From the category archives:

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic

LIBOR for the universities?

by Daniel on May 26, 2015

This is a post I’ve been planning to write for a while, with various other CT members alternately encouraging me to do so, and sternly reminding me that the consequences will be entirely on my own head ;-). It’s based on a point I’ve been making over the last few years to all sorts of friends when they’ve been trying to bait me on the subject of LIBOR, forex and the various scandals of the financial profession.

The point is quite simple. Bankers have had their day under scrutiny. But so have Members of Parliament (expenses scandal). So have journalists (phone hacking). So has the Church (paedophilia cover-ups). So has the BBC (ditto). This isn’t a specific issue about financial sector corruption. It’s a general trend, one of gradual social re-assessment of whether the fiddles and skeletons of the past are going to be tolerated in the future. It’s not that these sectors are especially dirty and the rest are especially clean – it’s just that politics, finance, religion, journalism and broadcasting have, so far, had their day under the microscope. One day, it’s going to point somewhere else. Particularly (because a lot of my friends are academics), one day it’s going to point at the universities. How confident are we that when it does, that they’ll be found pure?

At this point I tend to get either nervous laughter or outrage. Comments boxes don’t do nervous laughter very well, so readers of a ragey disposition might as well skip the details…
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{ 292 comments }

In What Sense Were The Nazis Socialists?

by John Holbo on May 4, 2015

Socialism! That is really an unfortunate word.

– Adolf Hitler (quoted in Dietrich Orlow, The Nazi Party 1919-1945: A Complete History, p. 88

When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Hitler, Petain, Montagu Norman, Pavelitch, William Randolph Hearst, Streicher, Buchman, Ezra Pound, Juan March, Cocteau, Thyssen, Father Coughlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Arnold Lunn, Antonescu, Spengler, Beverley Nichols, Lady Houston, and Marinetti all into the same boat! But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings.

George Orwell

I was going to try to get good old Montagu to contribute a personal note about his own fascist flirtations, after his long and unaccountable absence from the blog. No dice.

So I’ve solicited some commentary from Oswald Spengler, at least. [click to continue…]

It’s Nazi week at Crooked Timber! Do you love thrilling stories about Nazis? Great! [click to continue…]

I shall abhor you

by John Holbo on March 26, 2015

Do you ever wonder what a Wes Anderson horror film would be like? I have a good idea for one. It’s set in 1963, in a junior high school in Auburn, California, birthplace of “the bard of Auburn”, Clark Ashton Smith. An over-ambitious junior high drama director (Jason Schwartzman), in a misguided attempt to make the English teacher (Gwyneth Paltrow), fall in love with him, is staging an 8th grade production of Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You.

This is a truly unique play, in the Zothique cycle. I’m saving this Zothique zinger for some special occasion in comments, so be on your toes: [click to continue…]

Daumier Does Socrates, Robo Hates Dr. D.

by John Holbo on January 22, 2015

I’m glad to have spread the gorey news regarding Daumier. Some commenters were evidently unfamiliar. Here’s a nice Flickr set if you just want to browse. But, for CT’s especially philosophically-minded and discerning readership, one from Daumier’s “Histoire Ancienne” series. (It also belongs in my collection of philosophers looking silly. This one is also good.)

I present: Socrates doing a soft cancan, to Aspasia’s discomfort. [click to continue…]

Do philosophers dream of saving electric cats?

by John Holbo on November 6, 2014

I have a horrible cold. Getting better, but as of Monday fever was pretty bad, thanks for your concern. I was trying to get some work done – any work. What I proved capable of was: reading Save the Cat, which I’m planning to discuss in my science fiction and philosophy class (yes, I’m lucky like that. I get paid to teach such stuff.)

Why Save The Cat? [click to continue…]

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.

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…]

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…]

Best Video Ever

by Belle Waring on April 8, 2014

This is really for Straightwood, because I know the deeply meaningful and fully explained nature of this video of 50 Cent dubbed over a Jehovah’s Witness exhorting deaf students to abstain from masturbation will appeal to your keenly honed and not in any way homosexual aesthetic.

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…]

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.]

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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…]

Please Go Away Mao, You Are Banned As Well

by Belle Waring on January 22, 2014

Dearest Mao Cheng Ji,
We are the staff and posting priveliges of Crooked Timber.org webmagazine. We have been recommended to you as a person of trustworthiness for any trolling enterprise. At the moment we have over 5,893,903 (five million, eight-hundred-and-ninety-three-thousand, nine-hundrend-and-three) US comments waiting in the spam queue of a blog that was formed by Hector St. Clare, until recently the most acclaimed and five-times elected troll of our blog. However, his blog has been shut down for some time while he has been in exile from his native land, and for this reason we have no way to access our comments, as we all lack passports because or paperworks problems due to our initial blog-formation not being intended to be a group blog. Our blog was expanded to have more members of the board but the requisite letters of incorporation are awaiting approval and must be approved in many countries at the same time if we are to regain bloggging passports. So we have contacted you to ask you to move to Hector St. Clare’s blog permanently in the hopes that as soon as he re-continues his blog we will be able to access our 5,893,903 US comments currently waiting in the queue. We will need you to assist us in this enterprise by commenting their a small amount to cover the transfer fees but we will be happy to repay you for this service with 20% of the comments 1,178,780 US comments. Thanks be to God, we are all very excited at the prospect of you commenting permanently at Hector’s blog, and never commenting here at Crooked Timber again, under any circumstances, even needing to use a false name. I speak for all of us in saying we were lucky to of been given the chance to use your help to get our comments back from Hector’s blog. We may be contacting you with more details about the 5,893,903 comments.

For real, no. Hector was a substantially better feminist than Mao when it came to recognizing that gendered threats of violence are a special case, worth considering as different from generalized internet threats, for reasons other than ‘prudishness’—namely they are an attempt to drive women out of public fora.