Steve Ditko: Neat Drawings, Much Thinking

by John Holbo on July 9, 2018

A couple of weeks ago (June 23) I made the following post on Facebook: “Huh. Steve Ditko is still alive? Just not giving interviews the last half-century?”

And, of course, he died a week later. (This is why people believe in jinxes.) So I feel a bit bad about that one.

Kirby and Lee … and Ditko. That’s where it all started at Marvel. I was always a Kirby guy. But I would say Ditko’s best feature was keeping it simple and clean in terms of the outlines of his figures, especially the ones wearing tights. Whenever you see Spider-Man swinging through your friendly neighborhood, that’s Ditko. Even when he’s drawing Kirby monsters, Ditko manages to make it look simple and clean in a nice, palette-cleansing way. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Steps

by Chris Bertram on July 8, 2018

University of Bristol, Senate House

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Nearly seven years after I started work, here’s the final draft chapter from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 15 chapters and encouraged me in the project as a whole.

I’ve had quite a few amusing snarks on Twitter to the effect that 16 chapters and 90 000 words is an awful lot for just two lessons. That’s true and yet there are even more topics I wanted to cover. In particular, I wrote quite a bit on health and education but have had to omit most of it for space reasons. Still, if anyone wants to point out critical omissions, now’s the time.

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome. I’m also on the lookout for telling graphs, insightful illustrations and apt quotations.

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In the wake of the primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s been a dramatic shift in mainstream liberal opinion—in the media, on social media, among politicians, activists, and citizens—toward Sanders-style positions. People who were lambasting that kind of politics in 2016 are now embracing it—without remarking upon the change, without explaining it, leaving the impression that this is what they believed all along.

As you can imagine, this causes no end of consternation in certain precincts of the left. For some legitimate reasons. You want people to acknowledge their change in position, to explain, to articulate, to narrate, perhaps to inspire others in the process. And for some less legitimate, if understandable, reasons: people are pissed at the way Sanders-style politics was attacked in 2016; they feel that they were unfairly maligned; they want folks to own up to it. That’s understandable from a human point of view, but it’s not really the way you build a coalition or a movement. Every mass movement is built on converts, and if the first thing a convert hears when they show up at the shul is ” Apologize. Apologize. Pull out his eyes.” (mixing my cultural touchstones here, I realize)—well, you can see where this is going. Or not going. If the left is going to grow, everyone should be welcome to join, without having to hand over a bill of lading upon their arrival.

But I’m not bringing this up now either to settle scores or to enforce some kind of norm of the welcome mat. I’m actually just super interested in this phenomenon, in this kind of change at the both the human and the political level. By “this kind of change” I don’t meant the deep transformations that some political people undergo over the course of a lifetime: the proverbial Whittaker Chambers-style migration from left to right, for example, that we saw throughout the 20th century. That’s a deep, one-time change that you don’t easily go back on. I mean more these micro-shifts that happen under the pressure of events, the subtle coercions of new opinion, the ever-finer movements we all make to keep up with the flow, so as not to be left behind.

I just finished reading the letters of Thomas Mann, who’s an exemplary figure in this regard. Leading up to World War I, he was a fairly standard old-school conservative militarist/nationalist. That continued until the end of the war. After the war, he became a dedicated liberal defender of Weimar. Once the Nazis took over, his liberalism morphed into a humanist anti-fascism. By the end of the war, that antifascism had come to include overt sympathy with communism and the Soviet Union (he even praised Mission to Moscow on aesthetic grounds!) That continued into the late 1940s, when he supported Henry Wallace for president and was outspoken in his opposition to HUAC.

But then, around 1950 or so, you begin to see, ever so slightly and subtly, Mann’s opinions starting to change once again. He never comes out in defense of McCarthyism, but you begin to feel a chill and distance toward the left. His criticisms of the repression in the US begin to modulate and moderate. Till finally, in a 1953 letter to Agnes Meyer, his close friend and matriarch of The Washington Post, he confesses that he has decided not to publicly oppose McCarthyism in the New York Times. He reports to her that when he was asked—”probably by someone on the ‘left’”—what he thinks about the censorship and restrictions on freedom in the US, this was his reply: “American democracy felt threatened and, in the struggle for freedom, considered that there had to be a certain limitation on freedom, a certain disciplining of individual thought, a certain conformism. This was understandable.” Though he adds some sort of anodyne qualification at the end of that.

It just about broke my heart. That “left” in scare quotes (previously Mann had seen himself as a part of the left), the clichés about freedom and the Cold War, the betrayal of all that he had said and done in the preceding decades—and most important, the seeming inability to see that he was betraying anything at all.

Who was the real Thomas Mann? The German militarist, the Weimar liberal, the humanist antifascist, the Popular Fronter, the Cold War liberal? Who knows? All of them, none of them? I think in the end, his most authentic moment was probably during the 1920s and early 1930s, when he made the migration from German nationalist to humanist antifascist. That was the one true shift that he could endure and narrate. But everything after that? It was just the way the game was being played. And he was a player. Not a self-conscious, strategic player. More un-self-conscious, moving with the times. Less player than played. As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But always without seeming to realize what he was doing. Watching how his positions changed—within a very short period of time—without him even seeing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.

During the McCarthy years, Arendt wrote in a letter to Jaspers how terrified she was of the repression. It wasn’t just the facts of the coercion she saw everywhere. It was how quickly it happened, how the mood of the moment had gone so suddenly from a generous and capacious liberalism to a cramped anticommunism. “Can you see,” she wrote, “how far the disintegration has gone and with what breathtaking speed it has occurred? And up to now hardly any resistance. Everything melts away like butter in the sun.” Victor Klemperer notices and narrates a similar shift among his friends and colleagues in his diaries of Nazi Germany.

We’ll never know what combination of incentives and forces and genuine beliefs are at play in one person’s shifting positions. And like I said, I welcome the change that is happening today. But I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that I was sometimes unsettled by it. Particularly when it’s unacknowledged.

Intellectuals like to think of themselves as above this kind of thing, but I think we’re especially prone to it. We live in the world of ideas, with an emphasis on that word “world.” The world is not what goes on in our heads; it’s what’s happening out there, between heads. Intellectuals want to be in that space of the in-between (that space was something Arendt talked about a lot). They want to be in the swim. That can make them chameleons of the first order.

Intellectuals are probably not that different from anyone else in this regard, but they do like to take and defend positions as if they were emanations of pure reason. Or the products of an unblinkered empiricism. The proverbial “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Which always gets attributed to Keynes but was in all likelihood said by Paul Samuelson.

I confess I’m always suspicious of these “when the facts change” types. In part because the most pressing fact that seems to change people’s opinions is…other people’s opinions.

Among intellectuals, that doesn’t always lend itself to an honest narration of change. Just the opposite: it can become an ever-shifting, ever-more baffling, and often unacknowledged, litany of changes.

Not sure what there is to be said about that. Just noting how universal, if sometimes eerie, it is.

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When copyright goes wrong

by Ray Corrigan on July 4, 2018

[This is a guest post by Ray Corrigan, Senior Lecturer in Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics Faculty, The Open University, UK, and author of ‘Digital Decision Making: Back to the Future’ [Springer-Verlag, 2007]

In a world that faces enormous structural problems, it may be hard to get people to care about an obscure-seeming piece of copyright legislation. Yet the proposed new EU copyright directive approved by the European parliament’s JURI (Legal Affairs) committee on 20 June is causing a lot of unjustified unhappiness. The reasons are straightforward. In an age as dependent on information flows as ours is, information laws can have crucial consequences for markets and politics. Actions taken to protect copyright can reshape politics by giving both the responsibility and power to control information flows to a small number of key actors. The proposed copyright directive would completely change the politics of who controls information, and hence who controls the public narrative. It’s a really bad idea.
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What should I be reading?

by Henry on July 4, 2018

Having sent an academic book off to the publisher, I’m in what I hope are the final stages of writing a very long proposal for a commercial book based on this essay (the book will probably have less PKD, and more generic weirdness). For the last nine months or so, my reading material has been mostly recent US history, American paranoia (Jesse Walker’s book is very good), changes in American media markets, how Facebook actually works, the theory and practice of bots, history of traditionalism and lots and lots of creepy stuff on the WWW (Dark Enlightenment, MRA, GamerGate and other assorted varieties of sleaze and vileness). The result is that I’m desperate for new and different books to read, after I get the damn thing finished, as a class of a carrot to lure me over the finish line.

Books I know that I really want to read include:

Ruthanna Emrys – Deep Roots (have an ARC of it already, and it looks very, very good).
Vera Tobin – Elements of Surprise (cognitive psychology meets literature).
Dave Hutchinson – Shelter (though I’m looking forward even more to the next book in his Europe series)
Judea Pearl – The Book of Why (how we need causal reasoning and what it means).

Books that I don’t know that I really want to read, but should know, are multitudinous. Tell me about them.

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My book, Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants? has now been published on the continent of North America, so the inhabitants of said continent are invited to buy it. (Amazon doesn’t seem to have stock yet.) By way of advance publicity for the book, and because it was a fun idea anyway, I recorded a podcast with my friend Avery Kolers of the Department of Philosophy at Louisville KY for his show on Forward Radio. You can listen to the podcast now on Soundcloud.

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Economics in Two Lessons Chapter 15

by John Quiggin on July 3, 2018

My long-running book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is nearly done. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 14 chapters.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 15: Monopoly and the Mixed Economy. Only one more chapter to come after this

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Head Lopper!

by John Holbo on July 3, 2018

I haven’t recommended any good new comics for a while. You should read Andrew MacLean’s Head Lopper. Its heart is in the right place. Everyone says it’s like Hellboy and they’re right. (Kind of a cross between Mike Mignola’s style and Guy Davis’, graphically.) But you could also say it’s Hellboy meets Adventure Time, with a bit of Samurai Jack on top. You can buy volume 1 on Amazon or Comixology pretty cheap [link]. It does that fast-paced, stylish, sword & sorcery with deadpan dialogue thing. Norgal, the barbarian hero, lops heads and (for reasons that remain obscure) hauls the lopped head of Agatha Blue Witch around. There are sea monsters and evil priests and foul beasts from the pit and giants and snakes and ghosts and cool maps and evil spirits trapped in bogs by goddesses and sinister stewards and queens and boy kings and giant wolves and bat creatures and amusing blacksmiths and etc. You’ll like it.

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Kennedy, The Magic 8-Ball Justice

by John Holbo on July 1, 2018

Some readers are failing to appreciate the aptness of my Kennedy-as-Magic-8-Ball analogy. In some cases this may by due to infirm powers of reading or reasoning; in other cases, to ignorance of the law, or of recent legal history. In some cases it may be due to insufficient familiarity with a children’s toy. No matter, I shall explain.

The Magic 8-Ball has 20 possible responses: 10 positive, 5 hazy or non-commital, 5 negative. And that is what Kennedy was. Half the time a rock-ribbed conservative, but half the time either liberal or hazy.

Thus, the following would be one way to keep the Supreme Court above the partisan fray, post-Kennedy, while acknowledging the power of partisanship, and according the sitting President a certain privilege when it comes to determining the make-up of the court. [click to continue…]

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Paying for news

by Chris Bertram on July 1, 2018

Well, my World Cup thread was a bit of a damp squib wasn’t it? And all because, as an afterthought, I linked to a piece in the Financial Times which, it turned out, was only easily accessible to subscribers (like me). People take exception to links to pieces behind paywalls. That’s understandable. People are used to the free internet and I’m personally willing to offer anyone who was offended by the link a full refund on their Crooked Timber subscription. But seriously, folks. We have the problem of fake or seriously distorted news right here. Either users are willing to pay for content from major news agencies, newspapers, etc or they are not. If they are not, and if advertising fails because too many people use adblockers, then they won’t be able to afford to meet the costs that their operation involves: overheads, staff salaries, travel, IT costs etc. So then one of two things happens: (a) they go bust or (b) somebody with a lot of spare cash and an interest in influencing opinion pays the bill. That would be members of the 0.1 per cent, or oligarchs, or maybe states. So if we want the quality and variety of information on which functioning democracies rely, rather than the news somebody very rich with a vested interest wants us to read, we’re going to have to find ways to get users and citizens to pay for information. Simple as.

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Sunday photoblogging: cranes and tracks

by Chris Bertram on July 1, 2018

Cranes and tracks

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What Now?

by John Holbo on June 30, 2018

Like lots of folks, I’m pretty shell-shocked by the latest round of Supreme Court decisions, capped off by Kennedy’s retirement. (I haven’t felt up to writing about it. I haven’t felt able to write up anything else.) It’s not that any of the decisions were so shocking (although the gerrymandering punt was deeply disappointing.) It’s not surprising that Trump, plus a retirement-age court, equals fresh appointments. But all this seems fearfully irreversible in two senses.

First, ‘the courts will save us’ is dead for liberals and progressives for a generation.

Second, the hope that America might still awaken from the bad dream of Trump before something Really Bad happens seems dead.

It all seems a lot more zero-sum and long-term now. Either the left struggles and wins by huge margins, to take the (undemocratic) heights the Republicans currently command, or the future of US politics is Trumpist. There isn’t any hope that the future of the Republican Party isn’t Trumpist, or that there is some neither/nor option consisting of leaving a major decision to a somewhat inscrutable Magic Eight Ball in the form of Anthony Kennedy.

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World Cup open thread

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2018

The knock-out phase is upon us, and this World Cup seems more open then any I can remember. Of the remaining teams only Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan seem utterly hopeless, which leaves us with 12 contenders, of whom Belgium, Brazil, France and Spain look the most likely. If James is fit, then maybe Colombia has a chance, and who would write off Uruguay? The FT has some useful stats ….

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Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 14

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2018

My long-running book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is nearly done. I have a nearly complete manuscript, and am hoping for news from the publisher soon. Thanks to everyone who commented on the first 13 chapters.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 14: Policy for full employment. Two more chapters to come after this

Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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