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John Holbo

Hack Gaps and Noble Lies

by John Holbo on December 9, 2018

These days we are healthily cynical about the omnipresence of motivated reasoning in cognition and communication. Everyone is working to fool everyone, starting with themselves. (It used to be you had to read Nietzsche to learn this stuff. Ah, those were the days.) [click to continue…]

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Abusive Legalism

by John Holbo on December 2, 2018

‘Norm erosion’ has been a debated thing for a while. Good norms have been undermined by Trump. But does it make sense to push back against that by defending norms, rather than, say, the good?

It’s useful to narrow it down. This President, in this era of hyper-partisanship, is a peculiarly unconstrained beast, legally. (Not just in the old, familiar imperial presidency sense.) There isn’t much Trump could do to get Republicans to impeach him. So impeachment is off the table as a check on Presidential abuse of power. In a narrow, legal sense, the immunity of a sitting President from prosecution, plus arguable exemption from conflict of interest laws, plus theoretically unconstrained pardon power, means on paper, a lot of ‘get out of jail free’ cards. No one would have aimed for this result. It’s obviously bad to have no check on Presidential corruption. (Maybe the emoluments clause is going to save us. We’ll see.)

So you get what Matthew Yglesias calls ‘abusive legalism‘, which is a bit narrower than ‘norm erosion’.

Andrew McCarthy is a good example. In his latest piece he objects to Mueller’s investigation – as he always does – on the grounds that there is no clear, overarching, blackletter ‘collusion’ crime in the prosecutor’s cross-hairs.

Note that word: crime. There are many wrongs that are not crimes, activities that are immoral, mendacious, unseemly. If we are talking about cosmic justice, all these wrongs should be made right. But prosecutors do not operate in a cosmic-justice system. They are in the criminal-justice system. The only wrongs they are authorized to address — the only wrongs it is appropriate for them to address — are crimes.

Note the attractive, exculpatory impersonalism of ‘cosmic injustice’. If awful stuff comes to light in l’affaire Russe, but it can be made out that there wasn’t a technical law against it; or if there is some law, but still some last ‘get out of jail free’ pardon card to be played – then Trump isn’t guilty – nor can Republicans be said to be at fault for turning a blind-eye. It’s the universe. Ergo, anyone who is upset about corruption is just some kooky, wild-eyed cosmic justice warrior.

The position is self-undermining within the scope of the piece itself. McCarthy is indignant that Mueller is violating prosecutorial norms – not breaking laws. But McCarthy doesn’t, therefore, chalk Mueller’s wrongdoing up to the cosmos’ injustice tab and shrug it off. But there’s an attractive pseudo-purity to such legalism. Adhering to the letter of the law is a good thing. ‘There’s no norms, dude’ is not the winning way to spin bad behavior. ‘We ONLY uphold the rule of law’ is how to spin norm erosion positively.

I think probably the most effective tack, rhetorically, is to force the likes of McCarthy to own the apparent perversity of the allegedly principled result. Namely, the right thing to do is to not expose serious Presidential corruption, since, weirdly enough, it isn’t illegal.

There. Fixed it.

by John Holbo on November 8, 2018

“All that talk about winning x percent of the “national House vote” or the “national Senate vote” — neither of which, you know, exists — is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not like how our governments are organized” (Link.)

All this talk about how neither the national House vote or the national Senate vote – both of which, you know, exist – exist, is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not know why how our governments are organized should be liked.

(On the other hand, if Kevin D. Williamson really denies you can add 50 numbers – well, we’d all love to see the plans.)

In comments, you can make fun of Williamson. Or you could discuss the election.

‘Extremely Possible’?

by John Holbo on November 5, 2018

‘Extremely possible’ was probably not the phrase for it. (It seems to have sent Taleb round the twist.)

Silver’s point is to emphasize 85 isn’t 100. But it’s striking how hard it is to say that without sounding like you are saying 85 is 50.

A sort of extremism kicks in that doesn’t seem to manifest in other areas of probabilistic reasoning. 50/50 or 100/0. Look at the polls; see which of those the polls are close to; that’s your answer. Elections: toss-up or lock.

Not black swan blindness, in Taleb’s familiar sense. Nor does anyone make quite this style of mistake when thinking about dice or cards, do they? You might make a baseline rate mistake in interpreting a potentially false positive regarding a medical diagnosis. But if the doc tells you you have a 15% chance of having the flu, no one thinks: oh, from that it follows that I’m 100% healthy. [click to continue…]

Air Is Real

by John Holbo on October 20, 2018

This image (I snagged it from an FB group) is evidently from this book [Amazon]. Science For Work And Play (1954).

I think someone should write Philosophy For Work and Play. “Error is real.” We could keep the picture the same.

This is Monstrous

by John Holbo on October 11, 2018

New Yorker link.

According to a long-standing legal precedent known as the Flores settlement, which established guidelines for keeping children in immigration detention, Helen had a right to a bond hearing before a judge; that hearing would have likely hastened her release from government custody and her return to her family. At the time of her apprehension, in fact, Helen checked a box on a line that read, “I do request an immigration judge,” asserting her legal right to have her custody reviewed. But, in early August, an unknown official handed Helen a legal document, a “Request for a Flores Bond Hearing,” which described a set of legal proceedings and rights that would have been difficult for Helen to comprehend. (“In a Flores bond hearing, an immigration judge reviews your case to determine whether you pose a danger to the community,” the document began.) On Helen’s form, which was filled out with assistance from officials, there is a checked box next to a line that says, “I withdraw my previous request for a Flores bond hearing.” Beneath that line, the five-year-old signed her name in wobbly letters.

Normativity Erosion – #Make Norms Normative Again

by John Holbo on October 11, 2018

That time a ‘Constitution in Exile’ borderline anarchist libertarian and a Catholic integralist wandered into a Twitter thread to discuss political legitimacy, and it crossed neither of their minds it might be a normative notion (rather than a descriptive synonym for power, give or take.) [click to continue…]

Proportion Conservation Notice

by John Holbo on October 2, 2018

I opened my latest magnum opus (no link necessary I’m sure!) with a requisite attention conservation notice. But sometimes in life it’s good to maintain a sense of proportion. (I’m not the best at that.)

It’s atrocious that Republicans pretty openly don’t give a damn whether BK did or not or is lying or not or whatever. He’s a good guy, bad guy, either way he’s our guy.

But, for the record, when the planet has boiled, BK will be forgotten. And the official position of the Trump administration is not that it’s not true but – eh, screw it.

“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.

Just kind of giving up on life on the planet as we know it, without even trying anything. If the only chance of survival would mean doing something the donors wouldn’t like, better to go out feeling smug about coal country.

Attention conservation notice: TOO LONG. But I wanted to rewrite my last post to my own satisfaction. So I did it different, but same.

People of the internet, I have long been openly opposed to loose dispensing of the blue pill.

“You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.”

No, the story doesn’t end there. That’s tomorrow-never-comes thinking. Read the warning label! You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want? What a way to run the railroad. Morpheus is giving this stuff out like candy to any slacker bro who looks the least bit likely. Is he out of his mind?

Because, seriously: what is it you are sure to want to believe? You will want to believe you took the red pill – and we are off to the races! You will believe, falsely, you’re Neo. Past which point you will be no good to yourself or others. At best.

Most folks will be too tempted by the lazy beguilements of blue pill lifestyle, so we are soon up to our collective armpits in mass fantasies of red pill-popping pop-paranoid philosophy of politics. Gets so you can’t throw a rock without hitting ‘the One’ in some Spartacus line-up of ‘Ones’. (#METOO, but for Ones.)

Virgil poetized of the gates of horn and ivory. Even he never conceived of a gate of pizza. And now Kavanaugh (although he isn’t a gate yet, though I can’t imagine why not.) It is never going to end until someone figures out a way to stop Morpheus, a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood.

So I thought to myself: what will be the sign that BK has busted us through the basement, driving the right crazier? I designated a canary: if Dreher takes the blue pill, in a Kavanaugh-related manner, that will mean the right has found a way to delve deeper into crazy. That is, if Rod Dreher says he takes the red pill, that will be a sign he’s taken the blue pill. That will mean things are worse. And sure enough.

Why Rod Dreher, as my dead canary designate down a conservative coal mine? [click to continue…]

Zizek Says Something Smart

by John Holbo on September 27, 2018

Once in a while it’s good for the soul to acknowledge that someone you regard as stupid said something smart. Here’s Slavoj Žižek on the wisdom – that is, stupidity – of proverbs: [click to continue…]

What Are The Odds?

by John Holbo on September 26, 2018

Kavanaugh. Suppose – just suppose – we wanted to estimate the likelihood that BK was guilty of sexual assault in his bad old “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep” days. Given that Ford (and Ramirez) have accused him, what is the likelihood he is guilty? [click to continue…]

Geoffrey Kabaservice:

One of the more influential studies of conservatism, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, insists that such seemingly disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Milton Friedman and Sarah Palin are all more or less the same, sharing the overarching goal of preserving the ruling order’s power and privilege against liberationist movements from below. In his view, the ideals conservatives tout (greater freedom, robust public morality, economic growth and deference to the Constitution) are nothing but fig-leaf cover for oppression, and anyone outside the elite who thinks otherwise is a victim of false consciousness.

Our Corey emitted a sigh over this, over on Facebook. This line of criticism of his book [amazon] was done to death years ago, no? Back when Mark Lilla was advancing the same criticisms – no better, but no worse? I will, as in days of yore, reply on Corey’s behalf. Since I think I can add a bit I haven’t said before.

The form of the objection is weird. “But, Socrates, how can you say that all triangles have three sides? That implies that all triangles are the same. But we all know that there are blue ones and red ones, big ones and little ones …”

How could you fail to see the fallacy in this pattern of reasoning?

There is nothing inherently illegitimate (‘reductionistic’) about looking and seeing whether all the things we call ‘X’ have something in common, plausibly explaining why they are grouped together.

Yet (as Corey himself says, over on Facebook) Kabaservice is smart. His book [amazon] is good. So why does he go wrong in this way – like Meno, to whom it simply does not occur to seek what all virtue cases have in common, rather than what makes them different?

Because politics ain’t triangles!

Very true. So let me put it another way. (And I’ll start calling Corey ‘Robin’. Because it sounds more official to refer to him that way!) Robin objects to what we might call the standard view. Let me quote a representative formulation by Peter Berkowitz. He’s introducing Varieties of Conservatism in America: [click to continue…]

Absurdism

by John Holbo on September 8, 2018

As Sparknotes writes,

Endgame’s opening lines repeat the word “finished,” and the rest of the play hammers away at the idea that beginnings and endings are intertwined, that existence is cyclical. Whether it is the story about the tailor, which juxtaposes its conceit of creation with never-ending delays, Hamm and Clov’s killing the flea from which humanity may be reborn, or the numerous references to Christ, whose death gave birth to a new religion, death-related endings in the play are one and the same with beginnings.

I cannot help but think of this passage as I read Jonah Goldberg’s erudite musings in the pages of National Review.

In the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, Brittanica.com explains, European playwrights “did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.”

That’s a pretty good description of the sound and fury signifying nothing on display this week from Democrats and protesters alike.

In this blog post I would like to argue that, as in the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, in Goldberg’s essay, “Theater of the Absurd Has Taken Over The Senate,” what we see is a conservative intellectual tradition that is ‘finished’, and yet at the same time intertwined with its own beginnings. The life of the conservative mind is cyclical, juxtaposing attempts to kill the stubborn flea of liberalism with lofty dreams of the rebirth – ever-promised, never fulfilled – of the conservative mind.

To put it another way, as Shmoop writes:

Waiting for Godot is hailed as a classic example of “Theater of the Absurd,” dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name. This particular play presents a world in which daily actions are without meaning, language fails to effectively communicate, and the characters at times reflect a sense of artifice, even wondering aloud whether perhaps they are on a stage.

In conclusion I would like to argue that, just as the ‘theater of the absurd’ is about dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name, so ‘conservatism’ is about works that promote the philosophy of its name: namely, conservatism. And, just as this particular play presents a world in which language fails to effectively communicate, so Goldberg’s essay fails, effectively, to communicate. It seems like “a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets [its] hour upon the” front page of National Review, then is heard of no more.

Oh I feel old

by John Holbo on August 30, 2018

But I was charming and non-arbitrary in my lovely youth. Buy me a drink, will you, lad?

Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless.

Link.

One-Star Reviews of Chartres Cathedral

by John Holbo on August 25, 2018

Of course you can write online Google reviews of Chartres Cathedral, so sometimes it gets one star.

“wrong location information, wrong in a game to find the place because of it”

(Reminds me of a story.)

“Nothing to do with that of Quasimodo’s film”

(Oh, THAT Notre Dame!)

Moving on to two-star territory:

“The mosaics are impressive, although too bluish for my taste, for the rest despite its size I was disappointed.”

“well, look like so many others”

(If you’ve seen one Cathedral at Chartres, you’ve seen them all.)

Three-Stars

“It’s A huge Building …”

“… Found this Cathedral while walking around …”

(Wouldn’t it be amazing to have been the first person to discover the Cathedral at Chartres?)

“Big, fresh, relaxing, silent, meditating, beauty …”

(Considerable consensus on bigness. But not unanimous!)

So then I checked one-star reviews of the Grand Canyon. It seemed like more reviewers were in on the gag by now. There are also reviews for the Pacific Ocean (3.5 stars average). I think being a professional ocean critic would be an ok gig. Then I checked Northern Hemisphere. Google doesn’t let you rate hemispheres. Or elements on the periodic table. Who decides? Then I walked right into it. ‘Why can’t I rate the sun?’ I asked the youngest daughter. ‘Dad, it would only get one star.’ Oh, snap. You see what I did to myself there?