Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

Prescience and the opposite

I’ve just been reading a book of collected essays by Tony Judt, the wonderful historian of the 20th century who died in 2010. The book was from 2006, and some of his observations seem remarkably prescient, while others… have not aged well.

On the plus side is this, from the introduction:

It was in large measure thanks to the precautionary services and safety nets incorporated into their postwar systems of governance that the citizens of the advanced countries lost the gnawing sentiment of insecurity and fear which had dominated political life between 1914 and 1945.

Until now. For there are reasons to believe that this may be about to change. Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

Few democratic governments can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage. Some have already done so. In which case we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners; fear of change; fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions.

Those inclined to see Donald Trump as a sad symptom of decline for what was once a party of Republican giants, would be disappointed (in the extremely unlikely event that they would read this book) by his portrayal of Nixon’s foreign policy — in the context of reviewing William Bundy’s book on the subject — as a first-time-tragedy adumbration of Trumpism:

His criticism concerns deception, and the peculiar combination of duplicity and vagueness that marked foreign policy in the Nixon era. “The essential to good diplomacy,” Harold Nicolson once suggested, “is precision. The main enemy of good diplomacy is imprecision.” And, paradoxical as it may seem, the main source of imprecision in this era was the obsession with personal diplomacy…

[Nixon] was so absorbed in the recollection and anticipation of slights and injustices, real and imagined, that much of his time as president was taken up with “screwing” his foes, domestic and foreign alike: Even when he had a defensible plan to implement, such as his “new economic policy” of 1971…, he just couldn’t help seeing in it the additional benefit of “sticking it to the Japanese”. He warned even his allies against offering unwanted (critical) counsel… He surrounded himself with yes-men and hardly ever exposed his person or his policies to open debate among experts or more than one adviser at a time.

Purely neutral in the prescience-stakes I was amused to be reminded that the phrase “Make America Great Again” appeared as the subtitle of Peter Beinart’s 2007 Bushian-psycho-militarism-but-from-the-left screed.

On the other side of the ledger,

Liberalism in the United States today is the politics that dare not speak its name… Today a spreading me-first consensus has replaced vigorous public debate… And like their political counterparts, the critical intelligentsia once so prominent in American cultural life has fallen silent.

This seems like an accurate portrayal of the universal rejection of “liberalism” in the US in the GW Bush years, and Judt can’t really be faulted for not having predicted that nearly a decade after his death out-and-proud liberals would be battling self-proclaimed socialists for control of the Democratic party, while free-market ideologues would be trying to rebrand themselves as “classical liberals”.

And then, on its own special plane of awful there is his defence of Arthur Koestler against the accusation of his biographer that he was “a serial rapist”:

If Koestler were alive, he would surely sue for libel, and he would surely win. Even on Cesarani’s own evidence there is only one unambiguously attested charge of rape.

I think I have a pretty good memory of cultural change over my lifetime, but still I was amazed to see a smart and humane person — someone who entirely identified with the Left even — suggesting that a man who had violently raped a woman (with other accusations unproven or more ambiguous, or at least nonviolent) had been unfairly maligned by calling him a “serial rapist”. His confidence that the man would have prevailed at an imaginary libel trial is just extraordinary, and even more extraordinary is to consider that under the conditions that prevailed at the time, so recently, he might have been right.

So long, Sokal

I wonder how Alan Sokal feels about becoming the new Piltdown, the metonym for a a certain kind of hoax?

So now there’s another attack on trendy subfields of social science, being called “Sokal squared” for some reason. I guess it’s appropriate to the ambiguity of the situation. if you thought the Sokal Hoax was already big, squaring it would make it bigger; on the other hand, if you thought it was petty, this new version is just pettier. And if, like me, you thought it was just one of those things, the squared version is more or less the same.

The new version is unlike the original Sokal Hoax in one important respect: Sokal was mocking social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff physicists say. The reboot mocks social scientists for their credulity about the stupid stuff other social scientists say. A group of three scholars has produced a whole slew of intentionally absurd papers, in fields that they tendentiously call “grievance studies”, and managed to get them past peer review at some reputable journals. The hoaxers wink with facially ridiculous theses, like the account of canine rape culture in dog parks.

But if we’re not going to shut down bold thought, we have to allow for research whose aims and conclusions seem strange. (Whether paradoxical theses are unduly promoted for their ability to grab attention is a related but separate matter. For example, one of the few academic economics talks I ever attended was by a behavioural economist explaining the “marriage market” in terms of women’s trading off the steady income they receive from a husband against the potential income from prostitution that they would forego. And my first exposure to mathematical finance was a lecture on how a person with insider information could structure a series of profitable trades that would be undetectable by regulators.) If the surprising claim is being brought by a fellow scholar acting in good faith, trying to advance the discussion in the field, then you try to engage with the argument generously. You need to strike a balance, particularly when technical correctness isn’t a well-defined standard in your field. Trolling with fake papers poisons this cooperative process of evaluation. (more…)

Written wordplay

Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.

I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:

Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters

The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.

Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

Dostoevsky on the Dunning-Kruger effect

From The Idiot:

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be “not stupid,” kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one’s own—to be, in fact, “just like everyone else.”
Of such people there are countless numbers in this world—far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can—that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.
To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving… Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.
Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class—to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair.

(A description of the D-K effect here.)

True friends and False friends

This week’s Spiegel has a headline quote from Emmanuel Macron:

Ich bin nicht arrogant… Ich sage und tue was ich mag.

I don’t know whether everyone does this, but whenever I read a line translated from a language that I know well, I subliminally translate it back. Often you find, particularly in news reports, that lazy translators have used false — or at least dubious -cognates. For example, I vaguely remember a quote from an English source referring to a leader being irritated by protests getting translated into irritiert, which actually means confused.

In this case, my own subliminal process stumbled over the cognate tue, meaning “I do” in German — so Macron said “I say and do what I want”, but “I kill” in French. Which immediately mapped onto another language giving me a momentary flash of Oscar Wilde’s famous line from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the things he loves

It would have been pretty interesting if Macron had actually quoted Wilde to say “Je tue ce que j’aime”.

As for the other part, it’s probably a pretty good bet that if you find yourself insisting “I’m not arrogant”, you’re probably pretty arrogant. Speaking of which, I recently came across these videos of Donald Trump actually (and apparently unironically) acting out the classic punchline of the guy who boasts about his exceptional humility:

In the second one he manages to innovate beyond the obvious comedy of boasting about humility, by going one step farther and ridiculing the interviewer for being too stupid to be able to appreciate his humility.

Rejecting Voltaire?

Emmanuel Macron’s election speech was reassuring. Intriguing that he took his long walk to the podium with the European anthem playing, rather than the French. One thing that disappointed me: He rejected fear, lies, division, fatalism, all good things to reject, but I just can’t get behind

Nous ne céderons rien à… l’ironie…

I don’t see how he can claim to be defending the values of the Enlightenment.

The word he used at the beginning interested me:

Je sais qu’il ne s’agit pas là d’un blanc-seing.

I’ve never heard the word blanc-seing before. It’s funny that we use a french phrase, carte blanche, for the same thing.

Petard erection

A NY Times report on Trump’s first 100 days quotes senior Obama aide Ronald Klain

If Trump finds himself hoisted on the 100-day test, it is a petard that he erected for himself.

Does one erect a petard? I think not. Really, is it too much to ask, that a flack decorating his political bromides with Shakespeareana actually know what the words mean?

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.

and

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

What is the rating on this movie?

Looking at the NY Times headline

U.S. Faces a Startling New Political Reality After Donald Trump’s Victory

with some mentions of possible cabinet positions for Chris Christie and Rudolf Giuliani, and I had the powerful sense of having fallen into one of those movies where the protagonist accidentally upsets his time stream — for instance, travels to the past and crushes a butterfly — creating an alternate reality where all kinds of bizarre events start to accumulate in the intermediate past: For instance, instead of the respected former secretary of state who is president in our reality, there is a depraved reality TV star who has become president and then filled his cabinet with criminals and then nuked California. (They were nasty.) There must be a way to fix this…

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