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January 03, 2005


Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Here's a bit of post-holiday grab-bag.

* First off, I found Gregg Easterbrook's tongue-in-cheek holiday letter both fun to read and difficult to take. I am a somewhat reluctant blue-stater, but I am a blue-stater nonetheless (as well as a boomer and a bobo). I work hard to have Easterbrook's pen not point at me, and do a passable job of it, but my bone is not that far from the surface and it's not difficult to cut close to it.

* And on the subject of color-affiliation, here is one of the best things I've read on the Democrats blue-state blues. It's by former rightie, now leftie, Michael Lind, and it appears in the liberal journal The American Prospect.

Much has been written since the election about the color purple, a lot of it fatuous, but I think Lind gets it right. Will it help the Dems to become more purplish? And what does it mean, anyway? Will it be sufficient for the Dems to be less tongue-tied on traditional values, or will they be compelled to actually speak in tongues?

The virtue of Lind's analysis is that it is multi-dimensional, taking into account historical, political and cultural factors, and coming up with a pretty focused prescription. Rather than a panicked, blunderbuss approach ("run right! run right!"), Lind makes a measured conclusion and defends it--go to the midwest for specific outcomes achieved in specific ways. It beats listening to Kerry trying his hand at glossolalia.

Me, I'm a lifelong Democrat and cast my first presidential ballot for a Republican this year--and I go as far back as McGovern, whom I helped win his only state, Massachusetts. I did not vote for Bush this year with huge apprehensions, and to date have no regrets. But there are a lot of reasons I'd happily vote for a D over an R nationally, and I await actions on the part of the party that would cause me to conclude that such a path was reasonable.

*Note to Francis: I have also followed the Barnes controversy with some interest, though I have not had the pleasure of visiting the Merion site (perhaps I am of the great unwashed??)

Anyway, I also read an account entitled "The Devil and Dr. Barnes", but it was by Richard Feigen--a chapter in his book "Tales from the Art Crypt". You can't get this article on-line, but to my mind it's worth a detour to a bookstore or library if you find the story interesting. I thought the byzantine boardroom twists and turns deserving of a Dynasty-style movie or TV treatment--and that's before, as you point out, you even begin to examine the issue from an art point of view.

To make matters more complicated, there's the entire legal/philosphical/fiduclary aspect of the case that has so intrigued property advocates like the Wall Street Journal. In the view of the WSJ, this story is all about donor rights and expectations, the fiduciary obligations of institutions and the obligation of courts not to prioritize current judgments too readily over the dead hand of the original property owner.

In fact, the story seems to have gotten the press that it has because it combines the highfalutin' money-side of the art world with elements of a potboiler. A fun story, even if one is not in agreement with the outcome.

* Peter Singer reviews a new book by Richard Posner on the cost-benefit of catastrophes. I am not a big fanof Singer's ultra-rationalist philosophizing, but Posner and Singer are quite right, I think, to draw attention to wanting to analyze catastrophic risks we might otherwise wish to avoid thinking about.

Doing so, however, might be fiendishly difficult in practice, as this exchange at Ann Althouse's blog points out.

* Two interesting articles in the last week's New Yorker. In one, Malcolm Gladwell reviews Jared Diamond's new book on how human societies can destroy themselves. As a general proposition, it's hard to argue with the notion that a culture can get into trouble when its (by necessity conservative and hard to move) value structure is too sluggish for the, broadly speaking, evolutionary niche around it. Diamond seems to dwell on the natural environment as the way cultures are likely to get into trouble--i.e., Easter Islanders and early Danish settlers of Greenland could not adapt to the demands of their new lands and ended up despoiling their surroundings, and we can make the same mistake.

No big problem with that either, although, as with the Althouse post above on catastrophes, cultural situations are highly complex and cultural outcomes uncertain. Life is lived forward and not through a rear-view mirror. Consequently, it can be quite difficult knowing which path is the prudent one in advance. Most important cultural bets are just that--bets. (Also see Steve Saileron whether Diamond is correct that most cultural death is suicide rather than homicide in the first place).

Gladwell's article, however, definitely needs to be read in the context of Ian Buruma's article about Islam and Holland in the same issue. Buruma's article makes clear that bad cultural bets do not only risk despoiling the natural environment--cultures are not only constantly challenged by their natural environment but by their human environment as well.

In Holland, we have a situation just as Diamond would describe it--but the slowness on the part of the Dutch to ditch their treasured value of "tolerance" does not risk despoiling the natural environment, but rather the cultural one. Diamond is quite right that cultures are tools for making bets, but the natural order is not the only thing at stake.

My sense is that the softer Left, like Diamond, is quite comfortable asking for cultural change for the sake of the natural world but--relativism being what it is--has a harder time when it's culture versus culture.

Reverse that bias when dealing with some on the Right.

* And while you are at Sailer's site, you might want to check out his comments on Jared Diamond--in particular Guns, Germs and Steel, the subject of some earlier discussion on this site. I found Diamond's account of environmental variables in human development compelling but, like Sailer, I wonder if Diamond wasn't misapplying his findings. From page one, Diamond's project seemed to be the demolition of Western notions of racial superiority. Proving that negative in the environmental record is a tall task. Indeed one would think that if that was the game, a researcher would spend more time on genetics and less on geography. And, as Sailer points out, the very presence of the environmental variables Diamond so clearly describes, in that they provide varying ecological niches demanding different responses, might well have been petri dishes for the development of varying genetic responses over time. You don't have to believe in an abstract concept of racial superiority to find the notion of genetic diversity based on historical niches to be a worthwhile idea.

*Note to Gregg Easterbook: It's not too late to order this very smart Che Guevara "onesie" for Emma, that cute kid who lives with that bobo single parent next door!

Featured in Time Magazine's holiday web shopping guide, "Viva la revolution!" Now even the smallest rebel can express himself in these awesome baby onesies. This classic Che Guevara icon is also available on a long-sleeve tee in kids' sizes... Long live the rebel in all of us...there's no cooler iconic image than Che! New colors DARK RED or PURPLE have just arrived! The sand color is still available in 6-12m and 12-18m. All Appaman products are soft, pre-shrunk, 100% cotton and designed, dyed, and printed in New York City. Availability Immediate

Happy shopping!



posted by Fenster at January 3, 2005


I agree, Michael Lind's historical/geographical analysis is interesting (and, one suspects, accurate) although I don't think it is original. I've read other statements of these facts in recent years. The only problem with this analysis is that it seems more backward-looking than forward looking (I believe I first ran across this notion in a book on the politics of the Vietnam War, which it accounted for quite nicely.) It doesn't look forward to such developments as the massive Hispanic influx and its impact on politics (very large today in my home state, California, and, I suspect, very large nationwide in the next decades.) The Democrats' ambitions/strategy seems for the New England-faction to lead a largely immigrant coalition against the 'evil' of the Scots-Irish/Hegemonic Southerners. Heck, it worked on campus...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 4, 2005 6:02 AM

Wonderful links, Fenster - thanks! Now, where to find the time for reading indulgence? The blogsphere has become so rich with good stuff, I find myself needing to find a way to reduce my daily intake; instead I am adding more and more. Too tempting, it is.

And now, another political hue? Does anyone else hear the old Petula Clark tune in her head? Just color my world...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 4, 2005 11:29 AM

Thanks for the links -- I'm still happily reading.

The Lind reminds me of a posting I was nursing and finally gave up on. Had a great title for it: "Paul Krugman: Godhead or Dickhead?" My point was going to be that the Dems never seem to stop shooting themselves in the feet. If they're to win -- which I assume is something they actually care about -- they need to win over some of the people they seem to take such pleasure in insulting. Krugman, who loves taking the scornful/wrathful tone as he demonstrates his points, may be right in the abstract about everything he says. He may be an econ genius for all I know. But he's obviously an idiot where politics and people are concerned. Most people -- at least from the very Red states -- are going to look at this pompous bigshot, say "What a dick," and choose not to join his team.

But maybe it doesn't take genius to look at people who need votes yet insist on ridiculing the people whose votes they need, and to say, Hey, you aren't going to get anywhere with that approach.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 4, 2005 4:28 PM

The idea of a Democrat speaking in tongues ... I'm laughing, and laughing, still laughing.

Posted by: laurel on January 4, 2005 5:47 PM

Re: Guevara T-Shirts

But do they have Lavrenti Beria and Joseph Goebbels T-shirts? It can be so hard to know which lackey of a socialist dictator to celebrate at private school functions. I'd hate to choose an unpopular murderer.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 4, 2005 6:09 PM

Michael Blowhard. Are you serious? Or just blowing off steam hard?

I can't say that I read Krugman as carefully as you apparently do as he just slightly bores me but your anger takes me aback. (And of course the lack of any specifics, details, examples etc. is puzzling as I know that you have a great eye for them -- your recent post on the blues festival was rich with object & texture.)

But just so I can get a frame of reference for your anger, could you please take a look at his column of today --

-- and tell me if that one contains the sort of scornful/wrathful tone you find so contemptible. I am trying to figure out what you see that I don't; while one can certainly differ with his conclusion about Social Security, he seems to me to be quite civil. No?

Posted by: David Sucher on January 4, 2005 11:49 PM

Thank you for the Che-link. I've put it in my small, but growing collection.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 5, 2005 6:23 AM

People curious about Jared Diamond's book might enjoy Tyler Cowen's posting about it here. Tyler provides some links to further goodies too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 5, 2005 12:11 PM

David -- No reason my anger should take you aback, given that I'm feeling none. I'd like to see the Dems put up a better fight than they did this time around, if only to keep the Republicans a bit more honest. (Who'd then keep the Dems more honest, etc.) Let's have better elections between somewhat better parties than we had last time around.

So I'm rooting for the Dems to do better. In the interests of that, I'm suggesting that ridiculing your opponents and attacking their motives may not be a good way for the Dems to win the votes they need. I'm not sure why you'd want me to prove that Krugman's an easy example of that fault -- he's widely recognized for it. (He's celebrated for his aggression by many of his fans, who seem to think it's a good idea to hit harder, hit cheaper.) Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok roll their eyes about the way Krugman goes after motives on a regular basis, as do many others. 10 seconds of websearching turns up this typical excerpt from Krugman:

"General point: anyone who talks fiscal policy without regularly reading the work of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Tax Policy Center is either lazy or doesn't want to know. Yes, they're both (mildly) liberal in outlook. But they're also both scrupulously honest. And there's no counterpart on the other side. I wonder why?"

In other words: do as I say (or you're lazy or ignorant); my sources are better than yours; my judgment is better than yours; and there's no such thing as a non-liberal source that's scrupulously honest. And don't you just love that "I wonder why?"

For all I know, he's right about all this in a factual sense, by the way. I'm just saying that his tone and presentation (which I'm happy to call pompous and scornful) will be found offputting (to say the least) by many people. Carrying on in this "I'm smart and right, and not only are you stupid but you're evil" way ain't gonna win the Dems any of the votes they need.

Happy to make a larger point too, that -- for their own electoral good -- many Dems would do well to get over their absurd fantasies about Republican (racist! sexist! fanatical! homophobic!) America. But that's probably best left to a larger posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 5, 2005 12:26 PM

Goodness, yes---I just think you need to see Krugman interviewed on TV to get the impression he's snotty and obnoxious in terms of style.

HOWEVER, so is Ann Coulter--bigtime snotty, bigtime obnoxious. Actually, so is Rush, often. I guess no one comments on it since their side "won." I guess Republicans are A-OK with snotty and obnoxious, as long it tells them they are correct. I don't think Dems are alone in being stupid and tone-deaf in this way. But they are in the minority, and they need to actually care about that. The minute the Repubs are in the minority again, they need to lock Miss Ann in the nearest closet.

Posted by: annette on January 5, 2005 2:38 PM

1. People don't usually refer to someone else as a "dickhead" unless they are angry. You referred to Krugman as a "dickhead" which seems to me to be some evidence that you are harboring hostile feelings toward him. Why you are denying it is interesting.
2. If that quote from Krugman is the best you can do, I think you might withdraw your statement and apologise to Krugman. That statement is comically slim basis on which to make the claims you do.

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