Monthly Archives: March 2013

plus ça change….

I don’t think this quote can be repeated too often, especially now as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq. It’s from Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, and was written about the day in 415 B.C. when Athens sent its fleet off to destruction in Sicily.

To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward;
any idea of moderation was just another attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character;
ability to understand the question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action;
fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man. … .
Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.

More on Unequal College Opportunity

The New York Times today had an op-ed on the limited access to top colleges for bright rural kids who have inadequate of no counseling on their opportunities. This follows up on a study reported earlier by the Times by people at Stanford and Harvard making the same point. This op-ed is interesting because it shows in some detail how little real information many such students have about their opportunities. The author and a friend were finalists for Nevada’s “Top 100” seniors, but drifted into the University of Nevada at Reno almost by accident.

On the other hand maybe we overestimate the importance of prestige schools. In fact the author is now a professor of English at Bucknell and her friend holds a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship with the National Research Council after getting a PH/D. at Purdue. Maybe the real problem here is that the prestige schools are missing the opportunity to get this kind of student.

This op-ed got a big response with 240 comments. Those are interesting and worth a read especially because many give the reader’s own experience.

PS: Just found another interesting article on this same subject in next Sunday’s Times. This one shows the results of someone trying to do something about the problem and has some interesting additional facts.

Quote of the day: We should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. – John Rawls

Out of touch Supremes

The recorded Supreme Court hearings of the last couple of days were fascinating, but I agree with all who believe it doesn’t show how they will vote. Chief Roberts cured people of that with his verdict on the Affordable Health Care Act. The hearings did, on the other hand, give us plenty of insights on how the justices minds work and what they know of society at large.

For example, all the discussion of procreation and marriage ignored the fact that same sex marriages can and do lead to procreation through modern techniques like sperm donation, artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. So much for the argument that procreation justifies a distinction between the two types of marriage.

More significant was Chief Roberts questions showing that he believes that the revolution in society’s attitude toward homosexuality is due to a major political campaign. That’s probably natural, since it’s the way his ideas and prejudices are promoted. There has been a political campaign in favor of gay rights, of cvourse, but I think it’s secondary in influence to a grass roots movement that resulted from so many gays coming out of the closet. Over and over we hear of people who changed their thinking because of their realization that gays are not devils but just people, like their family and friends. The change in public attitudes in a generation is unprecedented.

PS: There’s a fascinating article in the next Washington Monthly about how gays managed to get the right to adopt children in more than 25 states by going low-profile and never awakening the opposition. Note that Scalia the other day was not even aware that California allowed it.

Quote of the day: By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece. – G. K. Chesterton

The Day That TV News Died

Chris Hedges has a column today on Truthdig with that title. It uses the firing of Phil Donahue from MMSNBC in 2003 to characterize the way corporate power controls the news media. Here’s an excerpt:

Donahue and Bill Moyers, the last honest men on national television, were the only two major TV news personalities who presented the viewpoints of those of us who challenged the rush to war in Iraq. General Electric and Microsoft—MSNBC’s founders and defense contractors that went on to make tremendous profits from the war—were not about to tolerate a dissenting voice. Donahue was fired, and at PBS Moyers was subjected to tremendous pressure. An internal MSNBC memo leaked to the press stated that Donahue was hurting the image of the network. He would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” the memo read. Donahue never returned to the airwaves.

I thought it was particularly significant that MSNBC is the “liberal” TV outlet. There is a difference between it and Fox. On Fox the commentators speak outright nonsense as a matter of course. On MSNBC the usual control is by not talking about a subject. Have you noticed that MSNBC commentators seldom talk about climate change?

More Music

When it comes to classical music I cannot resist 1) beautiful melodies, 2) slow movements, 3) piano trios, and 4) Mendelssohn. So it is no surprise that my next selection is the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1. Here is a version with three of the real greats of the mid 20th C., Artur Rubenstien, Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. (Piatigorsky was a big man and when I saw him with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946 he came striding out on the stage with the cello held out in front of him like a violin.)

That recording is pretty old. A better one can be found here, one recorded live at the Lugano Festival with Martha Argerich.

From Bacevich to Wolfowitz

Back on February 20 I mentioned an article in Harper’s that is in the form of a letter from Andrew Bacevich to Paul Wolfowitz on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. At that time I could only read a portion because I am too cheap to pay the exorbitant price for single article access. Today my son told me how to get a full copy, which you can do here.

This is a great article and I heartily recommend it. AS always I am most impressed by a writer, like Bacevich, who can put matters in a broad perspective.

The article traces Wolfowitz’s thinking on national security back to Albert Wohlstetter, an influential defense intellectual little known to the public. However, in his years with The RAND Corporation and the University of Chicago he was a major influence for many years. Unfortunately he was also a primary inspiration for the neo-conservative movement. I saw Wohlstetter in action once at a classified meeting in Washington in the late 1950s at which he presented a report on a RAND study on anti–aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. He was a real presence and he dominated the room. Within the narrow confines of the subject then at hand, he made good sense.

Are we WEIRD?

There’s an interesting article in Pacific Standard that summarizes some new research in sociology and psychology. It argues that cultural differences are much more influential than much earlier research had assumed. As a result many study conclusions that had been taken to be characteristic of humanity in general are actually specific only to a particular culture. An extreme example is that even the susceptibility to some optical illusions can be culturally determined.

A particular problem is that these studies also argue that WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) are disproportionately represented as subjects in research studies and are also most different from other cultures. Moreover the culture in the US is somewhat of an outlier even in WEIRD cultures.

Surprisingly, these new conclusions that much earlier research has been misinterpreted has been received well by the research community.

Quote of the day: Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities. – Aldous Huxley

Obama in Israel

President Obama’s visit to Israel was not expected to accomplish anything, so the response of young Israelis to his speech to them deserves some notice. A senior editor of Haaretz headed his column:

“Obama’s speech: What young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear — The U.S. president’s speech in Jerusalem redefines what it means to be a centrist in Israel. We deserve a leader like him.”