Saturday, September 14, 2019

Will Charlie Brown Get to Kick the Football This Time?

The move is still in progress, but it means I'll be driving a lot.  Yesterday I caught most of NPR's The 1A, and I noticed something again that had been lurking in my mind for a while.  The 1A's anchor asked one his pundit-guests if Donald Trump was going to follow through on something -- the rumored $15 billion for Iran, or the ban on flavored vaping, something like that.  I don't remember the answer, because it occurred to me what a stupid question it was, that it would have been stupid even before Trump became Oligarch-in-Chief, and that a lot of time is wasted on such questions in the news media. 

In Trump's case it's always a tossup whether he'll remember to do what he says he will anyway, so it seems especially useless to ask such a question about him.  But the trouble is bigger than one senescent, blustering buffoon.  The mission of news coverage, it seems to me is to report what has happened, not to "predict" what might.  That's not just because media fortunetelling is usually wrong, remarkably so since there are a lot of pundits out there and one or two of them ought to come up with an accurate prediction just by accident.  There's also no accountability for their predictions.  Indeed, elite media get very pissy if anyone questions them about spectacular failures, like those involving the financial crash of 2008 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq or Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral defeat.

I'm sure this sort of pointless prediction is nothing new, and I don't know whether it's more common than it used to be, but I have no doubt that it's a waste of time, especially when the standard of actual news coverage is so low.  The worst examples turn up in discussion of our endless election season, but as the question about Trump shows, it's not limited to electoral politics, and it's most wasteful when the question is basically unanswerable, as most predictive questions are.  I wonder what would happen to a pundit-guest who declined to answer such a question and declared it useless; I suppose such a person would not be invited to return, but then such a person would probably not be invited on in the first place.

As a side note, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power paid The 1A a visit earlier this week.  Power is a vile opportunist, of course, and an apologist for the crimes of the US and its clients, which is why The 1A billed her as an "idealist."  I haven't listened to the segment but will try to.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


I'm not sure why I have resisted writing all month -- I mean, really, have you seen the news? -- but I'll try to do better.  One excuse is that I'm about to move to a new apartment at the other end of the state, after twenty-six years in the same place, and as the big day approaches my stress level increases.  But I am still alive, and I've been wasting a lot of time to keep my mind off the coming cataclysm.

Among my diversions has been Youtube, and I recently discovered what I can only describe as the Beavis and Butthead of Classical Violin: Brett and Eddy, two Chinese-Australian violinists, who have gained millions of viewers as they trash their own field and, indeed, the world.  They have a line of "merch" and their slogan is Practice practice practice but given the amount of time they must spend before the camera and editing the results, I wonder how much practicing they actually do. 

Why Beavis and Butthead?  Because that's their sensibility, down to Brett pulling his hoodie over his head.  Maybe not in this one, which I post for the sensibility.  Despite my personal lust for geekboys, I have to admit, I rarely make it all the way through their videos; this is one of the shorter ones, though it's still kind of excruciating.

This one is actually entertaining, because their guest is more engaging than they are.

So... that is probably it for September, unless I surprise myself very pleasantly.  But I'll be back.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

I'm So Excited!

This is something I want to remember as the Endless Campaign continues, and I think you should too.
In case you don't know, Neera Tanden is "the President of the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization in Washington, DC" and "a member of Hillary Clinton's 'inner circle' of advisors" during the 2016 leg of the Endless Campaign.  Since Trump's election, she has been fighting the good fight, which includes taking gratuitous swipes at Susan Sarandon for having supported Jill Stein against Clinton

But her call for Democrats to "excite the Democratic base" is odd, because for at least the past twenty years Democratic loyalists have been sneering at voters, berating them harshly for not being inspired by Democratic candidates. I thought that Democratic voters who want to be excited and inspired by their candidate are just a bunch of whiny entitled Bernie-bro Jill-Stein-loving, whores of Sarandon? It's all tangled, because at the same time they insist that candidates like Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden are totally inspiring if we would only look at them with the eyes of love.  Tanden thinks of voter excitement, I suspect, as something like popping corn: you immerse the voters in oil, apply heat, and presto! they get excited and go bouncing all over the place.  If they don't, it's because they're faulty kernels, not because the Party did anything wrong.

Given the outcome in 2016, I'm a bit surprised to see Tanden interrupting the Two Years' Hate by calling on the party to excite its voters.  Depending on who wins the nomination, and our shadowy Democratic National Committee Overlords are throwing their considerable weight behind Joe Biden, she and her ilk will switch back to voter discouragement in 2020.  I suppose she thought it was time for some cheerleading.  Or maybe, as someone commented, by "base" Tanden meant the donors.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Friendly Strangers

The historian Kevin M. Kruse has attracted some attention for his Twitter exchanges with the convicted felon and right-wing propagandist Dinesh D'Souza, as well as his educational threads on American history in general.  After following him for a while I decided to read some of Kruse's books, and began with One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).  Before beginning to read it, I looked around in the index and found references to the Gideons, the organization that gives away Bibles to hotels, hospitals, and (at least formerly) to public schoolchildren.

The Gideons prepared a special edition for distribution on the streets and in schools, consisting of the New Testament and the book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible, later augmented by Proverbs, in the Authorized (King James) Version.   In the early 1950s they began to encounter some unexpected resistance to public school distribution:
While other religious innovations [such as adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance] had been relatively uncontroversial at the time of their creation, the Gideons' ministry to schoolchildren sparked a contentious debate.  Religion in the schools had long been considered a local concern.  Communities dominated by one faith traditionally instituted sectarian prayers or Bible reading to classrooms with little complaint.  More diverse locales often tried to avoid the issue of religion entirely, but the Gideons brought long-simmering tensions to the forefront.  Jewish leaders protested any effort to place the New Testament in public schools, while Catholic officials objected because canon law forbade members of their faith from using the King James Version.  "Most children will accept anything free," noted a priest in upstate New York, and thus they would inadvertently sin in taking the gift. In Boston, it became such a widespread problem that the archdiocese instructed priests to order all Catholic children who had accepted Gideon Bibles to return them immediately [166].
Catholic objections to use of the Authorized Version weren't idle nitpicking.  It was produced as Protestantism replaced Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England, and the translators were expected to make translation decisions that would support Anglican doctrine against Rome.  These decisions were subtle enough that most readers today wouldn't notice them, but among the AV's intended functions was that of anti-Catholic propaganda.  For more information on this, see for example God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins, 2003). 

This controversy paved the way for the 1962 Supreme Court ruling on official school prayer, which Kruse also discusses.  He reproduces this Herb Block cartoon from the period:

Whenever I get the chance, I ask advocates of official public school prayer why they don't think parents should be responsible for their own children's religious indoctrination.  Generally they'll say that many parents neglect that task, though why they trust the Dang Gummint with it is a problem.  In the end they admit that they want to get at other parents' children.

But back to the Gideons.  Once people began to think about the encroachment of evangelical Protestantism on public institutions, more and more spoke up.  In Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1951,
Mrs. E. K. Ingalls, for instance, reminded the board there had been a similar controversy in their high school over the state-mandated practice of Bible reading during morning assemblies.  Catholic students there had refused to read from the King James Version and were castigated by the principal.  Was it "good teaching," she asked, for a school to say "you will read the St. James [sic] version or else?"  The superintendent recognized "the right of each child in the Public Schools to use the religion of his choice" but maintained that the board had done nothing wrong [167-8].
Ah, the Saint James Version!  I wonder if Mrs. Ingalls was Catholic and knew the King James Version only by reputation.  Although there were several English versions of the Bible available in the US in those days, the KJV's dominance among American Protestants was overwhelming.  The Revised Standard Version was published in 1952, but it was controversial.  Among Catholics, who weren't encouraged to read scripture anyway, the Douay was supreme; the Jerusalem Bible wouldn't be published until 1966.  (Interesting trivia: J. R. R.Tolkien participated in the production of that version.)  Not until 1978 would the New International Version challenge the KJV's supremacy among conservative Protestants, and English versions have proliferated since then.

The important takeaway from this story is that objections to religious observance in the US have not come only, or even primarily, from atheists: they've come from Christians of various denominations and Jews who protested being ignored by those who chose to ignore the variety of religious belief and practice in this country.  Atheists and other non-believers should bear this in mind no less than Christians.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

It Didn't Begin with Smartphones...

Most people still went about on foot in Göttingen.  The distances to be traversed inside the city were so short that it would have been hardly worth while to go by car or motorcycle.  Not until after the First World War did students and professors adopt the bicycle and this was a novelty not popular with everyone.  Was it not those leisurely strolls before and after lectures which had so often given rise to the most interesting ideas?  Had not chance meetings at a straight corner or along the picturesque city wall often accomplished more than formal seminars or committee sessions?
-- Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists  (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1958), page 11

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Say It Ain't So, Joe!

Joe Biden has lost the Democratic presidential nomination four times already, so he probably won't mind too much losing it, or the general election, again.  The Democratic establishment (by which I mean not only the Party leadership but the corporate media punditry) seems determined to anoint him, and that means it will be an uphill struggle to stop him, but we're still several months from the primaries and almost a year from the national convention.  A lot can change in that time, as it has before.

There's been some consternation about Biden's handsiness, his irresistible fondness for violating other people's personal space.  It's not the only reason to reject  him, and probably not the most important one, but a good many anti-Biden people have thrown tantrums over it.  People's -- especially children's -- boundaries around physical affection should be respected, but I'm not sure how sincere a lot of the outrage has been.  I'm not defending Biden here, but there are so many double standards in partisan politics that I've become more than a little cynical, and as I say, Biden has a lot worse on his record.

A couple of weeks ago (I've been procrastinating again, sorry), someone posted a video clip on Twitter of Biden at some campaign event, kissing a young woman lightly on the lips, after which she leaves the stage.  I haven't been able to find it again in the bowels of Twitter, but of course a version of it has been posted on Youtube.  The young woman, wearing a Biden t-shirt, turned out to be his granddaughter, and she didn't exhibit any of the discomfort some other people, including young children, have exhibited when Biden caresses their shoulders or sniffs their hair.  The clip was, of course, overanalyzed, so that her serious expression as she steps down becomes a cry for help against her rapey Grandpa, but I don't see it.  My reading is that she's concentrating on not stumbling as she leaves the stage; she might even be thinking Oh, no, people are going to make a big thing out of that.  I doubt anyone but her and her family know, and I wouldn't care to see her interrogated publicly about it.  Pick on Joe, but leave the kid alone.

What I noticed in the comments under the tweet went beyond just hatred of Joe Biden.  It was a remarkable squeamishness about familial affection.  For parents or grandparents to kiss their children or grandchildren on the lips was disgusting, numerous people said.  Not in their family!  Any family that indulges in such behavior is sick and perverted.  One person posted a 2009 photo of Melania Trump kissing her son Barron, who was three at the time, on the lips; he's kissing her back.  The poster was disturbed by the kiss -- parents shouldn't do that, she said.

I don't really have an opinion about the propriety, let alone psychopathology, of family members kissing each other on the lips.  Again, people's boundaries should be respected, but the reactions to the Biden clip and the Melania / Barron photograph went beyond that: even if the kids didn't know it was wrong, it was wrong and abusive and sick.  Now, my own family was not very affectionate; I can't remember the last time either of my parents kissed me or my brothers.  But I know that families differ widely in their practices and attitudes, and I don't know how to draw the line in principle, as opposed to individual comfort.  A child might be traumatized by demands that she kiss an adult relative if he doesn't want to do it, but the harm comes in the coercion, not the kiss, as far as I can see.  And no one, needless to say, justified their strictures: they were just certain that they knew.  If they thought it was disgusting, then it was objectively disgusting, and no one ought to do it.  That, to me, is a sign of something seriously wrong.

Graham Shaw's 1982 book The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament (Fortress Press) contains much intelligent discussion of community and power, but I've always been dissatisfied with his remarks about the apostle Paul and the controversy over meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.  (I bring this up not because the Bible has any authority, but to show that the problem I'm discussing now is not new.)  There seems to have been concern among the Corinthian Christians over Christian freedom to eat: meat was usually connected to sacrifice, whether to Yahweh or to the old gods.  "As the false gods to whom food has allegedly been consecrated have no real existence, it might be assumed that Christians are free to eat it. But not everybody knows that the false gods do not exist, and they feel shame in eating such food" page 80).  The Christians in Corinth were not Jews but Gentiles, so they would have grown up eating meat from those sacrifices.  Paul acknowledged Christian freedom - after all, it was a pillar of his teaching - but encouraged his congregation to limit their freedom in consideration of the weaker faith of some of their fellows.  Shaw writes:
Much in Paul's response to the food question has been self-regarding, authoritarian and manipulative, but this should not conceal either the radical nature of his teaching or the sophisticated way in which he permits the conscience of others to limit the freedom of the Christian [85].
This fits oddly with Paul's confrontation with Simon Peter, recounted in Galatians 2:11-21, over the freedom of Jewish Christians to ignore traditional purity rules so that they might eat with Gentile Christians.  Paul brushed aside the conscience of weaker brethren, which he dismissed as "hypocrisy" (Gal. 2:13), to insist on "the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus" (2:4).

Shaw continues:
What seems to worry Paul is not that the other person might remain unenlightened, but that he might be shocked.  Thus he concludes the passage: 'Give no offense to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God' ([1 Cor.] 10:12).  The moral sensitivity of other people would seem here to be a constraint on the Christian's freedom.  Paul is trying to avoid a situation where freedom is aggressively asserted without regard to the response of other people [85].
The letters to Corinth are later than the one to the Galatians, so perhaps Paul modified his views in the light of further experience.  But it would seem that he should have restrained himself when Peter suffered pangs of conscience and shame, and stopped eating with the Gentile Christians.  Not only Peter but the rest of the congregation must have been confused, but Paul didn't worry about their scruples; he aggressively asserted his freedom.

This episode is useful because we no longer eat meat that has been sacrificed to any gods, so we can focus more on the principles involved with a minimum of gut-level reaction.  (There are other such controversies in Paul's letters, such as whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised, and the status of women as teachers in the churches.  Paul wasn't any more consistent or clear on these issues than he was on food.)  I see Shaw's point, and even agree to some extent; but I think it works both ways.

Paul and Shaw frame the question in terms of "knowledge" (conflated, perhaps inaccurately, with gnosis) invoked by some Christians to justify their freedom, versus the tender consciences of the weaker brethren.  I suspect this is not quite fair to the freer Christians, especially given Paul's own practice, and too indulgent of the weaker ones.  I think that letting the more restrictive believers set limits on others is how you end up, for example, with women covered from head to toe to protect the "weakness" of men.  There needs to be some restraint on the power of more restrictive members of a community to control others.  Of course the latter will try to present themselves as victims of the former, and to claim that the only alternative to their restrictive position is total, destructive license.  In Paul's case, he declared that if women cut their hair at all, they might as well cut it off entirely.

The territory between the two poles can be viewed as a continuum -- or a slippery slope, as it's often called -- and the problem is that there's no obvious point at which to stop, at least in theory.  In practice, a slippery slope is invoked to claim that though a given practice -- gay marriage, say -- may not seem so bad, but if you allow it, why not permit marriage between humans and animals, or incest, or polygamy?  The proper reply is that if these latter practices can be shown to be harmful, then they can be forbidden, but they aren't grounds for forbidding gay marriage.

So, back to grandfathers and granddaughters, or mothers and sons, kissing each other on the lips.  The people who were repulsed by Melania and Barron didn't give any reason for their revulsion; it was just obvious to any decent healthy person that what they were doing was wrong, and if we don't draw the line there, we can't stop Donald Trump from grabbing women by the pussy.  Or something.  But where will we draw the line?  Not so long ago, it was obvious to all decent healthy people (including many gay men) that two men kissing was disgusting, sick, perverted.  Some people are horrified by women breastfeeding infants in public, or even by the mere idea of women breastfeeding: it's barbaric, it's animalistic.  (If we don't stop them, why not let men just "all hang out" in public?)  Many liberals who endorse same-sex marriage are squicked by the thought of cousins, even third or fourth cousins, marrying.  When the movie The Watchmen featured a nude male blue CGI character, many people panicked, and claimed that the trauma of the sight of a penis was equivalent to seeing one's grandparents copulating.  There was also a tendency to claim that the blue penis was on screen for the entire two and a half hours of screentime, which was false -- that slippery slope again.

One thing that especially bothered me was the question of where the anti-kissers wanted to draw the line, what kinds of physical expression of affection between parents and children they considered acceptable.  There have been periods, fairly recent, when expert opinion discouraged parents from being affectionate to children at all.  There was no valid scientific reason for this position; it probably sprang from the hangups of the doctors in question. We know that young children especially need to be cuddled, held, and probably kissed if they're going to grow up healthy, and that people of all ages need physical affection and contact.  Perhaps some individuals don't, and their limits should be respected -- for them; but if they denounce others' affectionateness as sick and perverted, they should be opposed and blocked firmly.

I've considered the possibility that the people who denounced relatives kissing had experienced abuse of some kind themselves; but I don't recall any who actually said they had.  They simply claimed that such kissing was intrinsically sick, harmful and repulsive.  Not everyone agrees, however, so how to resolve the conflict?  I don't think it can be resolved.  It can only be negotiated.  But I think we need pushback against people who try to impose their limits on other people.  Those who draw the line elsewhere should, as Graham Shaw argued, show consideration to others, but the 'weaker brethren' should also show consideration for the 'stronger,' which they don't seem inclined to do.

Now, I'm not claiming that this sort of squeamishness is something new, or even more common now than it used to be.  I have no evidence for such a claim, and don't believe it anyway.  I think it has always been with us, as shown by its long pedigree in religious and other domains.  What surprises me is that it's still so prevalent, and still so virulent.  When I was growing up in the 60s, many (including me) took it for granted that these superstitious hangups were waning and would soon fade away altogether.  I don't think that's going to happen, which is all the more reason why we must resist those who want to impose them on others.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

It Became Necessary to Destroy the Business to Save It

Someone told me over the weekend that Steak and Shake was closing its restaurants.  This didn't surprise me, because two of the three local Steak and Shakes have closed this year.  One was supposedly closed for remodeling, but the building now sports a banner inviting people to take over the franchise.  The other is gone, all brand markings removed, with a realtor's information for the building.

I've never been an S&S regular, but lately a friend and I have gone there for lunch now and then.  My curiosity was piqued, so I poked around online.  Yes, Steak and Shake has closed sixty of its four-hundred-plus locations -- supposedly only temporarily -- since the beginning of the year.  The chain has been losing both traffic and money for a couple of years now.  Shareholders were notified in February:
“Despite our unwavering dedication to product quality and low prices, we erroneously stayed with equipment and kitchen design that was ill-suited for volume production ... We failed customers by not being fast and friendly.”
This rang false to me.  The basic model of the company has evidently not changed much over the years, so I can't see why the equipment and kitchen design should suddenly have failed to cope with the necessity of "volume production."  The service at all three Bloomington locations has been "fast and friendly" every time my friend and I have gone to them for the past couple of years, even when things were quite busy.  I smelled a rat in the business-consultant blather of that newsletter: it's typical to try to blame the underlings for everything that goes wrong.

It turns out that Steak and Shake was acquired by Biglari Holdings Inc. in 2008, joining "a collection of assets that includes First Guard Insurance Co., steak restaurant chain Western Fizzlin and Maxim, a men's magazine."  Maybe there's no connection between the takeover and the slowly declining fortunes of the chain.  But Sardar Biglari, the CEO, makes me suspicious with his assertion at a shareholders' meeting that Steak and Shake could save $1 million a year by getting rid of the maraschino cherries that top the chain's hand-dipped milkshakes, and that:
"He is literally inventing a new milkshake making process — he said at the meeting that this was going to be a patented process — and that is going to speed up service," one shareholder told [Indianapolis Business Journal] . "The shareholders seemed to think this was ridiculous — and I would tend to agree — to think that Sardar, with all his free time, is going to be able to invent a milkshake process to turn the whole chain around." 
One notable aspect of the coverage I found was that it was not only skeptical of Biglari's management, it was hostile. I wondered right away where he got the million-dollar figure; I suspect that like other embattled execs, he probably pulled it out of his ass.  Maybe a patented milkshake machine would cut labor costs a tiny bit, but enough to compensate for a $19 million loss this year alone?

I think he was bullshitting the shareholders, even taunting them with their inability to stop him from doing whatever he wants.  Unlike the CEO of the United States, private executives' power isn't limited by the Constitution.  And the more I read, the more I think that's what he was doing.

According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, drawing on a report by a blogger who attended the shareholders' meeting:
A sore point at the meeting was the $8.4 million that Biglari Holdings paid a Sardar Biglari-owned company last year to manage its investment arm. Repeated questions seeking an explanation of the expense and a justification for it yielded non-answers from Biglari, such as, “The board has perfect visibility into this.”

The Seeking Alpha poster highlighted a range of other dubious expenses, including paying his brother and father as consultants, maintaining an office in Monaco and opening a one-off Biglari Cafe in the Port of Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, a destination Biglari enjoys visiting.
Biglari's compensation package is also excessive for the head of a company that is hemorrhaging money.  Coincidentally (?), the company was just assessed $7.7 million in total damages for unpaid overtime owed to restaurant managers -- and that was just in the St. Louis area.  But according to the blogger, Biglari mocked shareholders who complained about the falling price of the stock: if you think I'm overpaid and you're unhappy because the share prices dropped, just sell your shares.

Steak and Shake was founded eighty-odd years ago.  In general I bear in mind that businesses, even chains, are not immortal.  But it's one thing for a business to die because of its own inadequacies, and another for it to be killed off by a venture capitalist who has no interest in making it survive, and tosses out absurd and unfounded reasons why things are bad as he loots it to pay his relatives and support his jetsetting.