David Brooks is appallingly stupid by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2007, 11:56 am
Filed under: Books, Media, United States

It just needs to be repeated, from time to time, when he writes idiotic crap like this.

Addendum: it’s often hard to know where to begin refuting grade-school garbage like the piece Brooks wrote today, but here’s a try. Gore’s book analyzes a broad de-emphasis on reason in the public sphere over the past decade or two, an embrace of spin and sensationalism over dispassionate analysis of data and coherent argument.

Now, a rejoinder to Gore’s critique might argue that this isn’t really true, that reason does remain important in the public sphere. Or it might argue that reason wasn’t any more important in previous democratic epochs, that propaganda and fear-mongering played a tremendous role in American democracy in the 1940s and ’50s as well, and were often important in the victory of causes Gore himself probably supports.

But it takes a David Brooks to argue, in response to Gore’s book, that reason is bad and that, because he believes in the importance of reason, Gore is a nerdy weirdo:

He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions…. [The horror. - ed.]

This in turn grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience….

Some great philosopher should write a book about people — and there are many of them — who flee from discussions of substance and try to turn them into discussions of process. Utterly at a loss when asked to talk about virtue and justice, they try to shift attention to technology and methods of communication.

What unbelievable idiocy. Appalling, anti-intellectual garbage. Because Gore wants to analyze the effects of different media on political discussion, he is “at a loss” regarding virtue and justice??? Unbelievable. At least it’s clear what has led Brooks to support the Bush Administration for so long: he thinks logic is bad and fear is good. Okay then.

John McCain, Jonah by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2007, 12:08 pm
Filed under: United States, Vietnam, War

Has anybody ever remarked on the fact that, based on his flight and combat-zone record, John McCain seems to be under some kind of curse? He crashed at least two (some accounts say three) training aircraft while learning to fly in the Navy, once in Corpus Christi, once after running into some power lines in Italy. He deployed to Vietnam on the USS Forrestal in July, 1967; on July 29 the Forrestal suffered the worst fire in the history of naval aviation, killing 134 sailors, when a missile accidentally launched from the wing of an F-4 Phantom waiting on deck, striking an A-4 and igniting its fuel tank. Who was sitting in the cockpit of that A-4? John McCain! (He managed to scramble to safety before his plane’s fuel ignited.) Three weeks later, on his 23rd combat mission, he was shot down by a SAM over Hanoi. He broke his leg and shoulder during ejection; he lost consciousness after landing in the middle of Truc Bach Lake, and survived only because a local pulled him out. A crowd promptly commenced beating him with sticks. He was then held captive and tortured for 6 years.

Finally, in March, McCain returned to a combat zone some 40 years after his mission over Hanoi, taking a stroll through a Baghdad market. Having apparently learned his lesson, he wore a flak jacket (note correct spelling!) and was accompanied by a protective cordon of troops, armored vehicles, and attack helicopters. This time, McCain himself emerged unscathed. However, the day after he left, 20 retail workers in the market who’d had contact with the visit were executed by insurgents.

I mean, the rest of this stuff is just statistical, or perhaps evidence of not being a very good pilot, but the Forrestal thing is very, very weird. I’d been reading references to the Forrestal fire for years. It’s a landmark event in US naval history. And then, while clicking around today, I find that the guy who was sitting in the plane that got hit by that missile was John McCain — well, that is simply bizarre. We shouldn’t be voting on whether this guy should be President; we should be voting on whether to throw him overboard. The man is a goddamn Jonah. Everything he touches blows up.

Roundup: Depends on Who’s the Bomber, Who’s the Bombee by mattsteinglass
May 25, 2007, 10:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Blog roundup:

  •  Glenn Greenwald notes that surveys show citizens of Muslim countries are far less supportive than Americans of the proposition that attacks on civilians for political goals can be justified. I think it stems from the way people subliminally envision the phrase. For citizens of most Muslim countries, “attacks on civilians” subconsciously evokes attacks against them (US or Israeli bombing, or terrorist violence — most suicide bombs kill Muslims). For Americans, “attacks on civilians” still subconsciously evokes attacks by US forces (Germany and Japan, Vietnam, and Iraq). The solitary event of 9/11 really hasn’t changed that.
  • Swopa at Needlenose thinks the way for the Democrats to get the votes needed to cut off Iraq funding next time around is to highlight the war’s mounting US death toll. Kevin Drum says no, highlighting the death toll makes Democrats look like wimpy losers, the thing to do is to concentrate on how the war is a purposeless waste. Drum is right, but the thing is that the public already thinks the war is a purposeless waste; the question now is how to fuel a sense of urgency re: pulling out. There, the “last man to die for a mistake” issue becomes crucial.

Inordinately Fond of Beetles by mattsteinglass
May 25, 2007, 5:36 pm
Filed under: Asia, Environment

This is the only evidence I’m aware of that I find persuasive, as an argument for the existence of a Creator:


This critter was on the wall of my roof terrace the other day. Now the problem here has nothing to do with the beauty and sophistication of this beetle defying the notion of a random universe and ya di da di da. (I should throw in the possibly apocryphal 19th-century quote here. Cleric: “What can you infer about the Creator, based on your research of nature?” Biologist J.B.S. Haldane: “He must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles.”) No; the problem is, to my eye, this beetle looks distinctly Asian. And I find that hard to explain.

I often find that natural phenomena I encounter here have a distinctly “Asian” aesthetic quality. It’s one thing when these phenomena are things I might previously have seen represented in Asian art, like the shapes of mountains, flora (bamboo, frangipania trees), or a few famous local species of birds. But this is the second time I’ve encountered a type of beetle I’d never seen before, in my house, which immediately seemed to me to have a specifically East Asian or even Vietnamese “look”. The first time, it was a beetle that was grass-green on top and bronze-pink on the bottom — two precise shades which one comes upon, in combination, throughout Vietnamese decorative arts.

Now, one might have argued that this type of beetle might be common enough to have itself influenced the hues employed in Vietnamese decoration (though I’ve never seen that species since). Or that these two hues are common in other aspects of Vietnam’s ecology, so that the beetle might have them for camouflage. (Again, I find this unpersuasive.) But what about the case of the beetle above? Why should there be anything about this beetle’s appearance which is aesthetically more in sync with other Vietnamese beetles, other Vietnamese animals or plants, or with the hues or characteristic curves and shapes of Vietnamese decor, than with those of North America or West Africa?

I mean, let’s say you took your already existing sense of a “Vietnamese-looking” scene. That’s built up out of everything you’ve seen of Vietnam to date — the green of rice paddies, the grey of karst formations, yellow bamboo stalks, red tile pagoda roofs, and so forth. Now, let’s say you encounter this new beetle, which you’ve never seen before. Why on earth should there be anything particularly Vietnamese-looking, to you, about this beetle? It clearly hasn’t shaped your impression of “Vietnamese-ness” to date. It’s too rare to have significantly influenced the artists who created the art that has shaped your impression of Vietnamese-ness. And there’s no particularly reason why it should look like other Vietnamese beetles or insects; there are simply too many species of beetle for that to be true.

So what gives? Could there actually be some essence of East Asia-ness that shapes the appearances of everything in the zone? Could there be something about the aesthetics of a region that coherently influences breeding choices, even those of beetles, at a level far deeper and simpler than we suspect? Or could it be that all beetles just look kind of Asian, in a futuristic manga kind of way, and I’m making this all up? Oh. Hm.

More Climate Change Please by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2007, 4:35 pm
Filed under: Vietnam

The evidence that climate change is fixing Hanoi’s weather just keeps piling up. After a week of much-needed rejuvenating rain, we have spectacular sunshine and clear air today, the kind you usually get in Hanoi  perhaps 10 days a year. This is a section of the view from my roof:

 Tam Dao mountains

 Just above the houses, you can see a faint bluish outline. Those are the 1000-meter mountains of Tam Dao, about 40 km away. Someone in Hanoi no more expects to look up and see Tam Dao than someone in New York expects to look up and see Pike’s Peak.

Priorities by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2007, 3:48 pm
Filed under: China, Iraq, United States

Terrific story from the AP’s Anne Gearan on the new 21-building, $592 million US Embassy in Baghdad, slated to open in September – the biggest and most expensive embassy ever built.

Rice’s senior adviser on Iraq, David Satterfield, said the embassy is not disproportionately expensive and will serve U.S. interests for years. The second-most expensive embassy is the smaller $434 million U.S. mission being built in Beijing.

Maybe in a couple of years, after the pullout, we can sell some of those 21 buildings to the Chinese for 5 cents on the dollar. I just hope they’ve made the roofs big enough to land a decent-sized helicopter on. That situation in Saigon was a mess.

My Discovery by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2007, 10:25 am
Filed under: Media

There’s this lady who writes a little column at the NY Times about where politicians shop and what brands of clothes they wear. She occasionally has a nice turn of phrase, and if she ever decides to become a real political journalist, she might be fairly good at it.

David Brooks Still Living in 1999 by mattsteinglass
May 22, 2007, 1:16 pm
Filed under: Economics, United States

In the cab on the way to the airport out of Singapore last week, my hilariously voluble Sikh cab driver Mr. Singh explained to me why neither he nor any of his friends wants to emigrate to the US anymore. His brother has been living in Sacramento since the early ’80s, driving a cab, but is about to come back to Singapore with his family; gradually, since 9/11, he’s come to feel unwelcome and unsafe. (And the value of his exurban home, bought 6 years ago, is crashing.) “People think in 10 or 15 years, America is going to have big problems,” said Mr. Singh. “You are borrowing all this money from Asia, from us over here. And what are you doing with it all? Okay, so you want to be a big superpower, so does it mean you should borrow all this money to fight wars?”

David Brooks today writes: “The United States is the Harvard of the world. Millions long to get in.” Wrong. Yes, millions long to get in — just as they long to get into France, Britain, Singapore, Germany, or anywhere else with high wages and at least some openness to immigration. But they only want to get in from poor countries — Africa, South Asia, South America. Europeans and East Asians are increasingly uninterested. The United States used to be the Harvard of the world. Now we’re a safety school — Michigan, maybe, or UCLA.

Mark Helprin is a Greedy Man by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2007, 9:33 am
Filed under: Books, Law, Media

The right-wing hack and author of “Winter’s Tale” (which all my friends who grew up in New York seem to love) makes a plea to extend the duration of copyright privileges to…forever. This completely moronic idea, which would have every high school in the English-speaking world paying the far-flung relatives and heirs of Shakespeare every time they put on a production of “Romeo & Juliet”, is so extraordinarily bad that it seems impossible even to begin to describe its badness. Try this one on: if copyrights last forever, why shouldn’t patents? What makes the writer of a great novel more worthy than the discoverer of a miracle cure? Okay, then: imagine a society in which Bayer still had monopoly rights to aspirin, and it cost $5 a pill. Here’s another one: say I’m a young indie director and I want to make a nostalgic movie about my childhood in the early ’90s. What music should be playing in the background? “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, right? But guess what — I can’t put that in my movie. Not unless I have tens of thousands of dollars. Now, what the hell gives Geffen (or whoever owns the Nirvana rights these days) the right to prohibit me from making art about my childhood unless I pony up fifty grand? Copyright does. We tolerate the inhibiting effect of this limited-monopoly system on art about the recent past, because it’s necessary as an incentive to creators to make their art. But what Helprin is proposing is to extend this system to FOREVER. So no one will be able to make art about ANY period, ever, unless they strip it of all references to the media products which were circulating at the time, or pay every author and performer of every bit of art that’s included.

Let’s put this even more simply.

Dear Mr. Mark Helprin,

It has come to our attention that you are the author of a novel entitled “Winter’s Tale” (1983). As the legal representatives of the heirs of William Shakespeare, we hereby demand that you alter the title of your work, which bears an unacceptable similarity to the title of a work by Mr. Shakespeare, “A Winter’s Tale” (1610). Your work violates our clients’ long-established trademark in that title, creating a risk of confusion on the part of customers between the two works — a risk which, we contend, you are deliberately exploiting in order to increase sales of your own work. We further demand that you immediately recall all copies of your work currently distributed for sale. Finally, we claim monetary compensation for your past exploitation of our trademarked title, in the sum of 20 percent of all revenues from the work, as well as 20 percent of any revenues you have derived from the sale of rights to a motion picture adaptation of said work.


Perp, Etual, & Monopoly, Attorneys-at-Law

Dear Mr. Eric Rohmer,

It has come to our attention that you are the director of a film entitled “Conte d’Hiver” (1992)…

“Unconventional Warfare”, BKA “Development Work” by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2007, 9:13 am
Filed under: Development, War

Kevin Drum notes a William Arkin column reporting that congressional Democrats are moving to force “unconventional missions” to the top of the priority list for Special Forces. Arkin: “Unconventional warfare, the new top mission, includes the “softer side” of special operations, from training to engaging local populations in the battle for hearts and minds.” The reflexive liberal reaction is to hail such a change. But I’ve always wondered about this: what evidence is there that Special Forces operatives are actually any good at “engaging local populations in the battle for hearts and minds”? If we’re talking about training teachers and civil servants, building clean water systems, and so forth, then why on earth should we have Special Forces guys doing that, rather than professional educators and development workers? Arkin cites Air Force “special operator” Col. Wray R. Johnson: “We should emphasize ameliorating if not eliminating the conditions that generate support for the bad guys.” But once you’ve acknowledged this, doesn’t that move the ballgame to a whole different court? The Pentagon is not a development agency; this is a job it stinks at. If we’re trying to “ameliorate the conditions” (poverty, lack of rule of law, etc.), then doesn’t this dictate massively shifting efforts to a re-professionalized and re-energized USAID — rather than directing military forces to do jobs at which they are, at best, amateurs? If it’s about building water systems rather than killing bad guys…maybe we should be thinking about this in a paradigm other than “war”?


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