Monday, May 21, 2018

TODAY'S VOCABULARY WORD: "Animals"

What a piece of work is a man! 
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! 
In form and moving how express and admirable! 
In action how like an angel, 
in apprehension how like a god! 
The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. 
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 

In the kids' game of Twenty Questions, the first identifier is "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral," and the classification for human beings is "Animal." In a system out of the work of Carl Woese et al. of the U of IL — for more grownup games of taxonomy — living things with cells are Archaea, Bacteria, or Eukarya, with the Eukarya made up of Fungi, Plants, and Animals. If you're multicellular, with a pretty large and complex structure, don't do photosynthesis, and live on Earth, you're an animal.

In the old system of The Great Chain of Being, we're what Hamlet called "the paragon of animals" and the highest of animals, but still animal. Also, "a little lower than the gods," or "than the angels" in more recent usage: at the nodal point on the Great Chain between mere animals and divine beings. Homo duplex: flesh and spirit, perhaps a soul. Life-breath plus small "e" earth in one version of us in Genesis, or, again from Hamlet, "this quintessence of dust."

Deal with it.

Really ancient archaea and their bacterial relations have been around a whole lot longer than fancier species, and they may heft more biomass than we do today. There is a good chance they will succeed us as well and are the true dominant creatures in the history of Earth and its inheritors.

Animals we colloquial call "animals" — our mammalian or anyway vertebrate cousins — are what people often mean when they refer to other people as "brutes" or refer to with "brutal" — and maybe after that go down that ol' Great Chain and label other people "cockroaches" and such.

It's like us civilized folk calling low-tech people barbarians or savages or "barbarous savages."

Uh, huh.

Tigers have never practiced crucifixion, and savages didn't invent cluster munitions or nerve gas. Some ants are into analogies to slavery and genocide, but otherwise our brutal fellow critters are relatively well-behaved, relative to us, humans, who have been guilty of such necessarily civilized human behavior — acts by urbanized, literate high-tech folk — as fire-bombing cities.

Some of my favorite animals are people, and all my relatives; but we really must stop flattering ourselves. Hamlet's praise of our species — "in apprehension how like a god!" — should be pronounced only in the course of that bloody satiric tragedy, Hamlet, or sung amid the scattered bodies on another stage, for the climax of Hair.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Liberals: Many Good Causes (Some Bad Attitude)

Among some "Facebook Friends" and some real-world former colleagues at Miami University (Ohio), there was a robust bit of debate about a New York Times opinion piece on by Gerard Alexander, identified as "a professor of political science at the University of Virginia," with the piece given the provocative title, "Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think" (12 May 2018).

It's about Liberal hegemony in the entertainment and education fields, and Liberal condescension. And, of course, about zealotry in suppressing "microaggressions" and the occasional Right-wing to fascistic speaker on college campuses, and bad-mouthing opponents, e.g. supporters of Donald Trump. And it's worth reading and definitely important for Liberals (and Democrats) to think about moving into the major off-year elections of 2018.

I spent forty years as an academic, and I've been retired for a dozen; so I have a kind of liminal view from the edge, an important section of my "jagged orbit." From there, it looks like the most interesting analysis of Liberal snark might stem from a suggestion in Colin Woodard's American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011): many American academic Liberals are the spiritual descendants of traditional improving, reforming, good-government American Yankees and can be usefully thought of as Puritans without God.

This is an honorable tradition, at its most noble in its centrality to the American Abolition (of slavery) movement, and engaged in the crucial human purpose of tikkun olam, the healing, repair, and/or perfecting of the world. With or without God, such active citizens are necessary and useful, but often annoying. (And when armed, as in the 17th century, downright dangerous; but that lately hasn't been much of an issue.)

My more idiosyncratic complaint is with people on the academic Left who don't apply the sort of rigor they'd use in their fields — or even just rules of courteous debate — when it comes to politics.

Consider this example from recent (continuing, contentious) debate, as we American return to our intertwined hobbies of refighting our Civil War and judging one another and our/their ancestors. 

The US Civil War centered on slavery: that's clear from the documented record on secession. The motivation of individual soldiers, however — that can get complicated. Still, one can argue that whatever the motivation, the upshot of fighting for the Confederacy was waging war against the United States (hence, treason) and objective support of slavery, which had helped engender and preserve racism and in turn was supported by racism. So Confederate fighters of whatever motivation objectively supported Evil, while Union fighters supported the Good.

Now let's apply that sort of analysis to more recent American warfare. 

At least in its middle and end portions, US warfare in Vietnam and other places in Southeast Asia was primarily to prevent loss of face by the US and particularly Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who didn't want to be the first US president to lose a war. That the US lost and is still here and doing okay, and arguably would be doing better if we'd never fought (even if the Philippines and Indonesia were now Communist) — this shows that by definition no literally vital interests of the US were involved. And a war fought just for "The Great Game" is evil. Hence, those who fought the war on the US side, however pure their motivations, objectively supported Evil. Those who opposed the war did well, and those who avoided or evaded service at least didn't provide significant objective support to Evil. So we are to prefer Donald J. Trump and Dick Cheney in this for avoiding (or with DJT's bone spurs even evading) service, over, say, John Kerry's initial service fighting the US war in Vietnam. 

Objectively, applying the same sort of analysis that allows blanket condemnation of Confederates in the US Civil War.

That conclusion on Vietnam "would gag a maggot," even as would a comparably glib argument from the Right branding all anti-War activists as traitors, having given aid and comfort to the Communist Vietnamese enemy. For the Civil War debate, though, we on the Left can listen patiently to fellow citizens (e.g. James Webb) if they argue their Confederate ancestors hadn't much seen slaves let alone owning one and hated the slave-owning planter class. But they disliked and feared the Federal government more and really disliked Union troops on their territory. So rebels, yes, traitors technically, but not necessarily more racist than their Union military counterparts.


And so forth — including refraining already from bigoted badmouthing of "White Trash" and, on the positive side, taking care to differentiate between and among "racism" (an ideology), "bigotry" (more of a gut feeling), "prejudice" (prejudging on the basis of bias, not facts or experience), and "systemic injustices" (which are difficult to perceive if we're profiting from them). And we can at least pause before we accuse someone of what may be the oxymoron of "unconscious racism."

So: Keep up the good work, Liberal elite, godless Puritan Reformers! But on the way, lose the superior tone; it's not winning converts to the Cause. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Torture and Trump

Whether or not torture works is an incomplete question. The rest of it is, "works to do what?"

If the question is if torture works to get the truth out of people, the answer has been known for a long time and can be found in this addition to "The Pretty Complete Shakespeare Guide to Donald Trump": from The Merchant of Venice (1597), the protagonist Portia's response to a series of claims from a suitor to "live upon the rack" — an instrument of torture — until he has a chance to win her hand: "Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack, / Where men enforced do speak anything" (3.2.25-33). Both more generally and more specifically, tortured men, women, and children will say what that they think will get the pain to stop, which may or not be true.

Torture, however, is effective in breaking people. The literary reference for that, as with torture producing all sorts of lies, is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

And if it seems extreme to talk here of the rack and the horrors of The Ministry of Love, note that Donald Trump has called for worse than waterboarding for prisoners who might have information on terrorism, so check out pretty much any annual report of Amnesty International for what worse than waterboarding includes. It includes for one regime I wrote for AI, the torturing of children in front of their parents in order to break the parents.

Note also that Mr. Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like the world has never seen," and he made that threat on 8 August 2017, sandwiched between the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Someone willing to contemplate ordering destruction worse than atomic bombings of cities — or the "conventional" fire-bombings of Tokyo or Dresden — should be taken seriously and literally on evils so much less extreme as crippling joint-by-joint a few dozen people on racks or killing off children by the ones and twos rather than by hundreds and thousands, as is inevitable with "fire and fury" exceeding that of the fairly recent past.

US School Dress Codes

The admirable NPR discussion show 1A recently had a discussion title, "When School Dress Codes Ban Students’ Bodies." The discussion elicited a lot of comments. Here is mine (lightly edited).


For many years back in the last third or so of the 20th c., the first assignment in my writing courses was "Clothes" ("Write about what you know about; write about what you care about"— and, oh boy, my students knew about clothes). What many of my students most wanted to write and talk about was high school dress codes. Here are some discussion questions we started out with.
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Discussion/Opening Questions:
(1) John T. Molloy [in Dress for Success] says that "Dress codes can work." If you've been places with dress codes—have they worked? If so,
How have they worked? For whom? To what ends? If authority figures have given you different justifications for dress codes than Molloy gives, which justification(s), if any, do you believe? How could you test the theories?
(2) With "code" in the sense of "a set of rules for affecting behavior and/or allowing communication," there were dress codes at your high school, and there are codes at Miami U. at Oxford (MUO). At your high school, who set the rules? How were they enforced? At Miami, what rules have you inferred?
(3) Molloy finds college students prejudiced about clothes; is this true? Are you(se) more prejudiced than high school students or, from Molloy's comments anyway, business executives?

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High school girls' having to kneel so adults in authority could judge the length of their dresses is mentioned in Jerry Farber's satiric essay from 1967 that you can look up under his name and "The Student as ...": "In some high schools, if your skirt looks too short you have to kneel before the principal in a brief allegory of fellatio." Farber's analysis was that dress codes are part of the larger function of American schooling in general to teach Obedience to Authority. What Farber missed in 1967 was that there are always social rules and that the key question are Who makes them, and How are they enforced? At the Oxford, OH, campus of Miami University, groups of students made the rules for their groups and enforced them through usually subtle, sometimes not, peer pressure. The strictness of student rules was clear in the shifts over time from backpack carrying over both shoulders to over one shoulder and than back to both shoulders. I counted 99/100 students obeying the rules, and a student tested the theory by wearing his backpack over both shoulders when the rule was one shoulder. He got looks but elicited a comment only when he buckled the waist straps: *that* was going too far. The one-shoulder rule was robust enough that a male student risked life and limb obeying it while riding a high racing bike in a strong wind next to a busy highway.

Friday, May 4, 2018

"Who'd want cop-killer bullets?" — A Couple Tentative Answers to a Rhetorical Question

The 1A show on NPR on May Day 2018 was on "Big Guns," a title of a book by former U.S. Representative in Congress Steve Israel, with the subtitle for the 1A broadcast, "Fighting Firearms With Funny." There was a significant rhetorical question raised, one I'd like to answer. The question was something like, "Who'd want cop-killer bullets?" 

One answer to the question is, criminals sloppy enough to have to figure on getting into shoot-outs with police or pathological enough to really desire a shoot-out with police.

More significant, though, are those for whom the Second Amendment primarily protects "The Right of Revolution" and (mis)understand revolution as mostly partisan warfare against the military forces of the State. And who are the front line of those forces of the State? The police, who sometimes where protective gear that will resist passage of ordinary bullets. 

This reading of "The Right of Revolution" also explains why one would want not just military-style weapons but military-grade weapons, 'cause that's what the military and paramilitary forces of the State have. The position usually involves paranoid fantasies of vast conspiracies by ZOG (the Zionist Occupied Government) or more fashionable embodiments of The World-Wide Conspiracy — and/or anticipations of race war — but after granting the assumptions, there is a logic to it. It's just not a logic you'll like if, say, you're a police officer or have police in the parts of the family you like or depend on the police for protection or dislike cops but not enough to want to kill them or want to improve the current American Republic and not overthrow it or have ideas about revolutions that are based more in history than in video games.

In the US, we tend to talk too much about "senseless violence"; here and elsewhere, we need to analyze  the ways in which most acts of violence do make sense — but are unjustified and evil.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Jocks and Athletes (and Pejorative Labelling)

I have this memory of a discussion in a writing class a couple or three decades ago where a student objected to the use another student's essay of the word "jock," which he considered pejorative (a low-key insult). I pointed out that when and where I was an undergraduate and graduate student, "jock" could be used neutrally, as in saying someone was a "ROTC jock" or "tennis jock" or "math jock": just meaning "(somewhat) dedicated to," "interested in" and/or "good at" the activity.
The student countered with noting that "dumb _____" is completed with "jock," not "athlete," and "the well-respected ______" was completed with "athlete," not "jock." If we wanted a neutral or complimentary term for someone serious about one or more sports, we should use "athlete."
I threw in that "jock" for me suggested an activity someone had talent in, and didn't have to work at, and usually didn't. So if we meant someone serious about a sport, and who worked at it, I'd definitely go with "athlete" — and the discussion continued a bit.
MORAL here for me and maybe thee, nowadays: Screw microaggressions; when we insult people, we should insult them consciously and with intent, avoiding as much as possible — as in a Good Society imagined by Joanna Russ — unintentionally giving offense. In that case, the student-athlete did us a favor in telling us to be careful with "jock." It was a subject I hope I brought up much later, in a beautifully oddball class with a number of jocks/athletes of various persuasions, about half of whom were women. oddball class with a number of jocks/athletes of various persuasions, about half of whom were women.