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John Holbo

My Chait thread was a moderate disaster. I was like: ‘by saying X, I think Chait meant Y.’ And you were like: ‘by saying ‘by saying X, Chait meant Z,’ are you saying Q?’ And I was like: what? Z? Q? No: Y!’ And you were like: ‘Y what?’ Anyway, I take almost full responsibility for how that went down wrong. Some of the comments came round but it was, overall, a poor frame for my point. My bad.

Let’s cut all that loose and try again, from quite a different angle. This post is also, sort of, a presentation of arguments I cheekily refused to disclose in this post. On we go!

Conor Friedersdorf’s argument that gay marriage opponents shouldn’t be likened to racist bigots goes something like this.

P1: Racism is pretty simple.

“A belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another.”

P2: Opposition to same-sex marriage is complex.

“One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians — that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.”

C: Comparing same-sex marriage opponents to racist bigots falsifies by over-simplification.

Friedersdorf is braced for resistance to P2. But P2 is ok and the problem is P1. I hope it’s obvious to you, when it’s put so simply. Racism is not … simple. (How could it be?) [click to continue…]


The Color Of His Presidency

by John Holbo on April 15, 2014

That’s the title of this really good (in my opinion) Jonathan Chait cover article in New York Magazine. At this point it would be customary for me to extract a nut graph but, you know, that results in a lot of squirrels fighting it out in comments about just the nut. I think the whole article deserves considerate discussion. So do that instead. (I will be Chait’s defender! Although, of course, if someone picks on one of the places where his foot slips … well, I can’t defend that.)

UPDATE: Sorry, original link was to a subsection not the whole article. And original post title was a subsection title, not the actual article title. Not that it really matters.


The Stale Catnip of Contemptsmanship

by John Holbo on April 12, 2014

I have resisted writing about the Brendan Eich Mozilla affair. Literally. The ‘resisted’ bit is literal, I mean. Every day, for more than a week, I have expended non-trivial willpower to post nothing. It’s the moral equivalent of a giant bag of snacks in the kitchen of my mind. Unopened. That I am so distracted by the knowledge that someone, right now, is writing something wrong on the internet about Brendan Eich, is a sign I am a glutton for empty calories of falsehood.

Thus, my new policy. I am allowed to eat as many stale snacks of falsehood as I want. I’m opening the Brendan Eich bag. Now. By commencing to write this post I have opened the bag. The temptation is increasing! But I’m … just going to let it sit, getting good and stale. It’s already sort of stale. I did manage to wait more than a week. If, after staleness really sets in, I still want to partake, I may do so. At which point I just may manage to do so moderately, in proportion to such true nutritional content as I may add.

Going forward, let it be so! Fresh truths and stale falsehoods served! [click to continue…]


The Secret!

by John Holbo on April 3, 2014

I can’t say I find much to agree with in this Charles Koch op-ed, in the WSJ. Although I do second Kevin Drum’s amazement that the best emblem they could find of the sort of spirit no leftist could possibly endorse was … an old Daily Kos logo? Really?

But I do think it’s a good sign that the right is branching out from Alinksy to Schopenhauer.

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

I knew it! (I had long suspected, but this is the smoking gun!) The Kochtopus is a crypto-Schopenhauerian cult! It is all a subtle plot to deny Americans their freedom – as Schopenhauer denied human freedom! The Kochs seek to get all good Americans to see the World As Representation, thereby inducing ethical denial of the World As Will. (As we know, welfare just encourages people to go on living. That’s why we must cut programs for the poor, to bring about an ideal, Schopenhauerian rapture of ethical nihilism!)

On the other hand, perhaps Koch is a Schopenhauerian in a less metaphysical, more practical sense. He practices The Art of Always Being Right: The 38 Subtle Ways of Persuasion [Amazon].

Could it be?

(Seriously. It’s a good book. Schopenhauer wrote a fine little treatise on motivated reasoning, tracking the beast to its lair, the den of desire to be right.)

Down the MOOC-hole, where I have been, I haven’t kept score in the Silver/Krugman kerfuffle. But, Plato-preoccupied as I was, I did make a false inference. I knew it was some fox-hedgehog thing. Silver was using Archilochus to frame what is wrong with standard opinion journalism. Perfect! I thought. Because I have read Plato’s Republic.

“Since, then, ‘opinion forcibly overcomes truth’ and ‘controls happiness,’ as the wise men say, I must surely turn entirely to it. I should create a facade of illusory virtue around me to deceive those who come near, but keep behind it the greedy and crafty fox of the wise Archilochus” (365b-c). [click to continue…]

The Game of Wrong, and Moral Psychology

by John Holbo on March 28, 2014

Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.

I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)

We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.

So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.

We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)

So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger). [click to continue…]

Happy 100th Birthday, Ward Kimball. (I almost forgot!)

Speaking of those we love for the energy of their animation, and continuing my Oscar animation contrarianism: Frozen was great and all, but part of me feels The Croods should have won. Or at least gotten a bit more respect for doing something new and great.

I really love the smash&grab football chase scene, for example.

Scroll down this page and appreciate Chris Sanders’ wonderful storyboarding. So much spring and motion! What a clever solution to a basic problem – how to make them look all tangled up? [click to continue…]

So maybe you will prefer Mayer Hawthorne’s version. (I could go either way.)

In other news, it seems reasonable to argue that Pharrell Williams should have won for “Happy”. Because Idina Menzel is good but not, you know, Donald Fagen good.

Yep, I did it. Love me if you like. Hate me if you have to. Officially, the course starts tomorrow, but we were ready so we flipped the switch.

[UPDATE: Probably I should mention this, in case people don’t know about Coursera. It’s free and you can just sign up now and take the course, if you care to.]

[click to continue…]

The Ring of Gyges

by John Holbo on February 2, 2014

The point of the myth, from Book II of Republic, is clear because it’s utterly explicit. This is a thought-experiment to explore the proposition that humans will only do right – be just – under duress and compulsion. What you can get away with, you will get away with. So imagine a guy who can act with impunity. What would he do? That’s your answer.

But what do we make of all the dramatic incidentals, which seem to be Plato’s invention? Why Gyges, in particular (or an ancestor of Gyges)? Why a shepherd? Why an earthquake? Why a crack in the earth? Why a hollow bronze horse with little doors? Why a dead giant (larger than a man)? [click to continue…]


“For some liberals, there really are no adversaries to their left. President Obama’s statement Tuesday on the death of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 was remarkable. Seeger was a talented singer, but he was also an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995, when he finally apologized for “following the [Communist] party line so slavishly.” You’d think Obama might have at least acknowledged (as even Seeger did) the error of his ways. Instead, Obama celebrated him only as a hero who tried to “move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”

Yes, up until yesterday, I’m sure if you’d polled readers at the Corner, asking them, “What would you expect Barack Obama to say, in memorium, if Pete Seeger died?” those readers would have predicted, incorrectly, that he would seize the graveside opportunity to denounce the talented, beloved, dead man as a former communist. A real Sistah Souljah moment. It’s not every day a mere President of the United States can speak truth to folk music power. What more appropriate occasion than a funeral? And yet, remarkably, Obama did not behave in this way that you would have naturally expected him to. How remarkable. Readers of National Review will now have to revise their image of Obama rather radically, in light of fresh data. After today, they can no longer think of him as a one of the ‘good’ liberals – a staunch anti-communist cold warrior, in the JFK mold. No, sadly, after today, conservatives can no longer think of Obama as a liberal, yes, but a true, blue American all the same. They will be forced to think of him as sort of a bad guy. Guy didn’t spit on Pete Seeger’s grave, on the day he died. Jerk.

Alan Moore Interview

by John Holbo on January 26, 2014

I have no basis for judging the Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrison feud, but Moore’s droll elaborateness about that, and everything else, can just roll on and on and on, as far as I’m concerned.

Ty Templeton’s take on the Moore-Morrison feud is highly partisan, but the grandness of love surely is a flag around which we can all rally. (“I’m camink” is a Herrimanesque neologism of a talk bubble one cannot unsee. Setch diktion! I’m an Offisa Pup-type.)

UPDATE: Grant Morrison’s point-by-point rebuttal is pretty sober and compelling. Since there are actual persons involved, I should probably make clear that I don’t regard ‘droll elaborateness’ as anything like evidence of truth. If anything, the opposite. Moore comes off as manic (as befits his reputation as a magus). That’s what I should has said. He’s so droll yet so manic, the elaborate lengthiness of it serving as a kind of insulation, to keep those two moods from annihilating one another. But if what Moore says about Morrison isn’t true, the sheer entertainment value of the way he says it shouldn’t count for much. Except for entertainment purposes. Perhaps not even that.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + … = -1/12

by John Holbo on January 21, 2014

I find this confusing. (via Gizmodo.)

For the first time I’m going to write the following sentence. The top YouTube comment link is helpful. Or would be, if I were good at math. I trust.

Belle and I agree that the sleight of hand comes at 3:11 when he ‘shifts it along a little bit’. (My cat is looking at me, skeptically.)

This earlier video provides a nice introduction as well.

Since Crooked Timber is now a music blog …

by John Holbo on January 19, 2014

… I’d better get with it.

Belle is on this virtuous kick because we finally got all our vinyl out of storage after years and years. One of the first old tracks I elected to play, because random, was “Barricade Beach”, by the Insect Surfers. Here’s the video. (Also, “The Sound of the Surf”. Ah, the 80’s.) So I wonder: where are they now? Turns out they’re still around, and quite awesome. Good for them. Still playing surf stuff!

What band did you like and then forget about for thirty years and then realize are still around?

Or you could just abuse me for my inexplicable affection for the Insect Surfers.

Some Desperate Glory

by John Holbo on January 5, 2014

Amazing. Bill Kristol is hoping that, after a full century of unwillingness to go to war, because Wilfred Owen, this might be the year we consider – maybe! – going to some war. For the glory of it! Wouldn’t a war be glorious? If we could only have one? “Play up, play up, and play the game!” For the game is glorious!

Why have we been so unthinkingly unwilling to consider going to war for an entire century? Doesn’t that seem like a long time to go without a war?

Couldn’t we have just one?