Tuesday, December 6, 2011
I have finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker and have been recommending it to the few of my friends I think might read it. Pinker convinces me that violence has declined and he convinces me about the reasons it has declined. Neither my view of human nature nor of our future are the same as they were before I read the book.
The two most immediate concepts impacted for me: political correctness and the evolving sense of decency. The evolving sense of decency will take a little more work, so I'll comment on political correctness.
I have for the most part viewed what we call political correctness as an irritating interference with free expression: Who cares if I say "stewardess" or "flight attendant?" (Apparently a lot of people). I heard a slight quibble this weekend over the use of "Comanches" as a sort of a mascot for a professional organization. The organizer who liked the name because it was Texan and Native American argued that the name was being honored and not ridiculed. The politically correct objector said we should not use any racial or ethnic monikers because it promotes stereotyping. I'm not sure who wins this in the long run, but after reading Pinker's book, it occurs to me the advocate of the name may be dating himself (and me, since it sounded fine to me) whereas the PC objector may be right about where we are going in society.
When I was in high school, it was perfectly polite to make fun of homosexuals. I did not hear the word "gay" used in that sense until later. Then, I thought a perfectly good word (Like the Gay Nineties) had been ruined. Much the same about jokes about violence against women. A man would discipline his wife, much in the way of Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew." Cruelty to animals was much more acceptable when I was young, now it leads to Dahmerism.
Now, these things have changed. And violence has also plummeted. Pinker makes a connection. If he is right, good riddance to bad jokes and welcome PC. We can call the group The Fat Old White Men Pretending to be Young and Energetic Like a Band of Plains Indians Warriors.
Monday, December 5, 2011
I had been a steadfast believer that Newt Gingrich was politically dead, and even when it became apparent that he would be the next in line after Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain to have a bubble that seemed to threaten Romney, I initially assumed that his bubble would burst on the basis of his massive negative political baggage. For the first time, today, I am beginning to entertain the thought the Newt may actually get nominated. There are a few reasons for this. First, the Rupert Murdoch machine seems to be for him. Fox News is treating Romney harshly and Newt with kid gloves. The Wall Street Journal editorial board seems to be pro-Gingrich. That Murdoch machine is very powerful in the R selection process. The entire Republican family gathers around Fox every night. On the other hand, I still think the R electorate is having amnesia about Newt's history. Some people say, "well, everyone knows about all that stuff." But it is hard to over estimate the stupidity of the American electorate. I think the R voters have forgotten most of it, and Newt still remains vulnerable to someone exploiting it effectively against him. Nonetheless, his lead, at the moment, is large. In Florida, the biggest state which votes in January, three polls showed him with 42%, 47% and 50% in quick succession. All those still have Cain showing up in the teens (Romney in upper teens), and if you assume that Cain withdraws or completely implodes, those figures for Newt go to about 50, 55, and 60. Now, those numbers are, quite frankly, staggering. Maybe he has a fall in his near future, but it is going to have to be a very long, large fall. Of course, when the states start voting, the states farther down the list are affected by the earlier voting states. Right now, regarding the first two, it looks like Newt in Iowa and Romney in NH, although Mitt is only slightly ahead in NH, which is a tailor-made state for him. If that's how it comes out, then it would seem that South Carolina (the other January state) and Florida will feel free to vote as they choose. Now, if Mitt somehow wins in Iowa, which seems unlikely now, and then adds a win in NH, he might stop the Newt surge and get a bandwagon effect. I guess that has to be his goal.In all the head to heads I have seen pairing Obama against Newt or Mitt, respectively, Obama does about 6 points better against Newt. That seems believable to me, and, as I have said, I do not think the other candidates have sufficiently exploited Newt's weaknesses, as of now, and so that number could get wider. Obama is running anti-Romney ads in the primary states, in effect,trying to help the non-Romneys, or, perhaps, just Gingrich. They do that sort of thing a lot in California. I have not seen it here or nationally before, but California has perfected the art of one party's candidate invading the other's primary to try to influence it. Of course, Romney is making the obvious point to the voters--Obama does not want him to be the nominee--but I am not sure the voters are sufficiently sophisticated to realize what is happening. So, a perfect storm seems to be gathering around Romney. Before today, I never wavered in my expectation that he would be the R nominee. Now, I think there is substantial doubt.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Each year I seem to end up with one BIG BOOK. Last year it was Ian Morris and Why the West Rules--For Now. This year it is shaping up to be Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. I could list about 50 books, for 50 years. I'm never sure when I am reading them which ones will keep coming back to visit me. Some from when I was younger include Eric Hoffer's True Believer and Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled.
I mention these, because although there would be more famous books on my list (if I ever made this list), I don't think these books are known to most people I know.
The Better Angels of Our Natures may be a book that will give me a sense that, even without major changes in the way things are going, things may turn out better than they have been anyway. (Candide is probably on my list, also, and I have about 45 years avoiding becoming Dr. Pangloss, so you can imagine my worry about this confession.)
Wouldn't that be the damnest thing. All these years, fearing that we were becoming the worst of all possible worlds, and then one new book, and I can finally lean back and relax.
This book makes me think science is about to tell us why people do bad things to each other. Maybe, then, violence can stop. Pinker doesn't make this promise, but I'm reading between the lines. Or maybe I'm just making up new lines.
One of the many factors that Pinker credits for an improved humanity is satire. He quotes the King of Brobdingnag when he responds to Gulliver's description of English government: "I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth." That has long seemed an accurate description to me, but I am delighted to accept any evidence of change.
I am not sure if, like many old men, I am becoming more conservative as I age, or if there is really some hope that gradual improvement is possible in people, families, society, government, law. If I'm just getting old, I'll ask my friends to wait until after the holidays before they dump the ugly truth in my lap again.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Dano reports on the Republican debate last night. I missed it. I believe I was watching a re-run of Dexter. However, I'll take Dano's report as the whole truth and comment on the debate as well. Ron Paul, may be 75, but at least he knows what he believes and sticks by it. Dano's report also, oddly, stirs some sympathy for Newt. I've heard about Fannie and Freddie and the censure and all the marriages, but at least the guy can talk. Maybe that should be a threshold requirement.
I guess I am a little surprised that Gingrich was allowed to come out of this debate completely unscathed. Out in the real world, journalists, op-ed people, and probably the other campaigns, off the record, are attacking him vigorously. At the moment, believe it or not, Newt is ahead in Iowa and nationally. It has been my prediction that this will not last. I'll stick with that, but I will say that I would like nothing better than to be wrong. If the R's actually nominated Newt--and I guess that possibility has at least to be mentioned because Iowa votes in a mere 42 days--absent some earth-shaking change, I think Obama would mop the floor with him. But, anyway, at the moment, Newt leads, and last night he got nothing but softballs from the moderator, the audience questions, and the other candidates. Romney, with one exception to be mentioned below, did his usual good job. Cain has lost his confident, happy personality and now has a little of the "deer in the highlights" look to him. I think helives in great fear of making another showing of his vast ignorance of the sorts of things that a candidate for president should know. I think his reaction is completely understandable. I also think he's toast. Now, his poll numbers still show him to be arguably in contention, but the leak, and the fall, continue. Much as I dislike Perry, every time he has the floor, I cringe that he is going to embarrass himself. I suspect most other people have the same reaction. Bachmann had a decent performance and was heard from a lot. I doubt she will survive the Iowa Caucuses, but she has a bit of a chance there. Before her drop, she did win the Ames, Iowa straw poll; she was born in Iowa; she holds office in a neighboring state; and she has campaigned very, very heavily in Iowa. Maybe she will do well enough to survive there. My bet is no. This was a "national security" debate, and so a lot was on foreign policy. Ron Paul's views on those issues are clearly out of themainstream among most Republican voters. But he certainly did nothing to try to cover that up. Rather, he defended all of his dovish (and perhaps isolationist) views very vigorously and passionately, and, I thought, quite persuasively. He seemed to have part of the audience on his side. I continue to think he will do well better than he did in '08. Also, I think everyone seems to be forgetting that his age--75--has always been considered way too old for a presidential candidate. I didn't listen to any of the post-debate spin, and I haven't read anything about it yet, so this spin is purely my own. One thing that happened that I think may have been a mistake by Romney is this: one time Paul was speaking, with passion, about one of his foreign policy positions; the TV had a split screen so that you could see Paul speaking and you could also see Romney's reaction. Romney at one point "rolled his eyes." I think that may be significant because Ithink it has the potential of really pissing off the Paul supporters. They have cult-like loyalty. Romney may not have known he was on a split screen. If Romney gets the nomination, he will need those Paul voters. I think some day he may regret that eye-rolling. Like today, for instance. Gingrich's hope is that while each other "non-Romney" had its 15 minutes and then had its bubble burst, he gets his 15 minutes so late in the game that his bubble is still there when the real voting starts! I guess it's possible. I suppose stranger things have happened. But I can't think of any at the moment.
Monday, November 21, 2011
I can't say I've understood any poem by T.S. Eliot, even after reading the explanations by the scholars. But I keep reading them, because the language traps me.
A couple of lines in Ash Wednesday:
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
Climbing three sets of stairs, the climber first has to get past the devil with that deceitful face and then at the third landing (as I envision it) he finds,
Strength beyond hope and despair.
I have wondered about asking for "hope" or just engaging in the act of "hoping." How can we hope if we have faith. James says something like this: "Sisters and Brothers, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds. These trials test your faith and bring you patience. Patience causes you to mature and gives you wisdom."
James doesn't say hope for something else, but have joy in the trials you have. The proper response is patience, not hope. And of course, despair is just the bad side of hope. Patience replaces despair as well as hope.
Eliot writes that despair and hope are both falsehoods worn by the devil and there is a strength that gets you past them.
I like this. If, as I suspect, God has made each of us exactly who we are, then pride and shame are false emotions; we are what God made. If, as I suspect, God has made the whole world, past and future, hope and despair are false emotions; the world will be tomorrow just what God planned.
Differently put for the more secular among us: If, as I suspect, we are each determined to be who we are by our heredity and environment, then pride and shame are false emotions; we are what the universe has made us to be. If, as I suspect, past and future are determined by the laws of the universe, hope and despair are false emotions, the world we be tomorrow exactly what it must be based on forces in motion from long in the past.
Dano is still handicapping the Republicans. I doubt he ever voted for one, but he never played for the Cowboys either and he always has an opinion about who will win. He sees Romney as a threat now in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The most recent two polls in Iowa and NH on the R race show Gingrichwith a big lead in Iowa (32 to Romney's 19) and Romney leadingGingrich by only 2 (29-27) in New Hampshire which had long beenthought to be a Romney lock.I don't think Gingrich will do nearly as well as these polls show.After he got up in the polls, commentators all over the place--fedprobably and secretly by opposition research from the othercandidates, at least in part-- have been re-stating all of hisbaggage. The big money from Freddy Mac is one; but his wholehistory, when re-remembered, just has too much negative in it toremain viable. Multiple adulteries, marriages, a fortune he hasmade as a crony capitalist since his years as speaker; and no one hasyet even bothered to mention that he was charged with an ethicsviolation in a Republican controlled House and fined hundreds ofthousands of dollars for it.To me, it looks like this thing is going to break pretty nicely forMitt Romney as we near the real voting. Four differentchallengers--Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich--have a bubble andthen each for one reason or another is found to have somedisqualifying negative. I think the anti-Romneys latched ontoGingrich because they had been burned time and again by being seducedby candidates who are so stupid and/or ignorant (Bachmann, Perry,Cain). At least Newt is smart and can speak the language.Now, the polls still also show Cain somewhat in contention, but thatcandidacy has a leak, and I don't think that leak is reparable.I also read that while Newt has raised a fair amount of moneyrecently, he still has little or no organization on the ground inIowa. In Iowa, there almost has to be a ground game of get-out-the-voters to get people to go to those caucuses, which is more timeconsuming than just voting. I get the impression that Newt is not agood organizer. He could hire one, of course, but a certain amountof discipline must come from the candidate. One also has toremember, he has never actually run for president before--heconsidered it several times but didn't run--and he has never actuallyrun in an election in anything larger than a Congressional district.I think he likes to spout pompous ideas and sound smart, and he maynot realize that that's not enough to win the Iowa caucuses.I think Mitt senses all this; for a long time, he made no seriouscommitment to Iowa because it is a place where he seemed likely tolose, and he wanted to be able to play down a loss. Well, just inthe last few days, he has decided to go all out there for a win. Hesees the opening. Romney is thus going to go all out to finish firstin both Iowa and New Hampshire. I think he has a decent chance topull it off. If he does that, it might create a sense ofinevitability that will make him the effective nominee pretty quickly.Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the last post, I am expecting a prettygood showing for Ron Paul, not only in Iowa, but in a lot of places.It is true that, mainly because of his foreign policy ideas--that is,he dislikes war and torture--80% of the Republican electorate willprobably never vote for him. But he gets his votes--now lookinglike perhaps15 or more percent--anywhere and everywhere. He'llalways have some money. And he'll always have a lot ofvolunteers--in any state. I read that he has a good organization inIowa.
Dano in the following post discusses Gingrich's likely collapse and the benefit to Ron Paul. Ron Paul has long been my favorite Republican. In fact, I think he is better on war issues than almost all the Democrats. I am not a libertarian; far from it. A true libertarian begins with a belief in free will and I can't go there. But I also think that government largesse is distributed so unfairly that the poor may be helped if subsidies to the rich could be curbed. Anyway, as weird as Ron Paul is, I still prefer him to a Gingrich or a Romney.
Well, just after my last post, where I concluded that there was a good chance that Gingrich would emerge as the main alternative to Romney,Newt got hit with an avalanche of bad publicity about his work forFreddy Mac in the early 2000's. In a recent debate, a moderatorasked him what he did for Freddie Mac to earn $300,000, and Newt saidit was just advice "as a historian", that he told them they weremaking bad loans and that a bubble was looming. It turns out hewas paid $1.6M instead of $300,000, and the folks he spoke to atFreddy Mac say they remember no advice along the lines that Gingrichclaims. They said he was hired to help them state positions thatwould be Republican-friendly so that the then-Republican controlledCongress would not dismantle Freddy and Fannie.Freddy and Fannie are hated by the Tea Partiers, so when this sinksin, it is going to hurt him--pretty badly, I think. He was tryingto help Freddie survive Republican attacks, and he lied about itbesides that.It hasn't sunk in yet. The most recent polls in Iowa and N.H. showhim in a very strong second place in both, one per cent behind Cain inthe former and 2% behind Romney in the latter.So, I am back to the position that it looks like Romney if for noreason other than you can't beat someone with no one. It is 46 daysto the Iowa Caucuses, and 53 to the N.H. Primary. I don't know ifthere is even enough time for another candidate to become thenon-Romney. Now, Santorum is conservative enough to satisfy thebase and has no big flip flop problem. Jennifer Rubin in the Wapohas several times suggested that he might have an ascendency. He isalso not a bad debater. But Santorum has never been out of singledigits, mostly not even out of low single digits.Another man who warrants discussion is Ron Paul. His numbers areinching up. Now, he will never be nominated because he is out ofthe mainstream of the R party on a lot of issues, especially onforeign policy where he is a consistent dove. So, I have alwaysthought he would be irrelevant--getting his 10 per cent or maybe even15 or a little higher--never enough to win anything. Well, hisnumbers in some polls are starting to rub against 20. So, he mayfinish second in a lot of primaries; I say "a lot" because he will noteasily drop out. He has a cult-like following that keeps giving himmoney no matter what. So, he can run and run and run and run, andhe may keep finishing second a lot--might even eak out a win or twosomewhere.I'll stipulate that there is some wishful thinking here, but I amhoping he loses (he will) but he does so well that he gets pissed offand runs in the General Election as an independent or third partier.He did that before--Libertarian candidate in 1988. However, hisfollowing is much larger now. Paul believes in conspiracy theories,and is a little off balance, so I can imagine him working himself intoa lather with the idea that he was cheated out of winning by the REstablishment. If he were to do that, Obama would benefit greatly.One poll on this showed Obama beating Romney by 6 without Paul as athird partier but by 12 with Paul in the race.Paul would know that he would be hurting the R's, but I am not surethat would stop him. He dislikes the R's about as much as the D's.I have even noticed that he rarely criticizes Obama in the debates;rather, he criticizes the whole American status quo, and thus"everyone else." Now, the history of third party candidates is thatthey poll well early sometimes but their percentage usually drops byelection day, sometimes by a lot. But in the case of Paul, while hemight have some of that usual erosion, his cult-like backers aremostly going to stay with him. And they don't mind losing toomuch; they think they are on some mission which goes beyond 2012.That would be a real nightmare for the R's.Obama's prospects still look pretty decent to me, but I worry thatEurope may plunge the world into more economic distress, and it wouldbe hard to see him winning if the economy were even worse than it isnow.