The Book!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The State of the Race for US President

Democratic Presidential Nominee 2016. You saw it here first.


Hillary Clinton is not going to be the Democratic nominee. She’s standing at 65% in the Democratic polls, after all, with anyone else in single digits (except Joe Biden, at 10%). That looks unprecedented. That looks prohibited. But Hillary Clinton is not going to be the Democratic nominee.

First off, polls at this great distance from the election reflect little more than name recognition. They do not measure enthusiasm. The Democrats have almost no big names on their benches, except for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. The real news here is that Biden has no chance of the nomination. The Democrats do already know him, and they have clearly chosen not to support him. But since most Democrats have no idea who Martin O’Malley is, how can they support him?

This will certainly change. Democratic primary voters prefer dark horses. To them, politics is religion. They crave a savior figure, someone with superhuman qualities. A “lightworker.” Remember the posters that once read “JC (Jimmy Carter, not Jesus Christ) Will Save America?” Anyone too well known is off the list. Too many known warts and imperfections. To be plausible, you must start out as almost a blank slate in the public mind, so they can project their fantasies on you.

That’s not Hillary Clinton, is it? She was too well known to make it last time around; she is better known now. The very fact that almost any potential rival is a relative unknown, ironically, seals her fate. There is too much opportunity for opposition to coalesce around one savior figure. Some untested Howard Dean, or Barack Obama, or Jimmy Carter, or George McGovern or Bill Clinton is likely to surprise in Iowa, and then go on to storm through the primaries. It is just impossible to tell who it might be now. My best guess is that it will be a woman, because Democrats are not going to feel good about voting against a woman unless it is for another minority.

On the Republican side, there is the opposite situation: they have many plausible candidates. The key to their nomination is that any viable candidacy has to achieve dominance over one or another of the party’s constituent factions. Without this, they will not have the organizational power to survive the primary process.

Ted Cruz, the current poll leader, looks as though he has a solid grip, for now, on the Tea Party. Rand Paul is the obvious choice for the Libertarians. The party establishment seems to be behind Chris Christie. That leaves one major faction unaccounted for, without an obvious candidate: the Christian right.

Current slight favourite in a wide-open race.

The big name best positioned for raising their flag is Mike Huckabee, if he is interested. Rick Santorum’s current poll numbers are not encouraging for him. Bobby Jindal has a shot here, buoyed by his school voucher initiative. There is also opportunity here for a dark horse.

I see a realistic path for Jeb Bush as well. He has an automatic faction of establishment support, as a Bush. Christie faces serious challenges in the early primaries, like those Rudy Giuliani faced, or Mitt Romney, because, as a Northeasterner, he has inevitably taken positions that will not appeal to the Iowan grassroots. Florida’s early primary then becomes Bush’s possible ace in the hole to take out a faltering Christie. The establishment support would then move to him. He’s run well against a Democratic dark horse, too—as an experienced hand at the tiller, after the amateurism of the Obama administration.

Paul Ryan also has a shot. Because he comes from a nearby state, he could probably put together a good ground organization in Iowa, allowing him to score a possible upset—a result that makes him look stronger on the ground than in recent national polls. This then becomes the press lede, and he gets a lot of coverage going into New Hampshire.

The basic math is this: if any one candidate ends up as the champion of two of the four main Republican factions, libertarians, tea party populists, establishment, and Christians, he gets the nomination. Though in the past, the Establishment alone has often been sufficient. Who is most likely to do this?

And the Christian right is the one faction that seems most up for grabs.

Ted Cruz’s path looks clearest for the moment—Tea Party plus Christian right. But Tea Party support is rather fickle.

Next to that, I’d take Jeb Bush’s chances. Establishment plus Christian right. That’s the combination that put his brother over the top. But he starts from a position of dominating neither.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Banned Books




“Banned Books Week” has just concluded in the US, and this library display has been all over the Internet.

Great cartooning; but some of the claims it makes seem to be false. As far as I can tell, The Wizard of Oz has never been banned anywhere for “depicting women in strong leadership roles.” Some review did criticize it for this when it came out—i.e., in the very first years of the 20th century. Not exactly a clear and present danger. The Lorax was apparently pulled from some school libraries in California—in lumbering towns. Not because it “criminalized the foresting industry,” but because it might discourage local kids from going into that business. Is this really such a threat to our freedoms?

And then there is the bit about Winnie the Pooh being banned “because talking animals are an insult to God.” I can’t find evidence of this anywhere, but it makes no sense on the face of it.

First, there are talking animals in the Bible. Ever heard of the serpent in Eden? Balaam’s ass?

Second, there are talking animals in almost every children’s book written since Aesop.

Third, there are no talking animals in Winnie the Pooh.

Only talking stuffed toys, animated by Christopher Robin’s imagination.

Someone has been put on.

More generally, I’m afraid I cannot get too excited about school libraries and public libraries not stocking particular books. This is not censorship. Censorship is when you cannot legally buy a copy of a given book. It is just common sense that we have some limits on the books available to everyone’s children, and financed by the public’s taxes. Should school libraries stock Playboy and Hustler? Mein Kampf? The Anarchist Cookbook? At most, we are only debating whether these particular books should have been paid for and provided

Saturday, September 28, 2013

More on Gilmour

I'm seeing repeated comments from academics saying Gilmour has no business teaching English, because he has no Ph.D.

Folks, supply and demand. Ph.D.'s are a dime a dozen. Successful novelists, on the other hand, are extremely rare. It is a far harder thing to do, and takes a lot more raw ability.

And who is really best qualified to give you good insights about literature? Someone who has read a lot of it, or someone who has written it?

Of course, the bottom line should be this: do good numbers of students sign up for his course?

David Gilmour's Transgression



Novelist David Gilmour has apparently made quite a stir with recent comments about the courses he teaches at U of T. Students are holding protest rallies. A fellow U of T professor has posted a rather personal online rebuttal. The chair of the U of T English department has publicly declared himself “appalled and deeply upset.”

Goodness—what exactly did Gilmour say?

The entire transcript is here. He says he only teaches books he himself loves, and, “unfortunately,” none of the authors happen to be Canadian, women, or Chinese. All of them seem to be “serious heterosexual guys.”

I find it hard to see anything objectionable here. I think it has to be either 1. that Gilmour is teaching only books he likes, as opposed to some official canon of great literature, or 2. that Gilmour does not happen to really like any books by women (except, he notes, Virginia Woolf), Chinese authors, Canadian authors, or openly homosexual authors.

But it can't be 2., can it? After all, there's no disputing taste. Gilmour's taste is certainly not the same as mine either, but to object to this would be ridiculous.

So it must be 1, that he is departing from the accepted canon? Yet Gilmour's chosen authors are in any way obscure: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Phillip Roth. Surely all are, in fact, in the accepted canon, except perhaps for Roth, who is too recent to have a traditional place. So this can't be it.

And the bigger problem here is that English departments themselves have long ago departed from any accepted canon. Quite possibly they shouldn't have, but it's a bit late to blame Gilmour for this. The only issue should be whether the books and authors studies are clearly stated on the syllabus. Which, in Gilmour's case, they were.

So how, then, are books now supposed to be chosen for a course, if the traditional canon is to be ignored, yet it is not supposed to be the personal preference of the prof?

The answer, sadly, is painfully obvious. They are supposed to be chosen for political reasons, on the basis of affirmative action. Properly, whether the author is male or female, Canadian, homosexual, or Chinese, should not have any bearing on the literary quality of a book. But these days, English departments are all about politics, and have little interest in the literary quality of a book. One must include women, gays, and no doubt other designated groups in any curriculum. One need not, on the other hand, include heterosexual males; one can just bill the course "women authors," or "queer studies," and then it's okay to exclude men.

Indeed, quite apart from personal taste, it may well be, in the real world, that women have just not written as many good books as have men. This is quite likely, given that women have written many fewer books overall. It may well be, in the real world, that homosexuals have not written as many good books as heterosexuals. This is quite likely, given that homosexuals have written many fewer books overall. The same might be said of Canadians, or Chinese authors, at least Chinese authors accessible in English. Why should David Gilmour be held responsible for this? And why should students nevertheless be forced to waste their precious and expensive college time with inferior books in defiance of this fact?

Gilmour deserves the Order of Canada for this.

Stephen Fry on Unbelief





A friend has sent me a link to this talk by Stephen Fry, “The Importance of Unbelief,” as the justification for their own atheism/humanism—and asked for a response.

Fry's main point, or at least the hook for the talk, is that you should not believe in an afterlife, because if you do, you will not make the most of this life. This is not really an argument against the existence of the afterlife: just because a thing is inconvenient, you cannot will it out of existence. But even on its own terms, this seems to me to be about the opposite of the truth. In either case, afterlife or no afterlife, you only have a predictably finite time in this life. If you believe in an afterlife, however, everything you do here matters; you are obliged to make the most of your time. If you do not, nothing you do now matters. You might as well just watch some more TV. You go for whatever seems most comfortable at the moment; which is generally making a living and indolence.

May I speak of myself? Believing in the afterlife, I have made rather a greater effort than most of my contemporaries to educate myself, to experience the best in art, and to see the world. But I can't hold a candle to, say, St. Francis Xavier or any of the other early Jesuits. It was the Church that invented the schools and universities, that inspired and supported all the great art, even that inspired the idea of travel (see pilgrimage), right up until quite modern times.

Fry then dismisses the argument for the existence of God from design—i.e., from the beauty of nature. But here he is confusing different things: he takes beauty to be the same as pleasantness and prettiness. There is awful death in nature? There is awful death in Hamlet, too, or Romeo and Juliet, or Oedipus Rex. Does that mean they are bad plays? Does that mean they are not beautiful?

Nature is beautiful in the true sense—true beauty is not prettiness, but must include the sublime.

Fry is left arguing that nature is morally unsatisfactory—a separate argument, and he must still account for why, if without a designing intelligence, it is beautiful. He does not; he cannot.

So we turn to the “argument from evil.” Is nature immoral? No, not in detail. Because animals, plants, viruses and volcanoes are not morally conscious beings, they cannot be acting immorally.

Does nature involve suffering? No doubt. Is suffering evil? Who knows?

What he means, then, presumably, is that nature overall seems to act unjustly. That does appear to be so—why is one person born beautiful while the next is born ugly? Why does one person die in infancy, while another lives to be eighty? This is the question famously raised by the Bible in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The world is unjust. On this, we all agree.

But then, this becomes an argument for the existence of God. If we have this unshakeable conviction that there ought to be justice, must be justice, despite all the evidence of the world as it is, where can this conviction come from? Obviously not from experience. Ergo, it must have been put there by God, Ergo, it is a sign of God's own true nature and his plan. Ergo, there will be justice. Ergo, there must be an afterlife.

Fry's next argument is that science has replaced the need for God. This is the essential premise of the new pseudo-religion of Scientism, which has done a great deal of harm in the modern world; not least to science. To begin with, science is a tool; science makes no claims to truth in the philosophical sense. If this were not enough, science can also tell us nothing about morality, meaning, or subjective experience. This last is important, because in the end, all that we really have is subjective experience. Everything else exists only theoretically.

Fry then insists that we have responsibility for “creating our own ethical and moral frameworks.” Can you see the problem here? If we have free choice over what is right or wrong, then we have the right to decide for ourselves that, for us, it is okay to torture and kill small children, for example. It is just our free moral choice, right? Then too, we have no business at all complaining about a Hitler or a Nazi Germany, do we? Killing Jews and such was just their free moral choice. Much less about a Church “imposing its morals on us.” That's just their own moral choice, isn't it?

Surely you, like me, are instantly repelled by this proposed state of affairs. No, we know in our hearts that it is wrong to torture and kill small children, right? Okay, let's leave aside abortion for now... In other words, we do not create our own ethical and moral frameworks. Morality and ethics are absolutes; we cannot legitimately violate them on our own say-so or choice. If we do, we are acting immorally. Reject this premise, and morality itself has no meaning.

But if morality and ethics are absolutes, regardless of what this or that person, or even all people put together, might think about it, where do they come from? The answer really has to be that they are from God, and an expression of his essential nature. Ergo, God is good. They also reveal his plan: his plan is for the moral good.

Fry contrasts his view that morality is something we decide on for ourselves with the idea that it comes from “words put down in a book.” This is the fallacy of the false alternative. Nobody I know believes that morality itself comes from the Bible, or any other book. Christians believe that the sense of right and wrong is inborn. It is called conscience.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dave Nichol Has Died




... for those who did not know. Besides being a brilliant marketer, Nichol was a real and major contributor to Canadian folk culture--which is the only real culture there is. He changed Canadian cuisine.

I used to love his Insider Reports just for the sheer reading pleasure.

Kingston Prison: Time Keeps Moving On

A new "open door" policy.
Kingston Penitentiary, Canada's historic maximum security prison, is closing down. The question on everyone's mind now is what to do with the building. Of course, most obviously, they should turn it into a museum. But it's a bit too large for that. Here's my proposed solution: make it a living museum. Besides the delightfully gruesome exhibits, it should rent rooms, like a hotel. This would of course not be everybody's idea of a fun vacation, but I suspect it would be a real draw for some people, especially young people, to spend a night in a cell that might have been used by Paul Bernardo or Clifford Olson. Great talking point once you get home. Especially great for class trips, with a double message: first, the history lesson, and second, why you don't want to end up here.

I imagine three room options: some cells could be kitted out to the maximum luxury possible without altering the essential structural integrity. Some could be kitted out just for a reasonable level of comfort. And some could be left exactly as they would have been for the last inmates. If this is still a bit plush, and I suspect it might be, a fourth level could retrofit to what the cells would have been like in the early 20th century. People could then choose their own particular adventure-to-comfort quotient.

Jailbird's eye view.
A restaurant would be needed, of course; for overnight and day visitors. The menu could offer traditional restaurant fare, for the conservative, plus, for those seeking the full experience, typical meals for prisoners from various stages in the prison's history.

Simply knocking down one exterior wall, the one facing Portsmouth Harbour, could give the prison a prime waterfront view with a marina. But if the other security walls are left up, they look as though they might make fine outdoor screens for nightly projections of classic crime and horror movies. You couldn't get much more atmospheric... And what a perfect setting for a live dinner theatre "murder mystery" evening.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Dynamics of a Rock Band

Remember him? He founded The Byrds.

There is a certain inevitable dynamic to rock bands that usually leads to them breaking up soon after achieving fame. The original leader of the band almost never ends up as the final leader of the band, and he usually quits in bitterness towards the others, most often at about this point.

Some famous examples: Who was the original leader of the Rolling Stones? Brian Jones—who left the band in 1969. Now the Stones are run by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Byrds? Gene Clark—who left after two years. The Band? Levon Helm, who stayed with the band, but due to bad feelings towards the others, did not appear for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Band had enough cohesion from many years of playing together to weather the storm of fame better than most. The Who? Roger Daltrey put the band together, not Pete Townsend. The Doors? Ray Manzarek, not Jim Morrison. Remember Paul Revere and the Raiders? Wasn’t it confusing how Paul Revere was just the guy on keyboards, while the leader was obviously Mark Lindsay?



Did he ever make the cover of The Rolling Stone?
The original leader is generally a practical guy, an organizer. His skill is in pulling a bunch of guys together, giving them a direction, getting them their first engagements. A businessman, an entrepreneur; possibly a musical director of sorts. But these skills matter very little once a band gets off the ground, because they move to professional management. On the other hand, once the group becomes well-known, the essence of their value as a commercial enterprise becomes whatever makes their sound unique and identifiable. If this person walks, the group is dead; so whatever they say goes.

Who this person is going to be is not altogether predictable in advance. It is most likely to be the songwriter of the group. Next most probable is the lead singer, because voices are the instruments most likely to be distinctive, and the lead singer tends to be the focus of attention on stage. After that, in a rock band, the lead guitarist, if he has a truly distinctive style. Bassists, drummers, and rhythm guitarists are easily interchangeable.




The original name was going to be The Levon Helm Sextet.
Brian Jones was dead in the water—if you’ll pardon the expression--because he could not sing very well and could not compose. Outsiders naturally went to Jagger first, as both singer and co-composer. The amazing thing is that Keith Richards managed to hold his own—this indicates who the real songwriting talent is in that band. In the Byrds, Gene Clark was both a singer and a songwriter, but was doomed when producers decided to go with McGuinn’s more distinctive voice. Because it was distinctive, it became the group’s signature, along with McGuinn’s truly unique guitar playing. Even with his songwriting talents, Clark, who played no instrument, was left with nothing to do when the group was on stage. And their biggest hits were cover tunes; Clark’s songs were never a critical asset.

In The Band, Levon Helm was also a singer, but not the lead singer. That was Richard Manuel. But Manuel did not really dominate, because he was one of three good voices used regularly—himself, Helm, and Rick Danko. Robbie Robertson came to lead the band because of his dominant songwriting abilities, and a powerful stage presence. With three singers, he was the one consistent point around which everything else on stage seemed to revolve. When he left the Band, and the Band nevertheless tried to continue, it got nowhere—because it could not generate any new songs.



The Doors' founder and best musician (r), and best songwriter (l) trying to give autographs.
When Jim Morrison died, similarly, The Doors could not carry on. They retained a distinctive sound in Manzarek’s organ, and considerable songwriting talent with Robbie Kreiger, but Morrison’s voice and his outrageous stage personality were too much the essence of the band in the public eye. For The Who, Pete Townsend surpassed Roger Daltrey when he started writing songs. Daltrey stayed in the band, but the feuds the two got up to were legendary.

As the examples suggest, all this is fairly unpredictable; it is hard to know when the band is just setting out what in what they do will strike a public chord and become their marketable essence. But it is always most likely that the original leader will be supplanted. If the odds are random, and there are four or five members of the band, the original leader has only a 20 to 25% chance of ending up on top.

But organizational skill does not generally come along with artistic talent; more often the opposite. Serious artists tend to be quite impractical in their view of the world. It is the unique and original artist who will end up dominating in this situation. The odds are stacked against it being the same guy who has the organizational skill.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

One More Avowed Christian Rocker

... Orion Omar Spence, son of the lamented Skip Spence who founded Moby Grape. Omar has taken Skip's place in recent Moby Grape reunions.

The Problem with Teach for America: Less is More




Problem: our current vision of school is as a factory, where learning should be efficient and scientific. And everyone emerges identical.

Here’s a strange article objecting to Teach for America, the programme that hires top graduates fresh out of college, gives them five weeks’ training, and then sends them into the schools. It argues that the preparation the enrollees get in this program is absurd. This can easily be seen to be the case. Yet its proposed solution is to give enrollees more such training. And this despite the fact that, as the article admits, those who get more of the same training—those who go to Teachers’ Colleges--do not do as well as the Teach for America grads. The evidence for this last is actually far stronger than the author would like.

The proper solution is obvious: eliminate the five weeks’ training. Granted, it might be better to have some training, but not the training they are ever likely to get under the current system. The training they currently get is ultimately coming from the Teachers’ Colleges.

On what’s wrong with the training, the author could again be clearer. She quotes approvingly the core message she was given: “as a 2011 corps member and leader, you have a deep personal and collective responsibility to ground everything you do in your belief that the educational inequality that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is both our nation’s most fundamental injustice and a solvable problem. This mindset… is at the core of our Teach For America—Metro Atlanta Community.”

This is a political statement. Working as a public school teacher should not require a set of political or religious “beliefs.” And this particular faith is actually antithetical to the educational enterprise. The job of the teacher is most naturally not to ensure “educational equality”—i.e., that all students get the same results. It is to strive to get for each student the best results of which he is capable. Equality of results necessarily requires holding the best students back.

Moreover, with this core principle, why should the author be surprised, or frustrated, by a student’s argument that there is no point in applying himself, since "I did the same thing last year and I passed"? Smart kid. Where everyone wins, and the hardest workers are held back, working hard is for suckers.

Come to think of it, this enforced equality of outcome could have a lot to do with the discipline problems the author, and so many other teachers, complain about. The problem is, the kids are not stupid. They get the mixed messages, and know the Mickey Mouse Show when they see it.

The “sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises” in which our author was immersed for five weeks must indeed have been uncomfortable for a good student. But welcome to Teachers' College: imagine a full year or two of this. And then emerging to subject one’s students to much of the same.

These things are vague time-wasters for a reason: the current educational establishment has nothing else to offer. They have no specific suggestions on how to manage an unruly class, or on how to improve student retention, because they have no idea how to do it. If they knew, they could probably convey it well enough in five weeks. But if they ever say something concrete, their bluff could be called; the next—or worse, the last—study is just as likely to discredit it. the studies all go around in a circle, and never come to any solid conclusions. They never will, for the human mind is too complex a thing.