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John Holbo

American Exceptionalism – A Double-Edged Word

by John Holbo on August 30, 2014

I’m not surprised some conservatives are upset about the AP American History test. But I am bemused by the strength of the axiom Stanley Kurtz would oblige us to adopt, to keep things from getting politicized: “America is freer and more democratic than any other nation.” (Although, grant the axiom, and postulates about military strength, and theorem 1 – “[the US is] a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world” – enjoys high probability.)

This is a comparative thesis about the international order, so it is noteworthy that Kurtz simultaneously forbids the ‘internationalization’ of US history. Comparative ‘transnational narratives’, the only sort of thing that could empirically support the validity of Kurtz’ exceptionalist axiom, are out! But I suppose Kurtz is just trying to avoid confusion. (It is wrong to allow that there could be empirical disconfirmation of any aspect of a result that has been transcendentally deduced from an impulse to amour-propre.) [click to continue…]

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The Laffer Event Horizon?

by John Holbo on August 21, 2014

Reading Jon Chait this morning:

With predictable fury, supply-siders have denounced this heresy [that Reagan-era supply-side policies might not be optimal today, even granting that they were in 1980]. You can get a flavor of the intra-party debate in columns appearing in places like Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, the later of which retorts, “Good economic policy doesn’t have a sell-by date. (Adam Smith? Ugh. He is just so 1776.)”

The quote is a few months old, but – wow! – what an evergreen formula for zombie economics!

Good economic policy need not be formulated with reference to the economy.

I think maybe we need something a bit more science-fiction-y. Instead of the Laffer Curve, we have the Laffer Event Horizon, which is located in 1974, when Laffer sketched his famous curve on a napkin. After 1974, the economy fell into a black hole, for tax purposes. Specific facts about it could no longer cross the boundary of the Laffer Event Horizon, for policy purposes. A bit more precisely: within the black hole, all tax-like-paths – must be warped down and down, eventually to zero. Especially taxes on the rich.

Just a thought.

New Spoon – Good!

by John Holbo on August 12, 2014

The world is an awful mess but the new Spoon album, They Want My Soul, is amazing! Best Spoon album since … well, at least since Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. (Better than Transference, then.) They did a live, 9-song performance for KEXP, Seattle, including many of the new songs. You can watch that here. But I think the studio versions sound better.

So here’s the thing: they’ve always had a Beatle-y thing going on, Spoon, but “I Just Don’t Understand” is – after the first few seconds – such a Lennon/McCartney Please Please Me kind of 1963 tune. Right? Pleasant! [UPDATE: Aaaand it turns out actually to be a cover of a song the Beatles covered, which I never heard before, because I don’t own Live at the BBC.] But “Knock Knock Knock” – correct me if I’m wrong – sounds a bit like, I dunno, Pink Floyd mid-70’s. (After the first few seconds.) Kinda David Gilmour guitar, then swoopy anthem stuff. Sort of a different sound for Spoon. I like it.

Now everyone tell me it doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd at all.

The Unsung Romance of Incompetence

by John Holbo on August 5, 2014

So I’m reading this post on The Guardians of the Galaxy (which I shouldn’t be doing, since I haven’t seen it, but I’ll bet the raccoon lives.)

And I misread this sentence:

In fact, these space misfits offer something rarely seen in superhero films: the Guardians show emotional, neurological, developmental and communication deficits that 1) are not expected to be resolved or cured at the end of the film and 2) do not make them ineffective as heroes.

Because surely we need to lose that last ‘not’. DO make then ineffective as heroes. That better be it, otherwise obviously this film is just like all the other stories about heroes who are kind of damaged but awesomely effective.

Obviously (I can tell this without seeing it), Guardians IS like all the rest, not different as this author so wrongly suggests. (But I’m sure it’s going to be awesome.) [click to continue…]

Give It Your All – Then Give Some More

by John Holbo on July 31, 2014

Everyone’s complaining about the dumbness of the use-100%-of-your-brain premise for Lucy. (Which I expect is a bad movie.) I have an idea for a superhero that I think fixes this problem. Coaches are always yelling at players that they need to ‘give 110 percent!’ out on the field. So: what if someone actually figured out a way for you to do that? (Makes you think, eh!) You could have these amazing scenes where, after the super-sciencey treatment, the hero is being tested. Running on the treadmill, solving math problems, stacking raisins. In each case the guys in labcoats, gathered around the readouts are smiling, amazed. ‘Sir, we’ve done it! He’s using 110% of capacity!’

The point being: this guy (or gal!) is going to be able to beat Lucy, whoever she is. End of story. Mischief managed.

So What Gives? (About Tolerance)

by John Holbo on July 27, 2014

Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.

So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.

That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.

What to say, what to say, when I’m already 10,000th in line to read him the riot act? [click to continue…]

Le Père Goriot

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!) [click to continue…]

Dreams and Plagiarism

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

Been traveling. Bit of jetlag. Woke. I had been having the most exciting dream and was at the most thrilling part when … I woke up. I couldn’t remember anything, except I had exited at a total cliffhanger point in a very elaborate story. Like knowing your favorite tv show has been cancelled before the final season, but not knowing what your favorite show is. I tried to go back to sleep, without hope, or success. Damn.

File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally. Wanting to know how it ended.

Maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign.

If only Joss Whedon had written and directed my dream, I’d have his fans on my side.

But he didn’t, and other people’s dreams are boring, I know. In other news: Zizek isn’t looking like an especially responsible scholar. I find the explanation that ‘a friend’ sent him a long passage cribbed from a white supremacist book review and told him ‘he could use it freely’, in addition to being insufficient, rather incredible. With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’). [click to continue…]

Vast, Conservative Literary-Persecution Complex

by John Holbo on July 8, 2014

It’s lazy days of summer, so here’s some low-hanging fruit: a long essay by Adam Bellow at NR, advocating for a conservative literary counter-culture to the totalitarian thing we’ve got now.

What is it that Bellow actually wants? Is it: let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as they are all paranoid dystopias about the liberal fascist not-so-distant-future? Surely not. A new T.S. Eliot? But what’s stopping him? Ignatius P. Reilly, but not treated like some sort of dunce? What? Consider this bit: [click to continue…]

Let Freedom Ring!

by John Holbo on July 4, 2014

Well, that didn’t take long. It’s been 72 hours, and the Supremes have flipped from arguing that the administration could have been more accommodating to signing a temporary injunction on behalf of a plaintiff, refusing the terms of the accommodation. Kevin Drum has it about right: “It’s worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they’re now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its “revisions” won’t get nearly as much attention.”

Then again, as PR, this seems doomed to backfire generally. Whatever one makes of the legalities, there’s no missing the spirit in which these decisions are being celebrated on the right. It’s hard to believe many women voters will be inclined to say ‘well, if religious liberty means my boss gets to interfere with me getting what the law says I have a right to, in ways that feel very private and non-work-related, without that technically being a violation of my rights, I guess that’s alright. I guess my boss is exercising his rights, even though it feels like I’m taking a little symbolic walk of shame here!’ Conservatives are working hard to console themselves for recent cultural and legislative losses by building a relatively small, largely symbolic patriarchal dominance display out of ‘religious liberty’. But I’m guessing most women voters are not interested in playing the role conservatives want to cast them in here – i.e. being the loose woman rightfully, if only symbolically, scourged by the spiritually superior employer, all in the name of ‘liberty’. There is no way to make this little morality play palatable to conservatives without making it unpalatable to most women. A lot of conservatives are taking a ‘what’s the big deal!’ line, while at the same time making it clear that, to them, this is a big deal. It’s really not realistic to suppose women will be more immune to the symbolism of the drama than conservatives themselves, however it plays out in terms of provision of birth control to women who need it.

Happy 4th of July! Freedom is a great thing, if only we could agree what it is!

UPDATE: it occurs to me someone is going to complain that I’m cruelly indifferent to the real harm done to some poor women by these recent decisions. In fact, I’m aware of that. It’s really bad and I hope some workaround is found. It’s not clear one will be, which is a damn shame. Nevertheless, the point of the post is that people are getting exercised by the symbolism of the victory, one way or the other. There is no possible symbolism, along these lines, that will please conservatives, that won’t displease most women, because conservatives are in the market for a way to dominate women, in as public a way as possible, while reassuring themselves this is all just ‘liberty’. And most women aren’t in the market for some way to be publicly subordinated, under cover of ‘liberty’, I’ll bet. In the best case, it will just be symbolic. Who has to sign what piece of paper, etc., rather than women actually not getting certain goods the law promised them. But the very thing that makes it acceptable to conservatives, even if it’s symbolic, is going to make it unacceptable to women, even if it’s symbolic. So: good luck with that outreach to women, conservatives.

Belle and I are on vacation, with intermittent internet. But sea and sun are lovely.

Crooked Timber needs a Hobby Lobby thread, since everyone’s got one. (But don’t expect to hear from me in comments. Wi-fi could die any minute.) You will not be surprised to hear I am sympathetic to Ginsburg’s much-quoted ‘startling breadth’ assessment. Here’s my semi-original question, bouncing off this assessment, via the dissent’s footnote 1.

“The Court insists it has held none of these [startlingly broad] things, for another less restrictive alternative is at hand: extending an existing accommodation, currently limited to religious nonprofit organizations, to encompass commercial enterprises. See ante, at 3–4. With that accommodation extended, the Court asserts, “women would still be entitled to all [Food and Drug Administration]-approved contraceptives without cost sharing.” Ante, at 4. In the end, however, the Court is not so sure. In stark contrast to the Court’s initial emphasis on this accommodation, it ultimately declines to decide whether the highlighted accommodation is even lawful. See ante, at 44 (“We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA . . . .”).”

So: Hobby Lobby wins because Obamacare is not compliant with RFRA because of a less restrictive route not taken. But it could turn out that this less restrictive approach is itself not compliant with RFRA, i.e. is not a route after all. (Cases concerning this are still pending, as I understand it.) What if the Supremes decide this is so (as they are expressly reserving the right to do)? Could it turn out that there is no ‘least restrictive’ RFRA option, due to a sort of judicial uncertainty principle, arising out of the order in which the cases are taken up? That is, the court is really now saying, not that there is a less restrictive option, but that they are not yet sure there is NOT a less restrictive option? Either the cat will be dead when they open the box of their own pending decision about the accommodations for religious nonprofits, or it won’t be. But, until we open the box, there isn’t a legal fact of the matter. But surely there is no chance that they will decide in favor of the plaintiffs in pending religious nonprofit cases and thereby retroactively falsify the basis for their decision in favor of Hobby Lobby?

Or possibly I’m jetlagged.

The Rhetoric of Having Been Wrong

by John Holbo on June 19, 2014

There’s a meta-ish debate going on about who should and shouldn’t have rightful standing to opine about whether the US should do something about the horrible situation in Iraq. Meta-ish debates have a tendency to make things sound complicated, when this is pretty simple.

Either the neocons know they were wrong last time, or they don’t.

If you are The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and you don’t know it, you are useless, for wolf crying purposes.

If, on the other hand, you know you were wrong before, and you know everyone else knows, but you think you are right this time, and you want to warn everyone, you won’t say ‘now is not the time to re-litigate whether I was perfectly right in the past concerning each and every last wolf.’ No, you will say something reasonable, like: ‘I know you have no reason to trust me, given how wrong I was before in a case that looked an awful lot like this one. I am so sorry for the damage I have done, but I will be even sorrier if the fact that you can’t trust me means even more damage is done. That will be my fault, too, if it happens, so please …’

There is, after all, such a thing as common sense.

I was wrong about Iraq. I was one of those Kenneth Pollack-reading liberal queasyhawks, to my ongoing shame.

Genre Police, Arrest This Man

by John Holbo on June 14, 2014

More bits that came up, researching caricature. No chance in hell this is going to squeeze into the final piece, but Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris [amazon], tells a good story.

OK, just one detail. Wechsler makes the correct point that caricature goes with mime. She writes about the Théâtre des Funambules. Thus we learn:

The Funambules was a silent theatre. Legislation of 1806 obliged theatres to stay within their assigned genres: pantomimes were forbidden to use dialogue … The silence of this theatre became its trademark and strength. In the prolonged period of censorship until 1830 and from 1835 to its demolition in 1863, it was able to introduce subversive notes through ‘gait, glance, and gesture’. (44)

I love the idea of genre police. The idea that you would get arrested for violating genre rules. Genre jail. ‘What’re you in for?’ Also, I think someone should make a movie – possibly a silent movie – about ‘Mouthy the Mime’, a Parisian Pierrot who simply will not shut up, being chased all over Paris by the genre gendarmerie. I recommend he be played by Bobcat Goldthwait.

What’s The Score?

by John Holbo on June 11, 2014

Wow, Cantor out.

So I click over to see the joy at RedState. Erick Erickson is explaining that it’s less crazy than it seems for primary voters to boot a guy with a 95% rating from the American Conservative Union. “Heritage Action for America takes a more comprehensive approach to its scorecard, it does not try to help Republican leadership look good, and is a better barometer of a congressman’s conservativeness.” Cantor only got a 53% from Heritage.

Look at the comprehensive Heritage scoring, from top to bottom. Only Mike Lee gets 100%. A lot of Republicans don’t break 50%. McCain gets 51%. I’m not going to bother, but if you averaged it all out, I think it would turn out America is about 20% conservative, which seems barometrically low. How did they score this thing? There doesn’t seem to be any information on the site about how the scoring was done. (I appreciate that scoring every single vote means it’s pretty complicated, but still, shouldn’t they have guidelines about what ‘conservative’ means to them?) Anyone know?