Rutherford, Humor, and Don Quixote

Don Quixote - RutherfordI got an interesting question from reader Aster about the Jervas translation of Don Quixote. In his version of Jervas, the opening sentence of the preface was different from what I had quoted in About to Read Don Quixote. It turned out that both sentences were correct. It is just that some editors change translations a lot. Mine was Edited by E C Riley, who is excellent; but that means the Oxford World’s Classics edition is kind of a conglomeration.

At first I thought that Aster must be mistaken, so I went searching through my collection of translations. I never found it, of course, but I did come upon an interesting translation controversy. In the introduction to his own recent translation of Don Quixote, John Rutherford opens with, “Yet another Quixote translation? Isn’t it an act of quixotry to write the thirteenth English version of the great Spanish novel?” He goes on to explain that previous translations have been too reverential, usually at the expense of Cervantes’ excellent sense of humor.

In this regard, he provides an example:

Cervantes gives the alert reader the chance to catch a telling and amusing glimpse of the brash young graduate Sanson Carrasco’s sharp-witted malice, and of Don Quioxte’s bumbling innocence, in a deft parody reversal of a conventional formula for leave-taking at the end of Chapter VII of Part II: “Sanson embraced Don Quixote and begged to be sent news of his fortunes both good and bad, to rejoice at the latter or grieve over the former, as the laws of friendship required…”

That is clever. And it is entirely in keeping with the book. Many characters make fun of Don Quixote and he is far too earnest to ever notice. So Sanson is saying, “Please tell me if things are going wrong so I can celebrate!”

Rutherford goes on to show that other translators completely dropped the joke. But he didn’t mention Putnam, so I checked my copy:

Sanson gave the knight a farewell embrace, urging him to send back word of the good or ill fortune that the pair met with, in order that he, Carrasco, as the laws of friendship demanded, might rejoice over the former or grieve over the latter.

So Putnam does not translate it as a joke. But Putnam was a careful translator and I found it hard to believe that he would miss this. So that took me back to the Spanish edition:

Abrazole Sanson, y suplicole le avisase de su buena o mala suerte, para alegrarse con esta o entristecerse con aquella, como las leyes de su amistad pedian.

This translates roughly, “Sanson embraced him, and he asked to be notified of any good or bad luck, to rejoice with this or be sad with that, like the laws of their friendship asked.” Do you see the reversal that Rutherford is talking about? I don’t. It seems to me that Putnam has it right (although why he moves that ending clause to the middle, I can’t say). What are we to make of this?

It could be that I am simply a lousy Spanish language translator. Well, actually I am a lousy translator. But I don’t think I’m wrong here. Not to mention that Putnam and every other translator agrees on this reading. That brings us to a second possibility: Rutherford is using a different Spanish language text. After all, they aren’t all the same. Rutherford says he used Luis Andres Murillo’s modern Spanish language edition of the book, which was published in 1978. That could explain the difference.

But I suspect that the problem is just a matter of approach. Rutherford wants to translate Don Quixote in such a way as to highlight the humor in it. And given that one could reasonably argue that the phrase was meant to be that way, Rutherford has decided that it was meant that way. I think that’s entirely valid, even if I think the comedy comes out very well in the “reverential” translations.

If you are still looking for a translation, Rutherford’s Penguin Classics edition is a fine choice.

Economic Mobility Is a Distraction

Equality of OpportunityAs Professor Farnsworth would say, “Good news, everyone!” Economists have looked at the data and it turns out that economic mobility has not gotten worse over the past several decades. Of course, as usual with such “good news” claims from Professor Farnsworth, it is actually bad news. You see, the reason that economic mobility hasn’t decreased is that it’s been terrible all along. Last month at The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explained it all in, The Mobility Myth.

What’s really bad is even if you look at countries like Sweden, there isn’t much mobility. The truth is that focusing on mobility is just a way to avoid looking at equity. And we are really good at that in this country. Both sides of the political spectrum fetishize opportunity as though it would be fine to allow some people to starve as long as they had an equal chance to be rich.

It goes further than this, however. People are only willing to talk about “equality of opportunity” in high tones. When it comes to practical measures, no one is interested in doing anything to improve the situation. This is where the partisan divide comes. Although Democrats don’t want to do anything to help equalize children’s chances in life, Republicans want to make it worse. In education, we have a terrible situation where school funding is dependent upon local taxes. So poor communities get worse schools than rich communities. But this situation that actively helps the children of the rich is not good enough for the conservatives. They want to subsidize the rich sending their children to private schools with vouchers. That is, by the way, what is behind the whole charter school movement.

All of this annoys me because the issue is equality and not meaningless notions like equality of opportunity. Surowiecki notes that from the 1940s through the beginning of the 1970s, it didn’t much matter that people were stuck in the middle class. The entire class saw its incomes double during that time. That was because workers actually got part of our productivity gains. But that all came to an abrupt end in the late 1970s with the rise of the New Democratic movement (regardless of the fact that it wasn’t call that then) and the embrace by Republicans of supply side “trickle down” economics.

When the government decided that the way to make the economy grow was to give more and more money to the rich, we saw two things. First, we saw only modest growth—nothing like what we saw before that period. Second, we saw that all of that growth went to the people at the top. There was no trickling down. And this was hardly surprising. As conservatives are fond of saying, “Incentives matter!” Lowing the taxes on the rich only gave them greater incentives to give themselves more money.

The United States does not have much economic mobility. The United States has never had that much economic mobility in an absolute sense. Michael Harrington was exactly correct when he wrote in The Other America: Poverty in the United States:

But the real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group. Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never even have had a chance to get out of the other America.

Of course, I’m not willing to even yield the point about inequality not decreasing in this country. The study cited by James Surowiecki looks at mobility in the context of quintiles. We know that the story of inequality in this country is not the story of the top 20%; it is the story of the top 1% or the top 0.1%. I suspect that if we looked at that, we would see much mobility decreasing, because the truly rich are in so much better a position to pass on wealth than the simply upper class.

But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter. Talking about “opportunity” is just a way of not talking about inequality. Mitt Romney and his ilk would have us believe that the liberal concern about inequality is just a way to enact a dictatorship of the worker. That’s just rhetoric, because I don’t even know of any socialists who believe in that. All we are talking about is a more just distribution of resources.[1] This is a debate we should have—and one that liberals would win. That is why the conservatives want to stop us from even discussing it. We shouldn’t allow that.

See also: Conservatives Define “Equality of Opportunity” Out of Existence

[1] Simply because our economy greatly rewards some kinds of endeavors doesn’t mean there is anything natural about it. Patents, for example, are orders of magnitude more profitable today than they were 200 years ago. This is because of things like manufacturing technology. But that doesn’t mean inventors should be richer today than they were then. What’s more, it is an argument for reducing rather than increasing intellectual property protections. But with economic power goes political power. Thus, we’ve only seen increases in intellectual property protections. Certainly Disney has made enough from Mickey Mouse.

It’s the Partisans, Stupid

Lynn VavreckYesterday, I wrote about Lynn Vavreck’s excellent book The Message Matters. In my discussion, I focused on how, Campaign Messages Don’t Matter to Media. But there were other issues that I took note of. Toward the beginning of the book, she noted that campaigns don’t matter to either the high or low information voter. The high information voter already has a narrative for the candidates and the low information voter isn’t paying attention at all and will just go with retroactive voting based upon the economy. It is the group in the middle who can be affected by campaign messages.

This last week, Vavreck wrote an article along these lines at the excellent The Upshot blog at The New York Times, The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections. She noted something that people around here should know: the vast majority of people side with one or the other big parties and when it comes time for voting, they vote the way they always do. From a practical standpoint, it means that the question is not how people vote but who votes.

In the article, she highlights what happened in 2010. This too should come as no surprise. I’ve long ranted about the ridiculous idea that the 2010 election indicated that the voters were unhappy about Obama; I’ve always said it was simply that a large chunk of Obama’s voting base didn’t show up. But I was still shocked by this chart:

Comparison of Voting 2008 and 2010

What this shows is that only 6% of the electorate switched sides and they did it about evenly. Slightly more people switched their votes from Democrat to Republican because there were more Obama voters in 2008. But the difference is very small. The midterm problem was not liberals seeing Obama in action and running to vote for Allen West. It’s that 11% of the people who showed up to vote for Obama didn’t show up to vote against Allen West.

Vavreck sums it up well:

It may seem hard to believe that the shellacking was more about who turned up than about who changed their minds between 2008 and 2010, but it lines up with a lot of other evidence about voters’ behavior. Most identify with the same political party their entire adult lives, even if they do not formally register with it. They almost always vote for the presidential candidate from that party, and they rarely vote for one party for president and the other one for Congress…

The 2014 fight is not over swing voters. It’s for partisans.

To see why this is bad, all you have to do is look at the House of Representatives. But there is good news in this fact: Democrats win elections by default if voter turnout is high. So Democrats don’t need to do their constant dance to the right to impress swing voters, because there really aren’t any there to get. And the party seems to have finally woken up to this fact and is putting more focus on “get out the vote” efforts.

Probably the best thing that any person can do politically is to encourage others to vote and to help others vote. And of course the most basic thing you can do—the thing that really ought to be a requirement for citizenship—is vote yourself. Sadly, that is something many of my liberal friends can’t even be bothered to do. We get bad government here in the United States not so much because of conservative voters but because of liberals who do not vote.

The General Election is on 4 November 2014. That’s six months and one week away. I’ll be reminding you as we get closer.


In a broader sense, I wish people would stop referring to America as a “center right” nation. That’s a pretty odd claim. If you talk to Americans about issues, they come down as decidedly liberal—especially on economic issues. If you ask them all what their opinions are on parties, they come down decidedly as Democratic. The only way that America is a center right nation is in the sense that we make it hard for people to vote; so when few people show up at the polls, they tend to be center right. But that isn’t the people in a general sense. That’s just decades in which the oligarchs have manipulated our democracy.

King James Bible as Cultural Signifier

King James BibleSteve Benen brought my attention to a story from Louisiana. It seems that some people in the Republican controlled House thought they ought to have an official state book. And that book was, of course, the Bible. At first it was going to be the King James translation, but in committee it got changed to any translation whatsoever. That’s actually dangerous, because an atheist could translate the Bible in such a way that would make it quite embarrassing. After all, there are no explicit standards for translations. As I know from Don Quixote, translations can vary extremely far from one another and from the source material itself.

It doesn’t matter because the bill to make the Bible the official state book was withdrawn. State Representative Thomas Carmody said he didn’t want the bill to be a distraction from other more important issues. And he added that there were questions about the bill’s constitutionality. Both comments are pathetic. Certainly everyone knew that the bill was symbolic at the beginning. This is the kind of thing that Republicans do to avoid doing actual work. And if anyone thought for a minute that the bill was not constitutional then they should be thrown out of the country, or at least back to second grade civics. (Although I have little doubt that at least two justices on the Supreme Court would find it constitutional.)

But what really strikes me about the whole thing is the choice of translation: King James. Why that translation? It certainly isn’t held in high esteem by experts. The main thing you can say in its favor objectively is that the prose is nice. But the main thing about this translation is that it is the standard protestant Bible. There is no standard Catholic Bible, but among Catholics, the King James isn’t that big. And of course, those upstart Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation. Even the Gideons have backed away from it. So the King James translation fits into the whole “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” myth of America. I don’t want to lay this on too thick, but that is the philosophical basis for the KKK.

I’m not suggesting this is about racism though. And the switch from the official book being the King James Bible to any Bible is indicative that the conservative Christians have largely embraced Catholics and others who they once looked at askance. What I think is going on is rather just cultural signifying. This is something I write about here a lot. And it is what I find most frustrating about American Christianity: it is mostly about culture. To these cultural Christians, there are the good, church going people and the bad, non-church going people. Of course, if people have other cultural signifiers, it doesn’t matter if they go to church. Thus: it was perfectly fine that Reagan wasn’t actually religious.

So when Thomas Carmody and his friends decided they wanted to strike a blow for their dying culture, they grabbed the default Bible. But in a very real sense, the Republican choice of the Bible to be the official book of Louisiana was not religious; it was cultural. But don’t be deceived: it is still exclusive. The whole purpose of it is to divide people into two groups: the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people. And that’s what makes this kind of effort so evil. As interfaith conferences all over the world can attest to: different religions can find enormous amounts of common ground. But the Louisiana Republicans didn’t want to use the Bible as theology; they wanted to use it as symbol—a way to sort out the worthy. And just because they have given up this battle doesn’t mean the war is over; I fear it has only begun.

A Brief History of “Hey Joe”

The Leaves - Hey JoeMost people know of the song “Hey Joe” because it was the first single released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But the song is like Robert Johnson’s “Crosscord”: it’s been performed by just about everyone. And to be honest, I’m not fond of most of the versions of the song. It is at base, a folk song and dressing it up really distracts from its power.

Although the song is credited as being written by the folk singer-songwriter Billy Roberts, many people would beg to differ. Some, like Len Partridge, claim they helped write it. Others, like Tim Rose, claim it is a traditional song. I don’t doubt that various people helped out with the song; that tends to be the way writing works among performing musicians. And the truth is that our copyright system absolutely doesn’t deal with issues like that. Other than the music-lyrics divide, all writers are treated equally. In that case, I suspect Roberts deserves sole credit. As for the traditional claim, that’s just nonsense. Certainly the story in the song is classic, dating back a hundred years. But otherwise, it is an original composition.

Most likely, the first recorded version of the song was by the Los Angeles band The Leaves. I really don’t like it, but it is what it is. One interesting aspect of it is that the two narrative parts are performed by two different singers. But the arrangement is so intense and frenetic that the soul of the song is destroyed:

A much better Los Angeles band, Arthur Lee’s Love picked up the song. Their version is probably the most important because it inspired so many other people to do it. Some of the more notable (but not necessarily good) versions were done by The Byrds, Cher, and Patti Smith much later. But here is Love’s version which I still really like, although not because it captures the essence of the song. It’s just that Love was great.

It was about this time that Tim Rose released his slow version—the first one that really seems to capture the feeling of the song:

It was because of Rose’s version of the song that Hendrix came to do it. It’s quite a good version, and following from Rose, it does get the feeling right. But it isn’t one of my favorite Hendrix tunes.

On the third Mothers of Invention album, Frank Zappa parodied the song as, “Hey punk where’re you going with that flower in your Hand? Well I’m going up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.” I really liked Zappa, but there was never anything very nice about his humor. He exhibited total derision for popular music. But I still feel that in terms of technical prowess, he was probably the greatest rock guitarist ever. This is a fun little song:

But in 1975, over a decade after writing the song, Billy Roberts released his own acoustic version of the song. I think it is the best version that I have heard. But it very much hearkens back to Tim Rose’s version. But Rose’s version might follow Roberts’ earlier version. There is apparently a live version of the song Roberts recorded back in 1961. That would be interesting to hear. But I doubt it is as beautiful as this version:

Wikipedia lists over eighty different recorded versions of the song, and I don’t doubt there are far more than that. It’s kind of weird, because most people who perform it don’t especially use it to much advantage. But it is a fabulous song.

Is My Existence a Coincidence?

Arthur SchopenhauerThis American Life is doing a show, No Coincidence, No Story. Actually, it was last week’s show, but for some reason, KQED is always a week behind. I only heard a bit of it but I wasn’t terribly impressed because I’m never terribly impressed with coincidences. Our lives are filled with random events and sometimes we find some kind of connection. That’s hardly surprising because humans are really good at finding patterns, even when there are none.

What’s more, I’m a spoilsport. I just can’t help chipping away at these stories. A good example came from an episode of Radio Lab. A girl in the United Kingdom writes her name on a balloon and lets it go. It is found more than a hundred miles away by a girl with the same first and last name. Amazing, no? No. The biggest problem with the story is that it was not found by the girl. It was found by one of her neighbors who saw her name and gave it to her, as anyone would. And the girls’ name was not exactly unusual like “Elisha Pimpleton Rigby, Dane of Attenborough.” And so on.

But what really bugs me is that these coincidences are so trivial compared to the huge coincidence staring us in the face: our very existence. And that is the question that drives me crazy. How can it be that I just happen to exist? I know the obvious responses to this like, “Well you wouldn’t exist to ask the question if you didn’t!” How that is supposed to be helpful I can’t say. In the pantheon of useless answers, it is right up there with, “God is begotten, not made!”

Given the odds of my existing, I can only assume that it is not a coincidence. But don’t think I’ve gone off and got all Abrahamic on you. It could just be that the multiverse has always existed and thus given enough time (if the concept has any meaning in this context) it was necessary for me to exist. Eventually, it would have to create the quantum state that is me. But I don’t think this is the crux of the matter, even though I do more or less accept it from a mystical standpoint.

The theory I lean toward is that consciousness itself is an illusion. So that the idea that I am this thing is wrong. I am just a collection of cells that work together and, in an act of almost unimaginable hubris, think that it is something more like a god. Think about that: the Abrahamic religions think that God created us in his image. To misquote Rick Santorum, “What snobs we are!” It really is the other way around: we created God in our image. Then Man looked over all He had made, and He saw that it was very good!

This idea is what I’m getting at when I question my own existence. I don’t question that there are cells that work together that make up the thing that is writing this. It is just a problem to think of me as anything other than a trick of the will that keeps me eating every day so that all the cells continue to exist. Otherwise, I feel as real as anyone else does. But Descartes was mistaken when he claimed Cogito ergo sum. To me there is a tautology in it. What our consciousness does is think. It values thought above all else. So defining thinking as existence is just another way of putting humans at the top of the heap—more sophisticated than Genesis but no more believable.

So the next time you are on a train and you meet some man who you share a common acquaintance with, don’t be impressed. Think about the near impossibility that you just happen to be you.


I’m not much of a fan of Nietzsche. The only really interesting stuff was a direct continuation of Schopenhauer. But he is right about eternal return. If the multiverse is infinite, then I am cursed to live this exact life over and over again. Unlike most people, I don’t like the idea of eternal life. And the idea that I will sit in this chair and write this article for all time is almost too depressing to contemplate. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have it backwards: they are praying for the greatest evil imaginable.

Campaign Messages Don’t Matter to Media

The Message MattersI just read Lynn Vavreck’s excellent The Message Matters. It takes as given the fact that in presidential elections, the economy is by far the most important factor. The GNP growth during the last quarter of the year before the election and first two quarters of the election year is a shockingly good way to predict election outcomes. This is the basis for most of my thinking about national politics. What’s funny is that this information doesn’t seem to have trickled down to politicians. Mitt Romney’s campaign was based on the idea that the bad economy was good for his electoral chances. But a bad economy doesn’t matter; it is the economic trend. And in 2012, the trend was positive. But what Vavreck tries to do in her book is determine what people like Mitt Romney should have campaigned on.

Here’s the thing. The person we elect president is usually the one the economy would predict, but not always. Vavreck argues that insurgent candidates—people like Romney who are running against economic fundamentals—can win if they can change the subject. But they must pick a popular issue that they are with the public and their opponent is not and is constrained from co-opting. Romney tried to do this to a small extent, but his focus was on the economy, which was a mistake.

But even the way that Romney tried to refocus the campaign showed a lot about how the Republican Party’s lack of sensible policy cripples them. It is all based on the idea that Democrats are a bunch of Marxists and pacifists. That might all work just fine as propaganda. But Romney based his attacks on an actual belief that they were true. So it was easy for Obama to show his foreign policy was at least as belligerent as what the American people wanted. And any appeals about the economy just reminded people that things were a lot better since Obama took over from Romney’s party.

I don’t know just how useful any of this information is to candidates, because the truth is that it is really hard to control the conversation. Vavreck presented a table (4.3) where she compared what every candidate from Eisenhower through Gore campaigned on and how the media covered the campaigns. Until the end of the Cold War, the media almost always focused on foreign policy, even though that was rarely what the candidates were talking about. But okay: at least foreign policy is a real thing.

Starting in 1988, the media focused on candidate traits even though these were never what the campaigns were about. This is so disappointing although hardly surprising. We all know that the media focus on nonsense in the campaigns. And that was especially true in the 2000 campaign. Remember all the false narratives about Gore that the media couldn’t stop talking about long enough to actually fact check them? We rightly say that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush, but it is just as correct to say that the media provided a huge assist.

What is even more disturbing is that the only time the media have focused on the economy was the Carter-Ford election of 1976. Remember: the economy is what the people care most about. Yet the supposedly liberal media aren’t interested in the subject. I don’t think it is any surprise why this is. Mainstream journalists have nice comfortable jobs that depend upon the rich media owners who do not want there to be too much discussion of our economic problems that mostly involve the government taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

If anyone takes anything away from this book, it will be the Democrats. And maybe it already happened. It was published in 2009, yet Obama’s campaign seemed to know that the economy was a good (though not a great) issue for them. But the Romney campaign seemed to think that the economy was a great issue for them. I guess the conservative resistance to facts doesn’t just hurt our country; it also hurts the Republican Party.

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American Impressionist Edmund Tarbell

Edmund TarbellToday I had wanted to talk about Rudolf Hess. He fascinates me, because of his flight to Scotland in 1941. It strikes me as highly idiosyncratic. And it made Hitler really angry, so you’ve got to give the man credit. But his approach to bring peace made little sense. He sent a letter to Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, who he not only didn’t know, but whom he was completely ignorant about in his position in the country. MI5 intercepted the letter, and Douglas-Hamilton never responded in any case. So Hess just got in his plane and flew to meet with this man. The thinking displays a childlike simplicity. Then there is the question of why he did it. Could he really have thought he had a chance in hell of brokering peace? There is no way that the British would ever have accepted a peace treaty with the Nazis. Even in 1938 they knew the Nazis could not be trusted. And didn’t Hess realize that his act would be seen as treasonous to Hitler? But as much as I’d like to give the day to Hess, he was still a Nazi. He was a nationalist and an imperialist and a racist. And I’m sure if he had stayed in Germany, he would have been fine with the Final Solution. But luckily, it’s a rather good day for births—especially for painters!

On this day in 1862, the great American Impressionist Edmund Tarbell was born. His life wasn’t that interesting, so forgive me for not going over it. No midnight flights to Scotland for him! But as a young man, he studied painting in Paris where he certainly picked up the Impressionist bug. Actually, I’m none too fond of his early work. It strikes me as rather too much like Monet. But even then, he had a clear talent for light. And he honed that talent in his later work that is beautiful and subtle. Here is a painting I especially admire that he did in his late forties, Girl Reading:

Girl Reading

Happy birthday Edmund Tarbell!

“Coincidence” Republicans Often Racists

Michael TomaskyMichael Tomasky wrote a very funny article over at The Daily Beast, Republicans Are Racists? No, It’s Just All a Big Coincidence. Actually, it would have been a lot funnier, but I think he is genuinely angry. And so am I.

The article is divided into two parts. First he catalogs all the ways that conservatives so often just happen to be unmasked as bigots. “Those rancidly racist T-shirts and posters one sometimes sees at Tea Party rallies? They’re just a coincidence, too. I mean, Tea Party people might not be Republican, strictly speaking, and it’s totally unfair to assume that! OK, Tea Party candidates run in Republican primaries, not Democratic ones, and the Tea Party caucus in the House doesn’t include one Democrat. But still. Guilt by association!” It goes on that way at some length talking about many things you probably know about: racist Republican comedian, racist Republican judge’s email, all the racists that the Paul family hires to write for them. Of course, even all that only scratches the surface of a very racist organization.

The second part of the article goes through the typical Republican counter, “I know you are, but what am I?” You see, a long time ago, the Democrats were the racists. Similarly, the Republicans were not. And Tomasky’s favorite example (which he uses several times to good effect), “Robert Byrd was in the KKK! That it was 60 years ago and that he recanted 40 years ago and that he hasn’t been a truly leading Democrat since 30 years ago and that he’s dead now, well, none of those things matter. Robert Byrd was in the KKK!”

Cliven BundyIt is well worth reading the whole thing because it is pretty typical of how conservatives generally try to keep attention away from a very clear reality. But what it made me think of was how my arguments with libertarians (which are getting far less civil these days) so often degenerate into claims that we should move most things the federal government does down to the states. It’s a strange request because it doesn’t make much sense. Medicare and Social Security are highly successful because they are run at the federal level. Attempts to give more local control have been mixed at best.

I’ve long believed that when libertarians request local control it is only a tactical request. After all, California is huge—it’s bigger than most nations. So if control went to California, the libertarians would then ask for county control. And so on until they had destroyed all government, which is their stated desire anyway. But I now think that is only true of some libertarians.

Today on Majority Report, Cliff Schecter and Sam Seder brought up the idea that most libertarians really aren’t keen on the whole theoretical basis of the movement. Their interest is practical. They are actually just neo-confederates. Ultimately they are for libertarianism because it is the only relatively major political philosophy that tells them what they want to hear: the states should be able to keep their darkies in check however they want.

I am not saying that this means that all libertarians are racists. I am saying that as much as libertarianism is popular, it is popular because of racists who like some of its practical policy prescriptions. So Cliven Bundy can talk all he wants about the overreach of the federal government; ultimately, he has a vision of how the world ought to look. That vision is shockingly racist. And that vision, with all of its racism, is what makes him libertarian leaning and Republican voting. And he is hardly alone.

Allow me a coarse analogy. If you find that you are farting a lot accidentally, it is because you have a lot of gas. So many conservatives turn out to be racists because such a large part of the conservative movement is racist. As I’ve argued here again and again: the greatest racism comes from the movement’s leaders. And they don’t necessarily feel the racism themselves. But they are happy to use it and encourage it in the name of their goals. And that is the worst kind of racism.


I haven’t seem much commentary on what Bundy said. I think it is because everyone is just so shocked. But to me, the worst thing is not the suggestion that slavery might be good for blacks. He clearly has some kind of Gone With the Wind idea of slavery where people were not mercilessly beaten and even killed, and couples and children weren’t ripped away from each other in the name of commerce. The worst thing to me is the belief that blacks are just sitting on porches waiting for their welfare checks. That is probably the most pernicious lie in American politics. And it is widely believed in the Republican Party.


I’m no fan of Ayn Rand, but she was onto this problem. This is one of the reasons she was against the Libertarian Party. She understood that freedom without a moral core of belief was just chaos. This is why you will often hear libertarians like Rand Paul grousing about the Voting Rights Act or the Civil War itself. Note the argument: white power to keep slaves trumps black power to be free. It really is a mess. Of course, Ayn Rand was a racist herself.

Stop Assuming All Felons Are Murderers

Nina Berman Gun Rally - CroppedI guess I have to talk about this new extension of “stand your ground” in George. But it isn’t because of the conservatives. That isn’t to say the law isn’t awful, because it most certainly is. My understanding is that it allows people to carry guns wherever they want. Now they can’t carry them into a church if the church doesn’t want guns there. But doing so would be equivalent to a parking ticket. So if some white supremacist wants to bring a gun into a black church, it isn’t really against the law until he starts firing at people.

But I’m afraid that that too many liberals are concerned that “stand your ground” will now apply to ex-felons. Cliff Schecter mentioned that on today’s episode of Majority Report. But more concerning is what Digby wrote yesterday:

So, they are basically giving felons a right to kill if they “feel afraid.” They can’t vote but they can carry guns and kill people with impunity. Sure, that makes perfect sense.

There are various things wrong with this. The most basic is that I don’t understand why ex-felons shouldn’t have “stand your ground” rights if other people do. If the state of Georgia has decided that the world is just an awful place that people need to be packing heat and killing lest they be killed, how is that not just as true for ex-felons as anyone else? Does their history of crime make them less deserving of life?

But I do understand where Digby is coming from and I do largely agree. She’s thinking of murderers and rapists and other violent criminals. But she’s got to know that these are generally not the kind of crimes people get labeled felons for. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 49.9% of the people in custody are there for drug offenses as of 29 March 2014. Another 10.5% are there because of immigration crimes. Less than 25% are there for rape, murder, or weapons charges, and those in that last category are 63% of the prisoners.

One of the big problems in our country is that we’ve decided that some unfortunate junkie or unlucky pot smoker should be saddled with the exact same label as a serial killer. But that’s a societal problem. As liberals, we need to push against that and see that there is no such thing as an “ex-felon” much less a “felon”—a term used for the rest of a person’s life regardless of what he might go on to do.

Another issue with what Digby wrote is that it is not true that ex-felons can’t vote in Georgia. The rights of ex-felons are different from state to state. But because this misinformation is so often mentioned, ex-felons all over the nation think that they can’t vote when they can. Pro Con has a great webpage that lists all the laws in all the states, State Felon Voting Laws. I was even surprised that in two states—Maine and Vermont—current felons can vote via absentee ballot. And even in the 11 states where felons might lose their rights for good, there are remedies. So let’s not continue to repeat the myth that ex-felons can’t vote.

The more important point to this discussion of “stand your ground” in Georgia is whether ex-felons can own guns. The laws here are all over the board, but as 2011, ex-felons in Georgia could only own guns if they were granted a pardon. But it just so happens that the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles seems to hand them out for the asking. But they don’t seem to give them to murderers and rapists. So it does seem that the Georgia ex-felons that we should be most concerned about will not be legally walking around with guns.

I don’t mean to minimize these “stand your ground” laws. They are a pox on society. And Digby made the important point, “Sadly, the way these things work is that something truly horrible will have to happen before they reverse this crazy law.” But the issue is the law, not that people who made mistakes in the past are treated like everyone else.

Vox Pushes Weak Venezuela Attack

Timothy B. LeeTimothy B Lee is young journalist over at Vox. He mostly writes about intellectual property where his work is quite good. I noted this in an article last year, Vague Patent Trolling. But being a libertarian, when he gets outside of that issue, he tends to go very, very wrong, Libertarian Fail on Birth Control. And I’m afraid that is the case with his article today, Venezuela’s Silly Gimmicks Can’t Fix Its Disastrous Inflation Problem.

I’ve been very impressed with Vox thus far—especially the work by Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. But this article by Lee is incredibly weak. It is the nationalistic equivalent to hippy punching. American journalists love to complain about Venezuela. That in itself would be okay, but I always get the idea that these journalists thinking that they making a bold stand for Truth rather than just following the herd and pandering to nationalistic prejudice.

This is sad to see from someone as smart as Lee. I’m sure that if he had been writing about Bolivia, a country without so much ideological baggage, Lee would have provided some facts. Instead, he makes two points. First, he presents the central bank not releasing an annualized inflation number as an attempted conspiracy, even though he admits all you have to do is compound the numbers to get the annualized rate. Second, he pushes the old CATO Institute idea that the inflation rate is really much higher because of black market currency. Dean Baker countered this idea almost two months ago:

The basis for the difference is that the Cato rate effectively assumes that items are paid for in dollars. As the black market price of Venezuela’s currency plunges against the dollar, this leads to a very high measure of inflation. This measure is of dubious relevance to the people of Venezuela, since only a tiny portion of their purchases involve payments in dollars.

But one can’t deny that Venezuela has an inflation problem. And there are a lot of parts to it. If you want to know about it, you had better go over to Reuters, where Eyanir Chinea explains the situation rather well, Venezuela March Inflation Speeds Up Amid Street Protests. Lee’s article reads like the product of a slightly more reasonable The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

What most annoys me is why Lee is even covering the issue. After all, it isn’t big news that Venezuela’s high inflation rate is roughly what it was last month. And other than pushing a highly questionable CATO Institute study, he isn’t adding anything to the debate. He says that the way the central bank is reporting its inflation rate won’t help the situation. But is the central bank doing anything that will help? Or hurt? We don’t know because Timothy B Lee isn’t interested in the subject. On the other hand, if Venezuela’s inflation rate had come way down I doubt that he would have covered it at all.

This is not data journalism. This is ideological opportunity-strafing. And if it is going to be in Vox, it ought to at least have a little intellectual heft. One CATO Institute graph and one monthly inflation rate from Venezuela’s central bank is not enough.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella FitzgeraldOn this day in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was born. She was one of greatest singers of the 20th century. Her subtle control of pitch is beautiful and amazing. But she is probably best known for her scat singing, which shows that the voice really can be used the same way that a saxophone or a trumpet can be. You can hear this in her performance of One Note Samba. In addition to creating very impressive melodic lines, she sings faster than anyone I had ever heard before her. Unlike other singers like Holiday who had jazz bands accompanying them, Fitzgerald was an actual jazz singer.

Even though Fitzgerald had a reasonably difficult childhood with her mother dying and abuse from her step-father, she doesn’t seem to have been greatly scarred by it. She managed her career masterfully. She worked with Dizzy Gillespie where she perfected her jazz chops. And then, while at Verve Records (pretty much created for her), she went into the “great American songbook” phase of her career.

Here is her version of Gershwin and Heyward’s song “Summertime”:

Happy birthday Ella Fitzgerald!