Plagiarism and Competence

New York State Senator Greg BallThere seems to be a problem with Republicans and plagiarism. They have this tendency to just stick other people’s work in their speeches and bills without a thought. We saw a whole bunch of this with Rand Paul recently. And in the end, he didn’t even seem to understand what was wrong with what he had done. He made it out like other people were academic with their insistence of “footnotes.” He didn’t get the fact that saying something that was a direct quote without noting it is the definition of plagiarism.

Of course, some might bring up Joe Biden in 1988 when he plagiarizing part of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Actually, there are mitigating circumstances in this. Primarily, he normally did directly quote Kinnock, but simply forgot that time. He claimed to be exhausted and I believe him. The fact is that love him or hate him, Joe Biden is the most authentic politician around. But the main point is that Biden was embarrassed about the incident and withdrew from the race.

Recently, we got another Republican plagiarizer: New York State Senator Greg Ball. Like me, Ball was deeply affected by the documentary Blackfish. So he put together a bill to make it illegal for aquatic parks to keep killer whales in captivity. The problem is that the bill lifts a paragraph wholesale from a blog post by high school student Donald Rapier.

This is unfortunate, because while Ball is a Republican, I agree with the bill he is trying to get passed. It is also unfortunate because he decided to rip off this high school student rather than me. Of course, the biggest problem is the plagiarism. And to his credit, Ball seems to understand that plagiarism is actually wrong and something to be embarrassed about. So he fired one of his staff members, who supposedly did the plagiarism.

But the whole thing shows how writing has been devalued. I would think that everyone who works in a state (Or federal!) level office would at least be a competent writer. But instead, it looks like Republicans are forced to hire people who scraped out of English Composition with a C-. Or if they aren’t forced, they think that ideology trumps competence. As much as I admire what Senator Ball is trying to do, I think he must ultimately be held responsible. It isn’t enough to say that your staff did it when you are the one hiring people who can’t write and don’t value those who do.

John Rawls and David Foster Wallace

John RawlsOn this day in 1836, the French composer Leo Delibes was born. He composed primarily for the stage, so: opera and ballet. As you know, I’m not a great lover of later Romantic period music. But as it goes, Delibes really is one of the best. He crafted very strong contrapuntal melodies. For example, although you are probably unaware, you know “The Flower Duet” from his last opera Lakme, which is some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear. Since most of the people in my life hate opera for reasons that do not speak well for a single one of them, I offer up the following Pizzicato from his ballet Sylvia. You all probably know this from the same place we all got our original education in classical music: Looney Tunes:

The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia was born in 1893. Here he is toward the end of his life play Enrique Granados’ Danza in G:

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century David Foster Wallace was born in 1962. He is best known for the novel Infinite Jest, and interestingly, I just requested it from the library. David Foster WallaceI’ve decided to yet again make a pointless effort to write my own expansive postmodern novel with a hundred characters. The problem is not the characters. As a writer, character development is the only thing that I think I’m good at. The problem is the broader structure—making everything work together. And also the absolute overload of creative genius that comes from Wallace on the micro and macro scale. And what my limited mind can only call his breezy style. So my effort is doomed to failure, but at least I’ll get another pass at Infinite Jest. Where I think I might have more success is in mimicking Wallace’s nonfiction. This too is destined to fail. What bothers me about Wallace is that he was so great at describing life and at creating things that made life worth living, but that ultimately he was unable to deal with life. Here he is talking about how funny Kafka is:

And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward—we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

Actually, it is not funny.

Other birthdays: religious reformer Shah Waliullah (1703); sculptor Goscombe John (1860); Russian painter Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876); French-language playwright Sacha Guitry (1885); English playwright Clemence Dane (1888); writer Anais Nin (1903); actor Ann Sheridan (1915); great director Sam Peckinpah (1925); humorist Erma Bombeck (1927); singer-songwriter Nina Simone (1933); destroyer of music David Geffen (71); actor Alan Rickman (68); and musician Jerry Harrison (65).

The day, however, belongs to the great political philosopher John Rawls who was born on this day in 1921. A few months ago I wrote, John Rawls and Disingenuousness. It was about his concept of universality in political legitimacy. The problem is that Rawls was a serious thinker. Now, all stripes of conservative cloak their faith-based and power-based beliefs in a patina of universality. So instead of arguing that abortion is wrong because God said so, for example, they argue that abortion is wrong because a woman is pregnant with a full citizen, even when it is just a fertilized egg without a brain. Nonetheless, it is thrilling to read Rawls, and spend time thinking about weighty moral issues instead of dealing with all the disingenuous political rhetoric that burbles from the right constantly.

Rawls is best know for his concept of the veil of ignorance. He argued that a just society would be the one you would pick if you didn’t know where you would be born into it. So, for example, no reasonable person would choose a slave society, because they might well end up a slave. Most people would choose a reasonably equitable society. To me, I think that beyond the issue of where you are born in society, you would need to consider how you were born. That would address questions such as, “How are we to treat the physically disabled.” It’s a very useful way of looking at moral questions.

Happy birthday John Rawls!

Free Will and Fun in The Incredibles

The IncrediblesLast night, I watched The Incredibles. It is a feature length animated film about a family of super heroes. Think: Fantastic Four meets Roseanne. It was written and directed by Brad Bird, and like most of his work, it is a hell of a lot of fun. The first half of the film is a parody of the super hero genre. And as such it is brilliant. The second half of the film is straight super hero genre, but still works pretty well. I think it is a mistake to think of The Incredibles as anything other than a romp. But there is a thematic schizophrenia in the film that I can’t help but discuss.

In the first half of the film, the guiding idea is that people ought to be allowed to be who they are. What happens is that Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) hurts a man who he saves from suicide. The man sues him and this opens the floodgates for lawsuits against the “supers” who do have a tendency to cause a lot of damage in their crime fighting activities. The government passes a law granting them all immunity, but they have to stop being super heroes. So 15 years later, we find Mr Incredible working in an insurance company under a very annoying boss (voiced by Wallace Shawn) who is also offensively short.

But as the film progresses, it stops being about the oppression of those who are different. It becomes instead about the limitations placed on the great. At one point, Edna, the fashion designer who once made the fabulous costumes for the supers, laments, “I used to design for gods!” And indeed, as I’ve written about before, the modern action genre is nothing so much as demigod mythologizing. Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone don’t play humans, they play gods. And this has been a problem for our society where true heroism is devalued at the expense cinematic action that would kill any real man. At least the super heroes are demigods, unlike the Johns McClane and Rambo.

So, much of the second half of the film involves Mr Incredible grousing about the fact that greatness isn’t valued. For example, in an argument about their son Dash (!) whose super power is that he runs really fast, Mr Incredible says, “People keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…” And then he proposes to his wife (the humorously sexist Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter), “You want to do something for Dash? Well, let him actually compete! Let him go out for sports!” By the end of the film, he gets to do just that.

This brings up a fundamental problem, however. Dash may look like a little human boy, but he isn’t. He is a super or a demigod. Having other boys run a race against him is like having them run a race against a cheetah. (Note: I believe a human would beat a cheetah in a marathon.) After the race, father says to son, “I’m proud of you.” For what?! When Dash was born, he could run a hundred times faster than the fastest man on the planet. Is Mr Incredible proud that he just happened to be born with that ability?

That gets to the issue of free will. We are, all of us, the products of our genes and our environments. We are exactly whatever we were programmed to be. Now I understand that a society needs to pretend that this is not the case in order to provide an environment in which people will make the best of their lives. But we also shouldn’t lose perspective. The fact that I’m smart and knowledgeable is not something that I should give myself credit for. It is something that I should be grateful for. And so should Dash be grateful for his ability to run really fast.

The Incredibles gets confused about this. But it doesn’t matter. It is a fun and silly movie with a lot of laughs and action. And if you take it seriously, you are doing it wrong. Because it leaves a lot of unanswered plot questions. For example: when the super heroes retired, why did the super villains retire? But no one should care—not when we get to hear Wallace Shawn and Holly Hunter yell at Craig “No one helped me when I was on food stamps and welfare” Nelson. I suspect you will be having too much fun to notice any of these things. Regardless, you have no choice; you have no free will.

Obama Stops Grand Bargain Talk

Obama CopeYesterday, the White House announced that Obama would remove Chained-CPI from his next budget. Chained-CPI is the way of raising the cost of living more slowly so that Social Security benefits would be cut over the course of a worker’s retirement. Although it is not reported as much, it would also increase the taxes of lower and middle class people. So it is a good thing that the administration is officially giving up on it.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “There was a point in time when there was a little bit more optimism about the willingness of Republicans to budge on closing some tax loopholes, but over the course of the last year, they’ve refused to do that.” This was always the idea: Chained-CPI would entice the Republicans into a Grand Bargain of entitlement cuts and tax increases. Economically, this is a stupid idea. Cutting spending in a depressed economy is bad. Raising taxes in a depressed economy is bad. So other than the thoroughly repudiated idea of “expansionary austerity,” there was never a good economic reason for a Grand Bargain.

But I understand that politicians aren’t economists and often do things that make no sense in that regard. However, they ought to be smart from a political standpoint. Unfortunately, the Grand Bargain never made any political sense. A standard political compromise is where each side gives up something to get something else they want. But that doesn’t describe the Grand Bargain. It was making compromises to get something each side could deal with losing. Republican voters don’t want entitlement cuts and they really don’t want tax increases. Democratic voters don’t want tax increases and they really don’t want tax cuts.

Of course, there is a group that wants to raise taxes and cut entitlements: Washington centrists. These are the Very Serious People of legend. What makes them Serious? Being in favor of policies that no one likes! And if the policies are objectively bad for the economy, so much the better! What’s especially sad about this is that the Republican elite never really fell for this. But among the New Democrats who now control the Democratic Party, such Serious Thinking is all the vogue. This is the biggest problem with the party going forward.

Sadly, I don’t think this decision by the White House shows any growth either in terms of their political or economic thinking. Obama still pines for a Republican Party that will make deals the people hate. And he still thinks that the deficit is an important economic issue. (It is, of course, but in the opposite way he thinks.) Instead, I suspect his advisers are telling him that he’s already cut the deficit in half and it continues to go down. What’s more, it is getting hard to deny that all the cuts (especially the Sequester) are the cause of our weak recovery. But it is good that after four years of debt obsession, the White House is giving up. For now.