Tuesday, March 29, 2011

File of bad names?

Substantive post on conservative critiques of academia to follow shortly, but in the meantime, glib cracks will do in its stead. There is a Journal of Hate Studies in the world? It reminds me of a conservative blog that I used to read which had a self-satirizing title along the lines of Hatemonger's Quarterly.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Culture of freedom arguments not just for left-libertarians?

Ann Althouse has two long and interesting posts on an exchange she had with Bob Wright about the concept of free speech.

In some ways, this reads like a weird inverse of the much-debated "Are Property Rights Enough?" Reason magazine symposium a few years ago. There, Kerry Howley argued that defining freedom narrowly as the absence of state coercion isn't enough, and that one ought to think about it in terms of a broader framework of "cultural freedom," and Todd Seavey argued that no, focusing on the "absence of coercion" definition is more useful. My husband then responded here. In that debate, Howley (and her fiance, who eventually joined the debate) were cast as the left flank, and the Todd Seavey/Ilya position was generally considered the "right" side of the debate. Yet in the Althouse debate, the "culture matters" side somehow became the "right" position, and Wright's "coercion is what matters" is the left side.

I'm not sure what this observation means. The "Are Property Rights Enough?" debate focused largely (though not entirely) on the importance of building a culture open to freedom; Althouse was focusing on the importance of building a culture of freedom of speech friendly to right-of-center talk show hosts. It's possible that it makes sense to talk broadly about culture in one context while focusing on coercion and its absence in the other. I haven't quite puzzled that out yet. Or it could be that all parties in this debate tend to be opportunistic; that we favor broad culture of freedom arguments when they suit our ideological allies, but prefer to restrict ourselves to freedom= absence of coercion when that suits us best. Politics often makes us such opportunists. But the contrast between these two debates illustrates some of the difficulties inherent in adopting either approach too rigidly. Maybe that's why I found myself in the mushy middle on the first go-round of this debate.

Friday, March 25, 2011

On the Atlas Shrugged movie

It wouldn't be right without the cigarettes that have the sign of the dollar on them. And yet there's a pretty hard taboo on showing cigarette-smoking characters positively on film. Plus watching high-powered business executives chain-smoke like it's the 60s in 2016 would just be odd. I wonder how this will be handled.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Another food movement post

Via Megan McArdle,
an interesting post on the historical misconceptions of the local food movement:

I discovered that the history we were telling ourselves in the local farm and food systems movement was a myth. It was, in fact, a complete fabrication with no historical basis at all. We had simply wiped G. W. Swift clean from history. We had written away Sinclair’s jungle (and his socialism!). In our tale, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia were fed by local, or maybe even regional, farms. In our tale, Grandma, bought local meat from her neighborhood butcher.

My old books say different. My old books say that we wrote away the perfection of Swift’s refrigerated rail car by 1880, making it possible to slaughter hundreds of thousands of cows, millions of pigs, and millions of lambs in Chicago and ship them to the major population centers of the east. In other words, we wrote out of existence the great stockyards of Chicago where millions upon millions upon millions of animals from the Western range lands were slaughtered after being fattened on mountains and mountains of corn, which has also been wiped clean from our history.

My old books talk about selling not directly to local butchers, local grocers, or to Grandma. They talk about selling at central livestock markets, almost universally, there being here and there an occasional reference to what we would consider local sales. The prices farmers received ebbed and flowed with the supply dropped off for sale at these central markets because before World War II, before 1900 even, farmers were already selling commodities. We can go back even further than that. One of the major exports of the early American colonies to Britain was barrel upon barrel of brined pork.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nine and a half months!

Noah Millman, reviewing Irving Kristol's latest book in AmConMag, observes that most of us "will spend the rest of our lives asking the same questions from our twenties over and over." I'll be 30 in December, everyone. Not much time to come up with good material to wonder about for the rest of my life. What questions should I be asking myself that I haven't asked already?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sentence of the day

"In what might count as a backhanded insult, she sometimes seemed too much like a normal human being for a Randian romantic heroine."

-- Reason magazine on the new Atlas Shrugged movie.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One more thing I read recently and liked

I have decidedly mixed views of David Brooks's writing generally. Here is a very interesting review by Will Wilkinson of Brooks's latest book. I haven't read it myself and so can't comment much; also, I don't know as much about the relevant research as Will does. But go read this thing anyway.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Things I read recently and liked

1. An excellent post from Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the "missing callous libertarians," with this nice commentary on Ayn Rand's views of the poor:

If libertarians really believed that, then it would seem hard to explain why so many of them are preoccupied with showing how markets, under the right conditions, end poverty.

Even Ayn Rand, of all people. In Atlas Shrugged, the most productive and innovative members of society–tired of being told they exploit everyone else–go on strike. The American economy collapses. This sends a clear message: the less talented need the more talented more than the more talented need the less talented. So far, there is nothing here to excite a high liberal or a person concerned with social justice.

But notice that Rand is at pains to show that the strikers only hasten an inevitable collapse. In Atlas Shrugged, socialist economies have been collapsing long before John Galt calls a strike. And Rand goes at great lengths to illustrate that the people who suffer the most from these collapses aren't her heroes (they all lead happy lives in the mountains), or the unheroic rich (they use their connections to exploit others), but instead the least talented and least advantaged members of society. So, in Atlas Shrugged, the bad guys try to exploit Rand's heroes, but Rand makes it clear that the innocent poor are the ones that suffer the most as a result. If Rand were utterly unconcerned for the poor, or anyone else––as she is often taken to be––why would she do this? As a mere reductio or taunt? (Rand, in thick Russian accent: “I couldn’t care less if the poor starve. But I know you socialists dislike it.”)

2. I suspect that Tom Vilsack is the anti-matter version of me. In response to Vilsack's claim that farm subsidies are necessary to make rural Americans feel better about themselves, Ezra Klein makes sensible points about economics. Perhaps this constitutes a glimmer of hope for the doomed liberaltarian alliance?

Monday, March 7, 2011

A partial defense of reading news

Bryan Caplan has an interesting and contrarian post up in which he encourages readers to forego reading news, based on a TED talk given by Rolf Dobelli.

I'm torn. As a teenager, I was much lessof a news junkie than my parents or most of the adults I knew. I was mostly interested in literary fiction and pre-1900 history, interests that were certainly intellectual but remote from most current events. My mother found this baffling. "How am I supposed to talk to you if you don't read the paper?" she might say. I would occasionally try to defend my habits by resorting to the same kinds of arguments that Bryan and Dobelli do.

That said, there are a range of types of news coverage out there. Some of the publications that Bryan cites -- The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker -- are fairly news-oriented. It seems odd not to call them news. I suppose his argument could be read as merely discouraging spending a great deal of time reading short-form, Associated Press style headlines. Even so, I at least often encounter a mix of both short, AP-style news stories and longer-form essays on the blogs I read. It would be difficult to forego one while giving up the other.

Also, knowing about current events serves a useful social function. News gives people who might not share much a common set of experiences to discuss, without forcing either party to reveal much that simply feels too personal. I, for one, find it harder to talk about my non-political intellectual interests with my friends. Many of my friends are familiar with what appeared on the front page of The New York Times yesterday. Fewer know very much about the status and power of women at the court of Louis XIV. I have to go over basics. Often, these conversations can generate into an unpleasant monologue. Even if the person professes to be interested, the exchange can feel terribly awkward.

Finally, the last quoted paragraph suggests that being a news junkie makes you dumber. I don't think that's quite right. As Pnin would hasten to point out, most people have little incentive to read lots of political news. There's simply not much chance that their behavior (whether by voting in elections or otherwise) will have much of an influence on politics. So it's entirely rational to spend as little time on these pursuits as possible. So many of the people who do consume lots of political news don't do so because they're trying to become more informed. Rather, many do because they see themselves as fans of either Team Red or Team Blue, and they enjoy rooting for their team.

So long as an individual news junkie understands this dynamic and tries to maintain a neutral, truth-seeker stance, she's probably safe from partisan media's sillier effects. Keep in mind also that the kind of person who enjoys having her views validated and shys away from conflicting perspectives can certainly do the same thing by reading books. In some ways, it's easier for the news junkie to encounter opposing views. It doesn't take me much time to read an 800 word piece in, say, The American Prospect. Reading an entire book by someone ideologically uncongenial is a much more daunting proposition and one I'm far less likely to undertake.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Haidt, moral intuitions, and organs

I wrote once before on this blog about my puzzlement at a question on Jonathan Haidt's moral intuitions test that asks about whether one would be comfortable accepting a blood transfusion from a criminal. Now I find an op-ed in the NYT about states' unwillingness to let executed prisoners donate their organs. Most of the ostensible reasons for the ban given in the column don't seem to make sense. I wonder if something like the moral intuition described in the Haidt test is the real culprit? If it is, let me once again register my bafflement at this form of moral reasoning.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Very good sentences

Tyler Cowen on the British "Big Society":

1. It is nice to have a conservative movement which is pro gay rights and reasonably socially liberal, while still fiscally conservative.

2. Their person in charge of naming should be fired and sent to study Orwell. The words "Big" and "Society" make each other sound much worse. I would have preferred "The Small Non-Society," "The Small Society," or "The Big Non-Society," or "The Medium-Sized Hook-Up," among other options.

The only worse name I can think of is Big Society Bank.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"American bears are, for the most part, more assertive and autonomous than English bears."

Andrew Sullivan has a post up linking to comparisons of bears in English and American popular culture. Unfortunately, its analysis leaves out the Bulgy Bears, three minor but nonetheless charming and wonderful characters in Prince Caspian in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Among other things, they feed Prince Caspian honey and help fortify him for the journey ahead.

The eldest of the Bulgy Bears also informs Caspian that, by tradition, bears always served as marshals of the lists. Peter smiles and says that he cannot understand how the Bear could have remembered that when so many other things have been forgotten, but that he is indeed right. A dwarf protests that the Bulgy Bear is likely to suck his thumb and go to sleep in front of the enemy. But Peter stands fast and tells him that he trusts the Bear to fulfill his duty. The Bear does suck on his paw during battle and thus looks uncommonly silly, but the Narnians nonetheless win their battle. The whole story always struck me as kind of charmingly Burkean (as opposed to annoyingly Burkean), and the Bear's devotion to liberty over Miraz's totalitarianism is of course admirable. All in all, a fine example of a spirited British bear -- and one whose politics Andrew Sullivan perhaps ought to approve of more than I do.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mod Squad

Items of clothing that have caught my eye recently include this modish square patterned skirt and this dress, which I first found recently elsewhere in navy and yellow but which has since vanished from the Internet, but not before 'twas mine.

Thoughts on the Atlas Shrugged movie

The first novel of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is "set in a universe like ours, but different in many ways." That is, there are plenty of familiar landmarks -- there's a city of London, an Oxford University, and also some Scandinavian countries and a Texas. Yet it's not the same. In some ways, the clothes and mannerisms of the characters seem a throwback to the Victorian era in our own world, but that's not quite right either. The technology is off -- e.g. there are airships and electric (what Pullman calls anbaric) lights, but no silent films or streetcars.

I bring this up because I think it's helpful to think of the novels of Ayn Rand as set in a universe that's like ours, but different in many ways. As in Pullman's imaginary world, there are geographic landmarks common to both worlds -- New York City; Colorado; Washington, D.C. Yet again, the technology presented doesn't seem to fit neatly into any particular historical era; it's in some ways too modern to fit in the world of the 1940s or 50s, when Rand was writing, yet it doesn't seem quite right as futurist dystopia either. And, once you accept the "universe that's like ours, but different in many ways" starting premise, it gets easier to live with some of the goofiness that Rand's critics have long lamented. You can just sit back and enjoy her stylized universe for what it is.

Given all this, I share Tyler Cowen's misgivings about the aesthetics of the new Atlas Shrugged movie. It is probably not good that I imagined this thing as film in my head about a dozen times as teenager. But you can watch the trailer below and judge for yourself. Finally, but see the reactions of Barbara Branden.