Sam Harris Isn’t as Smart as I Thought

Sam Harris

Sam Harris “Debates” Ezra Klein

Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate with each other for over two hours about… To be honest, I don’t know what it was about. It was supposed to be about the connection between intelligence and race. It was also supposed to be about Harris’ new BFF Charles Murray and how badly he is treated.

Let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now: poor Charles Murray. It’s certainly true that Murray gets attacked a lot. But it really has little to do with The Bell Curve where he argued that blacks are dumber than whites, that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should just get rid of affirmative action and all those programs that try to make the nation more economically fair.

The Bell Curve was co-authored by Richard Herrnstein. He was the scientist and I believe that he was responsible for all the science in the book. He also died of lung cancer the year the book came out. So it was really Murray’s book. And like all Murray’s book, it was political. All of his books push a radical libertarian ideology. He is in favor of the universal basic income (UBI), but only because he’s a pragmatist. Like many libertarians, he’s for the UBI as a way of getting rid of all other social programs and has even said that the UBI would allow the nation to spend 10 percent less on helping the poor.

Sam Harris: Repetition Machine

What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.

I’ve had debates with people like this. They don’t really understand the subject they are talking about at a deep level. What they think is really just emotional. So they think that if they just repeat what they believe enough, others will agree. Because they don’t actually have a rational argument. They just believe. This is hilarious coming from New Atheist Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris Cult

Of course Sam Harris leads a kind of cult. There are many young men (Yes: men!) who hang on his every word and fight with anyone who disagrees with him. So as soon as the podcast was out, I saw reddit and blog posts with titles like, “Sam Harris Destroys Ezra Klein.” Ah, no.

In fact, I had a reasonably favorable opinion of Harris before this debate. Now I think he’s kind of a dullard who within 5 years will be a conservative and frequent guest on Fox News. And it won’t matter to his cult members, most of whom now believe themselves to be liberal.

John von Neumann

I was very tickled by something that Sam Harris said about the great mathematician (among other things) John von Neumann:

I mean, for instance, I would bet my life that my IQ is lower than John von Neumann’s was. The chances of that being true are 100 percent. Of course this is mere speculation, but this is speculation that you could bet the fate of the world on. Despite what Turkheimer says in his article, in his tweets, you can make very high probability speculations. Do you think I’m inferior to John von Neumann? Do you think I think I’m inferior to John von Neumann?

The Inferiority Argument: von Neumann Edition

What he’s getting at is that just because he thinks blacks are stupid doesn’t mean he thinks they are inferior. There are many problems with this. I figure that Harris’ IQ is something like mine: in the low genius area. And that means that even though he knows he’s no von Neumann, he’s smart. He’s a guy who people look up to. He has many fans. He’s rich. Any book he wants to write will be published.

Now compare this with a black man who is also a genius. But he’s looked down on in society. If he ever got in trouble with the law, he’d probably be lucky to have a job as a janitor. He wouldn’t get all the social perks of a white man of his intelligence.

And that’s true of black people at every intelligence level. As Ezra Klein noted, black families with $100,000 incomes live, on average, in neighborhoods where the median income in $30,000. Sam Harris ignores the question.

Charles Murray Isn’t a Scientist

Harris wants to make it all about science. But it’s not about science for Murray. But it makes Harris feel good to pretend that Murray is in the business of science. Because if he is, it means that Sam Harris lives in a meritocracy. And it means that he deserves the excellent life that he has.

Of course, Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will (I agree with him). He got lucky! But given that luck, he deserves his wonderful life.

And for the record, I do think Sam Harris is inferior to John von Neumann. Von Neumann made the world a better place and Sam Harris is making it a worse place.

By the way, Harris used that example many times in the debate. Ezra Klein ignored it because it’s stupid.

Sam Harris Doesn’t Like Neanderthals

Ezra KleinAnother of Sam Harris’ repeated examples had to do with Neanderthals. He noted that Europeans had Neanderthal genes but that Africans did not. His point was that had it been the other way around, everyone would have freaked out. This is very strange. First, Africans do have Neanderthal genes — just less than Europeans. Second, where did he get his education abut Neanderthals? The Flintstones? Neanderthals had a larger brain to body ratio than humans, indicating that they might have been smarter. What they didn’t have were well developed parts of the brain used for communication.

Now it’s true that Neanderthals as a going concern went extinct. But humans went one person from going extinct. We are all the descendants of a single woman. As I recall, the total world populations of humans got down to less than one thousand. So the fact that humans are alive today and Neanderthal are not is a simple matter of luck.

King of the Subgeniuses

I can see why all these relatively bright but not terribly bright guys love Sam Harris. First, he’s a lot smarter than they are and so can convince them with plausible but facile arguments. Plus, he feeds their prejudices in a way that allows them to think that they aren’t prejudiced — just “rational” and “scientific.”

There is no point in listening to Sam Harris. His debate with Ezra Klein showed that he has nothing to add to the public debate. He’s actually starkly closed minded. I can see why Noam Chomsky didn’t want to debate him. Chomsky would have had to stop Harris after every sentence to correct him.

If you are a Sam Harris fan, I beg you: read some real intellectuals. Harris is a pretender.

50 Years Without MLK?!

Martin Luther King JrOne can’t exactly celebrate this day, 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. But it brings up a lot of thoughts.

The first is how much I hate the deification of King. When he was alive, he was hated by northerners and southerners alike. And if he hadn’t been assassinated, he would still be hated by those on the right in this country. If he were alive today, he’d be treated the same way as Jesse Jackson. And do you remember the way he was treated by the Democrats in 1988?

But what really bugs me is the way that conservatives try to take Martin Luther King Jr for their own. They know next to nothing about King. They certainly don’t know about his still radical ideas of economic equality. Yet at least once a year, we have to hear a bunch of Republicans claim that we live in the Promised Land and so King would side with them now. What a joke!

Family Memories

When he was younger, my father was a member of the John Birch Society. And to this day, you cannot convince my father that King did not, in fact, visit the Soviet Union. I believe that was propaganda the FBI spread.

My father is also convinced that Martin Luther King Jr was a communist. Now you have to start with the fact that my father has no idea what a communist is. But it’s clear that King wasn’t too fond of capitalism. Neither is my father’s son. The truth is that in this country, “communist” is the same as “boogeyman.” It doesn’t mean anything. It was just the totalitarian system used by the Soviet Union. And I’m not at all certain that the people of Russia today are better off. Oh, Putin is elected, but he gets to choose who he runs against.

But speaking of embarrassing family members, there was an interesting discussion about Martin Luther King Jr over at New York, What Do We Forget About MLK? It’s short and worth reading, but here is quote from Ed Kilgore, who grew up in the south in the 1960s:

I happened to be visiting some of my rural relatives right after the assassination. The “nicer” among them were unhappy that so many Yankee politicians attended MLK’s funeral. But I mostly remember my sweet “old maid” great aunt saying that if she could find the assassin, she’d take him in and hide him and feed him and care for him the rest of his life.

Martin Luther King Jr Is No Threat Now

I really don’t think we’ve changed much. We just know what not to say publicly. I’ve seen it in more distant parts of my family. When they think they are safe (and why they think they are safe around me is anyone’s guess), they will say the most racist things. I see our society as being very much like it was in 1968, but with a patina of respectability covering over it.

And you don’t have to look hard. There have been numerous studies that show that identical resumes get interviews more often if they have a white sounding name than if they have a black sounding name. And the people making these hiring decisions aren’t illiterate southern bigots. They are people with college educations who doubtless see themselves as being color blind. But the truth is there in their subconsciouses.

The New Racism

Frankly, I would prefer if people would just be more honest. It seems like what we’ve done over the last fifty years has been to bury our racism. There are no longer laws keeping black people from moving into your neighborhood. But economic inequality does the job just as well. As The Conversation put it:

While racial segregation in US schools plummeted between the late 1960s and 1980, it has steadily increased ever since — to the the point that schools are about as segregated today as they were 50 years ago.

I think what I want to say on this anniversary is that at the time, most whites didn’t have a problem with Martin Luther King Jr being assassinated. They do now because he is no longer a threat to their lives. That’s what it all comes down to.

Afterword: Noor Salman Found Not Guilty

It’s been a few days, the jury in the Noor Salman case took only 12 hours to find her not guilty. It’s not surprising. The case against her was terrible. Basically, all the prosecution had against her was an initialed confession after 11 hours of interrogation. The defense was able to show that over half of it wasn’t true. So clearly, the FBI created the statement and pressured this poor woman to accept it. If I know anything about cops, it is this: they promised her if she initialed it, they would let her go home with her son.

I may write more about this later. But for the moment, I’m very pleased.

The One Problem With the United States Postal Service

The One Problem With the United States Postal Service

Donald Trump hates Jeff Bezos. He’s the founder of Amazon. I hate him too. And if you ask Trump why he hates Bezos, he will give you reasons that are similar to mine. For example, he has noted that Amazon has made a lot of money by screwing state and local governments out of sales tax revenue. He also says stupid things like that Amazon is destroying the United States Postal Service, when it is, in fact he and his fellow Republicans that are destroying it. (That’s the one problem with the post office that I mentioned in the title.) But what Trump says about Jeff Bezos is roughly correct.

If there is one bright spot in having Donald Trump as president, it is that he is completely transparent. Sure, Republicans and other Trump supporters like to pretend that he’s mysterious and he isn’t doing what any reasonably objective person would know he is doing. But that doesn’t change reality. Trump may be the king of liars, but American conservatives are masters at lying — to everyone, including themselves.

Donald Trump Does Care About the Postal Service

So the real reason that Donald Trump hates Jeff Bezos is because he owns The Washington Post, and that paper has been particularly harsh to Donald Trump. (Of course, if Trump really wanted to hurt Jeff Bezos, he would have gotten a tax increase on rich people, but Trump doesn’t hate Bezos enough to harm himself. So instead we got the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which will really only make the rich richer and will likely cause job losses.) So even though what I’m about to write might seem like I agree with Trump (which I have no problem doing when it’s true), I don’t. Donald Trump doesn’t care about the United States Postal Service. If he did, he would do something to help it.

The subject came up because I read an article in Vox (I know! I read it a lot!), Trump Thinks Amazon’s Destroying the Post Office. Here’s What’s Really Happening by Jen Kirby. It bothered me, however, because there is really only one reason that the US Postal Service is losing billions of dollars every year. And Kirby spends surprisingly little time on it.

The Evil Republicans Did in the 2006 Lame Duck

If the Republican Party had no power, it would be hilarious. When the Democrats are in control of the government, but the Republicans get it back in the election, the Republicans scream that no legislation should be passed because “the people have spoken.” We even have a conservative on the Supreme Court because the media was willing to accept this argument for a whole year before a new president took over. Yet when things are reversed, the Republicans go hog wild. I’ve been very concerned that they will manage to repeal Obamacare in the lame duck period, should the Democrats take control of Congress in November.

But in 2006, when the Republicans had been destroyed, they used the lame duck period to pass a law requiring that the US Postal Service pre-fund all their retirement benefits out to 75 years. As the Vox article notes, “A Post Office Inspector General blog entry from 2015 (which, of course, has a big stake in the debate) describes the prefund arrangement like this: it’s as if your credit card company estimated you’ll spend $1 million in your lifetime, so it asked you to send them that $1 million check up front.”

Virtually no real company pays for its retirement in this way, so why make the US Postal Service? That’s simple: Republicans hate the postal service. They would like to cut it up and give it to FedEx and UPS and other shipping companies that pay them money. This was a great way for the Postal Service to look like a drag on the economy that something really had to be done about.

The Postal Service Is in the Constitution!

I know what you are thinking: but the postal service is in the Constitution. And don’t conservatives love the Constitution? Don’t they masturbate to it? Isn’t it a divinely inspired document that could never be improved upon?!

Ah, Grasshopper, you have much to learn. Most conservatives have never read a word of the Constitution. The only thing they know about it is the preamble, and then only in song form:


Try to watch this without the subtext. As the states accumulate, millions of people who used to live there were murdered. every voter is white. I loved this cartoon when I was a kid but it gives me the willies now.

So the Republicans want to destroy the postal service because, given all of its limits, it does a great job. For 49¢, I can send a letter to Hawaii, Alaska, or New York — and to the farthest reaches of those states. Ask the CEO of FedEx if he wants that job. Oh, no! He just wants the lucrative routes. Leave the government to deliver all the money-losing routes.

Congress Hurts the Postal Service in Other Ways

But in addition to this pre-funding of the retirement program, the Congress also stops the postal service from doing a lot of other things. The biggest I see is acting as a limited bank. The US Postal Service could put all of these payday lenders out of business overnight. And at the same time, they wouldn’t be preying on the poor. But we can’t have that. We’ve got to let the free market work when it comes to screwing the poor.

The United States Postal Service is one of the great prides of this nation. It’s unfortunate that for conservatives and the business community, it is just a bunch of money that they can steal. But let’s face it: the way things are going, the postal service probably will be destroyed, existing only as much as the Constitution requires. And given the people on the Supreme Court, that doesn’t mean much: maybe ten people and ten horses. Remember how conservatives see the Constitution they’ve never read: it never changes. So why not horses? It will only take three months to send a letter from California to New York, and only cost a few thousand dollars.

Keep Up the Fight

But we can try. And let’s start with the only problem the US Postal Service really has: the pre-pay requirement. If the Democrats get control of Congress next year, they should pass a law getting rid of that. And who knows? Trump might even sign it! He only cares about “winning!” so why not win this way?

March for Our Lives – Santa Rosa

Now You've Pissed Off Grandma
Now You’ve Pissed Off Grandma

Visiting the March for Our Lives

The Junior Human Rights Division is a group of local high school students and they put on a demonstration for the March for Our Lives this morning. It started at 10:00 am and went until 2:00 pm. I got there at 9:30 am and the place was already pretty crowded — perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 people.

I always feel out of touch at these things. They really have just about everything I don’t like: crowds, noise, the outdoors. But I managed to stay for half of it. There were a lot of speakers, but I can’t tell you who they were because I literally could not get to the Junior Human Rights Division tent.

But that didn’t bother me too much, given that I really have little interest in political speech. But the people at the event were very attentive. From my perspective there really isn’t anything to say. As German Lopez wrote yesterday, I’ve Covered Gun Violence for Years. The Solutions Aren’t a Big Mystery. But I don’t believe anything will change in this country, because facts don’t matter in this country.

People Care

Still, it is always nice to see people who care enough to go to these things. And the crowd was good. By about 10:30 am, I talked to a police officer and he gave me an estimate of 5,000 to 7,000 people at the event. He said it was a little smaller than the women’s march. But by the time I left, it was much more crowded. That was one of the reasons I left. It was hard to move. So based upon the early estimate, and my own relatively scientific estimate, I think we made it up to 8,000 or more. And that’s pretty amazing for a town of roughly 100,000.

I guess I don’t have much more to say, so I will present some photos. In every case I got an oral okay to show their faces. I realize that wouldn’t cover me that well. But I don’t have enough money to be worth suing. And I think all the people I shot were proud to be there.

Tony Speirs

I should, however, give you an explanation of this first photo. I saw three people with beautifully rendered drawings of what I assumed were three of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. But by the time I got to them, one of them had slipped away. Later, I saw many others. I believe the local Democratic Party booth had all 17 surrounding their tent.

Tony Speirs is from Graton and wasn’t selling them. So far as I could tell, he gave them out to people to take to the event. I was promised that he was going to be there, but as I said, it was very crowded, and even making it to tents was a difficult matter.

There drawings are of Peter Wang (15 year-old) and Gina Montalto (14 years-old). It’s hard not to cry just looking at them.

Peter Wang and Gina Monalto by Tony Speirs
Peter Wang and Gina Monalto by Tony Speirs

The Crowd

This was crowd as I found it a half hour before the event started. There were a lot of people who cared.

Big Crowd Before the Event Even Started
Big Crowd Before the Event Even Started

Not One More

By far the most common sign was “No One More.” I am, by nature, an optimistic person. But I’ve lived six decades in this country and I know what is possible and what is not. It was possible for Australia to fix their gun problem. But it isn’t in this country. I just don’t have the confidence in my fellow Americans. Obviously we have to fight. And I do think that eventually we will fix our problems.

But we won’t in my lifetime. Americans combine staggering ignorance and stupidity with hubris beyond anything in the Old Testament. I applaud those who can imagine a world where America will deal with its gun problem now. But I’m not one of them. When 20 grammar school children were killed at Sandy Hook, we did nothing. And although this time high school students are leading and showing all of us what must be done, in the end, I’m sure nothing will be done.

As I recall, when Ted Cruz last ran for Senate, the NRA gave him the legal limit: a few thousand dollars. But they spend $5 million on “issue” adds that were really just ads for him. You think that Ted Cruz is going to do what is right for America or what is right for Ted Cruz? If you say “America,” then stop reading right now. I’m shocked you’ve mastered phonetics.

Not One More Sign
Not One More Sign

Register to Vote

It’s been clear for a long time that if everyone voted, we would have a far better government. It’s like the jelly bean test where the average of everyone was better than the best single person. But we have a system that makes it hard for the poor to vote and easy for the rich to vote. And so we end up with this country that we have.

This sign was in the League of Women Voters booth. When I was young, I thought: why women? Now I know. Women are better than men. The League of Men Voters would tell everyone not to vote because they had it all under control. And it is the men, after all, who gave us President Donald Trump, who stands a good chance of making our species extinct. Thank the men.

League of Women Voter: Register to Vote
League of Women Voter: Register to Vote

Teachers Not Sheriffs

This was the first picture I took. I love it so much, because it pushes back against this idea teachers should have to protect their children from gunmen. What a silly idea. Isn’t it obvious that if you are asking teachers to carry guns, there is a much bigger problem the society faces? That arming teachers will not solve the problem?

But this is America! We never approach head-on. Now we don’t blame guns; we blame the mentally ill, who are far moe likely to be shot than to shoot. But maybe the problem is that white men used to be able to have a job that gave them a sense of purpose. But that would require the rich to allow unions and allow them to share in the profits. No, no, no! What does it matter if poor children die as long as their stock portfolios expand.

Teachers are saints! Let them do what they were trained for. There are two teachers in my life who who had a profound effect on my life — who made me who I am. And they don’t even know it. And the conservatives want them to carry firearms. They’ done enough.

I Have a desgree in teaching, no marksmanship!
I Have a desgree in teaching, no marksmanship!

Summary

I don’t really like events like March for Our Lives. But they are important. And I’m so glad that people care enough to show up. I suffer from agoraphobia, but I go, because it is important. And the fact that this was organized by high school students makes me very hopeful. Maybe they are better than the Americans who came before. Because there’s a war going on. The President, and the Congress, and the NRA are on on one side. And the people are on the other.

The NRA people are crazy. They think their semi-auto riffles will save them from a drone attack on their house. When Obama became president, they bought tons of weapons because Obama was going to take them all away. And what did he do? He passed one law that gave gun owners more rights. This is always the way it is with Democrats. But the ignorant NRA members always fall for the same trick.

And who wins? The gun manufacturers. That’s because they are the people the NRA really protects. And just like cigarette manufacturers didn’t care how many people they killed as long as they made lots of money, the gun manufactures are more than willing to shoot your baby in the head while it sleeps if it means more profits for them.

How is it that the NRA members can’t see that?!

Historical and Other Errors in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou?As the title should suggest, this will be a silly article. But the truth is, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film. I’ve watched it a lot. But it is historical fiction. The Coens have called it a cross between Homer and Ma and Pa Kettle. That’s certainly true, but it is a film that is firmly grounded in the Great Depression. And it has two clear historical figures in Baby Face Nelson and Tommy Johnson. Plus, the character of Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel is clearly based on the Texas governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. So I figured we’d look into these things.

Timing Problem

One part of the film that has really come to bother me has nothing to do with history. Instead, it has to do with timing. After the young Hogwallop saves the trio from the police and Satan, Pete says that it is the 17th and that the location of the buried treasure will be turned into lake on the 21st. So let’s go through the film, although I know this is not going to be interesting to anyone who doesn’t know the film fairly well.

Timeline

  1. The trio pick up Tommy and make a recording.[1] They sleep near a barn that night, and again the police and Satan show up. Since they weren’t in the barn, they got away — Tommy separating from them.
  2. The trio are picked up by George (Baby Face) Nelson. They spend the evening with him until he wanders away, leaving them with all the money.
  3. With all the money left to them by Nelson, the trio seem to forget all about the treasure. We see them take a pie that was cooling in a window (they leave payment for it, however). Then, that night, we see them eating the pie.
  4. We see them walking more and a brief scene of them at night with Ulysses telling them a story. One could take days 19 and 20 as just a montage and really only one day. But as you will see, this doesn’t help.
  5. The next day, the trio run into the Sirens, who turn Pete over to the authorities. We see that night that Pete is about to be hanged, but then roles over on his comrades.
  6. Ulysses and Delmar discover that Pete is alive and back in prison. That night, they break him out. Then they save Tommy from being lynched. And finally, Ulysses reunites with his wife who insists he go back to their old home and get her original wedding ring.
  7. When the quartet reach the house, Satan is waiting for them, because Pete told them they were going there. (They think they are safe because they’ve been pardoned, but at this point it is completely established that the “sheriff” is Satan, “The law?! The law is a human institution.”)

    History

    I’m going to deal with three characters here, even though the governor isn’t supposed to be exactly the same character. There are some interesting aspects of his story.

    George Nelson

    George Nelson was quite an interesting guy — especially for a gangster and a psychopath. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is quite correct that he hated the moniker of “Baby Face.” In 1926, Harry Akst and Benny Davis wrote it. It was an immediate Number 1 song by Jan Garber and His Orchestra. George Nelson was just 18 at that time, and already an established gangster. But some other gangster with more power started calling him “baby face” because of his youth and small stature. (I can’t find the details, but I read a book about Nelson years ago.)

    What’s most amazing about George Nelson is that he had, all things considered, a pretty normal family life. At the age of 20, he met and married Helen Wawzynak. The two of them had two children: first a boy and then a girl. As Nelson wandered the nation robbing banks, he brought his wife and son with him. His wife taught his son on the road. I don’t remember anything about the daughter; it’s possible she wasn’t born until after George Nelson’s death.

    By all accounts, George Nelson was very sweet to Helen and the children. This is remarkable, because as a gangster, he was ruthless and shows every sign of being a psychopath. Helen lived until 1987. I’ve always thought should would have been a fascinating person to know.

    George Nelson never went to the electric chair. He was killed in a shoot-out with federal agents. Nelson still holds the record for the number of federal agents killed by a man: three.

    Tommy Johnson

    There is a story told about Tommy Johnson (but more often about Robert Johnson). Tommy Johnson’s brother told a story some years after Tommy had died, that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary guitar playing skills. You can see why the the story is so often attributed to Robert Johnson, who was truly an innovator, whereas Tommy Johnson was a great blues musician, he didn’t stand out that much from other blues players of his time.

    The problem with his portrayal in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it has Tommy Johnson meeting with the Devil in 1937. He had been a professional musician since 1914, when he was still in his teens. His career lasted until his death in 1956, when he died of a heart attack. He is still a very enjoyable performer. You can see that he’s actually more of an interesting singer than guitar player.

    Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel

    The real Pappy O’Danniel was the governor in the wrong state and the wrong time (in the 1940s). But there is no doubt that the Coen Brothers were thinking about him. For one thing, he worked most of his early life in the flour industry. What’s more, he went on to be a radio celebrity with a show that was supported by a flour company. In fact, it was the fame he gained from radio that made him governor — much like our current president. Nothing ever changes. We’ve always been stupid.

    The other thing that is wrong about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that there was no gubernatorial race in Mississippi in 1937. The races were in 1935 and 1939. It’s interesting though. It had been 70 years since the Civil War, yet no Republican ran in either of those races. The South only turned Republican, when the Republican Party became the party of segregation. It’s not nice to say, but there really is something wrong with southern whites.

    Summary

    Like I said, this was a silly article. But why not? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a silly movie. I hope you enjoyed my providing some context.


    [1] The trick that Ulysses plays on the blind producer, saying that there are six of them rather than just the four would never work. He could clearly hear that there are two background singers, a lead singer, and a guitarist. One person could sing and play guitar, and the lead singer could also do background vocals on the song. So Man of Constant Sorrow could be performed by two people — four at the most. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you are an idiot. But it is a clever con on first brush.

Noor Salman, Leo Frank, and the “Other” We Must Destroy

Please forgive me for my mistake! This is not the first time I’ve made this mistake. I have partial face blindness. And I really didn’t want to use that picture of her smiling at what looks like a party in an article about such a serious matter. I really appreciate your pointing out the error and I’m sorry it took me so long to fix the problem. I haven’t been to the site and it was only because of a tweet that I first found out that I had totally blown it. Although this is not even close to the dumbest thing I’ve done here. And it gets harder and harder as I have so little time to put articles together. Finally, I’m so sorry to Noor Tagouri. I will attempt to make amends to her privately. Thanks to everyone who pointed out the error!

Lynching Leo Frank
Noor Salman is the wife of Omar Mateen, the man who killed 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016. He’s dead, so we have to find someone to punish. So why not his wife? It doesn’t matter that two other recent high-profile mass shootings also involved women who were more clearly involved. They were white women. Salman is a Muslim, and so must face decades in prison.

Omar Mateen Wasn’t Targeting Gay Clubs

The main reason this case has come to be a big deal is that Pulse is a gay nightclub. And lots of false information came out when no one knew anything that indicated that Mateen picked the nightclub because it was gay. As Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain discuss in As the Trial of Omar Mateen’s Wife Begins, New Evidence Undermines Beliefs About the Pulse Massacre, Including Motive, Mateen probably didn’t even know it was a gay nightclub.

None of his searches had anything to do with the LGBT community. He was just looking for a nightclub, and the Pulse was the first one he found that seemed vulnerable.

Development of a Narrative

This isn’t to take away from the extreme villainy of what Mateen did. But I think a big part of indicted his wife (who he brutalized) has to do with this false narrative.

We now live in a world with 24 hour a day cable news that must be fed. AIt doesn’t matter if what is reported is true. And in the case when nothing is known, it is even worse. Then some reporter’s hunch becomes news.

A gay nightclub was attacked, so it must have been an LGBT hate crime. Mateen was Muslim, so he must have been a closeted homosexual.

And before you know it, there is a narrative. And the only information that gets reported is that which fits the narrative. The media are just like the police. Only smarter. And therefore more dangerous.

Leo Frank

This whole thing has made me think about Leo Frank and what happened to him. But I’m hopeful that things will work out better for Noor Salman than for him (but I’m not sure; I’ve seen too much injustice in this country for anything close to certainty).

Now most of you probably don’t know who Leo Frank was. The only reason I know about him is because when I was a kid, I saw a made-for-television film about him. And unlike the way these things usually are, further research on my part has shown that the film was quite accurate.

Who Was Leo Frank?

Leo Frank was Jewish and raised in New York. He went to college and got a degree in mechanical engineering. Afterward, he took a job as a superintendent at a factory in Georgia.

The Murder of Mary Phagan

Everything was fine until 13-year-old Mary Phagan was found murdered. The police first suspected James Conley. He was an African American janitor at the factory. In his first affidavit, he implicated Leo Frank. But it was so bad that even the police didn’t believe it.

Noor SalmanCoaching the Murderer

But the police helped Conley work his affidavit to the point where it would sound good to a jury. Now most modern historians believe that Conley murdered Phagan. That was, after all, what all the evidence pointed to. So you would think they would just indict him and be done with it.

There was a problem, though. Sure, Conley was black and they hated them. But he was also a southerner. He was, in his limited way, one of them. Leo Frank, on the other hand, was a Jew, which means he was hated as much as a black man. Plus, he had a college degree and a good job. And then there was the fact that he was from New York! (Although he was born in Texas.)

Antisemitic Narrative

So the police and the press engaged in an antisemitic attack on Leo Frank. He was found guilty, but never officially executed. Instead, he was kidnapped and lynched.

I’m always amazed by these lynching photos with all the proud white men standing around.[1] Ultimately, it isn’t the lynchers who are to blame but the police and the journalists who whipped them into a frenzy where they absolutely knew that this innocent man was guilty.

Noor Salman and Leo Frank

I think it should be obvious why I see a connection between Noor Salman and Leo Frank. The LGBT community is still oppressed. There are people who hate them with a furiosity that is unimaginable to you and me.

America Hates Muslims

But overall, it is nothing compared to the hatred that Americans reserve for Muslims. I think this quote from the article I mentioned above says it all:

The decision to prosecute Salman is particularly odd given the Department of Justice’s refusal to prosecute Marilou Danley, the girlfriend of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, despite far greater evidence suggesting her foreknowledge of his plans. Additionally, the DOJ refused to prosecute Katherine Russell, the white, ex-Christian wife of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also in the face of evidence of possible complicity that was far stronger than exists for Salman.

No Justice When Only Some People Are Prosecuted

It doesn’t matter how good juries decide guilt or innocence, when someone’s religious beliefs determine whether they show up in court at all. If Noor Salman were white and her husband just a white neo-Nazi, she’d be free to get on with her life.

But they were both Muslims, and Omar Mateen is dead, so we’ve got to punish Noor Salman. And don’t think that if she’s found innocent she won’t have been punished. First, she stood the chance of spending decades (or her whole life) in jail. Second, the stress of going through such a trial is worse than anything most people in this country ever go through.

What Should Have Happened to Noor Salman

Noor Salman should be happy right now. She got rid of a husband who brutalized her. But instead, she got a whole society to continue the brutalization. And all because she is an Other. She doesn’t have the right religion. And this will hang over her head for the rest of her life if she is found not guilty. If she’s found guilty, it will be so much worse.

This is another case, in a long line of cases, where we have oppressed the weak. Look at the proud men in that lynching photo. That’s us. Today.


[1] If there is one thing life has taught me that is most important it is humility. It is that I’m quite fallible. This is an issue I deal with in my family. I come from redneck stock. And so I’m always told about this or that outrage. But I’m rarely outraged, because in pretty much every case, when I research the outrage at hand, it is far more nuanced than I’ve been told. A good example was this undocumented guy who accidentally shot that young woman here in the Bay Area. I knew from the start it wasn’t the way people were saying. This guy wasn’t a psychopath just having fun killing people. He was a person with mental problems playing around with a gun that resulted in tragic consequences. It’s sad, but not every sad story has a villain. But I know it is the thinking of my family members that leads to those proud smiling faces that gather around innocent people they just lynched. I love my family, but many of them are part of the problem.

Americans Are Smart, but Naive: American Empire Edition

Matt Yglesias - Americans Are Smart, but Naive: American Empire EditionMatthew Yglesias wrote a very good article last week, Maybe Voters Aren’t as Uninformed as Elites like to Think. It’s based on an upcoming article by Vanessa Williamson, “Public Ignorance or Elitist Jargon? Reconsidering Americans’ Overestimates of Government Waste and Foreign Aid.” And it makes an argument for an idea that a lot of us have been thinking for a long time.

The idea is that when pollsters ask Americans questions about what the government spends on various programs, the people asking the questions have different definitions than the people answering them. The best example of this is the question, “What percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?” The “correct answer is 1 percent or less. But Americans give much bigger numbers. They’ll say 25 percent — even 50 percent.

Foreign Aid or American Empire Maintenance?

But what is “foreign aid”? Americans believe more of their government’s propaganda than the citizens of any other peer country. Despite all the nonsense about fake news, Americans except just about everything the media and the government say. That’s especially true when it comes to foreign affairs. Like my 85-year-old father would never believe that we go to war for any reason but to spread democracy and make people free.

Now if that were true, our entire military budget should be considered foreign aid. As of 2015, the military took 16 percent of the entire federal budget. And if you don’t count Social Security and Medicare (and I don’t think you should given they are totally different programs based on their own particular tax receipts), the military is 35% of the Federal budget.

Americans Believe Government Propaganda

So the problem isn’t that Americans are wrong about how much we spend on foreign aid. The problem is that Americans believe our government propaganda that our military is just to take care of the world. You know, the whole “World’s police force”?

The United States spends approximately as much on its military as every other country in the world combined does. We have this huge military so we can keep our worldwide empire going. And that empire involves about half the countries in the world.

But the media doesn’t report our military as the main instrument of our empire. In fact, the American media won’t even admit that we do have an empire.

The New Kind of Empire

This is very much like the old line about generals always fighting the last war. Since the American empire doesn’t look like the empires of a century ago when the lead country put its own people in charge of the other countries, we can’t be an empire.

But we accomplish the same thing, just in a different way. Even the British got in on the act at the end of their empire days. In the early 1950s, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mosaddegh. He was going to nationalize the oil industry. So the US and UK had him assassinated. The Shah was put back in power, and Democracy was outlawed. But it wasn’t a matter of Eisenhower and Churchill putting in one of their men. They just used the old despot who would do whatever they wanted. This is how modern empires work.

Americans Don’t Believe We Have an Empire

But tell me: have you ever heard anyone in the mainstream media — even liberals — talk about the American empire? Of course not. They are as brainwashed as my father is.

So you can’t go around deceiving people about what our military does, and then laugh at the people for believing you. The US government is dependent on the people believing this fairy tale. So all the people who run our great death machine should praise the people for saying that 35 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Don’t you remember the Iraq War? That was to help all those people. We didn’t spend $2+ trillion on ourselves. It was all to aid the Iraqis. It was foreign aid.

Portents of Doom… For Republicans

Portents of Doom… For RepublicansAnother special election has occurred that, more than anything, shows what is building for the upcoming November election.

In the soon to be redistricted out Pennsylvania 18 th district, Conor Lamb won the seat as a Democrat for the first time since 2002. Representative-elect Lamb (results are not certified yet) showed that if you match the district to the candidate, you can win. But he needed help along the way.

Republicans gave him that help. Repeatedly.

Republican Help

First by having the former Congressman have to resign due to not simply having had an affair (practically de rigueur [foreign words and phrases should be italicized] for Republicans these days) but
pressuring the woman to have an abortion. As is the norm with anti-choicers, only abortions that don’t affect them are bad. So his pressuring her caused him to have to resign because her abortion didn’t affect the rest of the Republican caucus. That leaves voters distasteful of Republicans to start.

Then they nominated a fairly boring uninspiring candidate which would normally have won the race because he followed the party line to a T(ea party, yes he was a tea partier first running in 2010 where he barely beat his Democrat opponent twice). When your opponent comes off looking like a dynamic, fresh, and talented guy you would like to see marry your daughter, well, it doesn’t help.

The Pelosi Boogeyman

They tried to tie Lamb to Nancy Pelosi. Lamb said he wouldn’t vote for her as the leader (most likely with the party’s blessing). Pelosi’s no fool; she knows Republicans use her as a boogeyman like they have anytime there isn’t an equally competent woman *cough* Hillary *cough* around to bash.

Then the Republicans in the House passed the ACA repeal. Among the many things it did was show how precarious the state of health insurance for people was. Lots of voters didn’t like that.

“Hey! We Lowered Rich People’s Taxes!”

Then the Republicans passed a giant tax giveaway — The Great Tax Scam Bill of 2017 — to corporations and the rich that took money from the middle class in the form of higher health care premiums.

The Great Tax Scam Bill was designed to be signed in 2018 so it would make it politically unfeasible for the Democrats to reverse anything. Instead, the mentally failing Cheato signed the bill right away — in 2017. This caused automatic cuts in popular spending programs like Medicare, which (unsurprisingly) ticked off all the old people.

The House Says Trump Is Honest

Finally, in the days leading up to the final vote, the Republicans in the House released the “final” report on the TrumpRussia issue. To no one’s surprise, they freely admitted they are trying to cover up what happened by saying nothing occurred between Russia and Trump’s campaign. Democrats then released a comprehensive list of what the Republicans refused to do. (Now many of the Republicans on the committee are backtracking.)

You could say that the final factor was actually Cheato himself. But he’s an eternal problem that was there back in the early days of special elections.

Democratic Help

Additionally, Lamb benefited from the rage that is still in many Democratic voters who realized that they were too complacent in 2016. We know, now, that the election was likely stolen. The party has started instituting quiet reforms. And there is a great deal of effort to register, ID,verify, and vote among Democratic activists. All of the Democratic committees and subcommittees are working to get our likely voters registered and verified to vote.

We also are donating in small but consistent amounts. While Lamb had plenty of large contributions, 50% of his financial support came from small donors of $200 or less. There are over a thousand candidates generating excitement (in the case of California, too many candidates because of its “top two” voting system) in the congressional races.

The Takeaway

It’s hard not to see Lamb being helped more by the Republicans than the Democrats. Lamb’s opponent, Republican State Representative Rick Saccone, ran as “Trump before TrumTrump before Trump was Trump.” This might seem like a stupid move, but Sacone didn’t have much choice.

The Republicans have put themselves in a bad situation. Trump is extremely unpopular. But in the Republican Party, he’s very popular. So if Saccone had abandoned Trump, a bit chunk of his Republican voters would have abandoned him. That’s especially true in a special election where it is very easy to decide to stay home.

But this is a problem that Republicans face everywhere. And it will be just as true November 6, 2018. And the Republican Party is freaking out.

This article is cross-posted at Humorless Rants.

S.2155 Makes the Claim “Both Sides Are Corrupt” Hard to Argue Against

Chuck SchumerSo the Senate is set to pass S.2155, basically a gutting of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. And it is doing it with 17 members of the Democratic caucus. Not only will S.2155 make another financial crisis (and you and I will have to pay for) more likely, it does other things like make discrimination in lending easier. Good job by 17 political “Allies.”

But don’t get me wrong: I understand what’s going on — probably better than the Democratic politicians themselves. First, Chuck Schumer is allowing this. He’ll vote against it, but all the lobbyists will know that he set up the situation so that he can say to his constituents that he was against it, while being the most important person who is allowing its passage. What’s more, many of these Democrats are owned by the banking industry. They are voting this way because it is what they believe. These are the kind of Democrats we desperately need to rid ourselves of.

Protective Voting Never Works

And then there are those who are voting for it because they are in a conservative state. And they think that voting for S.2155 will make them more likely to get re-elected. There are a few problems with this idea.

The first is that most conservative voters are fairly liberal when it comes to economic issues. So they won’t hold a parade that Democrat X voted for this bill. If they want to get in good with conservative voters, they should vote against abortion rights or make a racist comment. This bill will be hated by Democratic and Republican voters alike.

Second, they won’t get any credit for it. The president will get credit for it. The president is a Republican. They are Democrats. So any credit that is given will go to their Republican opponent, not them.

Trump Will Get Credit for S.2155, Not These Idiotic Democrats

I would have thought that all national politicians would understand this. In 2002, the Democratic Party decided to work with President George W Bush after 9/11. (I still find it amazing that a president can allow the worst attack on American soil in history and his approval ratings go through the roof. I wish I could get a job where the worse I do the more my employers like me.) Anyway, as a result of working with the Republican President, voters thought it meant Bush was great, the Democrats were savaged in 2002 — a year that the Democrats should have gained many seats.

The truth is that Senators who are less popular in their states than Trump, are going to lose re-election. Voting with Trump 100 percent of the time will not change that. The only thing that would have changed that is if they had switched to the Republican Party in January of 2017.

Democrats Are Making an Economic Crisis More Likely for Nothing

So now we are going to get a really bad bill. And even if it were a good bill, there is no time pressure; it could be put off for a year with no problems — except that huge banks would be less likely to destroy our economy again. But in return for this really bad bill, the Democratic Party gets — wait for it — nothing. Even the individual members will get nothing for it. And it will hurt other Democrats because it will make Trump look more like a competent leader, which we all know he is not.

It’s Hard to Say Republicans Are Worse Than Democrats

But this also bugs me on a personal level. Whenever I have an argument with a conservative, I know I’ve won when they get to the point of saying, “Well, both sides are useless.” Or whatever: corrupt, stupid, any pejorative that fits. When over a third of the Democratic Party votes for a bill that only billionaires want, it’s hard to say to these conservatives, “No, both sides are not the same. The Republican Party really is bad. The Democrats have their problems just like any party. But the Republicans are destroying this country.” Because now they can just say, “What about S.2155?”

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method™ Actor

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method ActorAlmost everyone I know thinks that Marlon Brando was a Method™ actor. Throughout his career people referred to him as a Method™ actor, regardless of how many times he contradicted them. And so this morning, I went over to Vox and read, Why the Oscars Love Method Actors. The subtitle was, “From Marlon Brando to Daniel Day-Lewis, Hollywood’s infatuation continues.” Other than the part about Brando, that’s quite true.

The thesis of the article is that the Oscars love method actors because the Academy’s members are a bunch of pretentious idiots. But how do you know that an actor is using The Method™?! By going on talk shows and telling the world. There’s no doubt that Robert De Niro one the Oscar because of all the publicity generated by his putting on 60 pounds for Raging Bull. Personally, I think John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man is one of the greatest acting achievements on film. But Hurt wasn’t even a trained actor, much less one trained in The Method™. So he lost.[1]

The Method™ Is Not Just Bad But Dangerous

I’m well on record as being very much against The Method™. Every actor has a method. The Method™ is trite. The idea is to act by not acting. Well, that’s just nonsense. And so now we hear stories of all the horrible things that Leonardo DiCaprio did to prepare for his role in The Revenant. It’s these things and not the performance on screen that got him the Oscar.

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method™ Actor

Marlon Brando was not not not a method actor. This is the man who, remember, was supposed to show up on the set of Apocalypse Now skinny, but showed up way overweight, such that the script had to be changed. That’s hardly the behavior of an actor who is “becoming the character.”

Another thing about Brando was that he was very good at accents. This is something that is almost never mentioned about him. Followers of The Method™ are generally useless with accents because they aren’t trained to the way, say, British actors are. I’ve heard people talk about how De Niro is great with accents. This is from Zimbo, Masters of Accents:

The most overlooked part of Robert De Niro’s incredible performance in Raging Bull is his meat and potatoes Bronx accent. The actor is from New York but Manhattan, which might as well be Connecticut if you ask someone from the Bronx.

Um, no. Not that different. Also: not that hard to pick up. Rent an apartment in the Bronx for a month and you’ll probably come out with the accent, especially if you study with a vocal coach. After 17 years as a professional actor, worth millions of dollars, doing a working class Bronx accent is not even worthy of a party trick. No master of accents he.

Great Actors Don’t Need The Method™

Don’t get me wrong, Brando was a great actor. But he did not use The Method™. Of course, the video that goes with the article hedges. It says that since 1951, there have been 132 Best Actor and Actress Oscars. But it says that “59 have gone to actors with Method™ acting training.” Well, it’s actually pretty hard to be a professional actor and not get at least some Method™ acting training. Certainly Brando had some. But that doesn’t make him a Method™ actor.

The Academy Members Are Pretentious Idiots

Let’s just lay it bare. The members of the Academy are pretentious idiots. In general, they don’t give out Oscars for great acting; they give it out for great characters. They’ve given Dustin Hoffman Academy Awards for two of his least memorable performances: Kramer vs Kramer (Ha!) and Rain Man. Hollywood gives out awards for what happens behind the scenes because the truth is, they don’t know what a great performance is. The truth is that no one knows. What you can do is look at an actor’s career and say, “Yes, that was good.” If we were honest, we would admit that any given performance has more than enough room to make the case that it was good or bad.

The article and video want to have it both ways. They want to say that The Method™ is just a marketing gimmick and that it makes for better performances. It’s not. I don’t like Leonardo DiCaprio, regardless. But I don’t see him being substantially better now than he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Yes, he is better, just as anyone gets better in the performance of their jobs as time goes on. The Method™ hasn’t done anything for his acting, but it’s done loads for his reputation.

We’d Be Better Off Without The Method™

You can be a great actor who uses The Method™ (although I’ve never thought much of Lee Strasberg’s acting). But it isn’t necessary at all. And I think it hurts actors because it draws them away from learning basic acting skills — like accents.

Afterword: Tom Cruise

The video also takes a potshot at Tom Cruise. It said he was always Tom Cruise up there on the screen. Well, maybe in the 4 movies they mentioned. But Cruise is a decent actor. There are a number of roles I could mention, but I’ll just mention Interview With a Vampire where he puts Brad Pitt to shame.


[1] I’ve never understood what is supposed to be so great about De Niro’s performance. He was up against Robert Duvall in The Great Santini too! Was there anything incredibly subtle about De Niro’s performance? Not that I’ve ever noticed. And when people bring up the performance, they always mention the same two things. First, he gained 60 pounds for the role. I do think that’s amazing, but I don’t think it has anything to do with acting. Second, they bring up his ad libbing with Joe Pesci.

People who know nothing of filmmaking tend to idolize ad libbing. The director Alan Parker once spoke about a scene between De Niro and Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. These two Method™ actors didn’t think a particular scene was going very well. Parker is an excellent director and writer. Like most writers, he’s not too keen on ad libbing. He spent a lot of time coming up with just the right words. The idea that actors just messing around will improve on it is absurd. But The Method™ makes actors think that they can come up with better action and dialog because they are the characters.

But Parker had two stars, so he went along with it. And they shot hundreds of feet of film of these two ad libbing. They went in many directions, and ended up back to almost exactly what was written in the script. And don’t even get me started with Robin Williams. I recently re-viewed Good Morning, Vietnam. I was amazed that the film had aged pretty well, but not William’s ad libbing. In fact, his ad libbing was never very funny. It was based most often on very offensive stereotypes. And it was funny simply in its absurdity. It went by too quickly to really appreciate. I wish people would get over this. At best, ad libbing is simply writing fast. And there is rarely a time where writing fast is an important skill to have.

The Olympics Is Everything That Makes Us Bad

Michael PhelpsAfter the Olympics were over, some commentator came on the television screen and did this big feel-good speech about what the world had just watched was a super-duper example of humanity at its best. This was all the best athletes of the world coming together to compete. It showed people trying to do their best and all getting along. Oh joy!

I watched almost none of the Olympics largely because I already knew what this guy would go on to say was the absolute opposite of reality. The Olympics demonstrate the worst of what we are and what make us, as a species incredibly dangerous.

This is not going to be an exhaustive discussion of the problems with the Olympics. For that, you would need a book. But really, this isn’t complicated: the Olympics are a nationalistic display featuring competitions meant to show which country is “best.” You would think that after the 1936 Nazi Olympic Games, people would have given up on the idea that the whole spectacle was above politics or a representation of what is best in humanity. But they don’t. The Olympics start with each country marching into the stadium wearing their colors and waving their flags. Could there be anything more nationalistic?

Sure, they aren’t carrying guns and shooting each other. But that’s just because the Olympics are like Christmas dinner: everyone is on their best behavior. The opening ceremonies are a perfect display of what leads to war.

There Is No Real Individualism in the Olympics

And they show that the games have nothing to do with the individuals. If you know the name of an Olympic athlete, it is almost certain that the athlete is from your country. And all through the event, we are kept abreast of the “medal totals.” How many gold, silver, and bronze medals were won by each country. Sure, we got a running total of Michael Phelps’ metals in 2008, but I assure you, Russian television wasn’t doing the same thing.

But yes, a big deal will be made of individuals who win a lot of metals. Yes, if you are an American, you know who Michael Phelps is. But have you ever heard of Larisa Latynina? Most likely if you lived in the Soviet Union or come from the Ukraine, you know who she is. She’s the woman with the most Olympic medals, in a sport I consider much harder: gymnastics. Swimming is probably the easiest sport to dominate in metals because it’s there is so much of the same thing. You have 100 m freestyle, the 200 m freestyle, the 400 m freestyle. And that’s to say nothing of the corresponding relay races.

No one will ever win metals in both the 100 m dash and the marathon. They are completely different. They even require completely different body types to excel at. And why are there so many dull-as-dishwater swimming events? Because the US has a huge amount of power on the Olympic committee and the US dominates in swimming.

What’s more, the differences between the athletes are generally pathetically small. In 2008, Phelps won the 100 m butterfly by 0.01 seconds. A change in lane position could have given Phelps the silver metal in the 100 m butterfly. And in 2016, he lost by a quarter of a second and shared silver with two other men. Personally, I don’t see how people can get excited by a sport where they can’t even tell who won.

I’m not saying any of this to put down Phelps. He’s an amazing athlete — just like all the other Olympic athletes and hundreds of thousands of others who never make it to the Olympics. But my point is that we make a big deal of him because he’s our boy. In as much as there is individualism in the Olympics, it is all done in the name of nationalism. People who get excited by Michael Phelps are no different than the idiot frat boys who were chanting “We’re Number One!” after we killed Osama bin Laden.

Competing Against Others Is Bad

One of the worst characteristics of humans is their desire to “beat” others. I’ve never had that compunction, yet in my way, I’m very competitive. But I compete with myself. I love learning new things — mastering them. But being better at something than someone else just isn’t interesting to me. Yet a lot of people live for it. And it turns out these people are overwhelmingly conservative politically.[1] And it is no surprise why. Beating the next best person by a hundredth of a second in the 100 m butterfly is really no different than wanting your country to have the most powerful military and wanting to be able to tell all the other countries how they should live.

When I played chess, I was always amazed at how much winning mattered to other people. It was a game. I really didn’t care. All I cared about was improving. As as a result, although I lost a lot of games, I improved most of the people I played against didn’t. I watched as players went from a point where I could never beat them to a point where I so dominated them that they weren’t worth playing. And they never got it because winning was all that mattered to them.

Life Is About Self Improvement

Winning is a game for kids. Adults should work on improving as a person. If you try to improve yourself, you are lucky because it will make you happy (well, happier). If everyone were like that, we would have a better world than the one we have now where everyone is encouraged to be “the best.” As it is, outside of measured sports (eg, running and jumping) there really is no “best.” After you get past a certain level on the violin, it is a matter of taste. And in that case, it’s a very small number of people who can tell the difference between an excellent college violinist and Itzhak Perlman.[2]

If people aren’t primarily involved in improving themselves (in all ways, including humility — something I need to work on more), you are simply left with nothing important. There is nothing that matters as much as the things you choose to spend your time on. Winning a gold metal really is pointless; but if you love swimming, getting to that level of ability is.

Above All, the Olympics Doesn’t Matter to the World

The Olympics are an opportunity for countries to show off. This is why they fight on the Olympic committee as to just which sports will be included. This makes the games all the more nationalistic. But if people like them, fine. But never mistake the Olympics for a gauge of which country is best. The best countries are the ones that see their people taken care off. It’s fine if people are great athletes. But they aren’t what makes us great. The Olympics aren’t important and are probably bad for us.

Afterword: Alfie Kohn on Education and Competition

This is a great lecture by Alfie Kohn. (By the way, what he does at the beginning — having people break up into small groups to solve a problem is how I taught physics. Imagine if your math teachers had done that with your classes.) He talks about how turning any activity into a competition makes the individual results worse. He’s talking primarily about education, but it fits so well with what I talked about in this article that I had to share. It’s possible that the best runners would be faster if they only ever ran alone for the purpose of their own improvement.

He also talks about a way of changing musical chairs so it isn’t competitive and ends up being much more fun for all involved.

People who have read me for a long time know that I greatly admire Kohn. And if you extrapolate his work to economics, you also see that capitalism really is a failure and how we can move on to something better.


[1] Phelps has never made a political statement so far as I know. I suspect he is kind of liberalish but mostly non-political. The reason I think he tilts a bit left is because he admits that he got lucky and it isn’t all his personal will and hard work that made him so successful. (Although really, I’d love to sit down and talk to him about the fact that there are way too many swimming events in the Olympics.)

[2] I might pick the college student anyway. I’ve always found Itzhak Perlman too flashy. I wish he would stick more closely to the music as written. But then, I’m the guy who doesn’t really like Romantic Period music. And I’m not questioning that Perlman is an annoyingly great player. I would still jump at the opportunity to hear him live.

Ice Dancing and Trying to Stay Awake

Ice DancingSo I was cooking dinner and forced to watch ski jumping, which I at least consider a sport. And then came on the ice dancing. And I’ll admit, I had been drinking. But I don’t think anyone should criticize me for metaphorically vomiting. It wasn’t on the screen. I admire what they were doing. But was it sport? No, not at all. It was beautiful in the way that a clarinet concerto is beautiful; but it was not sport.

These are amazing performers! But they were not athletes. To my mind, they were so much more. But atheletes? No! Atheletes are something different, and far less edifying. I want to talk to them. I want to know how they take just an activity and turn it into art. I want to know how they push away all the pretense and show us art.

Most of all, I want to know how they move so fluidly.

From Skill to Art

I want to know how they transform what is nothing more than skill into art. Because that is what they do. On the biggest of stages, they transform what is nothing more than technical moves and turn them into art.

How can it be?! They take what the proles think of as nothing but technique and create art.

Maybe they don’t even know. Maybe art is just craft turned into art without them even realizing it. How triumphant for the artists?! How wholly disreputable for the viewers who can see nothing but technique — those who miss the art.

Transcendiing Art

They are so focused on technique that they don’t even think of art. And so they think of what they need. They need only technique. It’s the one thing that the Olympics require. And this is why the Olympics is not worth watching.