The Feast of the Epiphany

Today is the final day of the Christmas feast, at least the twelve-day feast of historic fame. It marks the revelation of the Christ to the Magi, and thus symbolically to the whole non-Jewish world. 

Pragmatically this is the traditional day to take down Christmas decorations, which occupied much of my afternoon. I also shifted from feasting to fasting (in the worldly sense of those terms) after New Year’s Eve. We are eating a more sensible diet, and as always I’m observing Dry January. Now that the decorations are gone and things are barren for the winter, we can look forward to a cold, dark season — but one that ends in spring and new hope. 

Surprise! SECDEF Hospitalized

Readers of the Hall are old enough to remember many occasions when a President has been put under for a medical procedure, and the Vice President has been acting President for the day. It’s always been public knowledge, secure in the fact that American government had a well established bench of people who were trusted to take over if the top guy fell. 

Currently, the Secretary of Defense is just being released from a week long hospitalization that was kept secret. (Get well, Secretary Austin.) Military Reporters and Editors is protesting the secrecy as a violation of the Pentagon’s published rules on information sharing. It’s definitely out of order with standard practice, as their letter shows. 

I wonder if it is a result of the President’s own obvious frailty, combined with a generalized sense that the VP is a lightweight who can’t be trusted to take charge? Maybe the powers that be were terrified by the idea that the SECDEF was down too. Maybe they were afraid that, even with the President in place, that would have been too much of a vulnerability if it became clear to foreign powers. 

UPDATE: Apparently they didn’t tell the National Security Council, either. 

UPDATE: Or anyone. 

Liberty Bell 7

A little different, but well within specs. 

Tooling Around

Big ice storm coming through tonight, so I rode over to the clubhouse station to make sure things are in order. 

On the Importance of Prepositions

An opinion piece in today's Washington Post is titled, "I killed a deer in my bathroom." 

Now that sounds unsual! Deer are normally very circumspect around people, and while they might come into your yard in search of apples dropped from your apple tree, or a nutritous grass, they aren't likely to come into your house. I decided to read the piece, expecting perhaps one of those stories in which a deer thought killed by a car is placed somewhere like the trunk of a car, only to revive and need to be dispatched later. Perhaps he was planning to clean it in his shower, avoiding the chill of winter while being able to avail himself of the drain and the showerhead for easy cleanup? That would be insightful for a Washington Post guy.

It turns out that, no, the issue is that the editors decided to fudge the preposition to make the piece sound more interesting. What he really meant was that he had killed a deer from his bathroom, i.e., by shooting out the window. 

The piece is otherwise kind of interesting. It endorses hunting as a humane means of culling a deer herd that has -- he claims, and I'll just assume without evidence that he is right -- grown to 14 times what can be sustained. It's good citizenship, even good environmentalism and conservationism, for him to buy a rifle and take up hunting. That's a view that I would be happy to encourage, provided that it doesn't encourage the common misconception of the Second Amendment as a sort-of right-to-hunt amendment. 

Venison is also very healthy; I eat a lot of it myself. Last night I made a venison cube steak braise in a Chile Colarado sauce; for New Year's Eve, the venison steak pies that I like on that occasion. If he's correct that we have an overabundance of deer, maybe think about going and getting some yourselves. 

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

I started reading The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius last night. Two years ago during January we read through the Enchiridion by Epictetus, who deeply influenced Aurelius' own thinking. In spite of that strong influence, I don't feel qualified to write a commentary on Marcus Aurelius' work in the way that I felt qualified to comment on the Greek's, whose own influences are well known to me. 

Aurelius' work is strongly conditioned by his Roman upbringing -- I suppose everyone knows that he was a Roman Emperor as well as a Stoic philosopher. It is immediately obvious to me, from the opening lines of the first book, that he is starting in a different place. 

Book One

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.

From my governor.... 

From Diognetus.... 

From Rusticus.... 

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.

From Sextus....

This goes on for quite a while, each ancestor of blood or thought recognized and gratefully thanked for his heritage. There's nothing like this in Greek philosophy. Aristotle very often starts an inquiry by rounding up the opinions of the wise, but it is to explain them and then explain what is wrong with them. There's no point in a new enquiry if we already have the right answers, after all. Plato likewise uses his predecessors as a starting point for a new enquiry, with plenty of room to see how they were wrong as well as where they may have had ideas that are worthy of further exploration.

The Roman is aware of his heritage, his position in a tradition, and he is grateful to those who came before him for wise lessons. He still wants to explore the universal problems. He wants to talk about death, which comes to us all and washes away our positions and traditions and often even memory of them. He wants to talk about suffering, which comes even to Roman Emperors. Those are the real subjects of his meditations. Nevertheless, he begins with gratitude and acknowledgement, and a recognition of the wisdom of those who came before.

Justice and the Same Article

The subject that happened to have our Pulitzer-winning critic so incensed as to rethink free speech was, it happens, the war in Israel. Or, as she puts it:
We do not protest the war on Gaza because we have an abstract right to do so; we protest it because it is one of the great moral atrocities of our lifetimes and because the widespread refusal to admit this in America is an atrocity in its own right.
The war in Israel compares and contrasts to the ongoing war in Syria in interesting ways. Points of comparison: they are both wars in the Middle East that have involved intense urban combat and the consequent unsettling of large urban populations. The unsettled communities were already on thin ice in terms of access to human goods like food, water, health care; the systems collapsed under the weight of the war, resulting in a lot of suffering. Many, perhaps most, of the people suffering are innocent of any intent to participate in the war: they are, formally, noncombatants. Noncombatant immunity is an important principle of the moral considerations that followed especially the Second World War, and thus our framework for evaluating conflicts considers violations of that principle to be war crimes of one sort or another. 

Points of contrast: Assad's war on his own population involved chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and so forth, but they never garnered any significant action against him from the same Left that is so intensely opposed to Israel. Barack Obama invoked but never enforced a 'red line' on the subject. Instead, the displacement of far more people -- some thirteen million, more than six and a half million of whom were forced to flee the country and resettle abroad -- was accomodated by Western governments with center Left to Leftist policies. If Israel forced everyone in Gaza out of the country, it would not even be a third as many as Assad did. 

Justice, I said below, entails something like 'treating relevantly similar cases similarly.' Assad is still in power; indeed, he is increasingly rehabilitated as people realize that he's not going anywhere. The West accepted and accomodated his actions, and the refugees who went abroad seeking better lives than were possible for them in the war zone of Syria. 

There are differences in degree -- differences on which Assad is worse -- but it is striking that so many people want to treat the events as different in kind. This is a product of the frame in which the contemporary Left is trained to divide people into classes and judge them by their class membership: and Israelis are considered "colonialists" and "imperialists" and "oppressors," whereas the Palestinians are considered a victim class. It is thus a "great moral atrocity" that victimizers are being allowed to victimize victims. In Syria, none of the classes rise to the conscious assignment of a status: they aren't important enough to the Left to be thought worthy of, well, thought. 

There's no justice in that evaluation that I can discern.

It is noteworthy, by the way, that people were also so much more willing to accept Syrian refugees as Palestinian ones. This is not merely by accident, i.e., because the Palestinian ones would be coming later than the Syrian ones. No, there is a reason behind it that is not well understood outside the Middle East. Palestinian refugees were once accepted, in millions, by Kuwait: their political structure, the PLO at the time, set itself up as a state-within-a-state and then cooperated with Saddam in overthrowing the government which had taken them in and given them new hope. After the war, Kuwait expelled them in their millions. Jordan also accepted Palestinian refugees: the PLO once again formed a state-within-a-state and waged civil war on the Jordanian kingdom until it finally successfully expelled them. Lebanon likewise had such refugees, who formed a state-within-a-state and joined forces with the civil war and allied with Hezbollah. The Egyptians deployed their army to the Sinai, promising "to sacrifice millions" of their soldiers if necessary, not to wage war against Israel on behalf of fellow Arabs. They did it to prevent Palestinians from coming into Egypt in any real numbers. Neighbor states will not accept Palestinian refugees until this toxic political culture has been replaced with one that can make peace with its hosts. 

That's another relevant difference to be considered. That toxic political culture is the reason for the present war and for all the other ones just mentioned. Hamas is itself an outgrowth of that same PLO culture, and it has itself constituted a state-within-a-state for the purpose of waging war on its host. The enduring ceasefire activists want was in place on October 6th: it turns out Hamas had been planning, training, and equipping for more than a year for the purpose of ending it. Neither could Israel, nor any state, sustain its political legitimacy if it did not respond to an attack like October 7th without military action designed to prevent such things happening in the future.

Noncombatant immunity may not be a sustainable principle: certainly it was wanted after World War II precisely because it was so frequently violated during World War II, and by all sides (including especially ours). Pragmatism as a philosophy suggests that a principle that cannot be sustained in reality is false; there are reasons to think that, however desirable this one may be, it may not in fact be pragmatically sustainable. There may be no way to wage war in urban environments, especially against a group like Hamas that intentionally uses the population as hostages (and physical cover), without violating the principle. Yet where such groups that plot and manifest atrocities exist, they will sometimes need to be fought. Whether the principle can survive remains to be seen.

Justice, though, somehow has to evaluate all of this in an impartial and even-handed manner. This does not entail not caring about the innocents who are harmed and displaced, but it may mean finding ways to accomodate them. I frankly think the Syrians who fled to Germany are better off than the ones who remain internally displaced in Syria; and that, in fact, their children are now likely to know better, more peaceful, and more prosperous lives in their futures than would ever have been possible in Syria.  Yet the Palestinians are not a parallel case: there is the relevant similarity, but also the relevant difference of a toxic politics that has proven incompatible even with several other Arab states, Muslim states. Sometimes justice may mean accepting that the world does not live up to our principles, and that when it does not it is we who must give way.

Free Speech and the Left

An article by another quasi-elite -- a "Pulitzer winning book critic" -- tries to craft a new view for the Left of freedom of speech. She regards freedom of speech not as an unalloyed good or a natural right, but as a kind of public utility that a decent society should have (like, she says, universal healthcare), provided however that it needs to be conditioned by "justice." 

I read this to mean "freedom of speech is a good thing if and only if we get our way on all substantive questions," which I don't personally find a compelling argument for the content of justice. I realize she may have trouble distinguishing between obtaining the outcomes endorsed by her view, which she manifestly believe to be identical to justice, and actual justice. Nevertheless, whatever else justice is it entails a manner of addressing controversies and disagreements between human beings in a way that produces outcomes that treat both sides fairly. "Fairly" means something like "treating relevantly similar things similarly," which involves a lot of slipperiness -- what is relevant? what level of 'similarly' sufficies? What it cannot mean is simply resolving everything in favor of the one side. 

However, such a view is consistent with her view of what free speech is about (at least for Kant). She writes: 
Freedom of speech, when elevated to the status of a moral good, is just another name for thoughtful obedience. Under such a rule, the right of everyone to disagree is protected as long as the state’s authority to limit action is respected. This way, the state may ensure that conflicts of value never turn into contests of value; it blesses us with the freedom to argue about morality on the condition that we never decide who is right. Kant’s foremost goal, after all, was to minimize the possibility of what he called the “worst, most punishable crime in a community” — namely, revolution. 
Under her proposed solution, you and I and everyone would have the right to think and say whatever we like, as long as we obeyed the "just" solution that she and hers determined. This really is much more like Kant's view than she admits to herself: it just moves the locus of determining justice from the state, as Kant prefers, to the Left. 

Readers know that I disagree with Kant quite deeply on this point of revolution being a bad thing: I endorse revolutions, rebellions, and even treason when pointed at overweening powers that would derail human liberty and natural virtue. The last thing I wanted out of freedom of speech was "thoughtful obedience," neither to the state nor to the elite (nor its outliers and functionaries). 

What I did want was respect for human dignity, which Kant also addressed in a view I modify here:
Unlike a rock or a fallen twig, a human being cannot just be broken or otherwise used for your amusement or instrumental purpose. A child might enjoy throwing rocks in a stream, or floating twigs down it; it might be useful to repurpose a rock as part of the foundation of your house, or a set of twigs to start a fire to warm that house. Another human being cannot be seized by force and used without their permission: this is to say that they have a dignity that rocks and twigs and the other merely material stuff of the world does not.
For Kant, dignity arises from your access to the Order of Reason. That is, you are dignified in a way that a twig or a rock is not because you can think for yourself about what you ought to do, what it would be best for you to do, in a way that they cannot. Thus, it is no harm to them to use them for your purposes, because they have no capacity to determine a better purpose for themselves (insfoar as a non-thinking 'thing' can constitute a 'self' or even, in fact, a 'thing'). 

We can, and that power is the basis of human dignity. But if your thoughts are the basis of your dignity, well, speech is only a way of thinking out loud. To suppress your ability to think is to attack the very basis of your dignity. Freedom of speech is thus properly and fundamentally a moral good. Her view is simply wrong. 

Last Day Mining Coal

One Two more to add to Grim's new music post below.

More New Music

Country radio is terrible, but there's good stuff being made if you pay attention. Here are a couple of young artists who have a style of their own. It may not perfectly fit the genre conditions, but neither did Waylon or Willie at their best. Maybe, just like in the early Outlaw era, a new thing is emerging away from Nashville. 

Further Thoughts on Countering Elitism

 This follows the last post, the one immediately below.

Readers know that I tend to be suspicious of elitism of most sorts, while nevertheless aware that it is important that anyone entrusted with power also have virtue: it would be nearly as bad to be governed by crackheads as the corrupt ("nearly" because the corrupt are often much more efficient at harming those over whom they have power, in pursuit of their own and their class interest). This is why I have favored a kind of anarchism, sometimes called "voluntaryism," in which (modeled openly on the fire/rescue service) you don't get paid for the work, and you can't actually do the work anyway unless you really have the necessary virtues for it. The power you exercise is limited and tested, not by a system of exams that might be cheated, but by the hard edges of reality: can you lift the hose? Can you go into the burning building? Will you prove resolute enough for the training for mountain, swiftwater, or wilderness rescue?

This is simialr to a model that was known of old: Aristotle calls the Greek variation timocracy, which he didn't prefer. He meant government by a more specific class, mostly by the warrior class. In discussing a Greek constitution he writes: 
The artisans, and the husbandmen, and the warriors, all have a share in the government. But the husbandmen have no arms, and the artisans neither arms nor land, and therefore they become all but slaves of the warrior class. That they should share in all the offices is an impossibility; for generals and guardians of the citizens, and nearly all the principal magistrates, must be taken from the class of those who carry arms. Yet, if the two other classes have no share in the government, how can they be loyal citizens? It may be said that those who have arms must necessarily be masters of both the other classes, but this is not so easily accomplished unless they are numerous; and if they are, why should the other classes share in the government at all, or have power to appoint magistrates? 

American citizens generally are (and ought to be) the class who bears arms; and they are numerous, enough that the government cannot quite exercise the thoroughgoing power wielded in other places in spite of a powerful surveillance system operated jointly by the government and major corporations (in order to bypass constitutional protections that apply to the government but not the citizens). 

Likewise, a voluntaryist system would not entail nearly as much power to begin with as a traditional government, relying for defense principally on the armed citizen militia and its unwillingness to brook troublemakers. This works here already, invisibly but actually: the Mexican cartels that cause so much trouble in Mexico are also present and operating in America. They do not attempt to terrorize our police the way they do their own: the police here aren't necessarily better, but they are reinforced by a huge mass of Americans who would defend them if called upon to do so. Cartels can often (but not always) terrorize the unarmed Mexican populace, but do not even try to take over American counties the way they do Mexican ones.

The system of voluntaryism also leverages another Aristotelian idea, that what he calls the middle class is the most trustworthy place to repose political power. (See here, here, and here; the reference in Aristotle is Politics V.Iff). By 'middle class' he means those who do not need to be paid a salary to do the work of government, but who are not rich enough that they can make their living without significant attention to business. By not being paid for the govenrment work, they are not that interested in governing compared to minding their own business: they will do what must be done, but no more, which is close to the Jeffersonian admonition that the government that governs best governs least. 

I suppose I've written a lot about all of this over the years. All political solutions are likely imperfect, as the world to which they are intended to apply never quite matches our ideas about it, and also because of the identified problems in human nature. Still, I think this one has merit. I hope that at some point, when humanity next is looking for a good way to self-govern, elements of it might be incorporated or adopted as a general theory of how to go about it.

Problems of Elites and Elitism

One of the problems with having an elite is raised by Plato in the Republic: How do you make sure that only those who belong in an elite are the ones occupying the elite? Plato's first solution is to break up the families of the elites so that they don't have the option to favor their own children. Although this might prevent people from knowing who their children are, as Aristotle points out (Rhetoric I.1, third paragraph here), it is not possible to avoid them still having affinity groups they prefer when given discretion. 

Plato has another and better suggestion in the later Laws, a kind of examination system similar to the one used in ancient China. Plato himself points out a flaw with this approach: it provokes rebellion from those who aren't actually possessed of the virtues and knowledge being tested, but who still want power. The two problems also combine, as the wealthy and powerful will seek exceptions to the rules to children they want to advance. When I lived in China twenty years ago, I taught at one of the first private colleges allowed in the Communist system: its major purpose was to create a backdoor for children of party elites who couldn't pass the examination system but still "needed" to be admitted to a university that would advance them to positions of power. We can look at the children of our own elites and quickly see ones who have been advanced in spite of a lack of capacity or, indeed, manifest flaws.

The system America has developed accidentally rather than by design has the bad features of both of these approaches, and the good features of neither. It has always advanced the interests of the children of the existing elite: the legacy system ensures that, though the average person might have only a tiny chance of admission to an Ivy League major, the children of familes who have always gone there have a much better shot. Likewise, it has admitted a lot of people who plainly do not belong in higher education but who are wanted anyway as reliable functionaries in the power structure by the elite. 

This week one of the latter resigned, after the discovery of multiple exercises of plagarism by herself. She had received the direct support in her quest not to resign of former US President Barack Obama, who plainly was one of the elites who found her to be a useful functionary in carrying out his agenda. If she'd been able to perform at the appropriate level, a Plato might have made an argument for accepting such a person's leadership; Plato would not in any way accept allowing membership in the elite via cheating.

A Political Discussion with Robert Frost

This is not directly a part of my current meditations on hope, but I do want to use one idea in this poem in them, and it's a fun poem. Two friends, a poet and a farmer, meet by chance and get to talking politics. Sounds like some of us here. It was originally published in 1936, so some of the political language has changed since then, but it's still recognizable.

Fair warning: This is 10 or so pages in the book, more than 2700 words, so settle in for a good read. I'll put the first stanza (if that's the right term in this case) above the fold and the rest below. Also, I did my best putting it in, but if you notice an error, please let me know in the comments.

Build Soil

A political pastoral 

Why Tityrus! But you’ve forgotten me.  

I’m Meliboeus the potato man,  

The one you had the talk with, you remember,  

Here on this very campus years ago.  

Hard times have struck me and I’m on the move.  

I’ve had to give my interval farm up  

For interest, and I’ve bought a mountain farm  

For nothing down, all-out-doors of a place,  

All woods and pasture only fit for sheep.  

But sheep is what I’m going into next.  

I’m done forever with potato crops  

At thirty cents a bushel. Give me sheep.  

I know wool’s down to seven cents a pound.  

But I don’t calculate to sell my wool.  

I didn’t my potatoes. I consumed them.  

I’ll dress up in sheep’s clothing and eat sheep.  

The Muse takes care of you. You live by writing  

Your poems on a farm and call that farming.  

Oh I don’t blame you. I say take life easy.  

I should myself, only I don’t know how.  

But have some pity on us who have to work.  

Why don’t you use your talents as a writer  

To advertise our farms to city buyers,  

Or else write something to improve food prices.  

Get in a poem toward the next election.  

A Different Take on Jordan Peterson


Meditations on Hope

Update: I've fleshed out my ideas below the fold.


“Hope” is the thing with feathers 

by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

Happy New Year!


"I Guess A Man’s Got To Do What He's Best At..."

AVI, explaining himself when he doesn't really need to do so because he has a perfect right to do what he wants: "...and Grim goes back to milblogger roots from time to time."

"Me and ol' Billy are both come from Georgia...."

It does seem like I end up involved in all these little conflicts, in big ways or in small ones. Maybe it's just what I'm best at, as much as I wish it were philosophy or history. Or just riding motorcycles, if you could find a way to make that pay.

A Failed Experiment

In science you often learn more from failures. I guess we will see if anyone learns anything here

The Feast of the Holy Family

The Sunday after Christmas, in years when Christmas itself is not a Sunday, is the Feast of the Holy Family