Monday, August 31, 2015

It Ain't So Much That People Is Ignorant

The Meaning of Life

Still life with will-o-the-wisp and snake: Heindrich.

We were speaking of the meaning of life. It is not 42.

We looked at the quest for power or leadership, and saw that it was a chimera. It must always end in frustration and disappointment. So too with wealth, fame, and the pursuit of knowledge of the academic sort.

But we have not exhausted all possibilities yet.

Many seek fulfillment in marrying and raising children—the family values bit. “That must be what it’s all about,” as Bob Dylan once sang. Interestingly, though, the Bible does not validate this; and the Bible is right. If your own life is meaningless except for producing a new life or lives, then those lives in turn must also be meaningless—one has simply created an infinite regression. 

Chimera, Ukraine

Others seek meaning in art and the creation of art. I do believe art can lead to meaning or the recovery of meaning on a personal level. It has this great value. But there is still, it seems, something vain about devoting one’s life to the creation of art. The truth is that there is more fine art in the world than any person can possibly fully appreciate in one lifetime. There is therefore no objective value in creating more unless, by chance, you can do it better than anyone who has come before. This is not likely. One should create or appreciate art for personal benefit, as a kind of spiritual medicine, but it is off track to make aesthetics the essence of one’s life.

So—should one devote one’s life to works of charity? Not a bad thing, surely, but again, not the core value. If all you are doing with your life is making another life more pleasant, you run into the same infinite regression as with having children. If your life is otherwise meaningless, then so is that life. Nor does an omnipotent and compassionate God, assuming you believe, really need someone like you to fix his creation for him.

The meaning of life must, if only by elimination, by elimination, be this: establishing a relationship with that God.

Still life with carrot and jackass.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Forest and the Trees

Poor Gloria! On Monday, she vomited on the subway:
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

There is something rather sad and painful about watching all the serious candidates for US President. There they are, 22 of them, by my count. All with incredible resumes, all poised and sharp, all ambitious and driven. Many have spent their entire lives trying to get here. Yet in the end, only one of them gets to be president. The odds are awful.

And for each of them standing there, there are a hundred, a thousand, behind them with the same goal, of success in electoral politics, who never got this far.

In other words, for most of them, the morning after will feel like a wasted life, an ultimate failure.

It was the wrong tree, guys. You might as well have been chasing your tail.

I have the same feeling about academics. I once wanted to be an academic. But I discovered that most academic fields are based on fundamental errors. And most academic writing is an attempt to obfuscate so as to avoid being called on this. A very few academics make a worthwhile contribution to human knowledge. This has little to do with their innate talent or hard work, and most to do with dumb luck. For if you happen to find yourself in one of the fields that is off on the wrong track, it is impossible to buck that system. Go to grad school, and the odds are overwhelming that you will spend your entire life just pushing meaningless words around.

The same can obviously be said for the pursuit of money and possessions. One can never be satisfied; one can never have enough. Worse, the more one has, the more one fears to lose. You will, of course, eventually lose it; or your children or grandchildren will. And it means nothing to die the richest man in the graveyard.

Fame? Need I explain why fame is a curse? Read the life story of virtually any celebrity. Right up to the suicide.

There are a lot of wrong trees out there, and a lot of people barking up them.

In the end, the only tree worth barking up is the one with nails in it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trump and the Bible

Donald Trump was recently asked about his favourite verse of the Bible. He declined to say, arguing that his was “private.”

This naturally leads to the suspicion that Trump does not really know the Bible well, and that his claim that it is his favourite book is fabricated for public consumption.

That may be. On the other hand, there is something a little off, theologically, with asking for a “favourite verse” of the Bible, and Trump's answer could be perfectly justified on religious grounds.

You have to take the Bible as a whole, after all. It is the word of God. You cannot pick and choose passages you like and don't like. Each part must be understood in light of every other part. Otherwise, you are in danger of “proof texting”--as has been said, the Devil himself can quote scripture to his ends.

Given that the Bible must be taken, theologically, all in all, what can it mean to ask about or have a “favourite” passage? There are only two legitimate, non-proof-texting possibilities. One is an aesthetic judgement—which passage is the most poetic, most beautiful. But this is “Bible as literature” stuff, and not the way a believer naturally thinks. The other is which passage has spoken to you the most personally. And if this was meant, Trump is being reasonable in saying that is too personal. It would by its nature be something quite personal, perhaps connected with difficult experiences in one's past.

Assuming Trump was sincere has the advantage of making his response to a follow-up question coherent in turn. When he was asked the easier question, whether he preferred the Old or the New Testament, he declined again to choose a favourite. After all, even if he knew absolutely nothing of the Bible, he could easily and safely have said one or the other here. He did not. This really does suggest a principled stance on theological grounds.

In any case, it would be wrong for Christians to judge the depth of Trump's Christianity, so long as he professes to be a Christian. The critical thing is that he is prepared to acknowledge Jesus and the Bible.

49John answered and said, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us." 50But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you." (Luke 9: 49-50).

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Virginia Shooting

Vester Flanagan, black, in a 23-page faxed suicide note, says he killed Virginia TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, both white, in revenge for the Charleston church shootings and because he felt blacks and gays were discriminated against. He wanted to start a race war.

Back when Charleston was in the news, mainstream media outlets and left-wing commentators were quick—I’d say immediate—in branding the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, a “right-winger,” primarily because he shot black people (and despite the fact that he also shot Christians, in a church). They did the same with the guy who shot Gabby Giffords, despite the fact that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and his main concern seemed to be bad grammar.

Waiting, then, to see whether any of them will describe Flanagan as a “left-winger.” So far, nothing.

How odd.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Iowa and New Hampshire, Six Months Out

Where's Trump?
Back to the political junk, as a dog returns to its vomit. What’s the state of the US Presidential race as of today?

In the normal course of things, both parties generally come out of Iowa and New Hampshire with just two or three viable candidates. Who will they be?

Note that we are forecasting events six months from now. A week is a long time in politics. So we are quite likely to be wrong. Still, it’s fun to speculate.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s campaign hot-air balloon is now steadily losing altitude. I don’t think this will stop. The server/email scandal is going to stay in the news for months, if it does not absolutely scupper her before that. Some of her supporters may not want to shift to Sanders, feeling that he is too far to the left or too white. But there are other candidates in the race.

Those looking for a Joe Biden to replace her, are looking in the wrong direction. I don’t think Biden will get in—his poll numbers are too low to look like a draft. He risks embarrassment. In any case, all Biden getting in will do is help Clinton, by dividing the opposition.

More likely, Clinton support will start going to Martin O’Malley. He’s a dark horse, and Democrats like dark horses. As a former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, he has shown an ability to win black votes, if Sanders cannot. Iowa likes to upset front-runners, and there is reason why it does. Iowa is a caucus state. That means actual polls are less important. More important are organization, fervor, lots of gladhanding at county fairs, and appeal to the politically well-informed. Sanders should do well on fervor. O’Malley has been doing a lot of slogging, retail politics, on the model of John Edwards, and this is what is inclined to win through in the Iowa context. Since he beats the polls, it looks to the media like big momentum. Suddenly O’Malley is everywhere. Then New Hampshire, which likes to go against Iowa, goes for Sanders instead of Hillary—he is already leading there. And it’s almost all over for Hillary. She probably has the money to stay in the race until the end, but that doesn’t get her any wins. Bill Bradley had the money.

Among the Republicans, it is more complicated. It doesn’t particularly matter whether Trump comes in first in Iowa. He might; but he is more or less certain to do worse than the polls say, since it is limited to high-information voters and party stalwarts. So the story will still be “Trump loses,” and a spotlight will shine on someone else. There is room for two more candidates who are not Trump coming out of New Hampshire: an establishment pony, and a right-wing pony holding the outside position. The establishment colours are likely to be on Jeb Bush. His support could collapse before then, but I doubt it. He has the money, and enough experience that he is unlikely to blunder badly. He is a bit rusty from being out of politics, but that means he will probably get better on the stump quickly, and this may look like momentum.

The right-wing pick is more dubious. Over the last two cycles, the right-wing pick has been more specifically the favourite of the religious right, and the religious right has been powerful enough in Iowa to deliver their man an outright win—Huckabee and Santorum. Both pretty dark horses going in. No reason to assume the Christians are less powerful this time.

There are a few candidates who are going to look good to the Christian right: Santorum and Huckabee are back, and Cruz, Rubio, Perry, Walker and Jindal are also angling for their support. The Jesus people might split their votes and end up ineffective. But I doubt it. They seem to be well organized. In Iowa, the word gets out: we support X this time, as a group. Huckabee is probably the candidate closest to their heart. However, the last two times, when they backed dark horses, they only succeeded in propelling them into a second-place finish. That’s not really good enough. If they think they can in good conscience, they would probably rather back someone who could eventually win.

This argues, I think, for Walker or Rubio. Possibly Cruz if he keeps rising in the polls; but Cruz is too unpopular with the party establishment to be a likely winner. Walker seems to be fading, too, and Rubio rising. So let’s say it’s Rubio they settle on.

So we have the following top three when the Iowa votes come in: Rubio, Bush, and Trump, in any order. Possibly a top four in any order, including Rand Paul in the mix. Rand Paul should be able to do well too, on the strength of the libertarian vote. But neither Trump nor Paul really matter, because they cannot win the nomination. The real race then boils down to Bush and Rubio.

Then Kasich will be lying in wait for Bush in New Hampshire. If Bush does not make a pretty strong showing in Iowa, besting Rubio, he will be vulnerable in NH. Put simply, if Rubio comes out of Iowa with more votes than Bush, Bush is in trouble, and Rubio is the probable nominee. If Bush does better than Rubio in Iowa, the race goes on.

But anything, anything, could happen.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Importance of Communication

A good actor is probably a good politician.

The secret to being a successful president of the US is to be a really good communicator. This is doubly true for a conservative Republican running for president, because the media are against you. To be able to get the message out, you actually have to be a better communicator than the professional media.

It can be done. Reagan did it; Thatcher and Churchill did it in the UK. Because they face this initial bar, any conservative that makes it into office is likely to be particularly good at the job once he/she gets there.

Many conservatives felt deeply frustrated with Mitt Romney and John McCain on these grounds. They were not effective spokesmen for conservatism. It has been said that Romney “spoke conservatism only as a second language.” George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush were not much better. W. was personally likeable, but was not articulate enough to be able to sell policy.

It is exciting, then, that there are so many really good communicators in the current Republican field. Starting with Donald Trump. He breaks all the rules; which is to say, he is a genius at communicating. Perhaps Republicans and conservatives should count themselves lucky to have him on side, instead of lamenting his presence. I hope more serious candidates are, instead, able to learn from him. In the meantime, he is shaping the debate in a conservative direction.

In the end, however, Trump does not have the qualifications nor the temperament to be president. Fortunately, there are other standouts in this race: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and John Kasich. All of them are exceptionally good communicators. Chris Christie is perhaps in the same league.

The Democrats, by contrast, this time at least, have nobody running who is nearly this good. Obama was pretty good. Bill Clinton was very good. Hillary Clinton is terrible. Sanders looks good only by comparison.

As a result, I think the odds are good this time for the Republicans to take the presidency, regardless what the polls currently say, and for the next presidency to be a quite successful one.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trump the Bully

TIME magazine has run a rather sympathetic cover story on Donald Trump. I do not like Donald Trump as a candidate. But I have to comment on TIME's description there of him as a “bully”--something I've heard said of Trump elsewhere. The use of the term in relation to Trump usefully illustrates the problem with anti-bullying programs in the schools: the targets are likely not to be actual bullies, but those vulnerable to bullying.

For Trump is not a bully. At least, he has never obviously bullied anyone during his candidacy, as Jeb Bush, for example, has. The examples TIME cites are: Trump raising his hand to say he would not rule out a third party run; Trump calling Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” among other things; Trump saying he preferred war heroes who had not been captured to John McCain; Trump calling Lindsay Graham a “stiff,” Trump calling Jeb Bush a “puppet,” and similar comments about Rand Paul and Rick Perry.

All, manifestly, people who had just attacked Trump. To which his “bullying” was a direct response. In other words, Trump was not on the offensive: he was standing up to someone trying to bully him. Baier, Kelly, McCain, Graham, Bush, Paul and Perry were the bullies. Trump was the victim. The problem is, he did not lie down and submit. No doubt this was annoying to them.

Why TIME's mistake? Simple: to a bully, refusing to lie down and get walked over is unacceptably impertinent behaviour. Bullies do not handle such things well. And TIME magazine, like the rest of the MSM, is accustomed to bullying politicians.

Unfortunately, the same is true for teachers and administrators in the schools. They are often there for the perk of being able to tell a classroom, or an entire school, full of vulnerable people what to do on a daily basis. Given the authority to punish bullies, they will pretty consistently use this power not against bullies, but to bully and to punish anyone who stands up to bullying.

It's as predictable as night follows day, B follows A, and what goes up must come down.