own mind, is my own best recommendation, and put "electability" (once a Dean property, for heaven's sake) to one side. An Edwards-Kerry ticket would be made up of serious men, at least, and this is a test that people and politicians have to pass whether they are looking for votes or not.
The fellow who claims to be a "real intellectual" has spoken. For what it's worth.

Posted by Alan at 09:37 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 8 February 2004 09:41 PST home

Topic: Election Notes

Why We Fight - The Evolving Consensus View for Perplexed Americans

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard. That publication is often called "The Bible of the Neoconservative Movement" - what with Kristol and Kagan and the rest pretty much explaining the Cheney-Wolfowitz vision, which Bush fronts when he's not napping. The Weekly Standard is our guide to why things are as they are, and as they should be.

Today Gelernter lays out the latest version of the Bush Doctrine (version 3.5 by now) and we need to get behind this one, or at least understand it. We put these guys in office - so we are accountable for this doctrine. We own it.

In a syndicated column that I caught in the Los Angeles Times but is probably available elsewhere, Gelernter explains it all to us.

See The Happy Error: It took phantom WMD to rid the world of a great evil.
David Gelernter, The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, February 08, 2004

Here's the opening, the set-up:
Thank God for those phantom Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Politically, they are a nonissue. Morally, they are an amazing piece of luck. Strategically, they are a guide to the future. The missing WMD were not merely an honest mistake; they were a providential mistake.

Saddam Hussein was the slaughterer of his own people, benefactor of Palestinian terrorism, enemy of the United States. But political realities here and abroad meant that all we could do was draw a bead on the man and tell him, in effect: Make our day. And he was so stupid, he did.

When do the informal, uncodified rules of international politics allow a foreign nation to invade, occupy and rebuild a monstrous tyranny? How does a dictator qualify for mandatory relocation? Not merely by unspeakable savagery to his own people. Not even by posing a threat to the prospective invader. He must be seen to pose a threat.
This of course is followed by a long history of recent events, indicating how threatening things seemed. This was not a view shared by any major governments but those of the UK and Australia, and not the view of the UN, nor of the UN weapons inspectors like Hans Blix and Scott Ritter who we pretty much labeled blind, incompetent fools.

Not important - all these folks were looking at the meager facts, not a how things seemed.

Yeah, yeah. So what does all this mean in term of future policy?

Here `tis ...
What happens now? We institutionalize the phantom-WMD maneuver. It was all a mistake, but it worked beautifully.

The end of the Cold War brought big changes to the moral universe. Any nation has a duty to alleviate suffering. Any totalitarian dictatorship is a threat to world stability and therefore to the United States. Yet the Hippocratic Oath applies: If forcibly removing a tyrant generates more net suffering than leaving him, leave him.

The end of the Cold War greatly expanded our scope of action and, therefore, our moral obligations. How do we react to our new, expanded duties? Today there are lots of tyrannized nations we could liberate without provoking world war. But we can't march into them all, all at once. What procedure do we follow?

The Bush method. We publish an official list of tyrants we consider it our moral duty to overthrow
. The implied next sentence is obvious: Give us an excuse and we'll do it. Play games with the U.N.; show us your true colors. Meanwhile, we might pray for the strange, accidental wisdom to make another providential mistake.
You get the idea. We have the moral duty to overthrow selected governments. And we really don't need facts about any threat. And this is how you get things done in the world - how you make things better.

Look for this in the upcoming campaign.

Posted by Alan at 08:53 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 7 February 2004

And you thought the earnest young folks from the Jehovah's Witnesses appearing at your door were irksome...

See Pilot suggested passengers discuss Christianity during LA-to-New York flight
Saturday, February 7, 2004 - Associated Press (02-07) 18:18 PST
An American Airlines pilot flying passengers from Los Angeles to New York asked Christians on board to identify themselves and then suggested that non-Christian passengers discuss the faith with them, the airline confirmed Saturday.

The pilot, whose identity was not released, had been making flight announcements before he asked that the Christians on board raise their hands, said American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner.

Wagner said the pilot told airline officials he then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the Christians about their faith.

The pilot later told passengers he himself would be available at the end of the flight to talk about his first announcement.

Wagner said the airline was investigating the incident.

"It falls along the lines of a personal level of sharing that may not be appropriate for one of our employees to do while on the job," he said.

The pilot had just returned to work from a weeklong mission trip to Costa Rica, Wagner said.
I'm afraid if I comment on this I'll get in big trouble.

I have yet to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior and to be born again. And this "rapture" business seems silly to me. But what's wrong for those of the lesser faiths to be asked, in a confined space - talk about a captive audience! - to explain themselves to the loving Christians? Who knows which of them might be converted? "The Conversion of The Jews" at thirty-seven thousand feet somewhere over Kansas! Muslim women from Los Angeles in burkas accepting Jesus just before the plane glides into JFK! Hey, it could happen!

Well, the pilot has the right to his beliefs, and the right of free speech. More importantly, this pilot had control of the aircraft. You wouldn't want to get him upset and have him start thinking apocalyptic thoughts, or even pleasant thoughts about how wonderful heaven is for the saved. He might also recall some passages from the Old Testament about smiting the sinners and that sort of thing. I'd accept Jesus under the circumstances. As a matter of prudence.

He has his rights. And I have the right to choose never to fly American Airlines again.

As this sort of thing becomes more and more common, and lauded, it may be time to consider relocating to a land more heathen.

Posted by Alan at 20:13 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 8 February 2004 07:45 PST home

Topic: The Law

Be careful out there...

And they say Saturday is a slow news day. Here's an item that will make you be more careful about what you let other people know about your opinions.

Feds win right to war protesters' records
Ryan J. Foley, Associated Press, Last updated: 2:15 p.m., Saturday, February 7, 2004
DES MOINES, Iowa -- In what may be the first subpoena of its kind in decades, a federal judge has ordered a university to turn over records about a gathering of anti-war activists.

In addition to the subpoena of Drake University, subpoenas were served this past week on four of the activists who attended a Nov. 15 forum at the school, ordering them to appear before a grand jury Tuesday, the protesters said.

Federal prosecutors refuse to comment on the subpoenas.

In addition to records about who attended the forum, the subpoena orders the university to divulge all records relating to the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based legal activist organization that sponsored the forum.

... The forum, titled "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" came the day before 12 protesters were arrested at an anti-war rally at Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston. Organizers say the forum included nonviolence training for people planning to demonstrate.

The targets of the subpoenas believe investigators are trying to link them to an incident that occurred during the rally. A Grinnell College librarian was charged with misdemeanor assault on a peace officer; she has pleaded innocent, saying she simply went limp and resisted arrest.

"The best approach is not to speculate and see what we learn on Tuesday" when the four testify, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, which is representing one of the protesters.
Okay, could be nothing.
... According to a copy obtained by The Associated Press, the Drake subpoena asks for records of the request for a meeting room, "all documents indicating the purpose and intended participants in the meeting, and all documents or recordings which would identify persons that actually attended the meeting."

It also asks for campus security records "reflecting any observations made of the Nov. 15, 2003, meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and any records of attendees of the meeting."

... A source with knowledge of the investigation said a judge had issued a gag order forbidding school officials from discussing the subpoena.
Well, this could have nothing to do with dissent at all. Maybe there was a child-molesting Catholic priest in the crowd and they want find out where he is and arrest him. Or maybe one of the protesters was someone who illegally downloaded some tunes and the RIAA asked for federal help to cull him out from this crowd.

One could speculate. One shouldn't.

But one now really should stay away from public protests. And should avoid making public statements. Watch what you do. Watch what you say. Be careful what you write.

We did elect these guys to protect America, and they will.

Posted by Alan at 13:46 PST | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink

Friday, 6 February 2004

Someone With Too Much Time On His Hands - The Bumper-Sticker Version Of Existentialism

Okay, consider these three books, simultaneously:

- Charles M. Schulz: Conversations edited by M. Thomas Inge, University Press of Mississippi 2000.
- Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre, Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1957.
- Peanuts Treasury by Charles Schulz, MetroBooks 2000.

Well someone at the magazine Philosophy Now has already done the work for you. I'm not sure why, but someone has.

What do you get? Charlie Brown as an existentialist.

See Sartre & Peanuts
Nathan Radke, Philosophy Now, Issue 44 - January/February 2004

Nathan Radke teaches workshops and tutorials in philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. And he seems to be a man with too much time on his hands.

Of course one must agree with Radke on the breadth of influence of these cartoons - newspaper readers have been exposed to Charles Schulz's comic strip `Peanuts' for over half a century. Even now, a few years after Schulz died, many newspapers continue to carry reruns of his strips, and bookstores offer Peanuts collections. His characters are featured in countless advertisements, and every December networks dutifully show the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

And Radke asks - is there any philosophical insight that can be gleamed from such a mainstream and common source?

Maybe there is. But one might ask as well, why bother? The question of why one should bother is no doubt anti-intellectual, or at least scornful of the discipline of formal philosophy.

But Radke has some interesting points.

First he draws us in with the unbearable sadness of Charlie Brown:
Our anti-hero sits, despondent. He is alone, both physically and emotionally. He is alienated from his peers. He is fearfully awaiting a punishment for his actions. In desperation, he looks to God for comfort and hope. Instead, his angst overwhelms him, and manifests itself as physical pain. There is no comfort to be found.
Oh my, that does sound familiar! Charlie Brown as everyman. That is my life from when I was fifteen to this day - no comfort, really.

Of course when I was fifteen I foolishly read Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867) and the end of that stuck with me:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Yep. Life is tough, even if Schulz probably wasn't channeling Matthew Arnold when he thought up Charlie Brown.

And by the way, people don't generally stay "true to one another" these days, but perhaps I'm cynical from unique personal experience. I'm sure most marriages last and are quite happy, and for most good friends don't ever drift away. Ah well.

But is Radke serious about Charlie Brown as a cultural benchmark?

Radke paints him sitting nervously outside of the principal's office, waiting to hear what will become to him. He offers up a little prayer, but all he gets is a stomachache. Hardly the desperate philosopher-poet on the cliffs of Dover staring across the water at the last light of European tradition twinkling out on the coast of France into utter darkness - left only with his "true love," who may or may not be true - in a world of pain and meaningless war with no certainty of anything and no reason to hope for better.

I don't see the Charlie Brown cartoons as quite that dark. But maybe it's me. Radke claims then when we are exposed to something every day we can eventually lose sight of its brilliance.

I'm not sure. But I'm willing to entertain the premise.

Radke claims it is foolish to disregard "literature" simply because it appears in the funnies section of the daily paper. Schulz's simple line drawings and blocky letters contain "as much information about the human condition as entire shelves full of dry books. If any character has shown us the difficulties in existence, it is Charlie Brown"

Yes, Radke is right - there has been much discussion concerning Peanuts as a voice of conservative Christianity, including several books such as the 1965 work The Gospel According to Peanuts. But Radke sees more.
This is not without reason; even a cursory glance at a Peanuts anthology will reveal enough scripture references to fuel a month's worth of Sunday school classes. However, to suggest that Schulz's philosophical insights didn't make it past the church door would be a mistake. While Schulz had a great interest in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ, he was also highly suspicious of dogmatic pious beliefs. In a 1981 interview, he refused to describe himself as religious, arguing that "I don't know what religious means". Charlie Brown was no comic strip missionary, blandly spreading the word of organized religion. Upon reflection, the trials and tribulations of the little round-headed kid provide deep and moving illustrations of existentialism.
Perhaps so, but "deep and moving" may be a stretch.

What's Kierkegaard Got to Do With It?

Radke reviews S?ren Kierkegaard as one of the first existentialists, and argues Kierkegaard's religious beliefs impelled his philosophy, rather than limiting it. You see, Kierkegaard was forced to confront his deeply held belief in the existence of God with the tremendous empty silence that returns from the prayers of humans, and the results were his vital and compelling theories of faith and freedom.

Just like Charlie Brown? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Radke notes Schulz did not consider himself religious, neither did he refer to himself as an existentialist. In fact, he was unfamiliar with the term until the mid 1950s, when he stumbled across a few newspaper articles about Jean-Paul Sartre. "He was certainly not formally schooled in philosophical works. And yet, his simple line drawings provide illumination into the questions and problems raised by existentialism."

Ah, we see Radke is using the comic strip as a teaching aid in his course "Existentialism for Dummies."

Here's his game.
In order to identify examples of Schulz's philosophy, a bumper-sticker version of existentialism should prove helpful. In his seminal 1946 work L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme, Sartre outlines some of the core aspects of his theories. A key aspect is the idea of abandonment. Kierkegaard felt that there was an unbridgeable gap between God and Man. Sartre goes even further, and argues that even if there is an unknowable and unreachable God, it wouldn't make any difference to the human condition. Ultimately, we exist in an abandoned and free state. We are responsible for our actions, and since Sartre argues that there is no God to conceive of a human nature, we are responsible for our own creation.

How does this apply to Peanuts? Like the existential human in a world of silent or absent deities, Schulz's characters exist in a world of silent or absent adult authority. In fact, the way the strip is drawn (with the child characters taking up most of each frame) actually prevents the presence of any adults. Schulz argued that, were adults added to the strip, the narratives would become untenable. While references are sometimes made to full-grown humans (normally school teachers) these characters are always out of frame, and silent. The children of Peanuts are left to their own devices, to try and understand the world they have found themselves thrust into. They have to turn to each other for support - hence, Lucy's blossoming psychiatric booth (at five cents a session, a very good deal).
Linus and The Great Pumpkin? An ideal example of abandonment. That gets a long paragraph. Followed by this:
Sartre did not deny the existence of God triumphantly. Instead, he considered it "... extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven.". Without God, everything we do as humans is absurd, and without meaning. Certainly, spending all night in a pumpkin patch would qualify as embarrassing as well.
Waiting for Godot? Waiting for The Great Pumpkin? Same sort of thing. I suppose.

And this business about the cartoon showing no adults? Radke argues thiat in the absence of any parental edicts, the characters in Peanuts have had to become very philosophically minded in order to establish for themselves what is right and wrong.
When Linus gets a sliver in his finger, a conflict erupts between Lucy's theological determinism (he is being punished for something he did wrong) and Charlie Brown's philosophical uncertainty (when the sliver falls out, Lucy's position crumbles). At Christmas time, Linus dictates a letter to Santa, questioning the validity of Santa's ethical judgments regarding the goodness or badness of the individual child. "What is good? What is bad?" asks Linus.
Yep - bumper-sticker of existentialism.


Sartre would say we are created by our actions. We are responsible for our actions. Therefore, we are responsible for our creation. What we are is the sum total of what we have done, nothing more and nothing less. But why should this cause despair? Good question.

Radke reviews Sartre's comments on the characteristics of cowardice and bravery. If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your life whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content; you will be heroes all your life, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. And it is this very possibility that causes despair.

This lead to a discussion of Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. The very possibility that he could go over and talk to her is far more distressing than its impossibility would be; he must take ownership of his failure? When she is the victim of a bully in the schoolyard, Charlie Brown's despair deepens. He isn't suffering because he can't help her, but because he could help her, but won't: "Why can't I rush over there and save her? Because I'd get slaughtered, that's why..."

Ah, existential despair! And when Linus helps her out instead, "thereby illustrating his freedom of action," Charlie Brown only becomes more melancholic.

What a life!

And then Radke discusses how in order to combat despair, Charlie Brown succumbs to bad faith, which is to say, he denies his freedom: "I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to talk to her! Everybody would probably laugh ... she'd probably be insulted too ..."

Yes, existence is problematic and disturbing.

And you don't even want to know about the link between Linus and Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. Radke illustrates that.

But all is not dark:
Existentialism has been accused of being defeatist and depressing (and Sartre didn't help his cause with terms like `abandonment', `despair', and `nausea'). But Peanuts also demonstrates the optimism of the philosophy. Why does Charlie Brown continue to go out to the pitcher's mound, despite his 50 year losing streak? Why try to kick the football, when Lucy has always pulled it away at the last second? Because there is an infinite gap between the past and the present. Regardless of what has come before, there is always the possibility of change. Monstrous freedom is a double-edged sword. We exist, and are responsible. This is both liberating and terrifying.
Yep, and Matthew Arnold's narrator asks his love to be true to him - even if he knows better.

So there you have it - existential despair, and foolish hope, daily in your newspaper. Or not.

Posted by Alan at 20:26 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 6 February 2004 20:37 PST home

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