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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, 28 November 2004

Topic: Political Theory

The Values War: Don't try to join 'em, try to beat 'em! And, when possible, try to get them to join us...

Rick Brown, the News Guy in Atlanta, is getting to be sort of a regular columnist for Just Above Sunset. He has been quoted - sometimes at length - almost seventy times in issues this year, and about that often the previous year. Along with Bob Patterson, who oddly calls himself The World's Laziest Journalist, and Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis - who has become the de facto Just Above Sunset stringer in Paris - it seems the magazine has developed a staff. And that staff also includes Philip Raines - with eight items, four of them extended photojournalism articles - and Deborah Vatcher with four short stories. (See the left-hand column of the home page for links to the items by Phillip and Doctor Debbie.)

Rick in Atlanta sends along reaction to an item be Michael Kinsley in the Washington Post, which contains the line - "Why do you care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Wouldn't you prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose?"

That's a good question. The item is this:

When Ideology is a Value
Michael Kinsley, The Washington Post, Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page B07

Here's the main idea -
It's been less than a month since the gods decreed that because of the election results American political life henceforth must be all about something called "values." And I gave it my best. Honest. But values won. I'm sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as "values." News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now the tale of Bill O'Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.

Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct when it gets labeled as a "value"? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay-marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a "value," while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones barely qualify as an opinion.
And here's the problem it raises -
Those labels don't confer any logical advantage. But they confer two big advantages in the propaganda war. First, a value just seems inherently more compelling than a mere opinion. That's a big head start. Second, the holder of a value is held to be more sensitive to slights than the holder of an opinion. An opinion can't just slug away at a value. It must be solicitous and understanding. A value may tackle an opinion, meanwhile, with no such constraint.
And then Kinsley launches into example after example to illustrate his point, and that is a litany of foolishness. Kinsley is merciless.

And then the core -
Why do you care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Wouldn't you prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose? For example, suppose we had a government that was capable of ensuring enough flu vaccine to go around, like the governments of every other developed country in the world. Wouldn't that be nice? And if you could have that kind of government, would you really mind if a few more of its leaders secretly enjoyed Janet Jackson's halftime show at the Super Bowl?

... It's not just a question of values getting in the way of more pressing matters. It's also a question of how much you want the government to worry about your values. My answer is: Not very much. My values are my own business. True, they are influenced by various private and public institutions of society and by the culture at large -- no doubt in unhealthy ways, very often. But I don't relish the idea of government getting involved to rectify any perceived imbalance. And I thought most conservatives agreed with me about this. But politicians who get elected because of their values are likely to see values as part of their mandate.

That's ominous.
And the conclusion?
A country whose political dialogue is all about values is either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems. When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.
Yeah, yeah. It's a funny punch line.


Rick in Atlanta comments -
Is Kinsley talking about me here?

Yeah, sure, I'm for "competence" over so-called "values," but what do I know, I'm a Democrat - which is to say, I was on the losing side of the most recent national election! In fact, it seems to me we Democrats argued that "competence" issue back in 1988 and lost, and they've been making fun of us for it ever since. I say they shouldn't get away with that, but who listens to me?

Although I don't quarrel with what Kinsley says here, I would argue that our governmental system should have values - it's just that I happen to disagree with these people as to what those values ought to be. For example, I was brought up - ironically, by Republicans! - believing in the value of the separation of church and state, while this here fundamentalist crowd wasn't, either because they were too young to have picked up on that basic American principle or those that were old enough were just not paying attention. (I suspect half of them were reading their Bibles, while the other half were too busy out hitting up weaker kids for their lunch money.)

To repeat what I've said here before: Don't try to join 'em, try to beat 'em! And, when possible, try to get them to join us, but don't sweat it too much if they refuse. After all, if they don't, they're just idiots.

We need to stop trying to accommodate ourselves to "values" we don't agree with; we need to stop trying to apologize for knowing what we're talking about, as opposed to having "faith" in stuff that we know doesn't really matter; we need to fight for what we think is right, and do it without suspecting that we may be out of synch with "real" America. (Just because a relatively paltry three-and-a-half million more of them than us went to the polls doesn't make them the "real" Americans.)

Let's not be wimps, let's try not to fake what we are and what we stand for, and let's try to keep this in mind: Our country never was as much about the extra-marital consensual diddling or not diddling of interns as it was about knowing when and when not to drag this country into war, and when and when not to drag it into debt.

We need to fight for what's right, and if we lose this one, we need to go out next time, and keep trying harder until we win.

(PS: Yeah, I know, I usually try to end my comments on a lighter note and not sound so much like a latter-day Emma Goldman, but it's late at night as I write this, and I just couldn't think of anything funny to say. I promise I'll try harder next time.)
Ah, Just Above Sunset doesn't demand such lightness. This will do just fine.


Philip Raines has a shot at all this -
At the exit polls it was only "values" without qualification. That was an issue. Not good values, common values, bad values - just values. Another hoodwink dragged over the gullible eyes peering at the narrow-minded vista ahead for the next four years. Democrats have values too, just not the kind the pious right has in mind, though that collective mind is easily swayed.

Conservative Shill: "You want values, right?"
Salt-of-the-Earth Mark: "Yeah, I want values"
Conservative Shill: "Cause without values, it's hopeless, and we need hope, right?"
Salt-of-the-Earth Mark: "Yep, I sure need hope."
Conservative Shill: "Well then, there you go."

In Democrats that heightened sense that says "Wait a minute, that sounds like bullshit" seems to go off much sooner than with conservative followers. I sat after Thanksgiving dinner with a room full of the most leftist family I've personally ever known to exist. They have the same sentiment of Rick Brown to not change the message because it isn't wrong. No religion in government, protect the environment, stop spending money and wrecking our economy with wars. They pride themselves in being in the party that is not so easily duped, and well, so do I.

The same techniques, refined by big church preachers, of drumming up outrage, identifying with moral superiority, and an indisputable belief in what the Bible and its interpreters portray, just don't work with Democrats. For Democrats to craft their message in the same phony context will just not work. The party needs new leadership, and needs to present itself as the reasonable party - fanatics need not apply.

I think the current Democratic leadership thinks we need better bullshit. No. No bullshit, but rather the party of shooting you straight. That is a stronger force than the windbags can stand up to. So Rick Brown, will you be the voice-o-reason spokesman on the Just Above Sunset radio hour? [See the next issue of Just Above Sunset on the issue of talk radio.] What, another money loosing hobby? Are all the think tanks conservative and we can't see through that problem, despite having brains and artistic talent at our disposal? Maybe we are the party of the "Cant' Be Bothered."

Odd that.
And Vince In Rochester -
"Are all the think tanks conservative...?" Ah - but who funds the think tanks? Follow the money. It's invariably economic!

As for no bullshit values - that's what rings so well with young Obama (cool name claimed Letterman - to his face - the other night. I agree.) But cool also because he knows how to use obvious intellect to speak plainly so that all can listen!

That to me was the BIGGEST gaff this November. Kerry couldn't talk to people on the street!

To paraphrase Teddy R - Speak simply and carry a big brain (out of sight).

Obama... Has a candidate from Chicago ever won a national election? - (Here come the Daley jokes!)
See August 1, 2004 - Cain's Question for a discussion of Barack Obama, the rising star of the Democratic Party. He's not Richard Daley. Things in Chicago have changed since the 1968 convention.

Well, something is going on here. I sense a wave coming in - just a swell on the horizon now - but maybe this will be a wave that is worth riding.

Heck, maybe it is time to bring decent, sensible people back in to help straighten up the mess we have on our hands. Perhaps many will miss the idealists who scoff at reality - those wild-eyed theorists now in power who merrily ignore the environment disintegrating, and the economy on the edge of a cliff as the dollar drops like a rock and the debts pile up and the dollars that support our realm go elsewhere, and real costs of the war that has made us despised around the world, and the homeless in the streets and the millions without healthcare of any kind, and the poverty that the elderly and unlucky face in the coming decades.

It's a thought. Time to get to work.

Posted by Alan at 12:04 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 27 November 2004

Topic: Photos

Not quite...

Posted by Alan at 21:28 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Thursday, 25 November 2004

Topic: Photos


Off to the family thing down south - near Carlsbad, California.

Special thanks this year as Harriet-the-Cat, associate editor of Just Above Sunset, the virtual magazine, will recover from her illness. A trip to the local animal hospital yesterday was in order, and although the six-block drive there and back traumatized her, cats have short memories it seems, and she is now fine, or at least on the mend. But she had to be shaved - and now she's a temporary shorthair. I actually think she likes it.

Before -

After -

Photography Bonus: Bob Patterson, who writes for us as both The World's Laziest Journalist and The Book Wrangler, told me he was going to Pasadena last Sunday to attend the famous Doo Dah Parade - in Old Town, a block from where I work. I don't know if he did. This parade is, of course, the ironic and surreal response to annual Rose Parade that kicks off at dawn New Years Day and has something or other to do with the football game that follows, The Rose Bowl. I've worked on an off in Pasadena for many years. New Years Day is a good day to be somewhere else.

Bob may or may not have made it to the anti-Rose Bowl Parade. But a fellow who works for me did. Simon Zheng. He is a wonderful photographer and his gallery from the parade is here - and the top level of his photography site will lead you to other amazing galleries.

I feel like such an amateur. And he grew up in Shanghai and speaks perfect Mandarin and some Cantonese. And he's a super systems guy.

Ah well...

Now to drive down the coast for some turkey.

Posted by Alan at 08:52 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Wednesday, 24 November 2004

Topic: Election Notes

Election Analysis: The Triumph of Idealism

Today in History - November 24, 1859: Charles Darwin's 'Origin of the Species' published.

In an October 29 New York Times article on George Bush, Nicholas Kristof reports: "Characteristically, he does not believe in evolution - he says the jury is still out - but he does not actively disbelieve in it either; as a friend puts it, 'he doesn't really care about that kind of thing.'" (Also see in these pages May 9, 2004 - On your knees, America!.)

David Neiwert picks up the thread -
Intelligence on their designs

Science and fundamentalism are natural enemies, because they represent diametrically opposite models for understanding the world.

Fundamentalism begins with articles of faith, gleaned from Scripture, for which it then goes in search of evidence as support - ignoring, along the way, all contravening evidence.

Science begins with the gathering of evidence and data, which are then assembled into an explanatory model through a combination of hypothesis and further testing. This model must take into account all available facts, including contradictory evidence.

They are, in other words, 180 degrees removed from each other in how they affect our understanding of the world. One is based in logic, the other in faith. As methodologies go, they are simply irreconcilable.

Moreover, it's clear that the fundamentalists who are rapidly gaining complete control of the American government's reins of power fully recognize this natural enmity --and intend to use their rising power to curtail the influence of science on society: in government, in the schools, and in the media.

To do this, they are resorting to a combination of logical fallacies and propaganda techniques.

The key piece of illogic is one that has especially lodged itself in the media in recent years: The notion that a demonstrably true fact can be properly countered by a demonstrably false one - and that the two, placed side by side, represent a kind of "balance" in the national discourse. This is the Foxcist model of Newspeak, in which "fair and balanced" comes to mean its exact opposite.

[Linnaeus points out in comments that the logical fallacy at work here is the argumentum ad temperantiam: "If two groups are locked in argument, one maintaining that 2+2=4, and the other claiming that 2+2=6, sure enough, an Englishman will walk in and settle on 2+2=5, denouncing both groups as extremists."]

We've seen this dynamic play out constantly in the media over the past eight years or so: during the Clinton impeachment fiasco (when any kind of false rumor about Clinton got media play under these circumstances) to the 2000 election (from "Al Gore invented the Internet" to "machine counts are more accurate than hand counts") to the 9/11 commission hearings (notably Condoleezza Rice's testimony that the Aug. 11 Presidential Daily Briefing warning of pending Al Qaeda attacks contained just "historical information" and "did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks") to the 2004 election (especially the way the media depicted the fact-driven reports on George W. Bush's military record as the counterpart to the Swift Boat Veterans clearly specious claims').

Now this model of illogic is being applied to our education system. Specifically, it's being used to inject religion into our schools' science education curriculum.
Neiwert goes on to discuss school board in Dover, Pennsylvania deciding to include so-called "intelligent design" programs in their schools' science curriculum, along advocates for "intelligent design" in the schools in Seattle and their a full-fledged embrace of creationism, and many other such examples.

There's something going on here. And it's bigger than the debate between the ant-Darwin forces of faith standing up to, and winning against, the die-hards who foolishly cling to the values of The Enlightenment, who prefer evidence to faith.

Those who founded the country, particularly that Deist dude, Thomas Jefferson, were in fact, at the dead center of enlightenment values - and that's a bit of a problem.

But put that aside.

We have a war of epistemology here. Facts versus faith. It's matter of a basic approach to life, of how one deals with, well, everything.

It's not just religious matters. As Harold Meyerson points out in The Washington Post -
Though his reelection campaign brilliantly marketed President Bush's anti-intellectualism, the truth is that his administration has trusted more to pure theory than virtually any modern president's. The Iraq war is a triumph of ideology over the facts on the ground (it's certainly not a triumph of anything else). And, as it's currently shaping up, Bush's second term looks to be even more theory-driven than his first.

Theory certainly is driving the administration's tax policies. In his first term, Bush took an ax to the taxes on dividends and mega-estates. In his second term, according to a story by The Post's Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, the president is looking at eliminating taxes on dividends and capital gains and creating generous tax shelters for all investment income. The theory here is that investment, not labor, is the real creator of wealth -- so the taxes on investment income will be scrapped, while those on wages will keep rolling along.

And in the name of this theory, Bush seems willing to sacrifice much of the social compact that made America, in the second half of the 20th century, the first majority middle-class nation in human history.
So what we're dealing with is an odd sort of neo-platonic idealism. It would be foolish to call this fanaticism. It is more as if we are seeing a conflict between faith - a rejection of fact and evidence in favor of hope in theory - and reason - which can lead on to realistic pessimism, restraint and careful consideration of alternatives.

Choose your side. Are you with the dead white men of the late eighteen-century Enlightenment - the careful compromisers who would separate church and state and who so liked the chimera of science and evidence? Or are you with the idealistic and hope-filled neoconservatives of the twenty-first century - say Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz and Bush - who would mold reality, as best they can, to what it ought to be?

Are you clinging to the past, or part of the future? Realist or idealist?

That's one way to see what the recent election was about - damn the facts idealism versus uncomfortable realism. More folks wanted to be comfortable than wanted to face reality.

Posted by Alan at 22:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 22 November 2004

Topic: Iraq

It's not OUR fault!

The Washington Post gives us this on Saturday, November 20 -
Acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the United States led an invasion of the country 20 months ago, according to surveys by the United Nations, aid agencies and the interim Iraqi government. After the rate of acute malnutrition among children younger than 5 steadily declined to 4 percent two years ago, it shot up to 7.7 percent this year, according to a study conducted by Iraq's Health Ministry in cooperation with Norway's Institute for Applied International Studies and the U.N. Development Program. The new figure translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from `wasting,' a condition characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein.
Eric Alterman says this the following Monday -
So the next time some one asks you if you're glad that we've removed Saddam Hussein from power, you might want to ask them if they're glad that, after we've spent 200 billion dollars and killed tens of thousands of people, 400,000 Iraqi children are now suffering from acute malnutrition. That and oh yeah, the world hates us and the pool of Al Qaeda recruits has been vastly increased. And oh yeah, I'm betting on a draft.
I say Eric has a bad attitude.

But he's not alone - Jeanne at Body and Soul adds this -
The main reason seems to be continuing lack of access to clean water, which can cause chronic diarrhea. Other things hurt as well: humanitarian organizations like CARE and Doctors Without Borders have had to leave as it became more and more dangerous to work there; Iraqi doctors are prime targets for criminals. But mostly children are malnourished because we've done a worse job than Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War in getting clean water to them.

News like this continues to stun me because even though I opposed the war, and even though I realized, after reading about the neglect of Afghanistan, that no one in the Bush administration knew or cared anything about humanitarian work, and even though I worried about the way they were undercutting NGOs before the war even began, I thought that repairing the infrastructure would be a high priority - one that we paid more than we should for, because there had to be a little sugar on top for the FOGs (otherwise known as the Friends of George), but nevertheless I was certain that even the FOGs realized that they had to do a better job than Saddam Hussein at filling basic human needs.

I was horribly na?ve. I thought they were con artists, not thugs.

The war fans will whine that there's nothing we can do while we're under attack, but that's getting everything backwards. If you're taking credit for "helping" Iraqis then the first priority - the only real priority - is getting food, water, and medicine to people who need it. Nothing else matters if you don't succeed at that. No excuses are acceptable.

... the only interest this story has generated is among conservatives condemning the Washington Post for blaming America for problems caused by insurgents.
So it's not OUR fault - if you believe the guys we reelected for their moral values.

Yep. Right.

And this?

It Hurts, but Don't Stop
Michael Kinsley, The Washington Post, Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page B07
Has there ever before been a war that so many people disapproved of but so few wanted to stop? Have the reasons for starting a war ever been so thoroughly discredited without turning into reasons for ending it?

[ ... fascinating body of text follows that argues there is no anti-war movement because after Vietnam we decided we had to "support the troops" and now we cannot oppose, or even criticize, any war we get into, however stupidly we get into it, no matter how badly it's run and no matter how much real damage it does, because we have to support the troops ... ]

... The lead headline in last Monday's Los Angeles Times was "Iraqi City Lies in Ruins." That would be Fallujah, a metro area of 300,000 people that many Americans had never heard of until we felt impelled to destroy it. And our reasons were neither trivial nor contemptible. They followed with confident logic from the premise that Saddam Hussein was an intolerable danger to the United States. If so, he had to be taken down. And if that destabilized the country, we had to occupy it for a while and calm it down. And you can't run a national occupation with rebels occupying a major city, so you have to besiege the city and kill a lot of people and leave the place "in ruins."

An American general in Vietnam famously said, "We had to destroy the village to save it." This has become the definitive expression of the macabre futility of war. Last week we destroyed an entire city to save it (progress!), but our capacity to find that sort of thing ironic seems to have become shriveled and harmless.
We've been here before. We're here again. But we have no antiwar movement. But we have messed up. Big time.

Time to start a revolution, and line them all up against the wall.

Posted by Alan at 20:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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