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Wednesday, Dec 7, 2005

Ed Kilgore, a DLC operative who writes the New Donkey blog, has a pithy assessment of the fundamental problem with the kleptocrats currently running America. Tracing it back to the Grover Norquist “starve the beast” idea of forcing governement spending cuts by giving magnanimous tax cuts to the wealthy, Kilgore argues the following:


“I believe the endemic corruption of conservatives in power we are witnessing today is not just a morality play about power’s corrupting influence, or about the descent of ideologues into the practical swamps of politics. Worse than that, it’s about the consequences of entrusting government’s vast power to people who can’t think of it as a force for the common good, and thus, inevitably, treat it as a force for private gain.”


It is not the bureaucratic system or the trials of power that have made them corrupt; it’s their entire ideology, which is steeped in the corrupt notion that the only point of power is spoils. This, “conservatives” may argue, is rational self-interest in action, an extension of the principles of rapacious individualism that Ayn Rand’s gospels of greed advocate—social good is an inevitable by-product of ethically unbounded personal ambition, which is the only motivating force leading to accomplishments of any kind. They believe that government exists not to protect and enforce a “level playing field” and thus enable freedom—to allow those “who work hard and play by the rules” (in Clinton’s phrase) to prosper—but instead think it serves to extend pre-existing advantages of education, patronage, connection, access, wealth, and so on to reinforce an unequal society and reinforce an existing stratified social structure. That is a trait of conservatism through the ages, but what makes it so galling with this current crop is how they crow about their beliefs in social mobility, something their policies intend to prevent. And lo and behold, they work.


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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2005

This article by Richard Bradley at The Huffington Post is worth reading in its entirety. But what I found most interesting was this aside:


(Remember that it was the practice of the record companies to charge the most for older compact discs by artists like The Beatles and Neil Young, despite the fact that virtually all the production costs on such albums had already been incurred, apparently on the theory that Baby Boomers would happily pay the higher prices. Which, among other things, meant that young people who wanted that music either wouldn’t buy it or would steal it, which is one reason artists felt compelled to sell out to Cadillac, etc., in order to feel that their music was still relevant.)


We don’t always consider the cost of music in relation to the costs of its production and get hung up instead on quandaries of intellectual property, the rights to exploit the same ideas, musical or otherwise, over and over again with no value added. Of course, price is not a function of production costs but of consumer demand. But consumer demand, if Bradley is right, is itself a function of the perceived fairness of the price in relation to manufacturing costs. The enthusiasm that might have bolstered demand for legally sold music has been diverted into finding ways to undermine that market, which has been rejected as unfair and illegitimate by enough consumers to completely cripple its functioning. Apple’s approach to repairing this market was flat-fee pricing, which consumers accepted as more apparently fair. The record industry responded by allowing the dysfunctional market to make prices even more unfair for those still willing to participate in it, and then attempted to imprison those customers in that malfunctioning market with root-kits and lawsuits and other coercive measures.


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Tuesday, Dec 6, 2005

This New York Times article about Duke political scientist Peter Deaver was extremely disturbing. His cohort Christopher Gelpi was on NPR this morning, and he was pretty disturbing too. Why? These guys are scientists of demagoguery, who look for ways to enhance the executive’s ability to shift the national debate away from facts (those “stupid” things) and to the psychology of Americans en masse. The upshot is that Americans will support a war, regardless of the level of casualties, if they are harangued into believing we are close to victory. From the article:


In their paper, “Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” which is to be published soon in the journal International Security, Dr. Feaver and his colleagues wrote: “Mounting casualties did not produce a reflexive collapse in public support. The Iraq case suggests that under the right conditions, the public will continue to support military operations even when they come with a relatively high human cost.”


Hence Bush’s insulting (where was this plan before, and why was it kept from us until now?) and misleading (it offers no substance) “plan for victory” speech last week.  So Bush is more concerned with conducting a propaganda war against those who view Iraq through the lens of reality (those “cowards” who want to know what we are really accomplishing) than with the well-being of the soldiers whose lives are in his hands. And the professors who collaborate with him in this process of spinning death into “victory”—where is their sense of responsibility?


Presumably they have accepted the ethical reasoning of “the noble lie” whereby the wise rulers of a society (Plato’s Guardians, or people with “gold in their souls”) craft a bogus story for mass consumption to get the “people of bronze” to agree to a stable but unjust social structure. This has been the pattern of the Iraq war all along. The reasons for going to war were conceived not in relation to facts but in relation to shaping public opinion, because the real reasons would be too incomprehensible to us “people of bronze.” As these reasons have been debunked, new lies are crafted to try to continue to keep public opinion aloft. Meanwhile the real reasons are still largely unknown, and the soldiers dying likely have no true understanding of the reasons why they are dying. Yet Professors Feaver and Gelpi are untroubled by this. Let the soldiers die; as long as the President’s poll numbers get a boost.


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Monday, Dec 5, 2005

I’m guilty of it. I’ve used the word pretentious as a bludgeon to beat down the ambitious, to mock attempts at being intellectual, attempts at surprising or throwing an audience’s expectations out of whack. But every time I see someone else use it, I feel ashamed of having ever done it myself, because there may be no more pretentious act than dubbing someone else’s work pretentious. There are many problems with pretentious as epithet, the largest being the problem of the imputation of the critic’s own lofty point of view. When you call something else pretentious—that is, accuse a work of having a phony intellectual content, a shallowness masquerading as depth—you set yourself up as the transcendent arbiter of intellect; you grant yourself a superintellect that never fails to understand what others have been attempting and can parcel out precisely how much intellectual validity their efforts warrant. But no critic can stand on that Archimedian ground, even if we were to agree that there is some kind of objective way to measure and quantify intellectualism, which there isn’t.


The epithet pretentious invokes the image of the parasitical critic, who feeds off of the work of other artists to build his own self-esteem. He sits back and points out the intellectual shortcomings of other people’s work while never having to trouble to venture his own. His ability to find “pretension” in all efforts to wrestle with complexity justifies his own failures to act, to make something, to attempt to hunt bigger game than the aesthetic success of the work of other artists. Not all critics are parasites, and of course criticism can be a constructive medium of its own. But the critics of pretence are rarely more than bloodsuckers, feeding on other artists to nourish their own superiority. Such critics defend their nebulous intellectual turf with lofty insults because they are afraid to actually stalk it and find out what contradictions and inconscistencies and complexities lurk there. Pretentious as epithet is a vital pillar of anti-intellectualism, allowing bully reactionary critics to shout down anything that threatens the status quo of debased culture subservient to the oligarchy and the hydraulics of consumerism.


The next logical step from this argument is to praise pretension, to celebrate overreaching, to listen to an album like the Rascals’ Once Upon a Dream or Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans and not wince at its earnestness or patronize it as camp. It means taking intentions seriously, even if the work derived from them in no way meets those intentions. How do we do this without commiting a variant of the intentional fallacy, without reconfiguring intention in order to make a work more successful, as some literary critics like to do with authors of whom they are fond, mounting implausible and counter-intuituive defenses of writers such as Richardson and Ann Radcliffe? You probably can’t, but maybe the effort is worth it, if only to make the critical enterprise serve intellectual pursuits rather than undermine them.


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Sunday, Dec 4, 2005

Since there’s been a flap about presenting only one side of a complex court case here, I’d like to post another opinion on the recent MC5 court ruling.  I had meant to post it before and should have, especially as this isn’t a cut-and-dry case of who’s right and who’s wrong.


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