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John Holbo

Jacques Callot, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

by John Holbo on February 11, 2019

I’m done with Art Young, but I had an afterthought. My final quote from Young mentioned earlier imaginative greats – like Jacques Callot. In my experience, everyone knows about Hieronymous Bosch but, oddly, fewer are familiar with Callot. So I uploaded one of his more impressive pieces to Flickr (I just snagged it from Wikimedia). I can’t say it’s Seussian, exactly. But it’s pretty great old stuff. From 1635.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jacques Callot

Politics and Forgiveness – a Proposal

by John Holbo on February 9, 2019

Governor Ralph Northam is fighting to stay, so he says, because the alternative is being unfairly tarred for life as a racist. (Sorry, I can’t find the quote. Correct me if I’m wrong. But somewhere in this blizzard of articles on the controversy he has said something to that effect. He is obviously thinking it.) This is so backwards. The correct solution is he should leave and, on the way out the door, he gets sympathy for his political misfortune and … yes, forgiveness and absolution. Go, and sin no more. But go.

He needs to leave, not because of what is or isn’t in his heart – or was or wasn’t in his heart – but because his continued presence makes it impossible for Democrats to take a strong, consistent, stand against racism. If any Democrat knows that, by staying in office, they hinder – rather than helping – he or she should step back for the good of the party, on behalf of the values it stands for. That said, there is no reason on earth to doubt that Northam is a different man from the one in that picture. Morally. It’s common sense – not just common courtesy – to believe he’s changed and would not do that today because he knows better. (That guy in the picture was a Gillespie voter, for sure.) [click to continue…]

Today I conclude my reflections on Art Young, occasioned by the great new book about him [amazon associates link]. For those disinclined to purchase, I found a copy of one of his books, On My Way (1928), in free PDF form. (Doc announces itself as legal. No copyright renewal, so it seems.) Anyway, in honor of my earlier, literary maps post: say! the endpapers make a swell map!

But the Art path I shall trace in this post is not from Monroe, WI, to Bethel, Conn. A few years back I published a survey article on ‘caricature and comics‘. On the one hand, caricature is a minor art form – not necessarily low but distinctly niche. Funny line drawings of celebrities. On the other hand, formally, caricature is very old and very broad. This produces categorial dissonance. Caricature techniques are at the root of styles we don’t think of as caricature. This is the main thesis of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, by the by. (No one seems to have noticed, but it’s true.)

In that essay I make some points with reference to the case of caricaturist-turned-Expressionist, Lyonel Feininger, but I could have used Art Young.

But let me start at the beginning, regarding Young. I like reading stories of youthful artistic influence, so here is his, pieced together from the new book and other sources. [click to continue…]

Art Young and Dr. Seuss

by John Holbo on January 28, 2019

I don’t have time for a full appreciation of Art Young today, but I’ll re-recommend the new Fantagraphics book about him [amazon associates link] and advance one art historical thesis: Young was a significant influence on the style of Dr. Seuss. I have never seen this point made before. I didn’t realize it myself until a week ago. As an avid, amateur Seussologist, and student of lines of graphic influence in American cartoon art in the early 20th Century, I’m interested to see it. [click to continue…]

There’s worse things, no doubt

by John Holbo on January 27, 2019

I got on Twitter.

Honestly, I deserve some credit. I joined a couple years back because, suddenly, every time I landed on any Twitter page it was all in Arabic. Weird. I figured if I signed in I could adjust the language setting. But then the problem resolved itself. I never bothered. But I follow enough people I should be on the platform, but if I’m on the platform … So I logged in. Erased the Arabic script handle Twitter had wisely chosen as my default. Reset my country of origin from the default: Hungary. And Bob’s your uncle!

So what do we think of the ethics of Twitter? I mean: how can one live a flourishing life on Twitter?

It’s just the worst, right? I’ve made a terrible mistake.

Belief In Hell As The Basis For Faith

by John Holbo on January 26, 2019

Our Corey is in The New Yorker! I was going to boost it for him but he got to it first.

But I’ll do it anyway.

The political convert was the poster child of the Cold War. The leading ideologues of the struggle against Communism weren’t ancient mariners of the right or liberal mandarins of the center. They were fugitives from the left. Max Eastman, Arthur Koestler, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, and Ignazio Silone—all these individuals, and others, too, had once been members or fellow-travellers of the Communist Party. Eventually, they changed course. More than gifted writers or tools of Western power, they understood what Edmund Burke understood when he launched his struggle against the French Revolution. “To destroy that enemy,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.”

Corey’s puzzle, per the subtitle: “defectors from the left have often given the right a spark and depth. Why doesn’t it work the other way around?”

We’ll get to that. But first I would like to report a coincidence. I’ve just been brushing up on Max Eastman myself. (Here’s a good Dissent piece, in case you need a refresher or introduction.) That’s because I’ve been reading about a different forgotten figure — the great cartoonist Art Young! Young is the subject of a new Fantagraphics books that is absolutely tops, and if you are the sort of person who might be remotely interested in anything of the sort, you should get it. It is To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Art of Art Young [publisher]. The Kindle version is cheap on Amazon [amazon associates link]. I don’t know how long that happy condition will last. If you don’t wanna pay, this site is pretty ok, too. The thing is: the new book contains lots of high quality reproductions of the original art, rather than just scans of the poorly printed originally published versions. The original art, properly reproduced, just pops to an incredible degree. The crosshatching. I’m in awe. Tomorrow or the next day I’m going to try to work up an appreciation of Young’s art. He was a pen and ink master. Just look at this nice stuff!


But politics. First, politics. [click to continue…]

Radically Transformative Virtue Ethics

by John Holbo on January 23, 2019

I have an idea that there is sort of a hole in the ethics literature. I could be wrong! So tell me where I’m wrong.

The idea is this: transhumanism is virtue ethics. But no one seems to call it that. “Man remaining man, but transcending himself.” That’s Huxley, introducing transhumanism, and it specifies a delicate virtue balance to be maintained, if I make no mistake. Yet ‘virtue ethics’ is associated with conservative opposition to this sort of radical change option. (Here is Steve Fuller saying so. Not that him saying so proves it is so. But he says exactly what I expect lots of people to say, and it was the first Google hit.)

It’s like there’s this open question: what sort of people should there be? [Amazon – damn, Glover used to offer it free from his personal site, but it appears to have evaporated.] And ‘virtue ethics’ names only views that answer conservatively. Virtue ethics says: the sort we’ve already got. A subset of that.

Why not also call it ‘virtue ethics’ if the answer is: some new sort we haven’t got yet?

It isn’t mysterious that virtue ethics is associated with conservative attitudes towards virtue, given its connection with natural law thinking and grumpy old After Virtue and a bunch of other stuff. But that ought to be regarded as a contingent link.

Glover has an epigraph from Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: [click to continue…]

Maps and Legends

by John Holbo on January 21, 2019

I’m seriously enjoying two new books. [click to continue…]

Would you read “Goodnight Moon” to Baby Hitler?

by John Holbo on January 20, 2019

Defend your answer with reasons.

Merry X-Mas!

by John Holbo on December 25, 2018

It’s been a busy month for John and Belle. Certain difficulties involved, as you can see from the photo. Hope it’s been a good month for you and yours and that Santa brings you many appropriate gifts.

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…]

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.