Posts by author:

John Holbo

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?

Gesture Drawing

by John Holbo on June 9, 2014

Good discussion for my caricature post. I ended up saying stuff in comments about the Carracci, who are sometimes thought to have been the first portrait caricaturists. They taught quick-draw caricature, as an exercise, in their academy.

I don’t really go for all that “The Loves of the Gods” jazz. (It’s nice and all … if you like that sort of thing.) So I was very pleasantly surprised to discover just how much I like Annibale’s drawings. This book – The Drawings of Annibale Carracci – is amazing!

In spite of Annibale’s meticulous care in drawing realistically described and articulated forms, what sets him apart and places him in the category of great graphic artists is his ability to set down a few strokes to imply an entire scene … No one before Annibale, and only Rembrandt after him surpassed his genius for subtle suggestion.

So very true! Here, for example, is a preliminary sketch for the “Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne” panel.


I guess they told him he couldn’t include Batwoman like that. DC would have sued.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve seen, earlier, such a loose, abstract style of gesture drawing, as a way of working out a composition. Probably that is just my ignorance of the history of drawing, but this book really got me interested in Baroque painting, in an archeological sense: all the different layers of cartoon behind it, from the very rough to the very tight. Neat stuff, I say.


by John Holbo on June 7, 2014

I’ve been writing a survey article on “Caricature” for a forthcoming anthology on comics. I did that thing where you do too much research? And actually you don’t have that many words to play with? So sad.

Baudelaire is quite a clever fellow, of course, but it turns out the most sophisticated definition of ‘caricature’ comes from Walt Disney: “The true interpretation of caricature is the exaggeration of an illusion of the actual; or the sensation of the actual put into action.” That’s basically Ernst Gombrich’s philosophy of caricature – which is the correct one! – condensed. And Disney said it first.

I found part the quote in Walt Stanchfield, Drawn to Life [amazon], and was rather proud of my discovery. But it turns out it comes from a 1935 memo to Don Graham, which someone has posted online in its entirety. So I’m later to the party than I thought. Rats.

One thing that makes the topic slippery is that you can get bogged down in arguments over firsts. It’s rather traditional to start with Leonardo’s grotesque heads. But why not not start with a Paleolithic ‘venus’ figurine? Basically, you start using ‘caricature’ as a synonym for style, so all art is caricature. Probably you don’t want to go there – or just briefly.

But here’s a possible ‘who’s first?’ game we can play. What is the earliest case concerning which the means survive for us to enjoy, today, the classic caricature viewer experience? The amused moment of personal recognition – simultaneous seeing of likeness in not-likeness? I submit one should start with this portrait of Rudolf II, then look at Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus (1590). You can see it in the wheat eyebrows and radish eyebags. “Vaster than emperors, and more slow,” you might say.

Obviously it’s only our historical bad luck if we can’t find anything earlier. Can you push it back further?

Bonus points for earnestly wringing your hands about whether, by hinting that we can see what Rudolf ‘really’ looked like in the Heintz painting, I am implicated in a pernicious ideology of naive realism. Bless you, in advance, for your concern!

Big Love – Oh Brunhilda Edition

by John Holbo on May 18, 2014

If you think there’s the slightest chance that you would enjoy a book about Maurice Noble, who designed the backgrounds for all your favorite Warner Brothers cartoons (and a bunch of other animated works you love), you should get The Noble Approach: Art and Designs of Maurice Noble [amazon]. [click to continue…]

From The Mouths of Babes

by John Holbo on May 16, 2014

The 10-year old, upon seeing part of the trailer for Godzilla. “What if it has … Godzuki in it!” (Looks at me with dum-dum-DUM! expression, wide-eyed!)

Later she tells me she and her friend are writing another storybook. What is her book called? “It’s called ‘And Then!’”

I think “And Then!” is the best title for a story ever. And I tell her so. She’s like: “What? What’s so great about it?”

Makessense Stop!

by John Holbo on May 13, 2014

When I wasn’t MOOC’ing my heart out this semester, I was trying to help my students improve their writing. In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments. The real challenge is getting through to the students who are very bad at this, despite really trying. Good, hardworking students are easy to teach. You point out what’s wrong and they don’t do it anymore, most days. But the hardworking student who persists in submitting terrible stuff can be a real puzzle. You pin and label individual errors. But they just do it again. Teaching ‘informal reasoning’ doesn’t help, mostly. Students who have trouble seeing that there are major problems with their arguments – up to and including: you have no argument – are not assisted by lists of fallacies.

Teaching fallacies is mostly helpful for good students, even though it seems very basic. You are giving names to things they already get, thereby sharpening existing perception. The bad students, by contrast, have more of an ‘if it were a bear, it would have bitten you’ problem. Providing labels – brown, black, grizzly – is not going to help with ‘why did you completely miss it?’ [click to continue…]

Political Correctness: A Proposed Definition

by John Holbo on May 1, 2014

For the last month or so ‘political correctness’ – the term – has been bugging me. Perhaps there’s been a slight uptick in usage on conservative sites and blogs, due to some combination of Cliven Bundy, Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling. But really the problem is chronic.

Why did ‘political correctness’, which is so … Dinesh D’Souza circa 1991 … become an evergreen right-wing complaint? [click to continue…]

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…]