Spinoza Would be Appalled

I read this today in the letters section of the New York Times in response to this article on Spinoza.

If one were adhere to the worldview of Spinoza as defined here, you would be very saddened by the way democracy is practiced in this country today. The founders viewed liberty and freedom as the bedrock of a self-governing country. We have become over the last century or more a country whereby unelected unknown individuals working for the government have taken control of aspects of our lives for our supposed own good. Spinoza would be appalled as would the founders over how we have lost much of our liberty to think and run our lives.

I responded thusly:

@bill walker Your comment stopped me. Really? So you wanted to read a controversial book and couldn’t find it? You wanted to go to any church at all and someone prevented you? You wanted to see a movie, attend a lecture, take part in a political rally, and were held back? You couldn’t choose a doctor or go to a private or public school or drink from a public fountain or change your gender or post a letter to the editor because “unelected unknown individuals working for the government” were out to limit your freedoms? Spinoza, if he were here today, would be plainly astonished at the amount of freedom we have. Objectively, no people have ever been more free to express their wishes as we are today. It’s not those unelected unknown people who want to limit your freedom: is those elected MAGA stooges who forced libraries to remove dictionaries because they define words that describe bodily functions. In other words, they are us, if we let them.

The Great Women Composers of Opera

A recent edition of the New York Review of Books contains an article by George B. Stauffer called “Where are the Woman Composers?”.

The writer is astonished that for centuries major musical institutions have performed hardly any operas by women.  I can only presume that there actually were operas composed by women, sufficient numerically and qualitatively to provide a potential body of work that could be drawn upon.

That remains an open question.

Broad draws the reader deep into the lives of four British women who encountered misogyny while attempting to forge careers in the male-dominated field of music composition.  New York Review of Books, 2023-10-05

The writer then proceeded to cite a particular British woman,  Ethel Smythe, who dressed like men, smoked cigars, like to golf and horseback ride, and had affairs with numerous men and women including Virginia Woolf.

Aggressive, determined to gain recognition, and unfazed by tradition, she was described by Woolf as an “uncastrated cat.”  New York Review of Books, 2023-10-05

There you go.

There is a woman composer of an opera who is being denied her rightful place in the repertoire of established musical companies.



What Normal Americans Think

In an interview, Mr. Schmidt said his goal was to show Dr. Journey “what normal Americans think.”

A student at the University of Chicago named Daniel Schmidt found out that there was a course being offered called “The Problem of Whiteness”.  The course was described as an exploration of how the racial category of “white” has evolved over time.

Students explore how white people are treated as the norm, affecting, among other things, wealth and political power.

Dr. Journey’s syllabus included readings like, “How Did Jews Become White Folks?” by Karen Brodkin and “The Souls of White Folk,” a lesser-known essay by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Sounds pretty harmless to me.  I’m not sure I would have agreed with Dr. Journey’s perspective, but I would certainly have attended the course before criticizing it.  If she’s into tagging “white privilege” at every opportunity, I won’t be a fan.  If she believes the U.S. is fundamentally founded on racists beliefs, I don’t believe you can really dispute it.  Nor can you dispute the evidence of, yes, “systemic racism” in the U.S.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and suppose that there was something in this course that you disagreed with.  Say you think that it doesn’t give enough credit to the achievements of white civilizations like Sweden and Finland and Scarborough.  Or the ineluctable charms of tap-dancing.  Or why “Gone With the Wind” is the greatest film ever made.  At the University of Chicago, you are free to disagree— assertively so.

Even Mr. Schmidt admits that the University of Chicago has an admirable policy on free speech.  If Anne Coulter wants to come and perform some witchcraft and spew her toxic white nationalism– let her.  If Noam Chomsky wants to come and spew his toxic progressivism– let him.  I’m being sardonic here, but I vehemently agree with the policy.  Nobody should ever ban Anne Coulter from speaking anywhere.  Nobody should ever invite her either, but, if you really want to, go ahead.  Her character and vitriol speaks for itself.  Does she speak for you?  Own it.

But Mr. Schmidt, like so many of his ilk, didn’t choose to simply exercise his freedom to disagree.  He didn’t even take the fucking course to find out what was actually in it and what the professor, Rebecca Journey, had to say about white culture.  I repeat– like so many of his ilk.  What he did was tweet ignorant comments along with Ms.  Journey’s email address and photo obviously intending that she would be harassed.  Not debated.  Not disputed.  Not argued with: simply harassed.  That’s the way assholes like Schmidt and his party do it.  And it worked, exactly as he hoped: hundreds of his “followers”– his sheep– sent her harassing messages, letters, and emails.

I would invite Ms. Journey to have thicker skin.  She postponed the course.  She should not have, and the University, which did back her up, should have taken modest if necessary steps to ensure that she was safe from any idiots out there who regarded Mr. Schmidt as something other than a moron.  But she should perhaps accept that some hate mail — in today’s culture– is the inevitable byproduct of political polarization right now and the worst thing one can do is let them win.

Does she really want Schmidt to crow in triumph that he stopped the woke mob in its tracks?





Oh My God! We’re Getting More Anxious

Ross Douthat of the New York Times— the token conservative commentator on the opinion page– accepts the results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show that teenagers today– especially–omygawd! girls– are more anxious, more depressed, and more unhappy than ever before.

By “social liberalism” I don’t mean the progressivism that took off in the Trump era — antiracism and diversity-equity-inclusion and #MeToo. I mean the more individualistic liberalism that emerged in the 1960s and experienced a second takeoff across the first decade of the 2000s. Its defining features were rapid secularization (the decline of Christian identification accelerated from the 1990s onward) and increasing social and sexual permissiveness — extending beyond support for same-sex marriage to beliefs about premarital sex, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, marijuana use and more.

And it’s all because of the liberals!  Douthat doesn’t think gun violence should depress anyone, or the cut-throat competitive nature of the U.S. economy, or the fear of being bankrupted by medical expenses, or the fact that a sexual predator and psychopath was elected president in 2016.  Oh no.  It’s the widespread availability of sex, gay or hetero, as a woman or a man or neither, and, of course, drug use.  Have we heard this before?

I have two points.  First of all, we hear about these studies all the time– and I mean ALL the time.  Sociologists and social scientists just love asking teenagers if they are happy.  Now, imagine for a moment you are a teenager.  And life is not great, but it’s not all bad either.  You’re kind of getting through it.  You have some hopes and dreams and know you might have to work hard to achieve them.  You have friends.  Then someone comes along and asks you if you are happy or depressed or anxious.  They ask you again an hour later.  They ask you again the next day, and the next, and the next.  You read articles in the New York Times or see pieces on CNN that tell you that a big problem today is that teenagers are not very happy.  You start to wonder.  Maybe I am unhappy.  Maybe I’m depressed.

I don’t deny that it might be true.  What I question is the assumption that these numbers represent a net change from previous eras, like the 1940’s, the 1950’s, and 1960’s.   How would we know?  It’s a great question to thoughtfully ask yourself: how would we know?

Nobody studied issues like this in the same comprehensive, systematic way in the 1950’s as we do now.  We didn’t have the internet, obviously, or social media, and even television and radio was completely different than they are today.  We didn’t have as many books or magazines or records or films.  We didn’t have as many family photographs or recordings, let alone video.  We had numerous wars around the world, and the U.S. itself was embroiled in Korea, and about to get embroiled in Viet Nam.

We had a lot of obvious racism, whites only schools, whites only restaurants and drinking fountains.  We had a lot of drunk driving and date-rape, both of which now are severely punished, but were not back then.  In fact, the consensus on rape seemed to be to not report it at all.  We had a lot of teen pregnancy, “shotgun” weddings, and groping and petting.  We had a society that blindly worshipped the military and the police.  (It is no coincidence that Douthat, a conservative, would harken back to an era of such “stellar” values even if he doesn’t make explicit those particular values).

I suspect that a big part of our perception of the 1950’s has been shaped by unrealistic media portrayals, most emblematically, in “Happy Days” and the movie “American Graffiti”.   Have a look at “The Last Picture Show”, “Diner”, “Rebel Without a Cause”, or “Badlands” for a corrective.

Secondly, Douthat clearly implies that enthusiastic membership in a church is a viable corrective.  If only we had a study that showed that teenagers who are active members of churches are happier, less depressed and less anxious,  and happier, than those who are not.   We have no such study.

What studies we do have that compare church-going folk with non-church-going folk seems to show that we are all largely the same, holy or profane, saved or damned.  We all indulge in porn.  We all cheat and lie.  (But only one side votes for Trump and loves guns and only one side believes you may have been born to the wrong gender and the world is warming.)

Even for Douthat, this column is unusually contrived in his desperation to find some way to blame liberals and progressives for the sad state of America.   Like all conservatives, he knows that his side, the side of regressive, low tax, deregulated economies, benefits by promoting a sense that we are on the brink of catastrophe.  Nothing new.  We’ve been on this brink according to the Douthats of the world since Elvis first gyrated his hips.

Social Toxicity in Action: Your Cockatiel is Missing

CTV news had a story about a local woman who lost her pet cockatiel. I thought, well, I’m glad I live in a country where this is a news story. Beats the alternatives. Then I read the comments on the story. Some people actually expressed the wish that the bird would be killed and eaten. Others were dismayed that this story displaced more important stories about the earthquake or the new Russian offensive in Ukraine. There were comments by people who hated the first comments, and then by people who hated the second comments, and then by people who hated the people who made the hateful comments about the hateful comments. Humanity at its toxic worst.

The other night, PBS News had an interview with a Democratic governor, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and a Republican governor, Spencer Cox, of Utah. The two men sat together, beside each other. They were civil, constructive, engaging, and respectful. They liked each other a lot, even though they had fundamental disagreements in many policy areas. They were working together on various important issues and trying to find common ground in areas where they disagreed. It was marvelous. It was inspiring. It was a powerful contrast to the toxic national political scene right now. It was reason for hope.

I’m not sure if that leaves me optimistic or pessimistic right now.

And yes, of course I wished the two of them would form a ticket for President and VP in 2024. And I am very sure that a majority of voters would love a team like that.

But it is a truism in American politics that you probably can’t win a nomination from your party right now if you don’t join the toxicity. The voters say they hate lying, compromised, attack-dog candidates but they vote for them. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And now, let’s shoot down another ‘balloon’.

We Hum Along to Infidelity

There is a video of a group of children performing the song “Gentle on My Mind” in this cheerful, anodyne style that makes you sit back and think, oh, how wonderful that he (the songwriter) has such warm thoughts about his girl.  She must be so pleased that he’s thinking about her after he stayed a few nights and then ran off.

Have you ever hummed along to it?

Have you ever taken note of the lyrics:

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line

There are many strange paradoxes in popular culture: our contempt for men who “love ’em and leave ’em” for their cruelty and selfishness, and our worship of songs like “Baby the Rain Must Fall” and “Gentle on my Mind”.  Our cancel culture, about men who cheat.  Our public disapproval of philanderers.  But most people still hum along, as they do with a song about killing an unfaithful wife (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”).

“Gentle on my Mind” is pretty poetic about it:

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a rustling, cold towel, and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face

This gets kind of weird.  Not only is he dumping her– like Gordon Lightfoot in “For Lovin’ Me”, but he’s wandering around like a hobo, not working, evidently, and surviving on soup with his fellow derelicts in “some train yard”.  Quite a picture for his beloved, while she’s warming to the idea of being “gentle on his mind”.

So the gentle part means she isn’t going to put up a fuss about him dropping in for sex now and then, leaving his sleeping bag behind her couch, and then taking off whenever he feels like it.

Elvis Presley recorded it.  So did Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  But, Aretha Franklin?!  Yes, she did.  Well, that’s liberating!

John Hartford wrote the song, he says, after watching “Dr. Zhivago”.  And from personal experience.

Maybe I misunderstand the lyrics.  Maybe the poor guy had no choice but to move on and eat soup in the train yard.  But it doesn’t sound like it:

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone

Who’s right?  Well, let’s expand it a little.  Let’s consider Hartford’s wife.

The story of the song narrates the reminiscences of a drifter of his lost love, while moving through backroads and hobo encampments.[2] Betty Hartford, who later divorced her husband, noted to him the similarity between herself and the song’s female character. She questioned John Hartford about the man’s negative feelings toward his marriage. Hartford said he likened her to Lara and attributed the man’s feelings about being trapped in a relationship to his “artistic license”.

There you go.

It was, at one time, one of the most played songs (in all versions) on radio in North America.

Men thinking kindly — or not– about the women they abandoned

Ronan Farrow, Sit Down and Shutup

Well, now it’s CBS News and 60 Minutes.

At Last: Someone Takes a Closer Look at Ronan Farrow’s Journalistic Credibility

Stop everything you’re doing, all the research and investigation and interviews, travel, exploration, documentation and exposure– stop it all and resign and crawl into a hole, because Ronan Farrow has managed to find some former female employees and associates who didn’t like the way you hit on them.  No matter how long ago, or how disputed, or how misinterpreted or misjudged, or how marginal it is to whatever it is you do with your life, you must now resign, because the almighty, pitiless, puritanical Inquisitor Ronan Farrow, son of Frank or Woody– we don’t know– has deemed you to be shriek-worthy and foul and you must be replaced by some woman or transgender woman or man or gay man or gay woman or black transgender gay indigenous being, because he or she or it is really just as talented and hardworking as you, but you, oppressor, bully, monster!— kept him, her, or it from fulfilling the great destiny worthy of his, her, or it’s talents, by kissing without permission, by expressing your desire for him, her, or it, by leaning too close, by initiating sex with her, him, or it while he, her, or it was asleep.

By not asking politely, in writing, before hand, if you could say to them, “you are hot– I’d like to have sex with you.”

Let us gather a red cloak for Ronan Farrow and  begin the purge of our libraries and museums and art galleries,  and let us expunge all the works, the films, the books, the paintings, the sculptures, the music, the podcasts, the radio programs, by all the horrible men who made them, who created the models we use today, who inspired generations of other artists, who moved us, who wrought the world of culture– let us take all their works and burn them.  For it doesn’t matter and never mattered that you actually built or created or invented or led or organized or directed– it never mattered at all.  It doesn’t matter that you saw beauty or truth in a gesture, an expression, a conversation, a shape, a way of describing a scene.  None of your acts of compassion or generosity, or wit, or improvisation, or imagination can now be countenanced: you must be expelled from human society!

The only thing that mattered, ever, is that in one of the millions of small moments of your life, you offended one of God’s dainty little angels who, though gentle and delicate and innocent, and helpless, when roused, is mighty and bold and courageous and will now speak out and tell her story!  On Oprah, if possible, or Jerry Springer, if necessary!   Now that it is safe to do so.   That is enough.  It erases everything else you were or could be.  And it makes a monument of courage and genius of the accuser, who never had any such courage or genius when it was all that would have been required for her, to turn around and spit in your face and say “no” and leave.

Let’s replace them all with Ronan Farrow’s scribbles.  Or the films written and directed by Mia Farrow.  Or Illeana Douglas’s exposes.  Or Kirsten Gillibrand’s mountains of legislation.

[whohit]Ronan Farrow: Please Shutup[/whohit]

Professor Sullivan’s Faux Pas

A professor named Prof. Gregory F. Sullivan was showing a video (the article in NY Times doesn’t say if it was a film or video) in his classroom at Merchant Marine Academy in New York the other day. After he turned the lights out, he said “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exits.” That’s it. That’s what he did. That is the entirety of the controversy.

Mr. Sullivan did not bilk thousands of people out of their retirement savings. He did not buy thousands of rounds of ammunition at a gun show, for no obvious purpose. He didn’t launch a failed war on a foreign country on the basis of falsified intelligence documents. He didn’t provide a legal justification for torture to the U.S. justice system. He did not pollute anyone’s drinking water or steal the oil under someone else’s property or destroy any wildlife habitat.

Now, just because someone did not do a number of enumerated things wrong does not mean that what he did was not wrong. I’m just curious about our public culture that destroys the careers of people like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer while allowing the people responsible for the banking debacle to continue to make huge profits destroying other peoples’ livelihoods without consequence.

While somebody gets all hysterical about a lame joke like, “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exits.”

Professor Sullivan did not know that the father of one of his students died in Aurora in the attack by the orange-haired Mr. James Holmes. When he found out, he immediately apologized to the student.

So what’s the big freaking deal? Why are they now talking about firing this prof? For a single tasteless but inoffensive remark? What is offensive about the remark? It’s a lame joke, without the slightest overtones of anything that would be unduly offensive to any identifiable minority, except, maybe people with orange hair.

People need to get a life.

Jon Stewart’s Compromise

How anti-establishment, really, is Jon Stewart? He sounds independent. He seems to be authentic. He sounds like he thinks he is saying exactly what he thinks we think he thinks.

Then why the hell is there bleeping?

No, I don’t believe Jon Stewart is being naughty. Genuinely naughty people do not appear on Oprah, or host the Oscars. Genuinely naughty people don’t get tv shows, with the enormous costs underwritten by Time Warner, one of the most “established” media companies there is.

He is not exploding with righteous indignation, so overwhelmed that he must use the strongest word he can think of to express his outrage. No, he isn’t. If he was, there would be no bleep, because the bleep is not what most people think it is– it is not a network censor alertly snuffing an obscenity while monitoring a live broadcast. The bleep is done by an employee of Time Warner.

So you have to ask yourself, why doesn’t Time Warner simply tell Jon Stewart to stop using words that it has decided should not be allowed on television? Why not? Come on– think seriously about it. Forget the drama that plays every night on “The Daily Show” and consider the reality instead: why not? And why, if Jon Stewart has such high personal standards for honesty and integrity, does he allow them to do it? And since he allows them to do it and they keep doing it and he keeps doing it — isn’t what we have here actually a little “drama”? A shtick?

The idea Stewart wants to believe is that Stewart authentically wants to be himself but the deep, dark forces of repression prevent him.

I don’t believe he wants us to hear anything quite so much as the bleep itself, to imply that he is so naughty, so out-of-control free-spirited and independent, that he just says whatever he thinks, even if some weird authority– who is not stopping him from criticizing politicians– has to bleep it out. So, are we to believe that these authorities who are protecting our delicate moral fiber from being sullied by foul language, don’t care when he criticizes the government?

Or is the bleeping intended to give us an illusion? We are so cool because we listen to a guy who is so toxic to the government, that they have to bleep him? It doesn’t make any sense. The network (HBO, which is owned by Times Warner) pays Jon Stewart a lot of money to be on their tv show so they show him to as many people as possible and make lots of money selling advertiser dollars. If Stewart was really subversive or dangerous in any way, the government would express its displeasure to Times Warner’s Board of Directors (rich, anonymous bastards, who have dinners with politicians) and the Board of Directors would call in the producers and the producers would tell Jon Stewart not to go there.

If Stewart, like Bill Maher before him, decided to “take a stand”, don’t think for one second that Times Warner would hesitate to fire him. You think Jon Stewart’s too popular for them to do that? He’s not too popular to be bleeped. He’s not too popular to sit in that same seat night after night knowing full well he will get bleeped again and again.  He’s not too popular to consent to the bleep.

It makes me wonder what a real rebel would sound like. Probably something like Pete Seeger.

We know that. A real rebel says things like this: you can say what you want about the terrorists who crashed their planes into the twin towers but one thing you can’t call them is “cowardly”. A real rebel says that and the real rebel gets fired from a show that claimed to be “politically incorrect” .

It was a magical moment of transparency for television that nobody seemed to even notice. A television program billing itself as “politically incorrect” and ostensibly containing the free, independent expressions of opinion and ideas, was obviously a charade, a hoax, a fraud. The first time someone on the program expressed an opinion that was really at odds with the powers-that-be, the establishment shut him down. And barely anyone complained. They were too busy protesting Janet Jackson’s nipple.

So what’s the point of the show? Why did they bother to let it on the air if they were only going to shut it down if it ever actually was “politically incorrect”? Obviously, the point is to give the illusion to everyone that we have freedom of speech. We are free country. Nobody is telling you what to think.

So the fact that Jon Stewart is still on the air is somewhat distressing to me. It makes me suspect that Jon Stewart is on the air to convince the American public that they have been regularly exposed to the full range of intelligent opinion about serious matters social, economic, and political. All they have to do to exercise their freedom now is choose between, for example, John McCain, who wants to continue to use rendition to deal with suspected terrorists, continue to abridge the civil rights of all Americans, continue to use torture on the illegal prisoners, keep health care in the hands of private, for-profit insurers, and continue the war in Afghanistan, and Barack Obama, who wants to continue to use rendition to deal with suspected terrorists, continue to abridge the civil rights of all Americans, continue to use torture on the illegal prisoners, keep health care in the hands of private, for-profit insurers, and continue the war in Afghanistan.

I think most Americans don’t think the idea of consuming less, for example, is a serious opinion. Or the idea of self-restraint. Or putting part of your wages aside into a savings account. Or waiting until you have a legitimate down payment before buying a house. These are opinions even Jon Stewart will not express. It is one thing to attack them– the big banks, the Bush Administration– because everyone can still feel innocent. Attack the real cause of the economic meltdown– the utter credulousness of the American consumer along with his passionate greed– and you will be regarded, decisively, as politically incorrect.

In “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen”, Cohen is shown about to do a recording in a studio. A producer reminds him, just before they start, not to use any “dirty” words. Cohen, who is normally the most sanguine of poets, is briefly visibly annoyed, and says: There are no dirty words, ever.

Years later, Cohen bleeped himself in performances of “The Future” substituting “careless” for the word “anal” in this line:

Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole in your culture

Neo-Puritan Feminism

This is nauseating: a grade 4 teacher “married” one of his students at the end of the year, in a playful, mock, playground ceremony. What kind of deviant mind would regard this as sinister? Well, lots of them, as it turns out (though not a single one of the students or parents of the students).

Sometimes America seems to be in the throes of some kind of wave of neo-puritanical zeal. This is an unholy alliance between radical feminists, hard-right evangelical “Christians”, and small-minded middle-managers (the school principal– maybe– in this case). Look at the controversy over characters in Harry Potter consuming alcohol– we must protect our children from the idea that something profane could enter their bodies– unless it’s a Big Mac and a bag of Doritos and a gallon of coke.

Beware them all, but, Scrooge might say, beware more than anyone the middle-managers. They have the power to do harm because they glide to positions of power on the lubrication of risk-less conformity and perception management, but are incapable of thinking clearly for themselves, or deferring to those who do. They are the kind of people who believe in consultants, appoint committees, and spend voluminous amounts of time developing mission statements and strategic plans. They are terrified that their fundamental incompetency’s will be revealed, so they take refuge in process and strategy and consensus and “current thinking”. These are the people who burn witches, and then, a decade later, when the consensus changes, pay them off and apologize. And then erect monuments to the witch-burners, to keep everyone happy.