Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Barack Obama President Elect

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

UN Ambassador Andrew Young

UN Ambassador Andrew Young

I am sure that many have cried at some point since 11pm last night. My own tears caught me by surprise. I was emptying the dishwasher this morning as I listened to NPR. Ambassador Andrew Young, the first black ambassador to the UN, (who witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr) was speaking in calm, measured praise of Obama and the weight of the history of Obama’s accomplishment. I’m not black, but in the upsurge of emotion that brought my tears I felt suddenly, immediately aware of what this moment meant historically in a country with such a poor record of racial discrimination, both overt and covert — it was a mixture of relief and joy.

This joy is in part the very pure philosophical joy of a good thing happening, a thing that will change the future. In Andrew Young’s words: “a victory of grace over greed, of vision over violence.”

Can change really happen and if so how?  This is the country that twice elected George W. Bush. Many who voted-in perhaps the worst president in the nation’s history, twice, must have decided to vote for Obama over McCain. So are we a conservative nation simply disillusioned by a lousy president, or are we a nation newly and differently inspired, a changed nation?

Barack Obama Victor

Barack Obama Victor

I can’t know the answer. I can only give an opinion based on what I see and hear.  Obama and his campaign team have wrought change by reaching out and engaging people with new ideas. These ideas have rubbed up against old, automated, reactive ways of thinking. Obama has spent the last couple of years asking people why we should see the intractable problems of the country as hopelessly intractable. He’s also stood and overtly and covertly challenged people to find him wanting because of the color of his skin, or the unamericanness of his name, or the power of his rational intellect.

Many failed to meet this challenge. After all 47% of America voted for McCain, or against Obama. That’s tens of millions of people who have proven themselves insusceptible to a force for powerful, positive change.

The world is now a different place. Obama’s skill and insight in his campaign promise great things for his presidency. Thank you, Barack. (more…)

The Invisible Hand Part 2 - Why Have A Government?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Congress And The Bailout

Congress And The Bailout

I just deleted several hundred “spam” comments from my comment moderation queue. The mysterious originators of these comments, which are then automatically generated in huge numbers around the Internet, aim to attract or influence commercial traffic in their direction. I don’t really care whether the operation works. I presume it does, since otherwise why would they keep doing it? But I care about having to delete all of those messages when I have better things to do with my time.

A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with my friend in Australia just after the AIG bailout and he mentioned that had AIG gone under he would have been left in the hole for several hundred thousand dollars. Many clients of his medical business have insurance with AIG. The fingers of this particular invisible hand spread far.

But why did AIG, with its trillion dollar balance sheet and stalwart history of conservative risk management need to be bailed out?

Joseph P. Cassano AIG Financial Products

Joseph P. Cassano AIG Financial Products

Well, if the NY Times has its story straight, AIG’s problems were catalyzed by the overreaching overconfident overpowerful work of one man — Joseph J. Cassano, a former executive with Drexel Burnham Lambert — Michael “the-junk-bond-king” Milken’s old investment bank. Cassano helped found AIG Financial Products in London and built it into a very profitable, very independent entity within AIG that leveraged AIG’s tremendous financial strength and standing to sell ever more speculative products. AIG Financial Products, being drastically overleveraged, eventually imploded. Cassano left and now lives quietly in a Knightsbridge town-house. (I love this picture from the NY Times; Cassano peering around the corner in his bright red shirt like a con at the perimeter of the prison yard.)

When McCain debated Obama last week after supposedly spending several days in intense economy-recovery sessions he didn’t seem to have much of a grasp on what had happened to cause the problems in the first place, nor on what needed to be done to avoid them happening again. It was as if invoking the specter of regulation caused him such shudders that it wobbled his brain off-kilter.

John McCain at a loss

John McCain at a loss

Ideally, regulation is what we do when we don’t want something bad to happen. Avoiding regulation is something we do when we care more about a belief or concept than real-world consequences.

The Bush administration has been bad for America and the world for many reasons, but there has been one overriding and all-pervasive reason for its badness — the arrogance of favoring faith over fact. The administration has consistently argued for, lied for, evaded for, invaded for, and bullied for its ideologies in the face of the evidence against them. They have set the bar very low for what a government can do to manipulate and subvert in the name of ideology and get away with it.

All that being said, when the congress began beating up on Paulsen and his three page proposal I felt for the first time in a long time that we were seeing government in action. Rusty, creaking, inept as it may have been, the house gave us the hint of an idea of what it should be doing for us — working in our best interests. For once we got a glimpse of the invisible hand.

The Invisible Hand Part 1

Related posts from around the web:

Walter Williams and Bryan D. Jones: The Most Important Election … - Choose McCain and likely opt for a third term of the governing philosophy that has pushed the United States back toward the economy of the Great Depression. Select McCain and keep the governing approach of unregulated free market …

McCain Touts Plan to Privatize Bailout [3rd attempt] - “The problem with the earlier plan,” McCain explains, “is that it relies on big government to save the banks. My plan puts the bailout in the hands of the free market, which is the only solution that works in times like these.” … (more…)

The Philosophy of Economics - The Invisible Hand

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

The Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

Ah, the invisible hand, what a fine, dark metaphor to match these dark times. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: The individual who “intends only his own gain is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

Wednesday’s New York Times editorial “Mr. McCain and the Economy” criticizes McCain on several fronts. 1. His claim that the economy is fundamentally sound, despite the latest cataclysms. 2. His clarification that what he meant by “fundamentally sound” was that he “believed in American workers.” and 3. His broadside that any blame that could fall fell surely on Wall Street’s “unbridled corruption and greed.”

“The crisis on Wall Street is fundamentally a failure to do the things that temper, detect and punish corruption and greed. It was a failure to police the markets, to enforce rules, to heed and sound warnings and expose questionable products and practices,” says the editorial, and with a flick of the wrist ends with a call to McCain to proffer new solutions or approaches that might correct the problems.

McCain, we’ve heard and he admits, suffers from a fundamental lack of interest in things financial (he doesn’t recall how many properties he and his wife own — eight). This is an unfortunate quality in the prospective leader of a country, especially during economic upheavals.

Record Profits in 2007 $1,300 per second

Record Profits in 2007 $1,300 per second

The invisible hand has another meaning here, too. McCain, intent on gaining the presidency is led by the invisible hand of greed in the Republican power-makers. It is no part of McCain’s intention to lead the country into financial disarray, to risk further dismantling of what was, prior to Bush’s presidency, a remarkably strong economy.

Economics is a complex subject. Even the experts don’t understand how economies really work. They are too vast, multi-faceted and irrational.

This last is an incredibly important point. Emotion, fear, mania, addiction, overoptimism all play significant roles in the way the economy heaves and rolls. The concept and model of a completely free market fails in the real world on this basis alone.

Subprime mortgage rescue plan (Simplified Diagram)

Subprime mortgage rescue plan (Simplified Diagram)

Subprime mortgages and the resulting current woes illustrate the second point about the illusion of the completely free market. A free market, a market without restraint, is free to collapse. If we want to prevent this (and who would argue that it’s not in the nation’s best interests to prevent occasional collapse of the economy) someone outside the market needs to be monitoring, reviewing and, if necessary, regulating such things as new financial instruments.

The last problem with the notion of a completely free market is the dangerous relationship with the seat of government. Large, wealthy corporations have deep pockets with which to influence government policy. And, worse yet, if agents of those corporations influence government thinking, policy and strategy (think Rove and Cheney) the power of government will exert an ultimately skewed and even destabilizing influence on the market.

This is exactly what has been happening, as the Times editorial points out: “The disconnect between work and reward has been especially acute during the Bush years, as workers’ incomes fell while corporate profits, which flow to investors and company executives, ballooned. For workers, that is a fundamental flaw in today’s economy. It is grounded in policies like a chronically inadequate minimum wage and an increasingly unprogressive tax system, for which Mr. McCain offers no alternatives.”

The free market is a nice idea, a useful model to illustrate one of the forces at work in an economy. But we should not forget that the invisible hand bends and shapes the market according to the will that wields it.

Related posts from around the Web:

Senate Democrats Discuss Bush-McCain Economic Policies - Senators Boxer, Stabenow, and Menendez discuss how the turmoil on Wall Street is a direct legacy of Bush-McCain economic policies that have failed this nation for eight years. Refusing to police lenders and neglecting to protect …

McCain’s Economic Solution: Hemorrhage More Money - … GOP nominee for his statement this morning — which they asserted was an announcement of support for $25 billion in government loans to the auto industry. So there we have it. McCain’s solution to our terrifyingly failing economy? …

McCain Follows Obama With Direct Economic Ad (VIDEO) - “You, the American workers, are the best in the world,” says McCain. “But your economic security has been put at risk by the greed of Wall Street. That’s unacceptable. My opponent’s only solutions are talk and taxes. … (more…)

McCain, Obama And The Philosophy of Lies

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil,” Socrates

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a lie is 1. A false statement deliberately presented as being true, or 2. Something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression. This, ironically, makes lies a lot more concrete than the truth, philosophically speaking, which is a much harder quantity to pin down.

McCain Campaign Lies

McCain Campaign Lies

Why has John McCain, the self-annointed “straight talker,” resorted to lying? It’s a simple question and one that’s impossible to answer without some inside information. But if we’re to have any hope of understanding McCain and guessing his future actions it’s worth trying to figure it out.

If you’re interested in knowing what McCain is accused of lying about, the Democratic Party has established “Count the Lies” a chronicle of “independent, nonpartisan” fact checks “debunking John McCain’s lies and distortions.” Even some conservatives have tutted at McCain’s recent stoops. Even Karl Rove (!!), as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, of all places, has said that “McCain has gone, in some of his ads, similarly one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test.” If you’re a Republican presidential candidate and Karl Rove is accusing you of distorting the truth, you know you’re a big fat liar… or a pawn in another one of Rove’s despicable schemes.

John McCain with President Bush

John McCain with President Bush

(This is a bit of a digression, but the Salon published a very interesting piece back in January asking why in all of the election coverage of John McCain’s losing primary bid in 2000 no journalist had mentioned who it was that smeared John McCain so successfully that he lost. The answer, of course, George Bush and Karl Rove…)

Perhaps we can find in our children the unadulterated origin of the impulse to lie. My son, now 4-years old, has just begun to lie. His reasons are transparent: He lies either to get something he wants (usually cookies, candy, or toys), or to avoid something he doesn’t want (typically to take responsibility for a transgression). McCain’s lies seem to fall squarely in the first category. As a “maverick, outsider” it suited him to talk straight. But as an establishment insider, it’s much more effective for him to lie. He’s always wanted power and success, and now that lying seems to offer the best path to victory, he’s adopted it with the same zeal he once reserved for honesty. The tactic is all the more successful because, in Obama, he seems to be up against a candidate who has some genuine integrity — a terrible handicap against smear tactics.

What does this tell us about the kind of president McCain would make?

Politicians the world over resort to lies, many of them relatively successful leaders. Lying in itself isn’t a guarantee of poor government and lousy leadership. Although Bush has overused and abused this privilege, the security of a country, for instance, relies to some extent on the ability of its government to keep secrets from its enemies, which also means keeping secrets from its people.

In order to understand the degree of concern we should have about McCain’s lies, we really need to consider what his goals will be as president. We can then assume that he will lie to achieve them.

And given that McCain has dropped most if not all of his firmly held political beliefs in order to gain the highest office, one can only assume that his primary goal as president will be to consolidate his power and popularity — in other words, he’ll lie in order to keep the conservative political base as happy as possible. That’s a scary thought.

Footnote - What about Palin?

What about Palin? She’s a big fat liar, too, and a scary character in her own right. The Times has an extensive piece on her political MO. Not a pretty picture. Here’s a quote from Laura Chase who was Palin’s campaign manager during her first bid for mayor:

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she says, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Related posts from around the web:

McCain Lies Again - But McCain is still airing ads telling the same lie. He has also still not retracted his lie on The View when he point blank said that Palin has refused all earmarks as governor. I cannot remember a candidate for president telling such …

Romney: McCain Lies - So Rove has declared McCain’s campaign overly harsh and Romney has declared it deceitful. I honestly have no idea how that sort of criticism from those people is possible to recover from.

Obama Campaign Launches Ad Hitting McCain’s Lies As “Dishonorable” - We’ve been waiting for it, and here it is: The Obama campaign launches its first ad hitting McCain for his lying and his mendacious adver-sleazements and slamming his campaign as “disgraceful” and “dishonorable”: …

McCain Lies About Obama’s Health Plan- JUST THE FACTS! - In our ongoing efforts to expose Senator McCain’s lies about Senator Obama’s policies, we need to look at the McCain campaigns lies and then provide some “straight talk” about the facts. McCain claimed that Obama’s health care plan … (more…)

Small Town Values And The Political Ruin of America

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

John McCain on The Daily Show with John Stewart

Last night, as I watched a TiVo’d John Stewart skewering delegates on the last day of the Republican convention, I wondered what it is about small town values that the Republicans love (but can’t define) and that seems to keep America stuck in the mire of bad politics.

If you didn’t see it, Stewart’s convention crew walked around with microphones asking Republican delegates what ’small town values’ meant to them. With big smiles on their faces and earnest willingness to answer the delegates came up with such laughable answers as “real people, real values,” “traditional marriage,” “fishing,” “church.” (The video is posted on the Daily Show website - highly recommended.)

But even those of us who distrust and disagree with the sentiment with which republicans freight the term, we all seem to understand that the essence of ’small town values’ might mean something genuinely appealing and good. So what is this essence, and how has it become distorted and misused.

Block Island, Rhode Island

Block Island, Rhode Island

I spent the bulk of the summer on Block Island with my family. Block Island is essentially a small town with a lot of tourists. (And these are mostly east-coast tourists from New York and Connecticut.) It’s easy to distinguish the tourists from the islanders. The tourists are in a hurry. They’re often nervous and rude. They lock their cars. They expect to get screwed over. They complain about stuff. The islanders understand that there aren’t that many places to go on the island, and everywhere is pretty close. You can trust people because for the most part, there’s nowhere for them to escape to. You couldn’t steal a car and get it off the island (which is car-accessible only by ferry.)

Block Island is a great lens through which to observe that the essence of small town values means enforced responsibility through enforced community.

It’s a lot easier to be rude or unfair to someone if you don’t know them and if you’ll never see them again and don’t have to rely upon their personal contribution to the community you live in. In a small town, people do know one another and rely upon one another and society functions very much as it has done for millions of years. The inherent rules of small social groups therefore tend to operate without the need for too much overt oversight and enforcement. What’s not to like about that?

But this is the problem: The rest of the country is made up of places where that kind of reinforcement can’t be relied upon. And this is the other part of the problem: Conservative Republicans wrap a whole lot of crap into the concept of small town values that has nothing to do with the core function of a mutually-reliant community (such as traditional marriage, fishing and church.)

And this is why ’small town values’ have become the political ruin of America. So much hog-swill passes for the reasonable subject of informed debate under the auspices of what small town folk care about. Every Republican candidate dives in or gets sucked in to the vortex of endless political distraction of the conservative agenda. And this means the every Democratic candidate gets sucked in, too, for fear of committing political suicide.

Other advanced Western nations don’t waste political time endlessly rehashing abortion statutes, gun control, separation of church and state, the teaching of creationism. ‘Small town values’ are the concrete boots of American politics, and until we lose them we won’t have an effective political process that will allow the nation to move forward and solve the very real problems of war, alternative fuel sources, and climate change.

Related Posts from Around the Web:

Small Town Values? I Gotz ‘Em - I’m from a small town in New Jersey, and I’m politically progressive in every possible way. Watch this clip from The Daily Show, in which people attending the Republican National Convention spoke about their views on small-town values. …

The Small-Town Values Palin Didn’t Mention - From The Seattle PI By John Kelso Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s touting of the wonders of small-town values in her acceptance speech reminded me of my ride in a red convertible a few weeks ago while serving as the …

Small Town Values? - You can’t cherry pick values. If you claim to be the party of small town values, you have to take the good and the bad. (more…)

Comebacks: Britney and Me

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, my 15-year old daughter, typically guileless, made a bid to watch MTV’s video music awards. “No way,” was the answer, “You have school tomorrow.” (She’s in tenth grade, and supposed to be making a strong start in a new school.) “But we watched it last year,” she replied, “Remember we saw Britney Spears…”

This sent me to the computer because I knew I’d blogged about Britney’s woeful performance at last year’s VMAs. With the help of the blog and my wife’s clam-like mind we recalled that we’d TiVo’d Britney’s debacle instead of watching it live. All of which is to say that my daughter went to bed on time and that this is a blog post about comebacks.

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

I’m back from the time vortex of school vacation. It feels strange to be blogging again. Having been out of the mix for a few weeks, I’m afraid that I’ve lost something or that some essential capacity has become stunted. The “me” of then seems more capable than the “me” of now. I feel a little bit like I imagine Charles Austin feels. Austin won the gold medal for the high jump at the Atlanta Olympics. When we couldn’t watch the VMAs last night (alas, our TiVo attempt this year resulted in two and a half hours of silent gray screen; don’t ask me how that happened) we watched a TiVo’d Austin trying to break the world high jump record for a 40-year old on the David Letterman show. We were all rooting for him as his shirt tipped the bar off its stays. “Tuck your shirt in!” I shouted at the screen.

Britney apparently made a successful return to popstardom on Sunday night, winning three awards. And while I cared momentarily about Austin’s high jump attempt, the objective distance I have about Britney’s success or failure as a pop star (I could care less) allows me to burrow in to the philosophical aspects of success and redemption.

Put simply, in and of itself it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a successful comeback or not. If Austin had broken the high jump record for a 40-year old, someone eventually would have outjumped him, or not. Austin will eventually pass on and those who know him will pass on. Britney will stop making music videos. And this blog post will get archived off to tape, never to be read again.

Ambitions, successes, failures, comebacks are all idealized narratives that we create or consume to accompany events that fill time. They exist in conceptual space, but not as real objects. The most obvious example of a counter-narrative is this: If someone prevails in a competition, others must lose. Letterman asked Austin about his three Olympic bids — gold in one, and what about the other two? “Not so good.” Not so good for Austin, but great for the guys who won golds in those competitions, and not so good for the other competitors the time Austin won.

This perspective can have a very freeing impact. Today I can sit down and write what I want to write because ultimately it won’t matter what I write. And even today right now it doesn’t matter.

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

But inner and outer narratives often keep us going. More so it seems in modern life we care about the narrative of life and experience life less in itself and more in the abstract. Which brings us back to Socrates, and, for once, it brings me strangely into apparent opposition with Socrates, who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, onto this I would like to paste the narrative that Socrates had in mind the kind of reflection that brings us deeper into reality rather than further from it… (more…)

Solving Problems - Where There’s Smoke There’s Cash And Mirrors

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Billionaires stubbing out smoking, brains logging on to solve problems, and mirrors as healing devices.

“I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself.”

- Terence

Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

philosophy blog: mike bloomberg bill gates anti-smokingBusinessman, philanthropist, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in his $500M anti-smoking campaign fund. This may not seem like a whole lot of money when compared to the billions that cigarette companies make selling cigarettes around the world, but it dwarfs the WHO estimate of $20M per year currently being spent to combat smoking in low to middle income countries. The fund is expected to save hundreds of millions of lives over the next couple of generations. Yet another reason to shake our heads over the spending priorities of our elected administration (such as the decision to airlift $12B cash into Iraq without keeping track of where it all went…)

Pinky Dinky Doo

Pinky Dinky Doo

Not yet a potential target of big tobacco, my four-year old son fortunately wouldn’t know the Marlboro man if he rode in on his horse. One of my son’s favorite shows of the moment is Noggin’s Pinky Dinky Doo (parents take note — no ads on Noggin!!) Pinky, the show’s heroine, engages her little brother, Tyler, with stories related to a problem he’s encountering. At some point in every story, Pinky’s fictional self “thinks big” in order to solve a problem. Thinking big means thinking laterally, or outside the box. Very entertaining. And now I read that there’s a whole network of Pinkies (not to be confused with pinkoes) who can sign up to compete to solve problems and win cash prizes. “InnoCentive,” reports the Times, has “solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.” Cool.

Philosophy blog: elephant looking in mirror self reflection medical benefitsAnd all of this relates to mirrors how? I’m getting there.

It’s a little all over the place and fluffy, but Natalie Angiers piece on mirrors has some interesting moments. (I scurried off to research her claims about mirror images, thinking she’d got something wrong, but for the moment I have to admit she’s right and I’m feeling a little chagrined.) Here are the pertinent nuggets:

1. Scientists have been “applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.” Wow!

2. “Subjects … in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. … people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. ‘When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,’ Dr. Bodenhausen said. ‘A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.’ Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection.”

smoker in mirror anti-smoking bloomberg gates fundSo if I imagine for a moment that I’m Pinky Dinky Doo and that Mike Bloomberg is offering a prize for the person who can come up with a device that would help people quit smoking, I’d say that he should use some of the fund to distribute hand mirrors to smokers or their loved ones so that they can watch themselves puffing away day and night and hacking up gunk first thing in the morning. Just an idea.

(I would say that he should send a big old mirror to George Bush, but the researchers have also found that not all conscious animals recognize themselves in their reflection. “‘Tellingly,’ said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, ‘animals raised in [or preferring?] isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.’”)

Related posts from around the web…

Gates, Bloomberg pool riches to fight smoking - Microsoft founder Bill Gates, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg walk on stage to announce their $375 million global anti-smoking campaign at a press conference in New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. …

What does an elephant see when it looks in the mirror? - But on further inspection it is thought that they may realise they are seeing themselves as they will repeatedly touch a mark painted on their heads which they wouldn’t be able to see if it were not for the mirror. … (more…)

New Yorker, Obama: A Second Bite

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Jean Cocteau“Art is science made clear.”

- Jean Cocteau

“your head gonna make a dead end on your street”

- Velvet Underground (White Light / White Heat)

Yesterday’s post left me with a disquieting murmur in the back of my mind. ‘Too easy,’ it muttered. And here comes Jean Cocteau to remind me that art is science made clear.

Can we criticize the New Yorker and Barry Blitt on social or political (or sociopolitical) terms for portraying the Obamas as a Muslim and a terrorist in the White House? No. Can we criticize them on artistic terms? Perhaps…

Decrying Blitt’s cartoon as tasteless and offensive doesn’t mean it’s not satirically funny; instead, it lends the cartoon a couple of the stock credentials of satirical humor.

Philosophy Blog: Barack Michelle Obama New Yorker Blitt Barry cartoon cover terrorits Osama Bin Laden White House American flag burning fireplaceTo understand the failure of the cartoon one must look to Cocteau: ‘art is science made clear,’ he insists. Considering the New Yorker’s high standards, does the cartoon make clear the science it satirizes?

Yes, and  no.

Yes, it parodies the ridiculous public fears and scurrilous Foxian paranoia about the Obamas as anti-American sleepers.  The New Yorker satisfactorily defends each subversive element of the cartoon (the Muslim garb, the gun belt, the burning flag) as a reinforcement of its plain and simple satirical intent — to explode the damp squib of right wing racism.

But… and here Cocteau helps enormously, it isn’t necessarily funny, because, despite all of these well placed clues, it isn’t made clear.

The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. I love to read it.  I’ve often said that I could be happy reading the New Yorker and nothing else.  (Not strictly true, but it has some damn fine writing.) It’s also, despite the wry, dry, sprightly daggers of its prose, an essentially sensitive publication. It skewers the bad guys. While for the good guys it reserves a blunted point.

Philosophy blog: New Yorker cover cartoon Obama Blitt Barry Barack Michelle terroristsI worked so hard yesterday to repress this awareness. I wanted to laud the New Yorker and Barry Blitt. But as I scrolled through the New Yorker cover cartoons seeking out examples of the same kind of abrasive satire I knew deep down that I wouldn’t find anything quite like the Obama cover.

We see Ahmadinejad being being enticed to a game of footsy in the bathroom stall, Bush as a housemaid standing over a cigar-smoking Cheney, the neocons up to their necks in a muddy flood… Jubilant snickers at the expense of the bad guys.

But with the Obama cartoon, those at whom we would snicker are absent.  If we laugh at the cartoon, we don’t laugh with the Obamas and we can’t laugh at them.  The objects of our laughter, the conservative commentators and our narrow-minded neighbors, don’t even make the frame.  They’re nowhere but in the dim recess of the cartoonist’s mind’s eye.  Considered from this perspective, the cartoon veers toward the tragic. The victims take center stage.  But clearly the cartoon cannot be tragic if the supposed victims don’t know it. The Obama’s expressions betray satisfaction and mischievous glee.

Philosophy blog: Lou Reed guitar Velvet UndergroundIf the New Yorker in its cover cartoon had, as does the Onion in its copy, a history of satirical lampoon with no holds barred, the cartoon would make more sense; its art would be science made clear. But given the absence of this history, the cartoon’s immediate psychological impact tends to muddy its message.

Not that any of this matters in practical terms. The tiny fraction of the population who even read the New Yorker and would pay any attention to what it has to say aren’t inclined to think that the Obamas might be terrorists, no matter what cartoon it runs on the cover.

A couple more for Barry Blitt, with sympathy and respect…

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”

- Jean Cocteau

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown,”

- Lou Reed

Related posts from around the web…

Satire To Sue New Yorker - In an unprecedented legal move that should shakeup the dictionary industry already under siege by critics and linguists, Satire - the word and its definition - has filed suit against The New Yorker for classifying its cartoon depiction …

Why the New Yorker fails miserably at satire. - When you attempt satire, you start with the truth and present it in a manner that is powerful, gut-level, even shocking. So, where did The New Yorker go so terribly wrong? First they started with a fantasy - that the only reason people …

Did the New Yorker cartoon miss its mark? - So why the huge outcry over the messages contained in the New Yorker’s front page cartoon? Surely it should be taken as yet another in the magazine’s long list of playful, if sometimes controversial satire? One previous post-Hurricane …



Why Satire Is Tasteless And Offensive

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama Michelle Obama muslim terrorist new yorker bbc bill burton satireThe New Yorker has a long history of offending people with its notoriously tasteless and offensive output of low-brow hackery. Obama spokesman Bill Burton rightly dismisses the magazine’s latest outrageous cover cartoon: “The New Yorker may think… that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create,” Burton says, before he draws a fiery breath, “but most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

We agree, indeed. What else would we do, applaud the New Yorker for tackling head-on the kinds of issues that all other publications skirt?

Philosophy blog: new yorker barry blitt cover cartoon amajinabad iran bathroom stallSatire has no place in an enlightened society. After all, to appreciate satire one must simultaneously understand the direct impact of the satirical object as well as its indirect object. Surely we shouldn’t be expected to hold opposing or divergent concepts in our minds at one time, that’s just barbaric! This is one nation under god, godamnit!

I sympathize with Barack Obama or Bill Burton, or whoever it was who most felt the affront of the New Yorker’s tasteless and offensive campaign. Getting to be president is a sensitive business and one must protect one’s thin skin if one is going to successfully attain the office.

Philosophy blog: Obama Clinton New Yorker Cover CartoonRepublican opposer — John McCain — no stranger himself to satire, limped nimbly to Obama’s support, declaring: “New York can go take a hike! Oh, wait a minute, there aren’t any decent hiking trails around New York. Come to think of it, the only place you can even safely fire your gun in New York is from the roof of a New York City housing project, and who would want to set foot in one of those places…”

(McCain may be old but his mind wanders beautifully.)

Philosophy blog: New Yorker Barry Blitt cartonon cover satire ObamaSo, when you get your hands of a copy of the current New Yorker, be sure to set it on fire and toss it into the grate as quickly as you can. At least, tear off the cover and set fire to that… we’ll decide later what to do with the rest of it.

But before you toss the cover, take a quick look at the cartoon: See how Blitt has cunningly distorted Obama’s face so that it seems confident, unperturbed, wily even. What a scam, what a ruse.

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Human Potential

Friday, July 11th, 2008

On human potential, personal development, and the philosophy of growth.

“Everyone is as God has made him, and oftentimes a great deal worse.”
- Miguel de Cervantes

“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”
- Frank Herbert

US science fiction novelist (1920 - 1986)

Rational philosophy blog: Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraWithout reading too much into the respective literary ouevres of these two authors, we may not be surprised that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, observer and recorder of human failings and doomed repetitions, takes an essentially pessimistic view of human nature, while Frank Herbert, a creator of alternative realities, perceives unlimited boundaries for knowledge and achievement. (Herbert spoke with enthusiasm about the positive power of science fiction to point to possibilities, including potholes or chasms that we should avoid.)

Biographers describe Cervantes the young man as brash and idealistic. He fits Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s model of a person with a “fixed mind-set.”   “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow”, in this week’s NY Times, discusses Dweck’s theory of fixed versus flexible mind-sets. In Dweck’s own words: “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed tend to push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

Dweck believes that society’s obsession with natural ability thwarts our capacity for growth.

Don Quixote’s imaginary battles against windmills and flocks of sheep speak to me of his creator’s struggle with the idea of fixed potential. That Quixote’s engagements, won or lost, are illusory magnifies the futility of these attempts to conquer fabricated enemies and prove himself worthy of his love. As he grew up, Cervantes’ family moved from town to town, never settling. It’s easy to imagine Cervantes the brash, idealistic, talented young man wanting to achieve something real, but unable to stand long enough on firm ground to be sure of what was real, each move to a new place confirming the isolated and unchangeable nature of his self.

Rational philosophy blog: Frank Herbert Author of Dune Science Fiction novelContrast this with the assertion of Frank Herbert’s son that his father didn’t finish college because he took only to the courses that interested him, forgoing required classes. Herbert worked at writing for many years before achieving success, relying on his wife’s income to support them. He submitted his landmark science fiction work — Dune — to 20 publishers before it was picked up for publication by a smallish press.

Obviously, even within Dweck’s postulate, talented people can achieve success (Cervantes may be a prime example), but she claims that people can achieve more success if they maintain a flexible mind-set. (She cites several mighty examples from the business world — John F. Welch Jr. of General Electric, for his emphasis on teamwork over individual genius; Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of I.B.M., who praised ‘the thousands of I.B.M.’ers who never gave up on their company’; and Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox, who turned an eye to morale and staff development even as she made tough cuts.)

If you’re reading this and thinking “jeez that sucks, I’m one of those people with a fixed mind-set;” I’d hold out a little branch of hope, attached to a big old tree of potential. To begin the conversion from a fixed mind-set to a flexible mind-set we need only accept the concept of self doubt. What if we aren’t born fully formed and unchangeable? What if we accept that growth is possible but takes work…

Related posts from around the web…

Mindset, it will profoundly affect everything. - If you answer yes, your thinking about learning is aligned with a key quiet leader principle and you likely have a “growth mindset,” a personal characteristic that Professor Carol Dweck says will “profoundly affect all aspect of a …

Fixed Mind-Set vs. Growth Mind-Set - The article describes the implications of the research of Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck. In an interview of Carol Dweck by Coert Visser, Dweck said:. People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill …

On failure pt. 2 - Rae-Dupree sums up thoughts from a 2006 book by Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that describes two views one holds about oneself. We can think we’re born with talent or not. Whether we think we’re Picasso or a dolt …