Quotulatiousness

September 1, 2015

QotD: Question everything

Filed under: Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I’m a fairly big believer in the idea of Questioning Everything, and the absolute first thing on the list of Everything to be Questioned is the self.

Why do I think the way I do? What bigotries lurk in my heart? What cheap rationalizations do I comfort myself with? What petty vanities do I sustain despite all evidence, and what contempts and condescensions do I offer others to sustain those vanities?

What myths and lies do I consciously believe in — and which do I subconsciously believe in?

I don’t want to be all Mr. Liberal here — and I certainly don’t want to lecture self-alleged Liberals on Liberalism 101 — but I think those are reasonable questions that all thinking Men or thinking Women should ask themselves every once in a while.

Self-serving answers shouldn’t be trusted. Self-serving answers may actually be correct, but they should never be trusted, and certainly never accepted at first blush.

We’re taught to be suspicious of flattery from our very first Aesop’s Fable. We know other people may flatter us in order to bend us to their own interests.

The most insidious flattery of all is self-flattery, because we never suspect ourselves of having any ulterior motives.

But of course we all do. We all want to feel superior to our fellow man, and especially those of Other Tribes.

And we will flatter ourselves until we feel just that.

Those who only question other people’s notions are not really questioning anything at all.

Ace, “Breaking: Cult of Intellectual Insecurity Reacts to Threat to Intellect in an Insecure, Cultish Way”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-09-19.

August 24, 2015

QotD: Air conditioning

Filed under: Europe, Quotations, Technology, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Thing is, since we don’t live in the far off frozen wastelands like you, it’s not “sweating for a few days”; here it would be sweating for a few months. Or practically the whole year in places like Miami, New Orleans, or Houston.

There’s a reason the population of our industrialized North massively outnumbered that of the South in our Civil War: Because before air conditioning, not many people chose to live in places where the summertime climate can kill you dead. It’s certainly not conducive to industry or a modern economy.

Why is there a stereotype of Southerners talking slowly and ambling languidly, rather than hurrying about like chattering New Yorkers? Because acting like that between May and September down around Atlanta or Birmingham is courting heatstroke.

Air conditioning didn’t just help the modern Sun Belt economy, it’s practically solely responsible for it. Twelve US states are partially or entirely located below the 35th parallel north; the only parts of Europe that far south are Crete and Cyprus, which are not areas known for contributing to the industry of the continent.

Conversely, only our northernmost tier of states is above the 45th parallel: Oregon and Washington, Montana, the Dakotas, parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan, a bit of New England… You know what I noticed in Washington state? Neither of the houses I visited had A/C. Nor did the abode of friends in New Hampshire, until they added a window unit upstairs recently to make the occasional summer heat wave more bearable in the loft bedroom. Do you know where the 45th parallel crosses Europe? The French Riviera. Balmy Lombardy. The pleasant Piedmont.

Tam K. “Heavy Smug Emissions”, View From The Porch, 2015-08-13.

August 1, 2015

Ayn Rand’s Ideal

Filed under: Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Vice, Milo Yiannopoulos discusses the long-lost-then-found early Ayn Rand novella Ideal, which Rand reworked into a play:

According to Michael Paxton, who directed the world premiere of the play in 1989, Ideal gives readers an insight into Rand’s state of mind in the early 1930s: Her first novel, We The Living, had been rejected by publishers for being “too intellectual,” and the writer was struggling with odd jobs, having recently moved to the United States.

“It examines the artist’s process,” Paxton told me from his hotel room in North Carolina, where he was set to give a talk at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Summer Conference. “How do you be an artist and live in the world at the same time? It’s amazing how, once you’ve lived a little in the world, you can really understand these characters and the issues they’re dealing with — not being understood, thinking the world doesn’t care whether you live or die.”

His assessment is not universal. Perhaps predictably, the New York Times hated the play when it premiered off-Broadway in 2010, concluding that, “the show’s clumsy mix of long bursts of theory and a laborious plot would test the endurance of even Alan Greenspan, a famous Rand admirer and veteran of long, boring meetings.”

As a play, Ideal went unperformed for 60 years after its writing, and was never seen on stage in Rand’s lifetime, though Paxton says that may have something to do with its practical demands: The play has 37 characters and tons of set changes. But he thinks it’s worth the effort: “What’s surprising about the play is that it has a lot of humour, and a lot of satire in how it makes fun of organized religion. It’s subtle, and very funny.”

The good news is the new edition also includes the entire play script. So you can gather 37 of your closest right-wing nutcase allies — or lefty culture jammers, as you prefer — and stage it yourself to find out.

Ideal the novel, which Rand herself set aside as unsatisfactory, is less polished than the stage version, and, despite flashes of Randian flair, there is evidence that the author was still struggling to find her voice. Readers familiar with The Fountainhead will recognize the seeds of that work in this early effort. Thankfully, though, Ideal is not one of those works of juvenilia that ought to have remained lost.

Rand’s critics, often humourless literalists, will find plenty in Ideal to gnaw on: There’s the classically Randian was-it-rape-or-wasn’t-it sex scene and a blisteringly heartless remark after a death that will have fans sniggering and detractors drumming up all the manufactured fury they can muster. And, yes, Rand’s writing can be a bit… much.

But profound, existential loneliness, coupled with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer–esque sense of ordained personal greatness is why so many cheerleaders for capitalism relate to Rand’s lead characters, from Gonda to The Fountainhead‘s Dominique Francon.

July 15, 2015

The onrushing infantilization of the West

Filed under: History, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Kit Wilson examines the state of western thought and belief:

Consider the main philosophical movements of the 20th century. The majority followed the fearsome footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche — the man who killed God and buried good and evil at His side. And though they grappled with his legacy in a variety of ways, they shared, more or less, the same key assumption: that the traditional pursuits of thought — truth, beauty, meaning — were fundamentally misguided. Philosophy, unable to comment on the world, turned instead to — and on — itself. “Having broken its pledge to be at one with reality,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “philosophy is obliged to ruthlessly criticise itself.”

At the same time, positivism — the belief that only empirical or logically deduced data have any real meaning — took hold among many of the West’s intellectual circles. A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell declared that, if we were ever to understand ourselves, it would be by scientific means alone. Cultural memory, which could not be reduced to testable propositions, was made entirely superfluous.

Wherever one looked, the West seemed to be in the midst of a curious experiment: can a civilisation survive on nothing but the impulse to debunk its own presuppositions?

Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer tried to tackle this question in Dialectic of Enlightenment. A bleak assessment of Western culture, it argued that modernism, nihilism and reductionism were symptoms of the same fundamental malady — the suicide of Enlightenment thinking. Our insatiable appetite for self-criticism, the monstrous alter ego of philosophical scepticism, was finally gnawing at the very foundations on which we stood.

Adorno and Horkheimer thought it unlikely we would survive, and predicted three historical steps that would see us collapse altogether. High culture — including art — would exhaust itself, taking with it any sense of a shared inheritance. Second, we would lapse into infantile solipsism, duped by the immediate gratifications of capitalism — in particular, cinema and popular music. Finally, society — stupefied by such pleasures — would topple at the first serious test of its walls. Adorno and Horkheimer saw a host of surrogate mythologies — most notably, Nazism — poised to flood into the vacuum left behind.

This final point seemed borne out by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. But then, as the war receded into the past, much of the West suddenly found itself reclining into an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. To the baby boomers, Adorno and Horkheimer’s stuffy pessimism seemed laughably outmoded. And today, we assume — having never known any different — that this good fortune is simply here to stay. At a time of such global instability — with Putin and Islamism openly challenging our values — we urgently need to reconsider our confidence. Were the last 70 years really the final disproof of Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimism, or did history merely postpone its judgment?

Let us begin with the charge of Western infantilism. Here, at least, Adorno and Horkheimer seem to have been rather prescient. The West is — for all its wealth today — far more childish than even they anticipated. This can be traced — I believe — to the reductionist narratives we adopted as our mantras during the last century.

July 14, 2015

Restaurant reviews … with real teeth

Filed under: Britain, Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Guardian, Jay Rayner provides the kind of review that you rarely see in your local newspaper (because it guarantees that the restaurant will never buy advertising from you again):

Cooking a steak well is tricky, because you cannot see inside the meat. It takes experience and knowledge. Cooking chips is easy: use the right potatoes, give them a couple of runs through the hot oil, make sure they’re the right colour, perhaps even taste a couple. The job is done. At Smith & Wollensky, the new London outpost of a well-known small American steakhouse chain, we sent back the chips because they were tepid and under-cooked. They returned to us hot and undercooked. And in that one example of carelessness and lack of attention to detail, you know all you need to.

But I had to sit through the whole damn meal so I don’t see why you shouldn’t, too. This US business has swaggered into London like it thinks it’s the bollocks. The description is almost right, if you remove the definite article before the reference to testicles. It is about as shoddy an operation in separating people from inexcusable amounts of their cash as I have seen in a very long time.

[…]

The menu also mentions a list of blackboard specials – T-bones and so on – all of which have run out by 8.20pm. We order the bone-in ribeye. The char is feeble and the overwhelming taste is of salt. Worse is the texture. It’s floppy. Part of this, I think, is a cultural difference; Americans like to celebrate steaks based on tenderness, as if being able to cut a piece of dead animal with a butter knife is an aspiration. I think that if you’re going to eat beef, you want to know it has come from an animal that has moved. This steak slips down like something that has spent its life chained to a radiator in the basement.

The sauces are dire. A béarnaise is an insult to the name, lacking any acidity or the anise burst of tarragon. An au poivre sauce is just a shot of hot demi-glace. A side salad is crisp and well dressed. We take comfort in it. Many other sides are priced for two which is a quick route to higher profit margins and greater food waste. The £9 battered onion rings are good; the £10 truffled mac and cheese is dry and tastes not at all of truffle. Those terrible chips come in the kind of mini-chip-fat-fryer-basket used at chain pubs.

Service is omnipresent. Twice we ask to keep our bread and side plates when they attempt to remove them. When a third waiter lunges in I finally admit defeat. Take them if you’re so bloody desperate. How hard is it to communicate a table’s wishes to the half dozen people working a corner of the floor, especially when a meal is going to cost more than £100 a head?

H/T to John McCluskey for the link.

Update: An earlier review from the same series is extra-flavourful…

You could easily respond to this week’s restaurant with furious, spittle- flecked rage. You could rant about the posing-pouch stupidity of the meat – hanging cabinet that greets you as the lift doors open, and the frothing tanks of monstrous live Norwegian king crabs next to it, each 4ft across. You could bang on about the bizarre pricing structure, and the vertiginous nature of those prices; about the rough-hewn communal tables that are so wide you can’t sit opposite your dining companion because you wouldn’t be able to hear each other, and the long benches which make wearing a skirt a dodgy idea unless you’re desperate to flash the rest of the heavily male clientele. You could shake your fists and roll your eyes and still not be done.

I think this would be a mistake. Instead you should accept Beast as the most unintentionally funny restaurant to open in London in a very long time. It’s hilariously silly. The most appropriate response is to point and laugh. I don’t even think I’d advise you not to go. As long as you go with someone else’s money, because God knows you’ll need a lot of it. Got any friends who are, say, international drug barons? Excellent. They may be able to afford dinner. It’s worth going to see what the unmitigated male ego looks like, when expressed as a restaurant.

[…]

The corn-fed, dry-aged Nebraskan rib-eye, with a carbon footprint big enough to make a climate-change denier horny, is bloody marvellous: rich, deep, earthy, with that dense tang that comes with proper hanging. And at £100 a kilo it bloody well should be. At that price they should lead the damn animal into the restaurant and install it under the table so it can pleasure me while I eat.

July 12, 2015

Gaming journalism

Filed under: Business, Gaming — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I really haven’t been following the uproar over the gaming journalism narrative … so this story may be completely off-base (but it does at least match some of what I’ve heard from folks who are invested in the argument):

Video game journalists: those guys who use phrases like “high octane,” “balls-to-the-wall” and “artistic integrity“; the sadomasochists who label factions of their own community xenophobes and fascists, for daring to express an ironic sense of humor; the enlightened few, who described fans as whiny and “entitled” for voicing their displeasure over the conclusion to a beloved franchise.

These past few years have not been kind to the gaming community. To put it mildly, of late, video game journalists have not been too generous to the gaming community.

“Give us your clicks, your Facebook shares, your unfaltering loyalty,” they say, all doe-eyed and loving. “Oh, and please don’t enable AdBlock!” Video game journalists excitedly invite their readership to view their news articles, reviews and opinion pieces, only to kick them to the curb when they’ve siphoned up the ad money. If that’s not how the state of play is, that’s certainly how it feels.

It’s like a depressing, unfulfilling booty call, where, ultimately, everyone comes out a little crustier and disease-ridden. The games journalists may earn some clicks for cash, but they lose little pieces of their souls, their innocence, their Bambi-like demeanor. Meanwhile, angry gamers hop about social networks, gnashing their teeth and venting their disdain for the press. The fans’ incredulity over the behavior of these journalists, in turn, makes the journalists just as incredulous. The fans feel downtrodden and used, the journalists feel violated and misunderstood, and a toxic cycle of hate ensues.

A number of culture critics and social crusaders have helped foster an atmosphere of tension and animosity, striking a war between gamers and members of the games press. However, while these individuals struck the match of the debate, the journalists hurriedly gathered the canisters of gasoline. In fact, little did the community realize, these self-interested people had not been on “their side” for quite some time.

H/T to Perry de Havilland for the link, and the rather eye-catching GIF:

Mass-Effect-3-IGN-review-score

July 4, 2015

QotD: Literary status envy and the “deep norms” of SF

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.

June 30, 2015

QotD: The three classes of books

Filed under: Britain, History, Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

  1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
  2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
  3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula “The Worst Hundred Books,” and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

Oscar Wilde, “To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, 1886-02-08.

June 23, 2015

Richard Blake reviews ten films set in the Roman empire

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Wandering a bit off his usual (Byzantine empire) era, Richard Blake looks at how Hollywood has portrayed Rome in film:

My purpose in this article is to describe and compare and judge ten films set in the Roman Empire. I will apply two criteria. The first, and most obvious, is how these films stand as works of art in their own right — narrative structure, acting, general production values and so forth. The second, and for me almost equally important, is how well they show that the Ancients lived in a moral universe fundamentally different from our own.

Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say at once that I have no time for any of the neo-Marxist claims about Antiquity. Karl Polanyi and Moses Finlay were wrong in their belief that the laws of supply and demand have only operated since the eighteenth century. Michel Foucault was more than usually wrong when he denied that the Ancients had any notion of the individual. In all times and places, human nature is the same. All people are motivated by some combination of sex, money, status, power and the fear of death. The laws of Economics apply just as well in Ancient Rome as they do in Modern England.

What I do mean, however, is that these basic motivations showed themselves in often radically different ways. The Ancients were not Christians. They were not universalists. They had no concept of human equality. The establishment of chattel slavery among them normalised attitudes and behaviour that would have been thought outrageous in Ancien Régime Europe, and that every religious denomination would have been mobilised to denounce in the ante bellum American South.

The Ancients lacked technologies and scientific and moral concepts that we have taken for granted for five or six or even eight centuries. A modern secularist has more in common with a twelfth century theologian than with a Greek rationalist. He probably has more in common with a sixth century Bishop than with a pagan philosopher.

One of the main, though seldom noticed, differences between virtually everyone in the past and us is that they lived under the continual shadow of death. I have reached the age of fifty five. I might fall dead tomorrow, but the insurance tables tell me I have a long way yet to go before I need to start thinking hard about the inevitable end of things. I put off begetting children until I was in my forties. I only took up a serious study of the piano last year. Catullus was dead at thirty, Horace and Vergil in their fifties. Constantine the Great was an old and dying man when he was younger than I am now. Shorter time horizons must have an effect on almost every approach to life.

Any fictional recreation must show these differences, and show them without vexing readers or viewers with endless asides. I try to show them in my series of thrillers set in seventh century Byzantium. Without more elaboration, let me see how well they are shown in the ten films I have selected.

May 26, 2015

Feminist reviewer sees little to no feminist message in Mad Max: Fury Road

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie myself, so I can’t say whether Eileen Jones has correctly identified the “feminist messsage” that some men’s rights activists are decrying:

Regardless of where one stands on Ensler’s feminist cred, I couldn’t see any evidence in the film of her consciousness-raising sessions. The first full shot we get of the escaping women shows them standing tall against a gorgeous sun-blasted horizon, wearing white muslin bikinis and other resort-wear, and looking exactly like supermodels posing for a Vogue shoot in the deserts of Namibia. Rose Huntington-Whiteley plays Splendid, the lead figure among the escaping band. The credentials that secured her this role are presumably her career highs as a top model, achieving the rank of a Victoria’s Secret “Angel” and a number one rating on Maxim magazine’s “Hot List” for 2011.

The other women are even less impressive performers. None can act in the least, but in addition to unmemorably pretty features, they have a broad spectrum of hair and skin colors, which is important when setting up a group Vogue shot in this enlightened age of ours.

That no primitive patriarch in his right mind would ever choose these particular women as “breeders” to keep his colony alive is immediately apparent. One of them is so thin and pale as to be almost transparent and looks as if she’ll die in a photogenic way at any second. But she could step onto any catwalk during Fashion Week, no questions asked.

Of course, Charlize Theron as Furiosa benefits from proximity to the supermodels who make her seem, by comparison, ferociously strong and a better actor than Meryl Streep. She’s tall enough to seem physically imposing, and she moves with athleticism. But she also brings with her the legacy of so many Dior perfume ads: the soft, tiny-nosed, blonde prettiness that her crew cut merely accentuates and that John Seale‘s lovely cinematography enshrines in innumerable close-ups. Just compare this example of onscreen feminism to Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979). Weaver was six feet tall, odd, angular, smart and forceful, with highly individual, non-model looks and a remarkably ambitious actor’s resume, shot in unforgiving light and wearing a unisex worker’s uniform. In movies, we haven’t come a long way, baby.

We must also grapple with the supposedly feminist plot elements of Fury Road. The women’s escape from The Citadel is a quest to reach the matriarchal paradise where Furiosa was born. They repeat as a comforting mantra, “We’re going to the Green Place!” It’s the last stand of Mother Nature where, apparently, judging by the natives we eventually meet, no men ever lived.

It’s an extraordinary thing, in this day and age, that we still want to believe in a lot of essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women. But apparently we do. In praising Fury Road, Eve Ensler says, “All the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.”

Whatever “inherent woman-ness” is, I was afraid to find out. I dreaded getting to the “Green Place.” Would everyone be doing yoga when we got there? And communicating softly and understandingly with each other? Or perhaps tending gardens all day, then doing fertility dances by the light of the moon?

May 14, 2015

QotD: The value of poetry

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Once, after plowing through sixty or seventy volumes of bad verse, I described myself as a poetry-hater. The epithet was and is absurd. The truth is that I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me. But what mood? The mood, in a few words, of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine. First its sweet music lulls, and then its artful presentation of the beautifully improbable soothes and gives surcease. It is an escape from life, like religion, like enthusiasm, like glimpsing a pretty girl. And to the mere sensuous joy in it, to the mere low delight in getting away from the world for a bit, there is added, if the poetry be good, something vastly better, something reaching out into the realm of the intelligent, to wit, appreciation of good workmanship. A sound sonnet is almost as pleasing an object as a well-written fugue. A pretty lyric, deftly done, has all the technical charm of a fine carving. I think it is craftsmanship that I admire most in the world. Brahms enchants me because he knew his trade perfectly. I like Richard Strauss because he is full of technical ingenuities, because he is a master-workman. Well, who ever heard of a finer craftsman than William Shakespeare? His music was magnificent, he played superbly upon all the common emotions — and he did it magnificently, he did it with an air. No, I am no poetry-hater. But even Shakespeare I most enjoy, not on brisk mornings when I feel fit for any deviltry, but on dreary evenings when my old wounds are troubling me, and some fickle one has just sent back the autographed set of my first editions, and bills are piled up on my desk, and I am too sad to work. Then I mix a stiff dram — and read poetry.

H.L. Mencken, “The Poet and His Art”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

May 9, 2015

QotD: “Constructive” criticism

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Upon the low practical value of so-called constructive criticism I can offer testimony out of my own experience. My books are commonly reviewed at great length, and many critics devote themselves to pointing out what they conceive to be my errors, both of fact and of taste. Well, I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actively interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write — that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would ‘be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman. All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good, particularly if it be well written. It begins by enlisting my professional respect; it ends by making me examine my ideas coldly in the privacy of my chamber. Not, of course, that I usually revise them, but I at least examine them. If I decide to hold fast to them, they are all the dearer to me thereafter, and I expound them with a new passion and plausibility. If, on the contrary, I discern holes in them, I shelve them in a pianissimo manner, and set about hatching new ones to take their place. But constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being school-mastered, especially by men I regard as imbeciles.

H.L. Mencken, “Footnote on Criticism”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

May 4, 2015

In praise of “unfettered” capitalism

Filed under: Economics, History, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:00

L. Neil Smith isn’t happy with the Pope’s latest anti-capitalist comments:

Just for the record, when private capitalism came into being, it was a revolutionary economic, political, and social system that has since fed, clothed, and housed — not to mention educated and cured — more individual human beings than any other system in history. When it appeared on the world scene in the mid-1700s, a person’s average life expectancy at birth — in London, the most advanced and civilized city on the planet — was about 20 1/2 years. A hundred years later, life expectancy was three times that number, and it is now approaching four times.

If only for those reasons (and there are many others), capitalism has been the target of centuries of relentless, vicious attack by evil parasites who wish to be perceived as humanity’s benefactors without actually benefiting anybody at all, Today, virtually every member of what the great essayist H.L. Mencken called the “booboisie” believe (you can’t really say “think”) that capitalism and capitalists are evil.

Capitalism’s gravest “sin” in this connection is that it has made more widespread and greater individual freedom available than ever before (even though in his abysmal ignorance — or ideological delirium — the Pope accuses it of imposing ” a new tyranny” that is “causing people to die”. That, of course, is why there are seven billion people in the world today, as opposed to a few hundred cold and starving millions when his gang of terrorists was running things.).

That is a critically important key to why capitalism is hated and reviled, and to who hates and reviles it. Watch the various enemies of capitalism on TV; Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Waxman, Feinstein, Bush, Hatch, Cheney. None of them are genuine advocates of freedom. There are political vermin in the world — all over the world, in fact, generally in positions of leadership — who hate, loathe and despise individual freedom, and will do absolutely anything to eradicate it. They achieve their leadership positions because no decent human being really wants anything to do with telling other human beings what to do.

The headline reads “Pope Francis rebukes unfettered capitalism”. When he says “unfettered” you can bet he means it literally; this is the heir of a gang of thugs who used to “change” people’s theological opinions with the rack, the whip, and red-hot pincers. You can also bet they’d be doing it today if they believed they could get away with it.

Petulantly, the man complains that the worship of wealth has become a religion in itself. There is lots I could say about that. I’ll limit myself to the observation that the wealth is really there; it manifests itself. In that respect, it’s hell of a lot better than the Imaginary Playmate he claims to speak for and wants us all to worship.

April 11, 2015

Robert E. Lee

Filed under: History, Media, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In City Journal, Ryan L. Cole reviews a recent book on one of America’s most famous generals:

America’s Civil War presents a set of forever ponderable “what ifs.” What if a Union soldier hadn’t discovered plans for the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been hit by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville? What if George Meade had pursued the wounded Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg? The list goes on.

But perhaps the most vexing hypothetical has always been: What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces at the outset of the conflict? This would have likely robbed the Confederacy of its greatest military mind. It may have also robbed the South of its fleeting glories, dramatically shortened the war, and made Lee — not Ulysses S. Grant or even Abraham Lincoln — the savior of the Union. It could even have made Lee a second George Washington.

This decision and its ramifications are the basis of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general. It would be wrong to call this a biography. Though Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, assays Lee’s life from birth to death, the book is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation.

Lee had familial and professional connections to Washington. His father, Henry Lee III, better known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, was a dashing cavalry officer in the Continental Army. General Washington was impressed by Lee’s bravery and invited the young Virginian to join his personal staff. When Lee begged off, Washington asked Congress to give him an independent command. Like some other young officers, Lee found a mentor in Washington, who had no biological children of his own. He did, however, adopt and raise Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as his own son. Custis’s daughter, Mary, wed Robert E. Lee. Their children, by birth and marriage, were direct descendants of America’s original first lady.

The Lees lived in Arlington House, a Potomac mansion overlooking Washington, built by Custis as a shrine to his adoptive father and a repository for his relics. Through marriage, Lee was heir to the tactile remains of Washington’s legacy; even the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law were descendants of those who had toiled at Mount Vernon. In his opening chapters, Horn carefully draws the connections between the two titular subjects and plots Lee’s rise to military distinction in the years leading up to the Civil War. The history is simply fascinating. Horn is a graceful writer, and when the occasion warrants, has a suitable flair for the dramatic. The pages blaze by.

April 1, 2015

QotD: Forward-lookers and right-thinkers

Filed under: History, Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On the whole, as a neutral in such matters, I prefer the forward-looker to the right-thinker, if only because he shows more courage and originality. It takes nothing save lack of humor to believe what Butler, or Ochs, or Bishop Manning believes, but it takes long practice and a considerable natural gift to get down the beliefs of Sinclair. I remember with great joy the magazine that he used to issue during the war. In the very first issue he advocated Socialism, the single tax, birth control, communism, the League of Nations, the conscription of wealth, government ownership of coal mines, sex hygiene and free trade. In the next issue he added the recall of judges, Fletcherism, the Gary system, the Montessori method, paper-bag cookery, war gardens and the budget system. In the third he came out for sex hygiene, one big union, the initiative and referendum, the city manager plan, chiropractic and Esperanto. In the fourth he went to the direct primary, fasting, the Third International, a federal divorce law, free motherhood, hot lunches for school children, Prohibition, the vice crusade, Expressionismus, the government control of newspapers, deep breathing, international courts, the Fourteen Points, freedom for the Armenians, the limitation of campaign expenditures, the merit system, the abolition of the New York Stock Exchange, psychoanalysis, crystal-gazing, the Little Theater movement, the recognition of Mexico, vers libre, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, cooperative stores, the endowment of motherhood, the Americanization of the immigrant, mental telepathy, the abolition of grade crossings, federal labor exchanges, profit-sharing in industry, a prohibitive tax on Poms, the clean-up-paint-up campaign, relief for the Jews, osteopathy, mental mastery, and the twilight sleep. And so on, and so on. Once I had got into the swing of the Sinclair monthly I found that I could dispense with at least twenty other journals of the uplift. When he abandoned it I had to subscribe for them anew, and the gravel has stuck in my craw ever since.

H.L. Mencken, “The Forward-Looker”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

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