March 2010 Archives


Beam, Alex. A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008)

Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time covers a fair amount of ground--from the Harvard Classics at the turn of the century, the work of Adler and Hutchins at Columbia and the University of Chicago, Britannica's Great Books of the Western World set, and the Great Books discussion groups and their continuing legacy at St. John's and elsewhere--but does so with a frequently disdainful tone that may be bothersome to Great Books-friendly bibliophiles. His dislike for the "irrepressible intellectual hucksterism" (p. 5) of Hutchins and Adler is a bit too evident: For example, Beam purports to have written "a brief, engaging, and undidactic history of the Great Books" in "[a] book as different from the ponderous and forbidding Great Books as it could possibly be." (p. 6) Beam's brevity is fairly obvious, his ability to be write engagingly rather less so, but any non-didactic tendency is well-hidden.

His multiple complaints ("icons of unreadability" on p. 3 and "impossible to read" on p. 95) about the typography of the Great Books of the Western World set come across as pettiness, as that decision was clearly a concession to the set's enormous word-count. He reports Adler's estimates of the page counts and words-per-page of the Harvard Classics and Great Books sets (p. 107), leaving the reader to do the math: approximately 8 million and 26 million words, respectively. With a comparable number of volumes for each set, the easiest ways to triple the word count were larger paper and smaller type.

Beam often refers to the two-decades-past revision, complaining that Encyclopædia Britannica "no longer markets [the sets]" (p. 4) and "makes no attempt to sell off the inventory" (p. 182), observing that "If you happen to trip across them on the company's website, you can buy the set for $1,200." The GBWW set doesn't get top billing on the Britannica website, but it's easy to find--and only $989.

For a collection that Beam admits "had an enormous impact on the lives of the men, women, and children who read them," (p. 135) one could hope for, if not reverence, at least a modicum of respect. An interesting and worthy book could be written about the confluence of American middlebrow culture and the neoclassicist impulse, but Beam has not done so here. Josh Burek observes in Christian Science Monitor that "Beam's text is commendably concise, but I do wish he had devoted more space to pondering - instead of merely raising - important questions about the great books themselves:"

Can a modern reader "talk" intelligibly with the greats in translation?

Can a classic text truly speak for itself - or should historical and biographical context, along with modern annotations, be incorporated?

Aren't some of the great books also some of the worst, in terms of the destructive power of their ideas? Most important, what is the purpose of higher education - and does that purpose require a classical curriculum core?

Daniel Flynn's piece at ISI's "First Principles" may be the most acerbic review, calling Beam's effort "a silly book on a serious subject:"

From every page of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, author Alex Beam whispers: put down the Aristotle and pick up the remote. Stop reading that Dostoevsky text and start responding 2 a txt. There is a Dog the Bounty Hunter to watch, internet porn to surf, Grand Theft Auto IV to play. Conform.

general geekery

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The Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Mean, Nautilus shells, sunflowers, dragonfly wings...if this grouping brings smile to your face, then check out the short film Nature by Numbers" from Etérea Studios (h/t: Colin Seymour):

When you're done drooling over the beautiful artistry, check out the beautiful science behind it.


Beha, Christopher. The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else (New York: Grove, 2009)

American bookshelves are awash in memoirs: many writers have chronicled their experiences (usually a year) inside radical Islam, in a mental institution, in Patagonia, and learning to play the French horn; others have gotten book deals for Living Oprah, Living Biblically, or Living Like Jesus; yet to arrive are memoirs about living under police protection, being in a women's prison, and homeschooling. When it comes to books about books, other writers have discussed reading Proust and consuming the entire 32-volume Encyclopædia Britannica, but in the book I'd like to look at today, Christopher Beha's The Whole Five Feet, the author relates his year-long efforts to read all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics "Five-Foot Shelf" of books.

While explaining how Harvard's Dr Eliot came to midwife the set's publication, beginning with Franklin's Autobiography rather than Homer, Beha admits of his reading adventure that "the arbitrary beginning reminded me of the arbitrary nature of the project. Or, better to say, both projects--Eliot's effort to compile this set and my effort to read it." (p. 23) Time becomes a factor when he reads Virgil's Aeneid (volume 13) before Homer's Odyssey (volume 22); Beha writes that "In contrast [to Virgil], we know almost nothing about the composition of Virgil's Homeric models:"

Nor, for that matter, did Plato or Aeschylus, though they took those poems as their national epics. The poems seemed to have sprung from the ground. I suspect it would have been difficult for the Greeks to imagine a time when these epics didn't exist. They weren't just literature--they were history; they were religion and cosmology; they were ethics. They were in the air the Greeks breathed. (p. 80)

Drawing a parallel to today, Beha continues: "In our own time, the grand narratives we tell ourselves might be historical or national, but they are most often religious." This is true, but the general disdain for textual analysis and Biblical scholarship allows many believers to retain the comforting illusion that "The Bible" is a single cohesive and coherent work of divine inspiration rather than a conglomeration of writings that often disagree with each other. (In that respect, the two Judeo-Christian testaments are rather like Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf in microcosm.)

Part of the pleasure of reading a meta-book like Beha's are the little gems he shares with his readers after unearthing them. These words from Goethe's Faust will, perhaps, one day grace the walls of my dream library along with this painting:

"I have, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before."
(p. 119, Goethe, Faust)

Against the background of the death of his Aunt Mimi and his own health problems, Beha soldiers on through the Shelf; he writes that "It is a cliché to talk about reading as a journey, but it would be difficult to overstate how much easier my confinement became once I could read again:"

Throughout the year, I'd attempted to balance the Harvard Classics with the rest of my life. The two sides of the scale informed each other in surprising ways. Like Darwin, I felt that everything I read was made to bear on everything I saw. But now reading these books very nearly was my life. For weeks, I did almost nothing else. (p. 176)

Immersed in both the classic and contemporary worlds, Beha writes about the intriguing feeling of "being initiated into the mysteries of a kind of fraternity:"

I couldn't even tell people the slightly less pretentious truth that I was learning more about how to be in the world that I was any particular facts or figures. Part of the nature of the "internal cultivation" that Eliot and his precursors held dear is that it doesn't display itself to others. It isn't a status symbol, and it won't change your social standing. Because it is a process rather than a final outcome, it can't even really be explained. (p. 197)

Beha does a good job throughout, explicating the seemingly inexplicable with only the occasional minor stumble. One such oversight is his comment about how "the atheist Jefferson made his own version of the Gospels, cutting out all the miracles, omitting any hint of the supernatural, and leaving only the teachings of Jesus." (p. 217) Jefferson did indeed edit the gospels to remove what he saw as Platonic "corruptions," but he remained a Christian. His letter to Benjamin Rush (21 April 1803) explains his position in a fairly succinct manner: "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other." That Jefferson's sensible and deeply considered Christianity is no longer recognized as such by most moderns is a great loss.

At the conclusion of his journey, Beha considers the Shelf's selections and their order, writing that he "wouldn't change a thing:"

Now that I've read all 22,000 pages of the Classics--the whole five feet of the Five-Foot Shelf--I wouldn't wish away its eccentricities, its particular emphases and lacunae. Of course it's an incomplete picture, but it isn't final; it isn't an end in itself. I can only hope that it sends me back to life, to possess the world more abundantly in myself. (pp. 236-237)

Beha's closing words are worth savoring:

I shall go on in the same way. Nothing in my life is going to change in any visible fashion. But these books have helped me to find meaning in events--illness and loss as well as moments of great joy--that didn't make any sense to me. At the same time, life helped me make sense of these books. And so it will continue to go, for although I have read though the whole five feet, I'll never be finished with them. (pp. 248-249)

I suppose that the next peak to scale for a year-long-reading-adventure memoir is the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World. If anyone is up to the challenge, I'll likely be interested in reading about it--and if that someone is Christopher Beha, so much the better.


Jesse Berrett writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "for the most part Beha builds an intensely felt, intensely human engagement with these works."

Alexander Nazaryan's piece in the NYT Sunday Book Review calls Beha's book "an unexpected narrative that deftly reconciles lofty thoughts with earthly pain:"

...he approaches the classics without the apocalyptic vision of a culture warrior or the sort of popularizing sentiment that glibly reduces Aristotle to a self-help guru. The classics humble, as they ought to.


Beha wrote a brief explanation at his "Whole Five Feet" blog

The contents of both the Harvard Classics and the HC Shelf of Fiction are available at

Adam Kirsch's "The Five-Foot Shelf Reconsidered" (Harvard Magazine) mentioned a few of the Shelf's more notorious omissions: Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud. Kirsch also wrote that "Eliot prefers autobiography to speculation:"

It is not clear whether this reflects the editor's own disbelief in the value of metaphysics, epistemology, and theology, or simply a doubt in the capacity of the reader to understand such subjects.

I don't often put blog posts in the "must read" category, but AmericanDad's "open letter to conservatives" belongs there. He offers some advice to the GOP that truly needs to be taken to heart:

You're going to have to come up with a platform that isn't built on a foundation of cowardice: fear of people with colors, religions, cultures and sex lives that differ from your own; fear of reform in banking, health care, energy; fantasy fears of America being transformed into an Islamic nation, into social/commun/fasc-ism, into a disarmed populace put in internment camps; and more. But you have work to do even before you take on that task.

Your party -- the GOP -- and the conservative end of the American political spectrum have become irresponsible and irrational. Worse, it's tolerating, promoting and celebrating prejudice and hatred. Let me provide some examples -- by no means an exhaustive list -- of where the Right as gotten itself stuck in a swamp of hypocrisy, hyperbole, historical inaccuracy and hatred.

After his all-too-lengthy list (factual and exhaustively referenced, quite unlike the Right's fictional attempts at enumerating their grievances) comes a hopeful conclusion:

So, dear conservatives, get to work. Drain the swamp of the conspiracy nuts, the bald-faced liars undeterred by demonstrable facts, the overt hypocrisy and the hatred. Then offer us a calm, responsible, grownup agenda based on your values and your vision for America. We may or may not agree with your values and vision, but we'll certainly welcome you back to the American mainstream with open arms. We need you.

I sincerely hope that his open letter finds some open minds.

Southern Poverty Law Center's new report "Rage on the Right" talks about--what else?--the tendency of extremist reactionary groups to espouse hatred. As shown in this NYT graph of SPLC data, hate groups (in red) are growing slowly, while "patriot" (tan) and "nativist extremist" (green) groups are experiencing dramatic growth:


Notorious homophobic bigot Matt Barber got all upset about this, calling the SPLC "partisan hacks," which is quite an accusation from one of the hackiest right-wing hacks in all of hackdom; for instance, consider his reliance on the discredited "research" of Paul Cameron.

Speaking of homophobic bigotry, Barber's ideological associates at Americans for Truth [sic] about Homosexuality may wish to consider themselves a "well-respected Christian organization," but they're not. Far from being "arbitrarily tagged as an official 'hate group,'" there isn't anything arbitrary about that designation--they've earned it by lying to maintain second-class citizenship for the LGBT community. (Peter "Porno Pete" LaBarbera, President of AFTAH, has some remarks about AFTAH being recognized as a hate group; his comments are amply debunked by Truth Wins Out.)

I'm glad to see purveyors of homophobia publicly shamed for peddling the same hatred as racists and xenophobes. Different bigots may target different groups, but their goals (and their tactics) have always been disturbingly similar.

Conservative analyst David Frum wondered "What the hell do we Republicans do now?" at CNN, but the piece called healthcare reform the GOP's Waterloo (mentioning "18 months of overheated rhetoric" from the "vitriolic talking heads on conservative talk radio and shock TV") and led to Frum's firing from his post at AEI.

Fellow sensible--and therefore shunned--conservative Bruce Bartlett commiserated and commented on the "closing of the conservative mind: Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already." As Gene Lyons writes in "GOP Whine: Drink Deeply" at Salon, the GOP has "lost the most significant domestic political battle since the 1960s:"

So naturally the light of freedom has been extinguished, the U.S. Constitution voided, capitalism doomed and the nation fallen into a dark totalitarian nightmare.

The wingnuts, however, are too busy with vandalism and violence (see this map) to offer much more than " racial epithets and sexual insults." Republican John Boehner takes the oh-so-brave stand that "violence and threats are unacceptable:"

We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change. Call your congressman, go out and register people to vote, go volunteer on a political campaign, make your voice heard -- but let's do it the right way."

Over at DailyKos, BarbinMD calls out Boehner for his hypocrisy:

Let's review: the Republican party spent months spewing lies about the health care reform bill, with dire warnings about death panels, killing granny, rationed health care, and yes, even Armageddon. With their eye on handing President Obama his "Waterloo," the GOP, with an able assist from their media arm Fox News, whipped the lunatic fringe of their base into a frenzy ... and now that the fruits of their labor is paying off with civil rights-era icons being spit on and called "niggers," with pictures of nooses being sent to congressmen's offices, with acts of vandalism, and with death threats being made, John Boehner wants to do things "the right way."

Better the right way than the right-wing way...


Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Art of Always Being Right: The 38 Subtle Ways to Win an Argument (London: Gibson Square, 2009)

My stack of books on argumentation is now slightly taller with the addition of Schopenhauer's The Art of Always Being Right. In the New Statesman, George Walden calls the book "an instruction manual in intellectual duplicity that no aspiring parliamentarian, trainee lawyer, wannabe TV interviewer or newspaper columnist can afford to be without," although Schopenhauer explains his intent as a non-Machiavellian one:

Even when a man has truth on his side, he needs dialectic in order to defend and maintain it; he must know what the dishonest tricks are, in order to meet them. In fact, he must often make use of them himself, so as to beat the enemy with his own weapons. (pp. 38-39)

When discussing the appeal to authority, Schopenhauer explains that "[t]here is no opinion, however absurd, which men will not readily embrace as soon as they can be brought to the conviction that it is generally adopted:"

Example affects their thought, just as it affects their action. They are like sheep following the bell-wether wherever he leads them. They would sooner die than think. (p. 139)

If that sentiment seems rather familiar, it is likely due to the variant often attributed to Bertrand Russell: "We have a tendency to think that the world must confirm to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think -- in fact they do so." WikiQuote sources these words to Russell'sMortals and Others: American Essays, 1931-1935, although it is not found in the referenced book The ABC of Relativity, p. 166; the version scanned by Amazon is paginated differently and I'm unable to locate the quote for verification.

Schopenhauer writes later about those same sheep that "what they hate in people who think differently is not so much the different opinions which they have as the presumption of wanting to form their own judgment:"

In short, there are very few who can think, but every man wants to have an opinion; and what remains but to take it ready-made from others, instead of forming opinions for himself? (p. 142)

AC Graying adds some brief prefatory and supplementary remarks to pad out the book, but The Art of Always Being Right is still on the thin side, being more of an extended essay than an exhaustive treatise on the subject. The German text and English translation may be found here, for those who want to read it but don't feel the need to possess a printed copy.

The latest Harris poll entitled "'Wingnuts' and President Obama" took a hard look at "the large numbers of Americans who hold extreme views of President Obama," and what they have found is not very flattering. To take just three of these "views" that are easily disprovable:

• He is a socialist (40%)
• He is a Muslim (32%)
• He was not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president (25%)

GOP opinions are even more skewed toward unreality, with 67%, 57%, and 45% believing in these three statements. The study also notes a correlation with lower education, writing that "[t]he less education people have had the more likely they are to believe all of these statements. Consider these differences between those with no college education and those with post-graduate education:"

• He is a socialist (45% and 20%)
• He is a Muslim (43% and 9%)
• He was not born in the United States so is not eligible to be president (32% and 7%)

John (Wingnuts) Avlon wrote at Daily Beast that "Obama Derangement Syndrome--pathological hatred of the president posing as patriotism--has infected the Republican Party:"

This poll is the latest and most detailed evidence of the extent to which Wingnuts are hijacking our politics. It should be a wakeup call to all Americans and a collective reminder, as we move past health-care reform, that we need to stand up to extremism.

Blue Texan commented at FDL that it's "yet another poll that shows Republicans are out of their fucking minds."Evan Hurst at Truth Wins Out makes a larger point, writing that "it's useful to remember that the great majority of anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-human sentiment comes from the Republican Party:"

We have to understand that the sorts of insane beliefs that motivate wingnuts like Tony Perkins, Peter LaBarbera, Matt Barber, Maggie Gallagher, and a host of others, don't exist in a vacuum. Pull the thread of one of their idiot conspiracy theories, and a whole bag of black helicopter tinfoil hattery comes out. It doesn't matter which side you pull it from, either. Start with a birther, you'll probably end up with a deather. Start with an anti-gay demagogue and you'll probably end up with a misogynist pig who believes that Planned Parenthood is perpetuating a black genocide. The fact that not every wingnut is infected with every conspiracy theory doesn't change the central point. It simply exposes where their dominant fears are.


Martin, Roger. Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

The midlife-return-to-higher-education experience that was so ably chronicled by David Denby in his 1996 memoir Great Books (subtitled My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World) has a strong successor in Roger Martin's Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again. The 61-year-old Martin took a sabbatical, moved to Annapolis, and spent the fall semester as a first-year student at St. John's College (website, Wikipedia). As a historically-minded reader, Martin was primed to appreciate the Great Books program offered at Saint John's; see their Reading List for the program's depth and breadth of texts.

Martin sometimes leans too heavily on the fish-out-of-water feeling he had about being so much older than his fellow students, but this is more than made up for by the broader observations that his more extensive life experiences enable him to make. Martin often rhapsodizes over the Saint John's curriculum, enthusing over the discovery that he "could read the great works of Homer, Plato, and Herodotus in ways that would give new meaning to my life:"

Homer gave me a better understanding of homesickness and the insecurities of my youth. Plato spoke to my more recent encounter with death. And, of course, Herodotus led me to a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a historian. (p. 250)

If you've ever been as intrigued by the idea of a Great Books program as I am, Racing Odysseus may well whet your appetite for an education at Saint John's--or perhaps an auto-didactical attempt toward the same end.

A big tip-of-the-hat to Scott Payne at League of Ordinary Gentlemen for linking to this video:

Rock Sugar isn't exactly typical listening for a music snob like me, but it's hilarious! While I'm in the mood, here's another great mashup:

In addition to the Teabaggers' earlier "ugly bigotry and intimidation" calling Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) a ni**er and Barney Frank (D-MA) a fa**ot, the anti-healthcare protesters also called Ciro Rodriguez of Texas (D-TX) a "wetback" who should "go back to Mexico."

Kudos to Lewis, who noted that "it reminded me of the '60s. There's a lot of downright hate and anger, and people are just being downright mean." Frank commented that objections to healthcare have "become a proxy for other sentiments," many of which "were hateful and abusive."

Racism, homophobia, and xenophobia: it's the Teabagger trifecta!

Several blogs (ThinkProgress, TrueSlant) noted the Republicans' half-hearted disavowals and recriminations, most of which tried to blame Democrats for GOP misdeeds--what a surprising turn of events!

John Boehner (R-OH) called the incidents "reprehensible," but then tried to excuse them by saying that "millions of Americans are scared to death." They sure are, Rep Boehner--and you're part of the reason why! You and your party lied to them, you scared them, and now you're pretending to be surprised that they're acting out of fear and anger? Please! Devin Nunes (R-CA) tried to excuse their behavior by suggesting that Republicans "begin to act crazy" when Democrats "use totalitarian tactics." At this point, I'll quote Jon Stewart from last Spring:

I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing. And I feel for you because ah...I've been there. A few times. In fact one of them was a bit of a nail biter. But see, when the guy that you disagree with gets elected, he's probably going to do things you disagree with. He could cut taxes on the wealthy. Remove government's oversight capability. Invade a country that you thought should not be invaded but that's not tyranny. That's democracy.

See now you're in the minority. It's supposed to taste like a s#%t taco. And by the way, if I remember correctly when a disagreement was expressed about that President's actions when ya'll were in power I believe the response was "Why do you hate America?". "Watch what you say." "Love it or leave it." "Suck on my truck nuts."

Since it's the Teabaggers, not a group known for their appreciation of the arts of governance or of compromise, there were threats of violence if the vote didn't go their way:


If they're "scared to death," why are they so belligerent?

taking a stand

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Tengrain at Mock, Paper, Scissors and Bing McGhandi at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes have a great response to the I Am not Ashamed campaign, which states:



The best response to criticize Biblical literalists in this case is by--what else?--literally standing on the Bible:


The irrepressible PZ Myers caught wind of it, and his commentary practically guarantees more pissed-off Christians:

Answers in Genesis has begun a goofy little campaign called I AM NOT ASHAMED -- they're apparently collecting videos of people declaring their shameless adoration of Jesus. Ho hum. All I can say is that they should be deeply embarrassed to endorse something so absurd.

Today's Bible lesson is from Romans 1:16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

This is paralleled by Mark 8:38:

Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

Take a stand on the Bible!


Adler, Mortimer. How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization (Chicago: Open Court, 2000)

Consisting of edited transcripts from his 1953/54 television series entitled "The Great Ideas," Mortimer Adler's How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization is a largely pleasant--although unessential--reading experience. Adler's scripted dialogues with Lloyd Luckman, Socratic in form but conversational in tone, supplemented by Adler's lectures, address the following topics: truth, opinion, man, emotion, love, good & evil, beauty, freedom, learning, art, justice, punishment, language, work, law, government, democracy, change, progress, war & peace, philosophy, and god.

A major disappointment among these substantive topics was how much time Adler spent (chapters 6 through 8) on tedious attempts to misrepresent Darwinian evolution. He unequivocally states "I am opposed to Darwin" (p. 60), which isn't quite as far as he went in later years. The 2003 article "Dr Mortimer Adler's life-long crusade against evolution" shows that Adler's animosity got even worse after his formal conversion to Christianity several decades after these episodes were broadcast. He referred to evolution as "wild speculation" and a "grand myth"--phrases which are especially ironic when criticizing scientific theories from a fact-free creationist perspective. The seemingly objective veneer of fair-mindedness in his statement that "I am going to weigh as carefully as I can the evidence on both sides" (p. 87) is rendered senseless by the fact that only one of the sides has any evidence. The creationist side has lots of conjecture, tautology, and tortured logic--but not one iota of evidence.

A truly fair-minded philosopher might instead point out that many people believe in creationism, but politely decline to consider it as a theory until some facts are provided to buttress its elaborate supernatural superstructure. Instead, Adler goes awry by applying a veneer of science to cheap theology, using Genesis to exaggerate the distinction between humans and other animals:

Instead of saying that God created man out of dust, we can say that God created man out of an ape-like body by infusing a rational soul or mind into it. (p. 76)

He makes an ever larger gaffe when dragging theology into a discussion on emotion:

It is wrong to attribute emotions to God. When it is said that God is angry, that statement can't possibly mean that God suffers the emotion of anger because no purely spiritual being could have an emotion. An emotion is a bodily disturbance. (p. 98)

There are two problems for Adler in this passage. First, the Judeo-Christian god is frequently represented in the Bible as being a corporeal deity. Adam and Eve heard him walking through the Garden of Eden, Moses saw his "back parts," Ezekiel went on and on about his "loins," and there are other references to his face and hands. Second, the Biblical deity is nothing if not a seething cauldron of emotion. He is variously depicted as being: furious, vengeful, and jealous; angry and indignant; merciless and pitiless--although he sometimes feels grief and repentance. [Why is it that theists are so often less aware than atheists about the content of their own holy texts?]

Adler errs again when he discusses political anarchism:

There are, of course, bomb-throwing anarchists. But there are also philosophical anarchists. And our own Thomas Jefferson was one of them. I'm sure you've all heard a statement of his that has been quoted again and again which is, "That government is best which governs least." (p. 378; referred to again on page 403.)

See Bartleby from Respectfully Quoted (1989) for a corrected attribution. Jefferson did seem sympathetic toward anarchism, although (as he wrote to James Madison on 30 January 1787) he speculated that a society "without government" would be "inconsistent with any great degree of population."

Adler posits science, philosophy, and religion as three spheres of human knowledge. This passage illustrates how his elevation of religion to the status of knowledge causes a drastically uneven comparison:

Here is a typical scientific question: How is matter transformed into energy in atomic explosions? This is the question that Einstein answered in his extraordinary formula for the quantitative relation between matter and energy in atomic fission or explosion.

A typical religious or theological question is the question whether God created the universe in the beginning of time. This is the question which he divine revelation in the first sentence of Genesis answers. (p. 472)

That's not an answer to the cosmological question about the universe's actual origin--it's an interpretation of a compilation of a translation of a myth. It has no relation to knowledge as such, despite protestations to the contrary. Shortly thereafter, Adler wrote:

The history of science is always an inspiration to the scientist. But the history of philosophy, I am sorry to say, is often an embarrassment to philosophers. At least it has been an embarrassment to me for a great part of my life. (p. 481)

Is not the history of religion an embarrassment to believers? Scientists and philosophers have certainly disagreed, but at least they managed to avoid blowing each other up or burning each other at the stake, while passing their enmity down through succeeding generations. How to Think About the Great Ideas is a worthwhile book, but with the caveat that a little more introspection about how religion affected his thinking would have served Adler--and his readers--much better than his failed attempts at objectivity.

Over at Forbes, Bruce Bartlett analyzes a study of Teabaggers (h/t: Steve Benen at Washington Monthly) and how they misunderstand their signature issue of taxation. (For example, they grossly overestimate federal taxes as a percentage of GDP, and believe that Obama's tax cuts have actually raised their tax rates over the past year.)

Bartlett's subtitle about the Teabaggers, "For an antitax group, they don't know much about taxes," could easily spawn several parallels: For a political group, they don't know much about political science; for a deficit-hating group, they don't know much about who ran up most of the debt; for a Christianist group, they don't know much about the social and economic justice messages of could be quite a long list. Bartlett continues:

It's hard to explain this divergence between perception and reality. Perhaps these people haven't calculated their tax returns for 2009 yet and simply don't know what they owe. Or perhaps they just assume that because a Democrat is president that taxes must have gone up, because that's what Republicans say that Democrats always do.

Fox-heavy Dumbfuckistan has quite a discrepancy between perception and reality, doesn't it? Blue Texan comments at FDL that "The Teabaggers are just regurgitating years of programming by Rush and Sean and the GOP. Pesky things like 'facts' and 'data' are the stuff of weak-kneed libruls." Back to Bartlett:

Whatever the future of the Tea Party movement in American politics, it's a bad idea for so many participants to operate on the basis of false notions about the burden of federal taxation.

After discarding fallacies for facts, Bartlett notes that "[p]eople may then discover that their anger is misplaced and channel it into areas where it is more likely to bring about positive change." They may even learn what socialism is. Or who's responsible for most of our debt. Or what the Bible says about the wealthy. Or whether death panels and illegal immigrants are in the health care could be an endless list.

What is it with anti-marriage conservatives and bestiality?

It seems as if they bring up inter-species relationships whenever they contemplate same-sex marriage. It's ludicrous the think that an animal is either logically or legally equivalent to an adult human being, but their ridiculousness has quite a pedigree--just ask former Senator Rick "man-on-dog" Santorum. The latest conservative to betray his innermost thoughts on the subject is McCain's primary challenger JD Hayworth (h/t: Alex Koppelman at Slate). Hayworth's inappropriate comparison makes me wonder if he secretly idolizes "Mr Hands:"

You see, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it started this move toward same-sex marriage, actually defined marriage -- now get this -- it defined marriage as simply, quote, "the establishment of intimacy." [...] Now how dangerous is that? I mean, I don't mean to be absurd about it, but I guess I can make the point of absurdity with an absurd point -- I guess that would mean if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse.

Koppelman noted that--surprise, surprise--Hayworth was making things up: the phrase "the establishment of intimacy" does not appear in the text (PDF here) of the Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision as a definition of marriage. Hayworth was a guest on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show last night, and she called him on it:

MADDOW: [W]hat you said about "the establishment of intimacy" being the definition of marriage in Massachusetts, I don't think it's true, sir.

HAYWORTH: Well, that's fine. You and I can have a disagreement about that.

MADDOW: Well, it either is true or it isn't. It's empirical.


MADDOW: All right.

HAYWORTH: Well, I appreciate the fact that we have a disagreement on that.

Hayworth's "disagreement" isn't just with Maddow, but with the discrepancy between his manufactured quote and the actual, factual document. Steve Benen delivers the coup de grace to this disturbingly familiar attitude:

And this is why conversations with conservatives never seem to go well. Reality is an inconvenient detail that can be twisted, manipulated, and frequently ignored.

In a normal, sensible debate, one side might make a provocative claim. The other side can challenge the claim, and provide evidence. If it's proven false, the first side moves on to some other claim. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But that's not how Republicans work. They make claims that aren't true, and after being corrected, either repeat those claims again anyway, pretend the matter is subjective, or both.

It's genuinely painful to listen to clowns for whom reality is meaningless.

That reminds me very much of Kenyan socialist death panels.

Check out Candace Chellew-Hodge's piece at Religion Dispatches, where we speculate in the comments that Hayworth is in a "stable relationship."

When blogger and musician Alicia Morgan wrote over the weekend, she was about to lose her house as a result of predatory lending; see here and here for details (h/t: SeattleTammy at Jesus' General and Mike Finnigan at Crooks and Liars). She answered her critics here:

When it comes right down to it, it's not just people like my husband and me who are the risk-takers. Every single person lives their life with a certain amount of risk. When you have a regular job with a regular paycheck, you are betting that your paycheck will arrive next Friday, that you will still have a job next week. The risk is much less than mine, but the risk is there nevertheless. Ask the people who worked for Enron. People like my husband and me are the canaries in the coal mine. Because of the nature of what we do, we will be the first to suffer losses during times of economic crisis. But this is not just happening to us - it's happening to people with steady jobs, steady paychecks, who have never been late on a payment. When you're laid off, how can you be blamed when you can't meet your financial obligations? Are you suddenly morally deficient? Should you be living in a cardboard box because of the chance that someday you may not be able to afford your home?

And it is the very people who have caused these circumstances through their excessive and illegal risk-taking who have brought this situation about - and they have been bailed out. They have been bailed out by the people who did not take those risks, who did not reap the incredible wealth that came from high-risk investments, and who are now losing the very food from their mouths and roofs over their heads. And I will not accept insult on top of injury from those who feel they are in a position to judge who is 'responsible' and who is not.

Why can't we live in a world where crooked bankers lose their homes, instead of musicians and writers?

Update: The Morgan family will know more in six weeks; with them luck! Until then, you can visit her blog and buy her book The Price of Right: How the Conservative Agenda Has Failed America (and Always Will).

Doug Bursch's post "Thou Shalt Mostly Tell the Truth" at The Moderate Voice should be required reading for just about everyone--particularly those conservative Christians with a penchant for thoughtlessly spamming everyone's inbox with their error-filled emails about Clinton's "body count," the 2008 election, Obama's "mistakes", et cetera:

Thou shall not bear false witness. . . unless your false witness is in the form of an email. In that case, feel free to forward your lies to everyone in your address book. For although God is truth and His followers must walk in truth, it's really not a big deal to pass on an email that might not be completely true. I mean most of it is probably true and anyway, it does a great job of proving our preconceived opinion and we're just sending it to a few of our friends. So what's the big deal.

Thou shall not bear false witness. . . unless you're discussing politics. In that case, you can say whatever you want to win the argument. Remember that politicians and pundits are allowed to exist in their own morally ambiguous realm. The purpose of political discourse is not truth but triumph. The ultimate goal is victory for our side. Even if we might have to exaggerate the truth a bit or completely demonize our opponents to win the war.

Thou shall not bear false witness. . . unless you have your own talk show or syndicated column. In that case, feel free to daily polarize the dialogue with half truths and downright falsehoods. Call individuals with sincere social convictions Nazis, label moderates Marxists, and smear the integrity and name of every single person or organization that gets in your way.

He also asks a few hypothetical questions:

What if Christians were known for their truthfulness? What if Christians valued truth so much that they refused to participate in anything that hinted of a lie or even a manipulation? What if Christians never forwarded emails unless they were completely certain that every single word was true. What if Christians refused to engage in the political power struggles that reek of an anti-Christ spirit? What if Christians stopped following and listening to leaders who perpetually twist the truth for political, religious, and social gain?

As Gandhi once said: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Sarah Palin criticized Congresscritter Alan Grayson (D-FL), and he punched back (h/t: AlterNet):

Palin, the former half-term Governor, current-nothing and future-even-less, charmed the all-Republican audience with her folksy folksiness and her homespun homespunnery. Atypically, Palin was wearing clothes that she had paid for herself. At the end of the event, she shared her recipe for mooseface pie.

In response to Palin's attack on Rep Grayson, Grayson actually complimented Palin. Grayson praised Palin for having a hand large enough to fit Grayson's entire name on it. He thanked Palin for alleviating the growing shortage of platitudes in Central Florida. Grayson added that Palin deserved credit for getting through the entire hour-long program without quitting. Grayson also said that Palin really had mastered Palin's imitation of Tina Fey imitating Palin. Grayson observed that Palin is the most-intelligent leader that the Republican Party has produced since George W. Bush.

When asked to comment about what effect Palin's criticism might have, Grayson pointed out, "As the Knave's horse says in Alice in Wonderland, 'dogs will believe anything.'" Earlier, as the Orlando Sentinel reported, Grayson said, "I'm sure Palin knows all about politics in Central Florida, since from her porch she can see Winter Park," which is part of Grayson's district.

Grayson said that the Alaskan chillbilly was welcome to return to Central Florida anytime, as long as she brings lots of money with her, and spends it. "I look forward to an honest debate with Governor Palin on the issues, in the unlikely event that she ever learns anything about them," Grayson added, alluding to Politifact's "liar, liar, pants on fire" evaluation of much of what Palin has said .

Scientists are studying Sarah Palin's travel between Alaska and Florida carefully. They hope to learn more about the flight patterns of that elusive migratory species, the wild Alaskan dingbat.

Damn, that's a lot of zing for one smackdown!

Pi Day

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Google often has wonderful images of the day, and today's is one of the best I've seen:


The Coffee Party, created to counter the astroturf animus of Teabaggers and Townhallers, is having its kickoff today.


MISSION: The Coffee Party Movement gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked "Well, Doctor, what have we got--a Republic or a Monarchy?"

Franklin's response, "A Republic, if you can keep it," is no less important for us today.

Christopher Hitchens has offered to take up the revisionist chisel" and rewrite the Ten Commandments. Noting that "[t]here is in fact a good biblical precedent for doing just that, since the giving of the divine Law by Moses appears in three or four wildly different scriptural versions", Hitch looks at the various Decalogues [see Exodus 20, Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5, and Deuteronomy 27] and ascertains that "the Ten Commandments were derived from situational ethics:"

They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. They are also addressed to a group that has been promised the land and flocks of other people: the Amalekites and Midianites and others whom God orders them to kill, rape, enslave, or exterminate.

Here is Hitch's replacement list:

Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color. Do not ever use people as private property. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature--why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them? Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife. Turn off that fucking cell phone--you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.

It's a good effort, but George Carlin said it better:

Chris Hedges' piece "Calling All Rebels" at TruthDig begins with this provocative sentence:

There are no constraints left to halt America's slide into a totalitarian capitalism.

The rest of his opening paragraph is equally disturbing:

Electoral politics are a sham. The media have been debased and defanged by corporate owners. The working class has been impoverished and is now being plunged into profound despair. The legal system has been corrupted to serve corporate interests. Popular institutions, from labor unions to political parties, have been destroyed or emasculated by corporate power. And any form of protest, no matter how tepid, is blocked by an internal security apparatus that is starting to rival that of the East German secret police. The mounting anger and hatred, coursing through the bloodstream of the body politic, make violence and counter-violence inevitable. Brace yourself. The American empire is over. And the descent is going to be horrifying.
Hedges asks, "How, if this descent is inevitable, as I believe it is, do we fight back?" and takes Camus as a guide:
" of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it." ["The Myth of Sisyphus"]

"A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. [...] But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object." ["The Failing of Prophecy" in Existentialism Versus Marxism]

Hedges' conclusion asserts that "[t]he capacity to exercise moral autonomy, the capacity to refuse to cooperate, offers us the only route left to personal freedom and a life with meaning:"

Rebellion is its own justification. [...] We must become, as Camus said, so absolutely free that "existence is an act of rebellion." Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.

In the pages of Tikkun, Dave Belden wonders aloud: "Am I one of those suicides, in his opinion? I guess so. I still pay my taxes. I still vote." and comes to the conclusion that "Hedges' primary form of rebellion seems to be writing and speaking about the need for fundamental change:"

I've been doing the same kind of work through the pages of Tikkun, where I serve as the managing editor. Here we are rebelling by publishing strong critiques of the profit-run corporate world and the evermore corporate-run political world...

While ostensibly reviewing Stephen Smith's upcoming book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Stanley Fish claimed in "Are There Secular Reasons?" that, while secular methods of discovery and discourse are very effective at "piling up" information, all that knowledge "just sits there, inert and empty" because "the step of going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible:"

This is the cul de sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the "pure" investigation of "observable facts." It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources [meaning religion] that would enable it do so.

Fish continues by asserting, as does Smith, that "secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary" only by "smuggling" religious conceptions of value and purpose:

Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn. [...] Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation -- secular reasons -- and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn't got a leg to stand on.

Interestingly, there's an entire branch of philosophy called Ethics that addresses Fish's myopia about secular morality. Developing a system of ethics is a more difficult endeavor than merely following a list of commandments that have (allegedly) been handed down from on high, but morality is neither unique to religion nor borrowed from it.

For a full takedown of Fish's argument, see philosopher Russell Blackford, who notes that "Fish is antagonistic to the classical liberal tradition based on the work of philosophers such as Locke, Mill, and Rawls. Like Steven D. Smith, the author of the forthcoming book that he's reviewing, Fish thinks that it leads to an impoverishment of politics:"

I disagree strongly. This tradition is worth defending. That's why I'm writing a book about it: specifically about what it offer[s] on freedom of religion. [...]

What Fish really needs is not an argument that slanders liberals for an imagined meta-ethical naivety. He needs something more gritty and practical, an argument as to why we now live in an era when it is wise to trust the state to decide which religion is correct, and then legislate accordingly. I'd love to see that argument.

Two of the conservative media's biggest mouths have recently announced support for socialized medicine--or at least have admitted preferring it to the current profit-driven US system. The first example is Sarah "death panels" Palin. ThinkProgress noted that "this past Saturday in Calgary, Canada -- at 'her first Canadian appearance since stepping down as governor of Alaska last summer' -- Palin seemed to deviate from her fear of socialized Canadian medicine when she revealed that her family may have benefited from the Canadian system:"

PALIN: We used to hustle over the border for health care we received in Canada. And I think now, isn't that ironic?

Lincoln Mitchell writes at HuffPo that "[i]t is not exactly surprising, or even 'ironic,' to use Palin's words, that somebody who has made a name, and a great deal of money, for herself by linking health care reform to some kind of socialist bogeyman, used to take advantage of socialized medicine:"

Speaking to a Canadian audience and reminiscing about traveling to Canada for health care as a child is the kind of thing we might expect from a progressive supporter of health care seeking to stress the need for a better health care reform system in the US. Had, for example, Anthony Weiner [D-NY] made this comment while on the Canadian side of the border near New York, you can be sure that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and, yes, Sarah Palin would be seeking to red bait him out of the congress. There will, of course, be no such consequence for Palin.

Double standards are also evident in Rush Limbaugh's stance on Congressional attempts at healthcare reform. ThinkProgress noted that "Limbaugh put his money where his mouth is, saying that if health care passes and all his fears are realized, he'll leave the country:"

CALLER: If the health care bill passes, where would you go for health care yourself? [...]

LIMBAUGH: [...] I'll just tell you this, if this passes and it's five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented -- I am leaving the country. I'll go to Costa Rica.

Rush now denies that he meant what he said, which makes me wonder: Was it just the Oxy talking? Is he planning another sex tourism vacation? Sara Robinson's "Limbaugh Endorses Socialist Paradise" suggests that "[c]hoosing Costa Rica as an escape hatch -- even in an off-the-cuff remark -- reveals far more about Rush's real values and priorities than he probably wants us to see:"

When push comes to shove, even Mr. Talent On Loan From God has finally admitted that personally, he'd bypass all those sorry countries that have taken fatal doses of the free-market medicine he's spent the last 25 years promoting. Given the choice, even he would rather live in a country where there's a strong social contract that guarantees economic opportunity, ensures fairness, protects the environment, and invests richly in the future of its own people.

Having done far more than his share to ensure that America can no longer be that country, he's ready to jet off and make a new start in a place where the progressive spirit is still alive and well and creating a strong, prosperous, future-oriented nation.

Raw Story notes that this incident is "the second time Limbaugh has unwittingly praised the very type of health care system he claims to despise:"

After experiencing chest pains while vacationing in Hawaii, Limbaugh was rushed to a hospital and checked out by doctors, who pronounced him healthy. Once discharged, the right-wing jock praised Hawaii's health care by lumping it in with health services all over America: "the best health care in the world," he said.

However, Hawaii's system is the closest thing the United States has to a socialized health program, where all workers are provided with a "generous" health policy by their employer and nurses are unionized. One reporter further noted that many components of Hawaii's health system are now embedded in President Obama's reforms.

Because of their progressive health system, Hawaii's insurance premiums are the lowest among the 50 states and life expectancy is much higher compared to the continental U.S.

Healthcare hypocrites: available now at a corporate media outlet near you!

Texas Taliban

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Lee Fang writes at ThinkProgress that "[a]n evangelical Christian hate group called 'Repent Amarillo' is reportedly terrorizing the town of Amarillo, Texas:"

Repent fashions itself as a sort of militia and targets a wide range of community members they deem offensive to their theology: gays, liberal Christians, Muslims, environmentalists, breast cancer events that do not highlight abortion, Halloween, "spring break events," and pornography shops. On its website, Repent has posted a "Warfare Map" of its enemies in town.

Dan Savage observes that "[t]hey're also going after churches they believe to be insufficiently Christian (Episcopalians, Christian Scientists, Unitarians), palm readers, people who practice witchcraft, and anything and everything that might create a 'demonic stronghold' in Amarillo." Teddy Partridge at FDL is also not averse to dropping multiple T-bombs on them, writing that "Armies of God are not the American way, unless this country has become a theocracy:"

We have one Army, the United States Army. And our Army fights for America, not for any single God.

This is the American Taliban, the American Hezbollah, the American Sharia enforcers. They seek to impose their religion's strict codes on all their countrymen. They are not exercising free speech; they are imposing religious views upon others, through harassment, intimidation, threats of violence, and what they call 'warfare.'

This is religious-based terrorism.

Last week, Congresscritter Patrick McHenry (R-SC) proposed a bill (announcement, text) that would replace Grant with Reagan on the $50 bill. Like the clowns from the Reagan Legacy Project who want to "memorialize the spirit and achievements of the nation's greatest president," inexplicably believing that Ronald Wilson Reagan was that president, this latest attempt follows a string of excessive memorializations: the DC airport, an enormous office building, and a supercarrier.

The GOP version of fiscal discipline touted by Reagan's acolytes has plenty of talk about responsibility, but consists mostly of top-heavy tax cuts and bloated Pentagon spending. Dick Cheney claimed in 2002 that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," (Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty, p. 291) but only a variant of that statement is true: Republican deficits don't matter to Republicans. (For example, the endless caterwauling over deficits that erupted as soon as the Obama administration could be blamed for Bush's economic mess.)

Rush Limbaugh once claimed (unironically) that Reagan is "a man to whom we Americans owe a debt that we will never be able to repay." (Al Franken, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, p. 126) A full tally of Reaganism's effects is beyond my accounting capabilities, but a quick-and-dirty estimate with this handy Inflation Calculator shows us that Reagan's share of our national debt, which is nearing $12.5 trillion thanks to three decades of mostly conservative economic mismanagement, is approximately $3.4 trillion.

We should issue $50 IOUs with Reagan's face on them, which would be far more appropriate for his fiscal legacy: tripling the national debt while never submitting a balanced budget. Anyone who wants to "honor" his profligacy could purchase a $50 Reagan IOU at face value from the Treasury, but it won't be legal tender--that way, his admirers could do their part to erase the debt that they were so enthusiastic about creating in the first place.

Joanne Lipman's NYT Times op-ed "And the Orchestra Played On" will no doubt elicit comparisons to the maudlin movie melodrama Mr Holland's Opus, as both feature student musicians gathering for a final performance in honor of former bandleaders--except that this story is real:

Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us better than we had any right to be. He scared the daylight out of us. I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.

Which is why, decades later, I was frantically searching for an instrument whose case still bore the address of my college dorm. After almost a half-century of teaching, at the age of 81, Mr. K. had died of Parkinson's disease. And across the generations, through Facebook and e-mail messages and Web sites, came the call: it was time for one last concert for Mr. K. -- performed by us, his old students and friends.


When I showed up at a local school for rehearsal, there they were: five decades worth of former students. There were doctors and accountants, engineers and college professors. There were people who hadn't played in decades, sitting alongside professionals like Mr. K.'s daughter Melanie, now a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There were generations of music teachers.

They flew in from California and Oregon, from Virginia and Boston. They came with siblings and children; our old quartet's cellist, Miriam, took her seat with 13 other family members. They came because Mr. K. understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together.

Many who have experienced that bond can relate to the conclusion of Lipman's piece:

Back when we were in high school, Mr. K. had arranged for Melanie and our quartet to play at the funeral of a classmate killed in a horrific car crash. The boy had doted on his little sister, a violinist. We were a reminder of how much he loved to listen to her play.

As the far-flung orchestra members arrived for Mr. K.'s final concert, suddenly we saw her, that little girl, now grown, a professional musician herself. She had never stopped thinking about her brother's funeral, she told me, and when she heard about this concert, she flew from Denver in the hope that she might find the musicians who played in his honor. For 30 years, she had just wanted the chance to say, "Thank you."

As did we all.

I hope that her violin continues to be an outlet for her, and a source of comfort in times of distress. Would that we all had the opportunity to so honor our former teachers in the company of old friends.


Doxiadis, Apostolos et al. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

The writers (Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou) and artists (Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna) of Logicomix (website, Wikipedia) have done something amazing: they have created an engaging graphic novel--and Logicomix is a novel, not merely a biography of its protagonist Bertrand Russell--about set theory, logic, mathematics, and philosophy.


Amid their breaking-the-fourth-wall explanatory digressions, the authors and artists focus on Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and the two logicians' three-volume Principia Mathematica, which famously took nearly 400 pages of arcane symbology to prove that one plus one equals two. (Is it any wonder that madness is a recurrent leitmotif?)
Along the way, various mathematical and logical luminaries (Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, Henri Poincaré, and David Hilbert) make appearances in Logicomix and others such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kurt Gödel are featured more extensively within the flow of Russell's life. The main framing device is a university lecture on "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" delivered by Russell--a pacifist who had been previously jailed for his anti-war stance--on the eve of World War II.

The review by Dan Kois at the Washington Post ("Big ideas, bright colors") calls the book "an engaging, energetic work that makes big ideas accessible without dumbing them down," and Alex Bellos calls it "both a thrilling adventure and a serious history of the philosophy of mathematics" in his review "Mathematics has never been so exciting" at The Guardian; I cannot disagree with either assessment. The authors discuss much of significance here, even linking the tale to Aeschylus' Oresteia, and they do so with just enough dramatic license to capture the reader's attention. See this early encounter between a young Russell and his math professor for one example:


For a further taste of the creative team's style, check out their pieces for Financial Times and Publisher's Weekly; Logicomix is highly recommended, and I look forward to their next creative project.

Jim Holt's "Algorithm and Blues" (NYT) is another good review.

For more on Russell's quest, see his page in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's explication of Russell's Paradox.


Bloom, Harold. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead, 2004)

The distinction between knowledge and wisdom is an ageless one, as the attainment of the former is often seen as a mere prologue for the latter. The lofty goal of becoming wise is one that prolific critic Harold Bloom here pursues through the medium of literature, as he considers the wisdom writings of paired Biblical authors (of Job and Ecclesiastes) along with Homer and Plato, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Montaigne and Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson and Goethe, Emerson and Nietzsche, Freud and Proust, and concludes with The Gospel of Thomas and Augustine.

Bloom wrote this volume "out of personal need, reflecting a quest for sagacity that might solace and clarify the traumas of aging, of recovery from grave illness, and of grief for the loss of beloved friends." (p. 1) Bloom's erudition is as impressive as ever, although it occasionally makes for slow going; some of his passages reference so many authors and ideas that most readers must either alternate reading with research or move on without fully appreciating Bloom's arguments. In all honesty, I did a bit of both--and added a number of TBR books with which to supplement his observations.

The title of Bloom's treatise comes from Job 28:12, a book which later ventures an answer to its own question:

"Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding."(Job 28:28)

Bloom disagrees with this, writing:

Can you love fear? It does not work in human erotic partnership, and it turns democracy into plutocracy, where our nation seems to be heading. (p. 21)

Bloom chooses numerous excerpts to illustrate his points, but some of the longer quotations--particularly the page-long Proustian paragraphs--strike me as rather excessive in a book of less than 300 pages. Writing for the New York Times, Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco calls Bloom "[a]rguably the most influential critic of the last quarter-century," and opines that he "has always written in a peculiarly mixed mode:" times he seems possessed, carried out of himself into a trance brought on by meditation on a work of literary art, but at other times he seems a self-conscious performer brandishing literary props in a performance that is all about him.

The gulf between Bloom and most of the rest of us is evident in the passage where he writes of "settling down for the evening to reread Richard Lattimore's Iliad and Allan [Bloom]'s Republic side by side. Sometimes, I would interpolate scenes from King Lear, further to intensify the agon." (p. 40) For the common reader, reading a Homeric epic along with Platonic philosophy and Shakespearean drama is the work of a fortnight rather than an evening, something that I wonder if Bloom ever notices.

As a voracious reader, Bloom observes that " me seems crucial now if reading is to survive at all," (p. 157) while worrying that "the 'common reader' beginning to vanish" as higher education "barely teaches most students to read better books, or to read them more closely." (p. 175) Where does this leave those of us who are short on the solitude needed to engage the wisest of books?

Bloom suggests that "[w]e read and reflect because we hunger and thirst after wisdom," (p. 284) but even his guide to textual sustenance will only help those who have time enough for more than a quick bite between other obligations. Perhaps we must treat the acquisition of wisdom as an obligation to ourselves--and a more important one than many of those that now occupy our attention--if our reading lives are to be well spent.

OpenLeft's Paul Rosenberg held a conservative condescension comeback contest, and now has an interesting follow-up with some suggested responses:

"It isn't elitist to tell the truth." -- RandomNonviolence

"People who think giving your money to millionaires is good for you know a lot more about condescension than I do. I'm not sure I could spell condescension."
--T. Jacobsen

"Response: Yes, it's true. When you keep taking the low road, down is the only way anyone can look to find you."
--Daniel De Groot

"When liberals criticize conservatives, conservatives act as though we are criticizing someone else - voters, the troops, America. We're not - we're criticizing you. Stop hiding behind other people, tough guy. We gave you the truth and you called it condescending!"
--David Kaib

"Because 300 years of fighting for liberty and justice is enough to make anyone cranky."
--Sadie Baker

As one who appreciates the linguistic insights of George Lakoff, I am loathe to recommend the third and fifth suggestions, which reinforce conservatives' framing of the issue despite denying the frame's validity. The second, while humorous, is too narrowly focused on economics. The fourth makes a great point that deserves a wider audience, but the first one--that's a winner!

"It isn't elitist to tell the truth" would make a great bumper-sticker, and its contrast to the conservative MO couldn't be starker. Here's my stab at an "elevator speech" based on it:

Many conservatives would prefer to hide their activities behind a "You can't handle the truth!" façade, telling, "noble lies" (see Plato's Republic) to those who they view as the common rabble. (Scary stories about Kenyan socialists, Czarist bureaucrats, and "death panels" are just a few examples of conservative condescension disguised as concern.)

We liberals believe in speaking truth to power, and in trusting Americans to make their own decisions. Putting facts in the hands of the people is the exact opposite of elitism: an informed electorate and an empowered citizenry are the foundation of democracy.

They believe that you must be manipulated, and need to have your choices restricted by coerced ignorance or by media misinformation; we believe that you can think for yourself if given half a chance.

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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