Why Ayn Rand Was a Proto-Fascist

Ayn RandI was thinking of something while writing, Ralph Fiennes Makes Coriolanus Even More Fascist. In that article, I referred to “[Ayn] Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy.” And I fear that many people would take exception to this. I know that my first wife would argue that Rand didn’t believe in violence, for example. Well, as I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this isn’t really true. Like most political radicals, she often fell into apologetics on behalf of violence for her cause.

Rand is a strange character. She considered herself a philosopher. But she is a great example of the Dunning–Kruger effect. This describes how the less someone knows about a subject, the more they overestimate their abilities in it. So Rand claimed that all of her work sprang from Aristotle and she got nothing from anyone else. At the same time, she never missed an opportunity to bash Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. She misunderstood Kant to such a level that it is quite embarrassing. But much more problematic for her was her relationship with Nietzsche.

The whole of Rand’s philosophy is pretty much Nietzsche as understood by a 16-year-old boy. And this is why I call her proto-fascist. Her idea of the übermensch goes right along with fascist thinking of the 1920s and 1930s. Her major works didn’t come until long afterward. Her philosophical work didn’t really start until the late 1950s, following Atlas Shrugged. So she was forced to spin her thinking, which was largely in accordance with fascism, as something else. Instead of the elevation (in theory anyway) of the worker in communism, she elevated the businessman. But this really is little different from fascism. And on a practical level, the elimination of the state would only lead to a country of “makers” and, not “moochers,” but serfs.

But if you find this all too theoretical. Let’s talk about rape. In The Fountainhead, Roark rapes Dominique. Rand did later justify herself against criticism by saying it was, “rape by engraved invitation.” But her notes from the writing of the novel show that this was not what she meant when writing it. Then, in her play Night of January 16th, Bjorn Faulkner rapes Karen Andre. Yes, Ayn Rand had some real emotional hangups and if you are interested in them, read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. The point is that Rand admired the idea of Hitler’s “brutal youth.” Sure, she softened it and created apologias for it. How could she not after Hitler and Stalin? But that was what she was pitching.

The kind of social Darwinian thinking that so many on the right have is undercut by one problem: actual Darwinian evolution. Humans are animals of both individualistic traits and communal traits. So both “sides” of the debate are wrong. The communists were wrong to think that we can all work together for the common good. People need to feel special and distinguish themselves from others. But the counter to that, Rand’s thinking, or libertarianism more generally, is wrong for thinking that all that motivates us is personal gain: we are hungry, we take food; we are horny, we take a woman we find attractive. If that’s how we really were, we would have gone extinct tens of thousands of years ago.

Some will note that fascism was a communal system as well. It really wasn’t. It was a pure social Darwinian system that was sold being for the good of the masses. We mustn’t mistake the marketing for the message. Ayn Rand had the luxury of being more blunt because she wasn’t a politician — just a cult leader. But she wanted an anti-democratic world where “great” men just take what they want and everyone cowers before them as befits the demigods.

Democrats’ Senate Chances Crumbling

Psycho SenatorRecently, it’s looked rather hopeful for the Democrats holding the Senate. I am sorry to report that things look much worse now. There are two reasons for this: one not surprising at all, but the other quite surprising. The first reason is that we are finally getting some good polling out of Alaska, and Mark Begich is doing very poorly. Up until now, I’ve been skeptical about his chances, regardless. I mean: it’s Alaska. They get far more from the federal government than they pay in taxes. So of course their people would be conservative and want to get rid of all that welfare that goes to them.

The surprise is in Colorado. Mark Udall is suddenly losing badly to Cory Gardner, who is a conservative freak. In Alaska, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But this is Colorado. Of course, you may remember the recall election in Colorado last year. Two state senators were removed, even though what they did was hugely popular. So how did they lose? The usual way: only the right wing nut jobs came out to vote.

The only real hope for the Democrats at this point is that the big get-out-the-vote effort will make a difference. And it could in Colorado. I’m not too hopeful in Alaska. So at this point, we’d have to say that the best case scenario for the Democrats is that they hold 49 seats in the Senate. And if the Republicans have the majority, I don’t know what that means for Kansas where Orman hasn’t said who he will caucus with.

As of today, here are what the models say with the most likely number of seats and the percent chance the Democrats have of keeping the Senate:

I’m not sure what is going on with the Princeton model. The numbers I listed were the daily snapshot. But the election day model still predicts a 70% chance of the Democrats holding the Senate. And the meta-margin is Republicans +0.4%. Regardless, looking at all these numbers, it is hard not to conclude that the Democrats will have 48 seats in the Senate starting next year.

Also worth noting, it assumes that even with Republicans getting the majority, Orman will still caucus with the Democrats. That may be the case. It is almost certain that the Democrats will take back the Senate in 2016 and I expect them to hold in 2018. So long term, being with the Democrats would give him more power. But caucusing with the Republicans might make his re-election in 2020 easier. And it is not clear he’s going to win. More recent polling makes that race closer than it had been.

A couple of week ago, I read about a poll that found that a majority of Americans trust the Republicans more than the Democrats on the economy. When I read that, alarm bells went off. I think the Democrats are terrible on the economy. But what could possibly make people think that the Republicans are better on the economy? They have done nothing but drag down the economy since Obama entered the White House. Let me summarize their economic thinking:

The only way to help the economy is to give us complete control in Washington. Then we will do what we always do: savage social programs and give huge tax cuts to the rich. Until we have complete control in Washington, we will everything we can to destroy the economy.

In other words: in the majority or the minority, they will destroy the economy, but they will be more able to do it with complete power. The fact that after decades of bad Republican economic policy, the people still think it is a good idea is a good example of why our country is dying. And I fear it is like a virus that will eventually destroy the world. We don’t need dictators in the United States, when politicians can so effectively manipulate the people into voting against their own interests. And the rest of the people have become so disillusioned that they don’t even vote.

Let me make a personal appeal. If you care about my health: vote. I’m not asking much. I’m not even telling you how to vote. Because I believe in democracy. I believe when everyone votes, we get good policy. When only the cranks who want to screw all “those” people, well, we get government by, for, and of the super rich. Just vote. Vote. Vote. It’s that simple: vote.

Image altered from one by Internet Weekly.

John Sayles and Matewan

John SaylesThe great film writer and director John Sayles is 64 today. I did him last year, but I can’t think of anyone I feel more interested in doing. As it is, I’m in a bit of a creative lull. Or rather, I’ve been doing a lot of computer programming today. It’s interesting. It is also very creative, but in a different way. It seems that the more I do of either, the more I want to do. I am a man of habits.

The great thing about Sayles is that everything he does is worth doing. That doesn’t mean everything is great or even good. And he is the kind of guy who whenever I talk about him, people say, “But what about…” And sure: feel free to talk about that film, whatever it is. I’ve seen almost all of his films and I like them all to one extent or another. But I want to talk about one film today: Matewan.

It tells the mostly true story of Matewan, West Virginia coal miners in 1920 and their attempt to join the United Mine Workers. The coal company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to handle the situation. They were basically just armed thugs. I always get angry when people talk about the violent history of unions. Yeah, funny that. The companies were just gentle as lambs and it was all the fault of those greedy and mean workers. I’ll tell you, I don’t know what is wrong with Americans. As it looks ever more certain that the Republicans will take over the Senate next year, it seems the American worker acts like an abused spouse.

The attempt to unionize ultimately led to the Battle of Matewan where three townspeople (including the mayor) and seven “detectives” were killed. The film is an epic of the working man. And Sayles does a brilliant job of rendering it. It also has a large and outstanding cast. Of particular note: it is the first film that Chris Cooper starred in. It is well worth checking out.

Of course, being that it was about an attempt by the American worker to get some small part of the American dream, it lost money. Part of that is just that it wasn’t made for 14 year olds. But I feel certain that if more adults went to the movies, it wouldn’t have done well. This is just about labor organizing and the evil corporate interests that try to stop it. It’s part of the history that created a strong middle class. It’s part of many things we now take for granted like the 40-hour work week and weekends. What American worker would be interested in that?

Happy birthday John Sayles!

Iran Is a Critical Ally Against ISIS

IranWhat made Dwight Eisenhower a great leader is not so much his presidency. What made him great was how he balanced all the different interests on the Allied Forces in World War II. But he was just doing a job — a job that many politicians asked him to do. It is hard to get people who nominally want to work together to actually work together, but it is far harder to get people to be willing to even try to work together. Maybe it was just a question of desperation — the fascists in Europe were a huge threat. Throughout my life, I’ve never seen anything like it. If I were to sum up the foreign policy of the United States for my entire life, I could do it in one word: stupid.

This brings us to the problem we now face with ISIS. One thing I really don’t like about the coverage of ISIS is that it is exactly the same as the coverage of any group we don’t like: ISIS is evil and must be destroyed. I’m not saying that they aren’t. But that is hardly helpful in understanding how we might eliminate them as a threat. The main thing that is reported about the group is that they are “worse than al-Qaeda!” It has been widely noted that they are so bad that even al-Qaeda thinks they are too violent. But that isn’t even true. It’s more a political rift in the extremist Islamic world.

One thing I remember being pounded with when I was a kid was that the Soviet Union wanted to “take over the world!” The same thing is said about ISIS. Yet that not only isn’t true, it isn’t realistic. I’m sure in a fantasy sense it is true. It’s like me wanting to be a billionaire: it would be great, but I have far too many other problems I have to deal with to focus on such dreams. This is Dr No thinking. From all reports, ISIS is far too involved with securing their gains than taking over new territory. That’s one of the frightening things about ISIS: they are extremists, but they are smart — they aren’t just capturing territory for its own sake so they can be destroyed like Napoleon at Waterloo.

Last week, Zuri Linetsky wrote a fabulous article over at The American Prospect, ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Why Military Action Won’t Do The Trick. If I were King of America, I would require it read on every television channel and in every classroom in the nation. Because it explains better than any other single source what is going on in Syria and Iraq right now. And it turns out, what is going on is exactly the same thing that has gone on over and over again for the last 35 years. It is just that America is a very slow learner.

Linetsky provided a history of the rise of the Afghan Taliban and compared it with the rise of ISIS. And guess what: there really is no difference. In both cases, these extremist groups rose up in the vacuum of a failed state. Of course, that isn’t the way that we look at it here in the United States. Here ISIS is presented as a kind of virus. And that might be fine if we combined it with a weak immune system that allows the virus to take hold. What was that weak immune system? An Iraqi government that oppressed the Sunni minority when it could bother to acknowledge it at all.

I forget where I heard it, but someone said or wrote that even if we could just magically eliminate ISIS, it would do no good. There are issues in Iraq that would still be there and would only lead to another group like ISIS. (Of course, we would all be told it was “even worse” than ISIS!) Linetsky’s idea is that we get Iran to help the Shi’a not have a failed government and Saudi Arabia to give the Sunnis political support so that their needs are met without turning to dangerous groups like ISIS.

Of course, we don’t talk to Iran. We can’t talk to Iran because of something that happened four decades ago. This is despite the fact that Iran is one of the best and most stable countries in the region. They could be a great partner in the region and they could have been for at least two decades. But instead, our foreign policy seems like it was developed by a clique of high school jocks. I’m not saying that Iran is wonderful, but if a country as terrible as Saudi Arabia is our ally, I don’t see any problem with making nice with Iran.

What’s more, we managed to work with the Soviet Union under Stalin during World War II. What good is our continued anti-Iran hissy fit? It makes no sense whatsoever. And it raises an important question: just how big a threat do we claim ISIS is? It’s been pitched as existential. So was Saddam Hussein. Both of these claims are ridiculous. But if we aren’t willy to finally grow up about our relationship with Iran, then I want the US to stop the bombing in Syria and Iraq, remove everyone from those countries, abandon all aid to Iraq. Because it means we don’t care at all about them and we don’t see them as important to our interests.

Ralph Fiennes Makes Coriolanus Even More Fascist

CoriolanusIn 2011, Ralph Fiennes made his directorial debut with a filmed version of Coriolanus. Why he did this, I cannot say. My guess would be that it was ripe for the picking: it is the first filmed version of the play that I am aware of. But there is a reason that it hasn’t been filmed and generally isn’t performed that much.

Coriolanus is perhaps Shakespeare’s most difficult play because its title character is a symbol of everything that liberal democracy stands against. It shows total contempt for the masses and goes out of its way to make them look bad and so justify the title character’s total disdain for them. It is not in the least surprising that the fascists loved the play. France banned its performance in the 1930s because of this. But more than a hundred years earlier, William Hazlitt described the character perfectly with all its problems:

Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people: yet the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country. If his country was not worth defending, why did he build his pride on its defence? He is a conqueror and a hero; he conquers other countries, and makes this a plea for enslaving his own; and when he is prevented from doing so, he leagues with its enemies to destroy his country. He rates the people “as if he were a God to punish, and not a man of their infirmity.” He scoffs at one of their tribunes for maintaining their rights and franchises: “Mark you his absolute shall?” not marking his own absolute will to take every thing from them, his impatience of the slightest opposition to his own pretensions being in proportion to their arrogance and absurdity.

The story itself is very much like an Ayn Rand novel. Coriolanus is an uncompromising warrior who despises the people. When they don’t love him as he feels they ought to, he joins the Volsci and attacks Rome. Think about how ridiculous that is. The Volsci army could not conquer Rome, but with the addition of a single man, they are invincible. This is not how war works. In war, the stronger army wins except when there is some special circumstance like a new technology (for example, Battle of Agincourt) or geography (for example, Battle of Stirling Bridge). So this idea that Coriolanus would simply revolutionize the fighting prowess of the Volsci is rubbish of the worst kind of romantic fiction. The Iliad — itself highly romantic — is a far more accurate representation of war.

In addition to this, those people who pushed Coriolanus out of Rome are presented as the very worst kind of politicos. They, and the people they cynically claim to represent, are Ayn Rand’s “moochers.” Coriolanus is cast as a “marker,” even though he doesn’t make anything. He is a warrior. He takes. Yet he is a near perfect character for Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy. And I’m not alone in seeing it that way. A commenter over at Quick Translator wrote:

The first time I read it was in college. My kindly professor laid out the case for seeing Coriolanus as a kind of fascist strongman brought down by his contempt for the people, and I went away comforted in my small-L liberalism. This time, however, reading it on my own, it was hard not to see Coriolanus as something else entirely, a deserving elitist brought down by an envious, parasitic mobocracy who couldn’t bear to see him succeed. In short, John Galt in a toga.

The writer clearly doesn’t understand Rand very well, or he would see that Coriolanus is both a fascist strongman and John Galt. Both are men who hate almost everyone and feel very wronged that they are not better treated — despite the fact that they are very well treated indeed. And when they don’t get all that they think they deserve, they rebel. In Galt’s case by going home and taking his toys with him and in Coriolanus’ by attacking his homeland.

But the problem is not with the hero. The problem is the way that everyone else is portrayed as evil and lazy. Coriolanus, his familiy, and Menenius (his father figure) are presented as good. They are juxtaposed with Brutus and Sicinius who are so smarmy that there is really no way to like them. And they are the defenders of the plebs — the Roman middle class. You know: the small businessmen and workers who keep the whole of society functioning. But not in the play! No, here they are just a bunch of people who stand around and complain.

Note that this play is not exactly an outlier for our good friend Shakespeare. His plays are riddled with attacks on the lower classes and praise for the upper classes. If a poor character acts nobly, you can be certain that by the end of the play, we will find out that he is really the long lost son of royalty. It’s actually quite disgusting and is one of the reason that I prefer the more radical Christopher Marlowe and Lope de Vega.

As for the film, it is well made. The acting is superb. The various technical departments make it a far more engaging film than I would have expected. Still, I have problems with the modernization of the play. John Logan is an excellent screenwriter. But it is hard to make this play work in the present. I’m tired of seeing television screens in movies, and this one is full of them. Yet despite all of the work to make the commentary come to life, it is hardly clear what is going on. The play is very long and Logan has knocked it down to two hours, much of which has no dialog. So it is all very simplistic: the moochers push out Coriolanus when they should be licking his boots and he gets all hurt and turns traitor.

But in the end, there really is no fixing the play or the character. Coriolanus isn’t even a smart character like Richard III who we hate yet admire for his brilliance. Coriolanus is portrayed as an uncompromising warrior who just can’t deal with duplicity of politics. Who but an idiot thinks that his great skills on guitar should be all that is necessary when he decides to be a moose tracker? And who but an immature adolescent would get angry at the moose when they don’t come running when they hear the sweet sound of his blues licks? I think this is why Fiennes really plays up the “mama’s boy” aspect of the character. But this hardly makes the thoroughly unlikable Coriolanus more palatable.

Ultimately, I don’t like this film because it does everything to vilify the forces of democracy — even going so far as to have Brutus and Sicinius beaten up by two aristocratic women — and everything to humanize the forces of aristocracy. The play itself is bad enough. Fiennes has made it worse. And it really doesn’t matter that he did it with great ability. It sits in the very uneasy realm of films like The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Although those films were artistically great and politically lethal. Coriolanus is artistically competent and politically noxious.

Shark Tank Needs “Business Marketing for Idiots”

Shark TankI just caught a tiny bit of the show Shark Tank. Regular readers will know that I hate this show. In November of last year, I wrote about how evil it is the way we deify these people, Business Will Not Give Up on GOP. In January, I wrote about the the vagaries of wealth, Arbitrary and Inequitable Distribution of Wealth and Incomes. In February, I wrote about how small minded the “sharks” are, Herd Mentality on Shark Tank. And in May, I returned to the deification issue from a different angle, Heroes for a Debased Culture. But today, I have something different, although mentioned in the past: the “sharks” are generally idiots.

In the clip I saw, there were a couple of guys selling socks (Bombas Socks, if you are interested, and you shouldn’t be). They had one of these stupid “social justice” kinds of businesses where for each pair of socks they sell, they give a pair to a homeless shelter or some such nonsense. Sound familiar? It is the sock version of TOMS shoes. Slavoj Žižek dealt with this in a 2009 lecture First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. In it, he talks about how people can feel good about themselves buying a five dollar cup of coffee at Starbucks because a nickel goes to help sustainable agriculture or some such. It is what it is. If the upper middle class want to feel that all they have to do to be socially responsible is to be good consumers, it’s not my fight, even though it shows them to be silly and ultimately evil people.

The point of this approach to the business is that it is a gimmick. It’s like when you were a kid and your mother sent you to get something at the store. You could go to market A where the owner gave you a sucker or market B where you got nothing. You went to market A. The lazy do-gooder goes to the coffee shop that gives a negligible amount of profit to the cause du jour. So from a business standpoint, it is just a marketing cost. See how simple it is? Even I understand it and I don’t get business at all.

Kevin O'LearyEnter the stupidest of the “sharks” (which says a lot): Kevin O’Leary. He asks, more or less, “Why should I invest in this? If you are giving away one pair of socks for each one you sell, aren’t you cutting your profits in half?” This is like saying to the CEO of Coke, “Why should I invest in your company when you are spending all this money on advertising? I mean, you’re just throwing away profits!” But it’s worse than this. And it gets at one of the reasons I hate these kinds of “social justice” companies.

If a do-gooder buys a pair of socks for four bucks (these are actually nine), he figures that half the money goes for his socks and half the money goes to help that grateful homeless man. Of course, that isn’t it at all. Let’s assume the socks only cost a dollar to manufacture and distribute. The buyer gets two dollars worth of good feeling, even as the seller only invests half that. So as long as you have the right kind of lazy idealists as customers, this is a great way to market your product.

So why is it that Kevin O’Leary didn’t understand such a basic concept in marketing? There are loads of similar kinds of ploys. There is no real difference between this sock deal and the old “buy one, get one free.” He didn’t understand because he’s not smart and he’s not very competent. None of them are. You know the old Edison saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”? Well, modern business seems to be zero percent inspiration (Give away a pair of sock for every one sold? Really?!) and fifty percent connections and fifty percent just being a cold hearted bastard. The Bombas Socks segment had it all, in exactly those percentages.

Dead 18 Years

Cool Air - Bernie WrightsonI don’t know if are aware of the H P Lovecraft short story “Cool Air.” In it, the narrator explains why it is he has an aversion to cold. He tells the story of meeting a doctor who lived upstairs from him. Through the use of a refrigeration system he has built and continues to build, he keeps his entire apartment extremely cold for unknown reasons. Eventually, the system breaks down and the narrator is forced to help the doctor stay cold with buckets of ice. But in the morning, after getting back with the replacement parts for the air conditioner, he finds the doctor in a hideous state of decomposition because he had actually been dead for 18 years, just keeping himself “alive” with his various chemical concoctions and the cool air.

I find the doctor’s plight very compelling. This constant effort to stave off death. It has a certain similarity to what a junkie does each day to stave off withdrawal. But it is also the way I feel right now with my work. I am producing stuff at an alarming rate. Although I complained recently that I felt like my work was becoming hackish, it is also undeniably true that it is becoming longer and deeper. And to some extent, I see it as an effort to avoid thinking about my life.

The only reason I’m even aware of this is that when I exercise, I am left to my own thoughts. I’ve noticed that the speed that I run is determined by exactly how disturbed I am about whatever it is I am thinking about at a given moment. Much of it is quite trivial. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is all trivial. I’ve even begun to wonder if all the conservatives are right when they talk about the poor — but not about the poor generally. When John Boehner says the poor don’t want to work, he’s kind of right about me. The truth is that I am not interested in doing yet more work that gets destroyed by the money men. And that is the more pleasant and high paying work. I am also not interested in getting a soul crushing job at the local gas station. All of it makes me think that we have a pretty screwed up society when the vast majority of people do actually pointless work. Really, we should all be working on farms an hour a day and spending the rest of our time writing stories and trying to understand Galois theory.

So I suppress this kind of reflection on the practical matters of my life with mental strip mining. I read and write and read and write. It is an extremely selfish thing. I often think that since others are so interested in practical matters, it isn’t really necessary for me to do so. Isn’t it the case that everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job simply because everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job? Most people think the 40 hour work week was on those clay tablets Moses brought down off the mountain. Tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. And you shall not work more than 40 hours per week unless your employer payeth unto you one and a half time.” The truth is the 40 hour work week is relatively new. So why not a 30 hour work week? Or 20? Or 10? You’ve got to ask yourself why you work so much and why so many people now work on Christmas. We do it because we lack freedom — we lack the freedom that hunter-gathers had twenty thousand years ago.

At the same time, I fear all the excessive “unproductive” work that I do is the only thing that is keeping me from having a nervous break down. Or at least a break down of some kind. And maybe that’s what everyone is doing. The clerk at the gas station goes to work not just because he needs the money (I do understand the practical side of life) but because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t keep working, he may find himself dead. Actually: more than dead. He may find that he died 18 years ago.

This World’s Greatest Magician Carl Ballantine

Carl BallantineOn this day in 1917, the great magician Carl Ballantine was born. He is not best known for his magic, however. He is best know for playing Gruber on McHale’s Navy. In fact, he is mostly known as an actor. He had one of the most recognizable voices and deliveries of anyone in film or television. He was a very funny guy.

One interesting thing about him is that he didn’t work in vaudeville — he was just a tad young for that. But he created an entire career out what is essentially a vaudeville act. I actually think we’ve really lost something with that approach to entertainment. Now pretty much everyone has to have an hour and a half of material. But the truth is that very few people have anywhere near that amount of good, much less great, work. Ballantine had five minutes of absolutely perfect magic.

Apparently, through the depression, he helped support his family by doing straight stage magic professionally. But he learned rather quickly that he would never be of quality of other magicians — people like Cardini. And one time while performing, he blew a trick. So he covered with a joke, the audience laughed, and a new act was born. Here it is. I’ve seen it many times. It is pretty much exactly the same every time, including the ending where they throw the broom at him:

My favorite line is, “This takes a lot out of an artist! Oh course it don’t bother me too much.” It’s a funny act for any audience, but if you know the kind of act he is lampooning, it is so much better. For example, the torn and restored newspaper is a very beautiful trick. But Ballantine not only can’t perform the trick, he can’t even succeed at tearing the newspaper. Also, he adds a move with the platter that distinctly looks like he does a switch before, “There’s a trick I wish I could do!”

He died only a couple of years ago at the age of 92, and he was performing up almost to the end.

Happy birthday Carl Ballantine!

Napoleon, Antosia, and All About Donkeys

Napoleon and AntosiaLast night, Rachel Maddow did a segment on Napoleon and Antosia[1], two donkeys at the Poznan Zoo, in Poland. These donkeys have been a couple for a decade and have had six children during that time. The most recent was this year. But some people complained because it turns out — and this is shocking — in order for a jenny (female donkey) to have a foal, a jack (male donkey) must have sex with her. What’s more, donkey’s don’t even have the decency to us the missionary position.

Oh! My! God!

Can you imagine?! This was being seen by children — human children, specifically. So some people complained to local politician Lydia Dudziak who convinced the director of the zoo to separate these immoral donkeys who were, not to put too fine a point on it, acting like asses. Now let us consider this for a second. Zoos are not the nicest places for animals. This is probably the biggest reason why zoos have problems mating animals. The fact that Napoleon and Antosia manage to carry on their affair after ten years and six foals should be celebrated.

What’s more, if you are as old as I am, you will have noticed a change in nature documentaries. When I was a kid, predators never killed their prey in these things. The rabbit always got away from the fox. Now, watching a cheetah tear apart a beautiful gazelle is no big deal. Yet Napoleon humping Antosia from time to time is going to scar the kiddies? Really, if someone had told me at 5 years old that they were just playing, I would have believed them. I’m not a parent, and so I probably shouldn’t say this, but a lot of parents really need to get over themselves.

It all had a happy ending. After a week the zoo reversed it’s decision:

The zoo acknowledged making a mistake on Thursday and said the donkeys — Napoleon and Antosia — were back again in one pen. “It was never our intention for any animals to feel uncomfortable because of their natural behaviors,” the zoo said in a statement.

The interruption of the long-standing romance has turned into a national news story in Poland in the past days. Nearly 7,000 people signed a petition to have them reunited.

Two fan pages that appeared on Facebook devoted to their cause attracted nearly 10,000 likes — and photos of donkeys in the act.

Experts weighed in, saying that forcing the donkeys to live alone could affect their psychological wellbeing. Politicians were asked about it on the country’s leading news programs.

“Animals separated by sex into different cages? It’s complete idiocy,” said Stefan Niesiolowski, a legislator with the governing party, Civic Platform.

Even the spokesman for the conservative Law and Justice party, which Dudziak belongs to, would not come to her defense.

“It’s a level of absurdity — that has been crossed to such an extent that I don’t even want to read or know about this,” Adam Hofman said on Wednesday, on behalf of the party.

This is all great news, but it got me reading about donkeys last night. I found this great sentence on Wikipedia, “Although formal studies of their behavior and cognition are rather limited, donkeys appear to be quite intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn.” That sounds very much like me. I’ve always known that donkeys get a bad rap because horses will basically do anything you tell them to and donkeys know better than to trust you. Yes, you can train horses to walk sideways. But I’m a lot smarter than a horse and if you try to teach me to walk sideways, I’m going to react very much like a donkey, although with more violence.

In my reading, I also learned about mules and hinnies. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and female horse. A hinny is the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse. Because of the way that chromosomes interact (horses have 64, donkeys 62, and mules & hinnies have 63), it is a whole lot harder to create a hinny than a mule. But one thing I absolutely did not know is that hinnies and mules are not necessarily sterile. Well, all males are. But there are 60 documented cases of a female mule giving birth. Again, though, hinnies are much less fertile, with only one documented case of a female giving birth.

Regardless, I’m not sure how I feel about the breading of mules and hinnies. It strikes me a bit like something that Dr Josef Heiter would have done. I know: because of hybrid vigor, these mostly sterile animals are smarter and stronger than either horses or donkeys. Still, isn’t it kind of lonely, both in a personal and evolutionary way? Maybe I’m a hybridist, but I think it is best to let donkeys be with donkeys. (As for horses, they should stick together too — and as far away from me as possible, because horses are evil.) It is a very good thing that Napoleon and Antosia are back together!

[1] Antosia is the name of a town in Ukraine, but between the two world wars, it was in Poland.

The Once Exalted Crank Ben Carson

Ben CarsonI’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about the possibility that Ben Carson might run for president. Why not? I’m sure he will have another book out that he wants to sell. Perhaps, “One Nation: We Can Save America’s Future by Killing the Poor.” But a presidential run by him would be very typical of the Republican Party, in that they think one doesn’t need to know anything about governing in order to govern. And Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bush the Younger proved that in a technical sense, you don’t need to know anything, even if it is really bad for the state and country. Carson has no experience in government whatsoever. This, of course, in Republican circles makes him a great candidate. It is much the same as the way that the emotionally immature are most in love with people they know least about.

But thinking about this got me reading about Carson. He’s an interesting guy. He is clearly a brilliant neurosurgeon. But apart from that, he has long been a crank. And I mean that in a good way. He had many ideas that were all over the place. In a saner time, he just would have been one of those odd guys (Like me!) who publish their marginal ideas and mostly no one really notices. He could have been a modern Iganatius Donnelly. And that would be super cool!

To give you an example, in the 1990s, he was pushing for the elimination of for-profit health insurance, “The first thing we need to do is get rid of for profit insurance companies. We have a lack of policies and we need to make the government responsible for catastrophic healthcare.” So what he’s calling for is single payer healthcare above a certain level. Depending on that level, that could be a very liberal policy. But as I’ve seen, the definition of “catastrophic” has gone up and up and up over the years as far as conservatives are concerned. Of course, now he compares Obamacare to slavery.

Carson is also an evolution denier. I have no problem with this! It goes right along with his crankery. Of course the neurosurgeon believes this. He is the same man who said of his political party, “If I were part of one, it would be called the Logic party, and it would be dedicated to commonsense approaches we all should be able to see.” Ah yes, logic! He decided that evolution is wrong because the universe is just too complex to be explained. Just the same, evolution is such a big deal because it is a simple idea that explains that complexity. I’m sure it all comes down to the fact that he is a Seventh-day Adventist and they don’t believe in evolution. But, you know: logic!

The shame is that Carson has now become cause célèbre in the conservative movement. This has destroyed his ability to be the crank that he was clearly born to be. There’s just too much money to lose with even the smallest of apostasy. So even when he says that people have no right to semi-automatic weapons in a city, he moderates it with, “There’s a reason for the Second Amendment; people do have the right to have weapons.” Of course, who cares what people do in cities? They are just a bunch of liberals anyway. (What’s more, conservatives like Ben Carson are in cities, and they don’t want gun toting idiots running around any more than anyone else!)

But when it comes down to it, I can’t say that the Republicans won’t nominate Ben Carson. It’s interesting that everyone talked about what terrible candidates the Republicans ran in 2012. But was that really true? Mitt Romney was a perfectly acceptable candidate and he did as well in the general election as any Republican would have. There were also people like Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty. But the Republicans didn’t like these more reasonable guys. If it hadn’t been for his sexual transgressions, Herman Cain might well have been the nominee. I think that Carson doesn’t have his baggage, and is a hell of a lot smarter. So why not?

I don’t think Carson would have much of a chance in a general election, even if the economics were clearly favorable a Republican. Most Republicans would be thrilled to vote for an African American. But there is still a sizable part of the party (I’d say 20%) who absolutely would not vote for a black man. Many of them would not vote at all, but many others would go with Clinton. But Carson has already lost his soul, just as Ronald Reagan did before him. Both men were cranks, and they traded that exalted state to be nothing but conservative ideologues — doing the bidding of their billionaire betters.

Economic Success Is Not a Matter of Character

Lucky Ducky PanelI spend more time than a sane man would thinking about bloodletting and leeches. You may be aware that Mozart was likely killed by his doctors who bled him to death in the name of curing what was probably a minor problem. We look back on this and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” I don’t do that. I look around the world and wonder what it is we are doing today that future generations will look back on and think, “How could they be so stupid?!” Although in our case I don’t think it will be as much “stupid” as “cruel.” Take, for example, the way we treat drug users — although there is a whole lot of stupid in that too.

The main thing that I think about in this regard is free will — or rather the lack of it. We humans are a smug lot. And the more successful we are, the smugger we are. The CEO with a high paying and interesting job is eager to go to work each day. He sees himself as having a strong work ethic. But this is like a king thinking he has a good work ethic because he wakes up each day. Most people would consider the most wonderful vacation ever to be fawned over and asked their opinions about the work that other people would do. It is just icing on the cake that they would know that no matter how badly they performed, they would be given tens of millions of dollars when they were fired.

Paul KrugmanI was thinking about this because Paul Krugman wrote, The Show-Off Society. He started it with this well known observation, “Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.” Here’s the thing: conservatives are simply wrong. And in a hundred or two hundred years of intellectual development, people will think about our economic policies the way they think of Medieval doctors and their collections of leeches.

But there is a difference. Most of the time that people were being bled to death, no one knew any better. When it comes to economic and social policy, we do know better. And it isn’t mysterious. It doesn’t require a PhD in sociology to see children raised with every possible advantage will do better than other children. But to the conservative mind, that isn’t it at all. It is about “character.” And how do they know? Because Daymond John is a multimillionaire! You see, he is black and he wasn’t born rich. Of course, he wasn’t exactly poor. He managed to start FUBU with a $100,000 mortgage on his mother’s house.

This explains all the “cultural dysfunction” talk among conservatives when talking about African Americans. They have to, or otherwise they have to come right out and say that white men have more character than anyone else. But that isn’t real argumentation; it is just apologetics. The “cultural dysfunction” argument is just a way to say the current racist and sexist make up of power in the country is right and proper. (There is much more than racism and sexism, but we don’t have handy names for them.)

There are differences in people’s abilities, of course. But there are various problems with this. First is that intelligence has basically no correlation to financial success in this country. When I talk to rich people, I am as shocked by their stupidity and ignorance as I am when I talk to poor people. I’m sure if I took a collection of rich and poor people and taught them vector calculus, they would both do as well. (That is: they would both do very well because I’m a brilliant and inspiring teacher.)

Second, is that we have monetized certain skills to the exclusion of other skills that are as important or more so. I think humans are fundamentally decent. When living in small groups, they tend to get along rather well. But the structures we have created to allow large groups to live together have brought out many of our worst characteristics. I still think most people are decent. But what we value as a culture is mostly terrible.

The fact that we all have different intelligence and skills allows those who want to (conservatives mostly) to justify the status quo. Regardless of how we oppress one group and pamper another, there will always be a few people who crawl out of poverty and a few who fall into it (although this latter case is becoming unheard of). And it is on the basis of this that people claim it is all about “character.”

Lucky Ducky

Now, I said above that in a couple hundred years, people will look back at the cruelty and stupidity of our current situation with horror. But that doesn’t mean that I think things will have much changed. Today, roughly three million children starve to death every year. We think it is outrageous. We don’t think it is the children’s fault. But we don’t do anything about it. In the case of our nation’s shocking lack of equality and, most of all, “equality of opportunity,” it is very much in the interests of the power elite to ignore the problem. And so they will. Although I suspect by then, we will at least have some kind of guaranteed minimum income. And hopefully, it will be worldwide so that three million children aren’t starving to death each year.

We humans spend a good deal too much of our time patting ourselves on the back about how much better we are now than we used to be. In many ways, we are better. But it doesn’t help us to become better to tell ourselves we have arrived. I hear this kind of stuff all the time. The US Constitution is the greatest constitution in the world! No it isn’t. We have the best healthcare system in the world! No we don’t. We may not be equal but we have equality of opportunity and live in a meritocracy! No we don’t — not even close.

The whole “character” canard is just a way of making the power elite feel even better about themselves. They aren’t just rich and powerful; they are noble! This is the same nonsense we’ve gotten from hereditary kings for millennia. And we still haven’t gotten over it.

Janis Ian’s “Watercolors”

Janis IanOne of my favorite songs is Janis Ian’s “Watercolors” off here Between the Lines album. That album was released in 1975 when Ian was only 24 years old. And it boggles my mind. A 24 year old wrote this album?! That’s especially true of “Watercolors,” which tells the story of a very adult situation. It is a conversation between a man and woman as they jockey for power in their relationship.

A lot of people have given me a lot of flack about my belief that all relationships are power struggles. But there is no question that this is how it works. People want to be loved but they also want space, and we are always navigating in our relationships to get the right balance. It doesn’t help that the right balance is constantly changing. And so you get these situations where one person says, “I need my space!” But when they get that space, they find that they didn’t want quite that much space.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what this song means. Ian has written it in a way that is supposed to leave it vague. But my take on it is that the man is having difficulty dealing with the woman’s success and celebrity. But it isn’t even clear if she is just reflecting on a relationship that is now over or one that is in the process in real time. The former is the more interesting interpretation, as the song starts with:

I remember photographs
Watercolors of the past…

Now it could be that she is just sitting thinking about these things when she is interrupted from her reverie. But “watercolors of the past” implies the mixing of life events. Regardless, whether it is remembered or it is a thought interrupted by this reality, the song continues more clearly:

He turned and said — You ask much of me
Then, when we’d made our peace,
We lay between the sheets
He turned and said — I set you free.

This is very efficient verse. They fought, made up with the requisite makeup sex, and he’s still not happy. He offers a gambit. This leads to the chorus that is his angry rant:

Go on, be a hero, be a photograph
Make your own myths
Christ, I hope they last
longer than mine
Wider than the sky
We measure time by
Go on, be a hero, I set you free
Your stagehand lovers have conquered me
They’ll send you carnations,
While smiling faces
Look on and applaud
Go on, go on
Go away from me.

With the second verse, she responds. She is the one with the power in this relationship. So she accuses him of trying to possess her:

I said – Do you wish me dead?
Lip service to books you’ve read?
Articles on how to bed a bird in flight?
You called it love — I called it greed
You say — You take what you want
I say — You get what you need.

And now is her chance to get angry. She tells him literally to go to hell. She takes his gambit. He wants her to go? Then she’ll go.

Go on, be a hero, be a man
Make your own destiny if you can
Go find a fence, locate a shell
and hide yourself
Go on, go to hell
Go away from me
I need no charity

But then we get to the bridge. And here he relents. He backs down. He entices. He argues that they can muddle through. At least for now. And that’s about right. Some people muddle through for 70 years. Others muddle through for 70 days. But it is always a muddle that we negotiate for that perfect balance that we will never find.

He said — Come unto me
I am beauty, I am the light
Come unto me
Hold the darkness, and stay the night
I am wonder, I am the heart’s delight
Tomorrow we’ll fight.

Come on come on
Come near to me
Come be my fantasy
We’ll talk it over again sometime
I’ll send you some flowers to change your mind
but for tonight, turn out the light
Hold me — come on, come on
Set me free
Lend me your charity.