Jack Vance: 1916 – 2013

Jack Vance has died.  Not one of my favorite authors, he nevertheless exerted tremendous influence, even on me, and is more than worthy of our remembrance.  I have written an appreciation over at the Proximal Eye, here.

One Down…

I don’t really have a lot to say about Michele Bachmann other than to note that her decision not to seek reelection seems to be a bellwether for the entire Tea Party movement.  Listening to her over the last several years, especially in her bids for the GOP nomination for president, has been like watching old episodes of the Twilight Zone, where the protagonist wakes up in a world that is similar to but not the same as the one with which he or she had lived in the day before.

Bachmann put herself forward as some kind of Original Intent Constitutionalist during her last campaign, but any examination of what she said and a look at the actual history she was touting seemed to show that her version of what that meant was much like anyone’s version of something they think they understand but haven’t actually studied.  One of her major gaffs was her claim that the Founders had “fought diligently to end slavery.”  I don’t know what was said in her classes about that, but slavery was an off-the-table subject for most of the drafting of the Constitution because everyone knew the southern states simply wouldn’t have anything to do with attempts to outlaw it.  The closest thing to a “diligent fight” among the Founders was an address to congress well after the ratification by an aging and ill Ben Franklin and a few others and then the efforts of John Quincy Adams—son of John Adams, not a Founder—who proved an unpopular one-term president.

Her grasp of the basics of constitutional history seem tenuous at best.  What she did  firmly grasp was the underlying sentiment of those who comprise the staunchest support for the Tea Party—white males with above-average incomes who don’t like taxes.

The Tea Party itself seems to be devouring itself.  We may be seeing its death rattle.  One can only hope.  In terms of social dynamics, the Tea Party’s closest comparison would seem to be one of the extremist groups like the KKK or the John Birchers.  Unlike them, the Tea Party appears more mainstream because it has never espoused racial hatred, so seemed rooted in ideas people could embrace without embarrassment.  But when you look at it, the Tea Party merely replaced ethnic groups with political ideology as the focus for prejudicial treatment.  You can’t accuse them of being racists when it’s not even people they attack but institutions.

Perhaps if they had been more thoughtful about their attacks…

But at base they seem incapable of being thoughtful, at least in aggregate.  One of the reasons they may be falling apart is that individuals who previously identified with them  are  thoughtful and have been finding the movement less and less congenial because of certain unreasonable positions.  They in fact have no solid core to pull people together.  It’s all based on personal prejudice, a poor grasp of realities, and a tacit insistence on absolute individual license—except when it’s for something they don’t like.

What it has been has been a social hissy-fit about the fact that the country is changing and instead of participating in any kind of constructive dialogue to accommodate the inevitable, they dedicated themselves as a group to obstructionism, as if to say “We won’t let anything pass that legitimizes what we don’t like.”

Whether the architects of the movement intended that, this is the result in action.  The Tea Party has lowered public confidence in congress to all-time lows, cost us billions in pointless exercises in ideological spleen, and damaged institutions which previously served necessary functions, all in the name of reinstating a kind of America that seems to exist only in their imaginations.  Imaginations fed more on dinner table jeremiads than actual history.

You can see their lack of real representation in two facts—one, almost all Tea Party candidates benefited primarily from newly gerrymandered congressional districts that went to great lengths to isolate just the right constituency to put them in office.  And even then, fact number two, their greatest successes have all been in midterm elections during low voter turn-out.  The 2010 debacle saw all those Tea Party seats taken with less than a quarter of eligible voters.  In 2012, they began losing those seats.  Bachmann herself barely hung onto hers, and she ran in one of the most tortuously contrived districts in Minnesota.

What successes remain have to do with reactions among independents who are more rationally uncomfortable with some of the policy changes coming down the pike.  Even so, one hopes that people in general are growing weary of the tactics of obstruction which seem to be the only card the Tea Party and its coincidental allies know how to play.  Standing in the way of policy, “just say no” rhetoric, is not policy, it’s irresponsible.

We do need people to represent us who see the world as it is, not dismiss it out of hand and insist on their conception of what it might once have been and could be again, especially when that conception is built on the fabulations of a poor understanding of history and personal prejudice masquerading as thoughtful deliberation.

Farewell, Ms. Bachmann.  Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Bread and Sacred Cows

Anyone who knows me knows I am in general antipathetic toward sports.  I don’t watch it, I don’t follow it, and I could not care less who is winning or losing.  The sun does not rise and set on finals, March Madness, seasons, MVPs, or any of that.  I missed being infected with this particular virus as a child and have never regretted it, as I find the whole thing baffling.

Mind you, I don’t have anything at all against playing sports.  I think more kids should (if they’re allowed in by the jocks, that is).  But watching?

Regardless my feelings about sports as such, my biggest complaint is with the fetishizing of it and the profound cost of such obsession on just about everything.  So much else of considerably more value often goes begging just so a city can have a brand new stadium.  Sports, frankly, generates enough income just by being, it does not need tax payer support, and that we grant it any, never mind as much as we do, should be the subject of government hearings.

But what really gets me hot is how much education is distorted by this obsession.

Did you know that, in all likelihood, your state’s highest paid public employee is a coach?

Here’s a delightful article with a colorful chart showing this fact state by state.

Mostly football coaches.

I’m sorry, but—what the fuck is wrong with everybody?  With all that we have slipped behind so many other countries in so many academic areas, exactly how does paying the football coach the highest compensation of any other public employee in a state serve to correct the profound epidemic of DUMB that seems the chief problem facing us today?

The article reiterates the well-established fact that major athletics programs make universities no money.  They cost.

We’re seeing tenure under assault, staffs being cut, tuition rising across the board, and money being spent on something that does nothing to advance the state of learning.  And football?  A moment aside for a personal note of invective.  Traumatic brain injuries, not to mention life-long injuries in general, should place this sport in the same category with boxing.  The group-think, team-spirit lunacy embraced—not by the players but by the fans—would not be a problem if it did not come at the expense of so much else.

(It doesn’t help my attitude that I was once threatened by several members of my high school’s varsity team with being thrown bodily from a third floor window because I expressed the opinion in the school paper that just maybe some other things were perhaps more important than football.)

With all the complaining about wasteful spending we have to listen to from people hell bent on curtailing just about anything useful in education (not to mention the country in general) why do we not hear congress up in arms about this?

Let me be emphatic—when a coach makes more money than a dean of an entire university, something if very, very wrong.  Spin it any way you like, I surely do not want to pay for this kind of crap.

National Day of Idiocy

We should have a National Day of Idiocy to celebrate our rich heritage of public figures who make asinine statements.

I find it both fascinating and revolting how a certain faction reaches for the Holocaust at every opportunity in order to retain their illusion that just about everything that makes them even mildly uncomfortable is part and parcel of the horrible paradigm that led to a slaughter which some of their supporters think never even happened.

The mayor of Charlotte, N.C. declared May 2nd a Day of Reason.  It also happens to be the national Day of Prayer.  While some may see this as pure hype and opportunism, there’s common factor between the two things—both have to do with finding guidance.  I doubt the majority of people see much conflict between prayer and reason—in fact, most would likely conjoin them, if not as philosophical counterparts at least as practical allies—but there are always those who will insist on seeing Evil in everything that is not christian.

So, the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust (because of moral relativism). My my. I suppose that’s why Hitler kept burning books, because he was such an Enlightenment fan boy.

This also overlooks things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish expulsion of Jews, the Thirty Years War, the murder of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade…

Of course, all those things were, I suppose, in response to moral relativism?

No, this is typical ahistorical nonsense from people who can’t seem to pull their heads out of the heavenly clouds. It would be laughable if not for its scope. Lamar Smith of Texas is proposing a bill to eliminate peer review in government-funded science programs. It’s a bit more complex than that, but in essence Smith wants technology programs, not basic research, and clearly does not understand how science is conducted or even why it’s important. And he’s on the Science. Space, and Technology Committee. No, wait, he’s the chair of the committee.

Laugh, cry, or go on vacation. The only question is how these people got where they are and have the ability to disrupt so much by sheer assertive nonsense.

What might follow now, as in past posts, would be a lengthy discourse on the nature of reason and why these people are wrong, but I’m tired and really, if you already find what they’re saying and doing crack-brained then you don’t need the lesson. I applaud the mayor of Charlotte for having the chutzpah to declare a Day or Reason in a state that thinks prayer will prevent Obama from being re-elected. (I’ll give you all a minute to digest that.) I’d like to see a few more politicians stand up to the idiocy.

Maybe we should establish a national Day of Lunacy on which we all find someone steeped in misinformation—you know, people who think FOX news is actually news?—and attempt an intervention. Get them to a lecture on the scientific method. Make them watch an episode of NOVA. Take them to lunch with Neil de Grasse Tyson.

What I would very much like to see is a genuine response among enough people matter to defend reason and science and instead of it just being a cool trendy thing that gives us new toys every few years actually elevates the level of national discourse.

Yeah, I still dream occasionally.