Clair de Bussy

Claude DebussyOn this day back in 1647, the inventor of the pressure cooker, Denis Papin was born. British tool inventor Henry Maudslay was born in 1771. Writer James Kirke Paulding was born in 1778. American astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley (Yes, that Langley) was born in 1834. The painter of The Spirit of ’76, Archibald Willard was born in 1836.

Philosopher Max Scheler was born in 1874. The great writer and humorist Dorothy Parker was born in 1893. The great Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl was born in 1902. Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908. Screenwriter Julius Epstein was born in 1909.

Blues legend John Lee Hooker was born in 1917. Here he is doing “Boom Boom”:

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was born in 1920. Playwright James Kirkwood was born in 1925. And General Norman Schwarzkopf was born in 1934.

Novelist Annie Proulx is 78 today. I’m not that fond of her work, but I did learn a great deal from her. She is a very crisp writer and I admire that. But more than that, I learned that novels aren’t really about plot—or at least they don’t need to be. Actor Valerie Harper is 74. Actor Cindy Williams is 66. Here she is in one of my favorite films, The Conversation during which the original conversation (which we hear parts of many times throughout the film) takes place:

Tori Amos is 50. I don’t really know who she is. A singer I think. And comedian Kristen Wiig is 40.

The day, however, belongs to one of the greatest composers ever, Claude Debussy who was born on this day back in 1862. His music can be appreciated on so many levels that I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t it enjoy unless they were tone deaf. Mostly, the music is tonal but in that pentatonic and whole tone scale way that sounds simultaneously exotic and familiar. But he is rarely boring. He has a great sense of when to surprise the listener. In this regard, I think he is significantly better than Ravel, who I also admire.

If you want to listen to a rather sterile rendition of Clair de Lune, Google created a very beautiful and sweet Doodle for the occasion of Debussy’s 151 birthday. You could do a lot better musically. For one thing, you’ve probably heard Clair de Lune way too much already. I highly recommend listening to Debussy’s only opera Pelleas et Melisande. There are a few full versions online if you wish to listen to it. Or you could listen to any number of versions of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. There is a very amusing animation to it in the film Allegro Non Troppo. But let me introduce you to some of his later work. This is the eleventh piece of the first book of Preludes, La Danse de Puck. Give it a chance. It is a bit more difficult than a lot of his work, but it is ultimately charming:

Happy birthday Claude Debussy!

The “Populist” Power Elites

Ed KilgoreEd Kilgore made a great catch this morning. Andrew Stiles at the National Review wrote, “The liberal media are obsessed with Texas senator Ted Cruz.” As Kilgore correctly points out, the mainstream media[1] may be somewhat interested in Cruz, but it is nothing compared to the simultaneous orgasms that those on the right are having over him. (Kilgore, of course, did not mention orgasms, simultaneous or lonely.)

National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote that Cruz will destroy liberals because he is an Ivy League educated elite like themselves. Kilgore responds:

Ah, how rich, Rich! Here’s a Princeton grad, a champion debater, a former Supreme Court clerk, a Hispanic, who thinks just like Sarah Palin! Try to make fun of him as an ignorant yahoo! Just try, liberals!

This schoolyard (or maybe Old School Tie) taunt is, I fear, at the heart of the paradox surrounding what some are bold to call “libertarian populism.” A heavily credentialed pol whose policies revolve around the defense of economic and cultural privilege roams around the country bellowing with rage at the liberals and RINOs whose “establishment” is frustrating the will of The People.

And then he mentions that it reminds him of What’s the Matter With Kansas, but he doesn’t quote the best part. So I thought I would:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world—for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness—blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

That’s the funny thing about modern conservatives: they think they are populist. They think they vote for the little guy against the elites. But they only vote against the intellectual elites and the entertain elites. The actual power elites—the people who really keep the little man down—are only given more and more power. There is a reason that John Stuart Mill said, “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”


[1] Conservative definition of “liberal media”: any media that isn’t explicitly conservative.

Republican Crisis Mentality

Debt Ceiling NegotiationsRegular readers will remember that for the few months on either side of the new year, I was pert near hysterical about the Debt Ceiling. And there is a reason for that: it is really important. If the United States defaults on its debts, this will cause our borrowing costs to go up. People (conservatives especially) like to focus on our total debt. But debt itself doesn’t matter. What does matter is how much it costs to service that debt. Everyone understands this in their own lives. That’s why people like to get credit cards with 10% interest rates rather than 25% interest rates. Right now, the United States has one of the lowest debt service costs it has ever had since World War II.

But the exact same conservatives who claim to be so worried about the debt don’t seem to have any concern at all that they could double the yearly cost of that debt with their idea of breaching the Debt Ceiling. I’m not the only person worried about this, of course. Ezra Klein has been equally concerned in his neutral, wonky way. And today he reported on the House Republican establishment arguing with the rank and file about not shutting down the govern and instead threatening a debt ceiling crisis. As Klein notes, “Trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock.” That’s absolutely right.

I think he also gets the internal politics right. The establishment knows that a government shutdown and a debt ceiling breach would be bad for the Republican Party. But the shutdown threat comes first, so they use whatever argument they can to avoid that. When the debt ceiling crisis comes, well, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. He further explains:

But this is a recurring problem with the House GOP leadership. They can’t simply level with their members and say a shutdown is a bad idea, and indeed all of this hostage taking is a bad idea, and House Republicans simply need to recognize that they don’t have the power or political support to stop the Obama administration from implementing laws. Being in the minority is a bummer, which is part of why it makes sense for minorities to be tactically disciplined—that’s how they can regain the majority.

The question is why the rank and file House Republicans (and much of the base) feel as they do. This isn’t just that it’s a bummer to be in the minority. As I’ve written about again and again and again, the Republicans are no longer a normal political party and have become a revolutionary group. There are many aspects of this. But the main thing is the quasi-religious belief structure. I wrote only yesterday regarding Louisiana Republicans blaming Obama for Hurricane Katrina, “It is no longer the case that Obama is a president Republicans disagree with; he is the president who is hell bent on destroying the one true America that each Republican just somehow divines.” For the revolutionary, it is always a crisis; nothing else justifies their extreme tactics.

Think of me. I’m very politically engaged. I think politics matters. In fact, I think that income inequality is a life and death matter. And I am not above histrionics. But I’m no revolutionary. I agree with John Dickinson in 1776 when he says, “If you have grievances, and I’m sure you have, our present system must provide a gentler means of redressing them short of revolution.” And I agree with that knowing full well that we don’t live in a democracy. But things are not so bad that we should destroy the whole system. The more extreme Republicans want to do exactly that, although they would claim that they want to take America back to some previous time when it was pure. (And never existed.)

So given the crisis that Republicans see, any political tactic, no matter now extreme is valid. They aren’t thinking about the next election; they are in a life and death struggle where they fancy themselves as Churchill, the Republican establishment as Chamberlain, and Obama as Hitler. And it is all made concrete with Obamacare. The truth is that now is the final fight. Once implemented, resistance to the law will quickly die out. I don’t say that because it’s going to be wonderful. But the conservative movement has set expectations so high that if 2014 doesn’t bring Armageddon, people will be relieved. And given that Obamacare has been trumpeted as the greatest threat to personal freedom since Stalin, the religious fervor is understandable.

I believe this could all lead to a debt ceiling breach. The stakes for conservatives really are that high—or at least they think they are. And as a liberal, I know that it would be good for my cause in the long term. But also as a liberal, I know it would be terrible for the people in the short and medium term. As I said: I’m not a revolutionary. So I do hope that the Republicans remain sane on this issue and do what is in their own best interests. For once, their best interests are the same as the nation’s.

Empathy and Socially Acceptable Cynicism

EmpathySlate has an advise columnist Emily Yoffe who writes a column Dear Prudence. As advice columns goes, it isn’t bad. And I have to admit, I get drawn into the articles more than I would like. Today’s was fairly typical, Help! My Father Is Dying of Lung Cancer From Smoking. Didn’t He Get What He Deserves? Actually, that wasn’t the headline; it was the link text for the article on another page, but it works better than the actual headline. Basically, the writer, who goes by “Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide,” wants to know how he can “feign polite concern” because he’s angry at his father for choosing cigarettes over his family all these years.

Prudence is very nice with “Slow.” My natural tendency is just to say, “Shut up you whiny asshole!” But Prudence goes step by step. The father is 77 now, which is older than most men when they die. Most people of his age smoked so maybe he should have a little sympathy. And regardless, after he’s dead, Slow is going to regret spending all these last moments seething. All of which doesn’t really answer the question, but is a polite way of saying, “Shut the fuck up!”

I have a more fundamental problem with Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide. And it starts with his moniker. Are we to conclude that people who commit suicide deserve no sympathy? Did they get what they deserved? Regardless, all of us humans do things that are not in our objective best interests. We don’t eat what we should. We don’t get enough exercise. We don’t pay enough attention when we drive. It is just our current culture that has decided that there are certain bad behaviors that others have a right to be total assholes about. In our society, there are two things: drugs and obesity. Those are two things that allow us to disregard our shared humanity and not care at all.

With drugs, as with just about everything, the issue is the dose. I really don’t like cigarettes. In fact, I think that smoking is a really vile way to get anything into your body. But the bad effects of cigarette smoking come from the excessive level of smoking. It is not at all clear that smoking a couple of cigarettes per day is a bad thing. Smoking 40 per day most clearly is. I’ll admit, our society tends to be all or nothing. But that’s all the more reason to be sympathetic to the chain smoker.

In the case of obesity, it turns out being reasonably “overweight” is more healthy than being “normal.” And that gets us back to Slow Suicide Is Still Suicide. There is little doubt that his father’s smoking did lead to his cancer. But that’s not why Slow feels so morally superior and correct in his callous reaction to his father’s illness. It’s all about cultural signaling. We divide people into those who deserve sympathy and those who do not. And those divisions are only vaguely related to the truth of the situation. In fact, in most cases it is far worse than that. Our whole idea of meritocracy is based on the idea that the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty.

What do we have other than empathy? Everything else is a mixed bag. Intelligence, for example, leads to cancer cures but also nuclear warheads. It isn’t as though I don’t understand where Slow is coming from. Friends and family can be aggravating. But Slow only thinks it is okay to sneer at his father’s pain because he thinks that society allows it. The man is dying. And Slow is being an asshole.