Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What the Fannie/Freddie takeover and the Iraq War Have In Common

Here's what:

No matter what they say, the Bush administration will always, always, ALWAYS use any authority Congress gives them.

Chris Dodd should have known better:
In the mortgage rescue bill, the Treasury Department was given authority to buy major stakes in the two mortgage giants — if it had to. But Paulson, until recently, predicted that the government would not need to get federal money involved in propping up Fannie and Freddie. Just the ability to do so, he suggested, would be enough to calm the market.

"We certainly accepted him at his word that this was going to be all that was necessary," Dodd said, adding that the administration has now "used that authority aggressively." Dodd said that he would be more wary of Paulson's words in the future. "Fool me once, your fault; fool me twice, my fault." [emphasis added]
Uh huh.

Now, I don't necessarily oppose the Fannie/Freddie thing. Unlike the Iraq war, something along these lines was probably necessary. But the Bush administration has this habit: they ask for a power "just in case." The war authority was supposed to bring Iraq to heel. The Fannie/Freddie legislation was supposed to do the same to the market.

I'm sure you can add your own items. How many kinds of authority has the Bush administration requested, and received, with the promise or hope that they wouldn't go down that road? Have they ever received an authority that they haven't maximized or more?

[crickets]

I thought so.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

My letter to ABC News

Sent today:

So Charlie Gibson has scored the first interview with Palin after the GOP convention. Congratulations! But I wonder why they chose Gibson. Today on Fox News, a McCain spokesman said he will only release Palin to the media when he's convinced they will be "deferential" to her. If you are at all deferential, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Charlie Gibson's pre-convention interview with John McCain was a softball suck-up interview of the first order: a shameful piece of puffery. I imagine they've chosen Gibson to interview Palin because they expect the same kid-glove treatment. But the American people want some answers.

So my suggestion is this: spare us the domestic soap-opera distractions. Don't ask anything about Bristol's pregnancy. Don't ask about the First Dude's snowmobile. Don't ask about Trig's Down syndrome. Don't ask about Track's deployment.

Instead, how about this? Ask about issues.

Ask about her position on Georgia. Ask about her view of the new Pakistani prime minister. Ask about housing. Ask about her flip-flops (on earmarks, on cooperation with Troopergate). Ask about her support of creationism. Ask about her view that global warming isn't anthropogenic. Ask aobut NATO expansion. Ask about Darfur. Ask about Zimbabwe. Ask about nuclear waste disposal (including Yucca Mountain). Ask about unemployment. Ask about the estate tax (don't you dare call it the death tax). Ask about Iraq strategy. Ask about the value of the dollar. Ask about unionization.

Don't be a doormat, Charlie. Despite your history, you don't have to be.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Barack Obama Has Not Hurt You

for the folks at MyDD

Barack Obama did not raise your gas prices.
Barack Obama did not ship your job to Mexico.
Barack Obama did not write your sermons.
Barack Obama did not deny your habeas corpus.
Barack Obama did not cast your primary vote
and Barack Obama did not dismiss your primary vote.
Barack Obama did not raise your interest rates.
Barack Obama did not send that letter you wouldn't open for days because you knew what was in it but thought it might go away if you waited long enough only it didn't.
Barack Obama did not foreclose on your house.
Barack Obama did not protect your perverted priest.
Barack Obama did not deny your claim.
Barack Obama did not key your car.
Barack Obama did not call you sweetie,
probably,
and if he did, he meant it to be nice.
Barack Obama did not beat up your kid.
Barack Obama did not deny your choice.
Barack Obama did not steal your lunch money.
Barack Obama did not cause the Sichuan earthquake
or Cyclone Nardis in Myanmar (Burma).
Barack Obama did not ruin your marriage,
or the marriage before that, or that one either.
Barack Obama did not vote to authorize this war.
Barack Obama did not question your sexuality.
Barack Obama did not send military recruiters to your son's high school.
Barack Obama did not make you forget your lines.
Barack Obama did not throw up at the party.
Barack Obama did not get your boss pissed at you
and Barack Obama did not make your best employee quit.
Barack Obama did not lose your mail.
Barack Obama did not borrow money from you.
Barack Obama did not paper your house on Halloween.
Barack Obama did not tell your kids not to talk to you.
Barack Obama did not close the mine.
Barack Obama did not make you an alcoholic.
Barack Obama did not privatize your pension.
Barack Obama did not cross your picket line.
Barack Obama did not question your religion
or your lack of religion.
Barack Obama did not draw a knife on you in a subway train.
Barack Obama did not give Ted Kennedy cancer.
Barack Obama did not take your place in line.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

And now, a consequential post

As a short counter to the recent exercise in triviality, how about I encourage us all to do something of consequence? Namely, help free Sami Al-Arian, an actual political prisoner in America, currently held in Howard County, Maryland.

I first heard of Al-Arian because I briefly encountered his son Abdullah, who was a student at Duke when I taught there. Back in 2002, Abdullah Al-Arian was smeared in the Duke Chronicle as "the son of a widely suspected terrorist," and I was among those who wrote outraged letters in response.

Sami Al-Arian's story is complicated, but the recent history is this: he was arrested in 2003 along with three other men but the government's case against him was poor; according to Wikipedia, "Of fifty-one charges against the four men, not one resulted in a conviction." He pled guilty to a single charge but is still in prison in violation of the government's agreement. He's been on hunger strike since March 3, 2008, and has recently been moved to a "special holding cell." Here are a few things you can do that might help.

The unfocused windbags of kairos

Added: Wow, this post got long. It's like kairosfocus gives everything he touches a proximate case of his own logorrhea.

Warning: do not read this post.
It is by definition without consequence, as it's about a character what goes by the name kairosfocus, whose blog, though astonishingly voluminous, is even less important than mine.

Although his own blog is but a filibuster in an empty room, kairosfocus also spends a lot of time posting on other (mainly Christian) blogs. As Jon Rowe puts it, he's in the habit of writing "book-length ponderous posts" in strident defense of his strange views. kairosfocus typically doesn't really win an argument. He simply wears his opponent out. In the process, he inevitably accuses them of some combination of the following:
  • "selective hyperskepticism"
  • ad hominem
  • red herrings
  • strawmen
These accusations are often couched as painful observations and noted with a characteristic "sadly." But there's nothing sad about it: kairosfocus positively delights in this kind of (nearly always groundless) accusation. He lives for it. Attaching "sadly" is just a way of excusing that frisson.

Sometimes several accusations combine in a glorious metaphorical trainwreck. For example, kairosfocus rings a lot of variations on this one:
As to wagers, no money needs be on the table, just demonstrated ability to think clearly and address issues cogently on the merits across comparative difficulties; instead of on personalities rooted in red herrings leading out to oil-soaked strawmen burned to cloud and poison the atmosphere with noxious smoke. (second emphasis added)
Isn't that delicious? I can't tell if kairosfocus repeats this kind of thing because it's so over-the-top bad or because he likes it. Maybe both, but that would require his possessing a sense of camp.

Back (sadly, sadly) to the reason for this post. I first encountered kairosfocus on Uncommon Descent, vanity blog of Dr. Dr. William A. Dembski (ID head mathemagician) and Denyse O'Leary (Canadian hack "writer"/grandma). Now, last summer I was banned from UD. And yet, despite my exile, inexplicably, I keep reading. (Which leads me to wonder: What's the matter with me? I can't look away: with Denyse O'Leary's appallingly bad writing, Bill Dembski's periodic tantrums, and David Springer's autodidactic pomposity, it's a horn of plenty for lovers of the "give 'em enough rope" school of debate.)

A description of kairosfocus on another blog, Evangelical Outpost, points to what prompts this post:
I am fairly certain that [kairosfocus] is sincere in his beliefs, but his tactic of saying so much, making so many tenuous and often balantly [sic] false claims, his tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from a single remark made by someone long ago, often gives me the feeling that he's willing to grasp at any straw to support beliefs he has decided to take on faith. (Emphasis added)
kairosfocus has spent a lot of time recently "draw[ing] sweeping conclusions from a single remark made by someone long ago." Recently he's been reposting, in distorted form, a three-year old message from a discussion board of the Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS). The original message is this:
Pat,

I admire your attitude. I feel the same way. However, the BOE answers to no one. They have no reason to resign. They are in the cat-bird seat, they have all the power, and they will do what they want to do.

My strategy at this point is the same as it was in 1999: notify the national and local media about what's going on and portray them in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.

There may no way to head off another science standards debacle, but we can sure make them look like asses as they do what they do.

Our target is the moderates who are not that well educated about the issues, most of whom probably are theistic evolutionists. There is no way to convert the creationists.

The solution is really political. And unfortunately, the creationists on the BOE are making their power grab so early in the game, it's far away from the 2006 elections. Think they didn't plan it that way?

In the meantime, let's shine a light on them and their motives, and let the press and public know what's really going on.
Intelligent Design people are obsessed with this message. I got it from an archive kept by an anti-evolution group -- but hey, at least it's apparently accurate. Since it was posted, it was mentioned in the testimony on the Kansas Science Standards and has been crowed about on various blogs by the Discovery Institute and their fellow travelers.

All the pro-ID sites view it as KCFS policy. Now, when I read the message, I don't see policy. I see an exchange of views. I think, -- who's Pat? What's this person responding to? And yet, in the hands of the ID crowd, it's converted into policy. It's as though they never read a discussion board before.

kairosfocus does worse, in two ways. Here's his latest:

Jack — per the upshot of the recent Complex Speciation thread here, from 117 on — is an educator and state-level curriculum developer in Kansas.

He has in that context been a major leader of the attempt to redefine science as taught to students there, as in effect applied materialism; cf the 2007 standards, especially the “natural explanations” clause. (I call that, for excellent reason, substitution of ideologically loaded indoctrination for education, through abuse of the state education powers; a la Plato’s Cave.]

He is also associated with the group KCFS as a principal leader, and has thus also been associated with the declared PR policy stated on the KCFS forum he then moderated, by its PR person [cf FtK’s remarks on that, at 533], namely:

[KCFS’ PR] strategy [as declared in their online forum by their PR person, circa 2005] . . . is the same as it was in 1999: notify the national and local media about what’s going on and portray them [i.e. those who advocate for objectivity, fairness and balance in science definitions and in teaching about the science of origins] in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc . . . . Our target [i.e. this is not just a loose cannon speaking] is the moderates who are not that well educated about the issues, most of whom probably are theistic evolutionists . . . . The solution is really political . . .

Strategy sounds familiar?

Sadly, it should.

I see a familiar strategy all right: kairosfocus pulling and twisting a passage like taffy, here with the aid of ellipses and brackets. That's one way kairosfocus is worse than the hacks at "Evolution News & Views." The second way is this: kairosfocus claims that Jack Krebs, one of the most patient people ever to post on UD, should somehow take responsibility for the statement, or apologize (for what, I don't know.) This pattern started, as far as I can tell, on an earlier discussion that kairosfocus hijacked, and has continued repeatedly to the present. He never quoted the passage accurately. (Later in the thread, kairosfocus inserts an ellipsis in another argument with Jack Krebs, and then, when Jack repeats by quoting kairosfocus's quote, kairosfocus accuses Jack of inserting the ellipsis. Of course, it's all Jack's fault.)

Fed up with this bullshit, Jack responds with righteous indignation, as he should.
KF lies when he says that the quote he has taken to posting every time my name comes up is or was KCFS’s policy, and I defy him to find an example of something that KCFS has done that has been anything more than acting to express our views in a democratic manner - which we have every right to do.
Thing is, even if a message on a board did represent policy, and even if kairosfocus had responsibly quoted (I laugh, I laugh), and even if the interlocutor were the speaker and not someone else, there would be nothing to apologize for. The creationists on the board were "political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies." Pointing that out is just speaking the truth.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Transcribed Poem: father and son

I must have recorded this some years ago. Found it on microcassette and transcribed.

One day
a flying lizard was going
in a fierce place called Fierce Desert,
and it heard something
very very fierce. What are you doing with that?

I’m just — OK, done.

And then it woke up a sleeping lizard.
The sleeping lizard was grunting.
And —

can you record that again?

I’m recording, I’m recording now. Keep going.

And then,
the fierce lizard just
ate it
like it eats a snake.
Snake chomped up by the hungry lizard.
And then
it tried to eat it.
And then
he killed it!

Is that the end of the story?

No it isn’t!

OK.

Cause there’s a crocodile!

Right.

And it kept eating
until its mouth was full.
Of snake.
[eating sounds]

Then what?

Then, the crocodile came.
And it tried to — bited itself —
and it bited with the slimy lizard —
and then
it killed it.
[killing sounds]
It kept eating
until the crocodile was full of lizard,
which was king of the —
and those guys were the king of the stretchies.

The End.
There’s more?

Yeah.

OK.

And then,
the crocodile finished his meal.
But then
it went with the others.
Then
Frank came up,
which had a long tail,
and he came to stay —
all the lizards came to stay
at Grandmother’s,
cause they were brave.

All of them came to save her,
and all of the snakes came
to save the other snake.

And the other snake was Grandmother?

No, the other snake doesn’t have any name!
And then something fierce
happened out.
Something fierce happened out
with this guy —

I think you’ve got too many characters. It’s hard to follow the story with all these characters.

And then that guy went toward those guys.
And stepped on the crocodile’s tail. OWWWW!
And it woke up the sleeping lizard too!
HEY, croc, who was that stepping on your tail?
Ah, it was a frog.
It hurt very very badly.
And that’s why he said
OWWW!
Now I’m going to whoop my tail at that frog.
Why are you lying down?

I’m just listening. I’m enjoying it.

And then it got catched by the croc.
The croc was hungry.

Is that the end?

Oh no no nononononononononono

You’ve got to end the story, we’re running out of tape. Okay, end it up.

And then

Plus it’s time to go to bed, it’s way late.

And then
[whispers]
and then
this guy killed all the stretchy animals.
The
end.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Scott Simon and NPR hate poetry

On NPR's Weekend Edition this morning, Scott Simon delivers a commentary about the recent exposure of gang-banger "memoir" Love and Consequences by Margaret Jones (actually Margaret Seltzer). Simon observes that "the book is a fraud, but Ms. Seltzer came within hours of of being on NPR." Wrong. In fact, Jones/Seltzer did make it onto NPR's syndicated show "On Point," and the show followed with an hour-long, hand-wringing examination of how they got punked in the first place.

But that minor error is nothing compared to what happens next. Simon quotes Seltzer making up some bullshit about her life and observes (my transcript of the online audio):
Now if some Brooklyn or London novelist had written a story set among drug gangs and uttered those words, people might have dismissed them as pretentious nonsense. Put those sentences into a so-called memoir, people call it "gritty and real," or "raw, tender, and tough-minded," like the New York Times did. The list of fake memoirs is getting long enough to need their own shelves.
Simon then starts to fill the shelves with his own short list. After Love and Consequences, he mentions the recently exposed Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, drops the inevitable reference to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and interestingly skirts around the "troubling questions [that] have been raised about" A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah.

This is an odd list. In the first place, there are radical differences among all these books. Are Frey's embellishments really in the same category as Jones/Selzer's wholesale fraud? Misha is an out-and-out fraud, but to understand it well we'd have to figure out how a story so implausible -- raised by wolves? really? -- was received with apparent enthusiasm. To really understand this fraud, in other words, would require diving into the complex literature about the Nazi holocaust and memory. With regard to Beah, Simon is clearly uncomfortable saying much at all.

But the list is not finished. Finally -- though without mentioning the book or its author -- Simon mentions something completely different, and here he goes off the rails. Again, my transcript:
Ten years ago, prestigious journals published poems by a man billed as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, who turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois.
I'm guessing most NPR listeners don't know what the hell Simon is talking about. In fact, Simon is describing what is known as "the Yasusada affair," poems and prose published under the name of Araki Yasuasada, first in magazines and then in a book called Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. The professor in question is Kent Johnson, the chief suspect behind the Yasusada writings (which have grown to include Also, With my Throat I shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords, a collection of letters in English).

Here's what I want to say: Simon doesn't know what he's talking about. Not only that, but the Yasusada controversy supports him -- if he really believes what he says.

Before we get to that, let us pause to note Simon's contemptuous tone. Listen to the audio: catch that sense of gleeful letdown when he says the poet "turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois." Simon, of course, is no mere "community college professor"; his NPR bio page notes that Simon "attended the University of Chicago and McGill University, and he has received a number of honorary degrees." But he loves referring to Johnson as a CC professor. Check the significant pause right here:
a community college professor in

[pause]

Freeport, Illinois
It's not easy to achieve that kind of timing; you have to take special asshole classes in journalism school.

(Freeport, by the way, is just a hundred miles or so west of Simon's hometown of Chicago, though I realize Simon may imagine his audience more along U-Chicago/McGill lines than the Highland CC cafeteria.)

All in all, Simon's commentary is marked by his usual self-righteous attempt at total comprehensiveness. This is a guy who can't make sense of anything without carefully measuring it on his own moral scale. He's the Tom Friedman of Saturday public radio. To be fair, sometimes it works. Sometimes, however, as today, it implodes.

Today the counterweights are provided by literary fiction. Simon critiques the fetish for authenticity that drives the memoir craze. Of course he's right about that. But his way of righting the balance is appalling. Again, my transcript:
Now I don't decry decry phony memoirs as a journalist so much as someone who is also a novelist. So I cringe every time someone suggests these frauds should simply have been labeled novels. Novels just don't spill out of people like uncorked champagne. They take craft and discipline, not just empathy and imagination. Readers have a right to expect style and skill in a novel. The people who wrote these frauds knew that if they had presented their books as novels, they would have had to withstand a whole different kind of criticism. What critic will bash the literary style of a memoir by someone who was suckled by wolves, ran with gangs, or was dragooned into being a child soldier? Calling these books memoirs allows their flaws to masquerade as proof that they're raw and real.
How could a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois be expected to exhibit the craft demanded by Chicago-based Scott Simon of National Public Radio?

A side note: in addition to insulting champagne makers and vinification generally, Scott Simon critiques the fetish for experiential authenticity by appealing to his own experience as a novelist. Anybody notice a potential problem here? OK, Scott Simon may have written a novel or two. Who the hell cares? This contributes nothing to his response except to justify his own stated devotion to the "craft" of fiction as compared to the apparent artlessness of the memoir.

But Doubled Flowering is not a simple hoax. It's crafted with great care and artfulness. Nor is it a memoir. It's a book of poetry and prose that would be impossible to do in a novel or a memoir. Further, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out in detail, Doubled Flowering is a critique of the very cult of authenticity Scott Simon claims to disdain. If Simon knew the first thing about the Yasusada controversy, he'd know that transforming it into a novel would be impossible and would be a less literary and less artful maneuver than publishing it as poetry. He needs to understand Yasusada in other terms: Ern Malley, Armand Schwerner's Tablets, the Spectre writers.

But to do that would require a sympathy with real poetry that's well beyond NPR's feeble ken. They proved that, as well, on the very same morning. In fact, another story, which aired the previous hour, focused on the latest book by Li-Young Lee, whose entire overrated poetry career builds on the kind of authenticity the Yasusada writings undermine. Here's how the story is introduced by -- wait for it -- Scott Simon:
Poet Li-Young Lee has a new collection, his first in seven years. Mr. Lee is the acclaimed author of four books of poems and a memoir, The Winged Seed, which won an American Book Award. His new book of poems is called Behind My Eyes, and in it he reflects on his extraordinary family history in meditations on suffering, prayer, death, and love. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.
Vitale then reverently walks us through a few poems in Lee's book, and Lee reads along in one of those super-serious poetry-reading voices sometimes used as therapy for insomniacs. "Li-Young Lee," Vitale notes, "was born into history and suffering." Of course, so were we all. But in Lee's case, the biography is everything, and so the suffering of Indonesia and Pennsylvania are all equivalent and terrifying -- yet all uniquely Lee's.

To authenticate Lee's verse, Vitale digs Robert Bly out of mothballs, who says:
You're aware that [Lee] is the son or grandson of someone who's had a tremendous connection with culture. And it's rare that you find that in American poetry.
Really? Lee doesn't seem that cultured to me. Certainly his range of reference is not particularly wide or challenging. But Robert Bly has spent a lifetime decrying intellectually demanding poetry, and now he says finding an American poet with a "tremendous connection with culture" is rare. Whatever. Anyway, Bly goes on:

In Li-Young you see a family that's lived with a very deep Chinese culture for years and years. And he has absorbed that into his body, so that he almost never says anything that's trivial or light. And yet, being very thoughtful, he doesn't make you feel a lot of grief for him. Rather, you have a sense of the grief of life itself.

What a load of crap. I suppose he means "generations" rather than "years," but it's still a load of crap. What Bly means by "culture" is the kind of meditative free-verse writing that reminds Bly of himself. When Bly says that Lee "almost never says anything that's trivial or light," he means that Lee is never funny and never without a prevailing self-importance.

So on a single morning, NPR managed to misunderstand and trivialize an important book of poetry and -- in hyping one of the most overrated "authentic" poets of our time -- demonstrate one of the very reasons the book was needed in the first place.

[Note: the first version of this post misidentified Highland Community College.]

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Music: My brother, Radio Otherfunk

My brother lives in Singapore, where I spent a lovely Christmas. We're twins, so we look alike (except that he's in shape, so I look like my brother in a funhouse mirror). He's been learning Chinese and singing Chinese songs in Singapore karaoke bars. Here is is singing an acoustic version of the pop song Xiao Wei:


Also, if you don't know it, tune in to Radio Otherfunk. Their Darwin Day episode was my first contact, but I've been catching up on previous broadcasts since I heard it. Fantastic stuff: worth the time.