Archive for February, 2010

How Do People Organize Their RSS Feeds?
February 24, 2010

Seriously, I need help. This is starting to get to be a real time management problem.

I’ve got 126 individual RSS feeds on Google Reader, plus the people I follow, and it’s really, really difficult for me to get myself to use the “Mark All As Read” button because I have mild OCD that never manifests itself in helpful ways like keeping my work organized or my room nice and neat. So I’ve started splitting the feeds from the biggest folders up into “Essential” and “Nonessential” subcategories. But I’m curious: any news junkies trying to live lives off the Internet got other efficient strategies?

links for 2010-02-23
February 23, 2010

Taking a Break From Political Commentary
February 23, 2010

At least here, anyway. I’ll still continue to shamelessly plug my posts at NYU Local, and you might see some of my commentary pop up in a couple of other venues in the future. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the last post I wrote, and how I want to get away from that sort of thing; pointing out hypocrisy on the mainstream right is way to easy, where the roster of good-faith debaters is getting insanely thin. It’s not that I don’t think arguing with them is valuable, it’s just that it’s really only valuable if you’re doing it in the public eye in order to persuade large swaths of people.

Let’s face it, I am not Rachel Maddow. This blog barely commands any audience at all, and if I’m writing for what I think people want to read, all I’m really doing is tossing out red meat to a small handful of people who are, for the most part, already pretty plugged in. I feel like what I should be doing instead is thinking about how this blog can benefit me–how what I write here can make my writing elsewhere better.

Besides, I’m tired of just being mad. Sure, blogging is a great venue to vent in, but I feel like if I’m going to grow as a writer I need to focus more on building good ideas than tearing down bad ones. And while I’ve written some of my best work while super pissed, it only works out at all when it’s a very controlled kind of anger. The posts I write when I’m just intemperate look, with the benefit of hindsight, frequently right on the merits without the additional advantages of contributing anything new or not being sort of obnoxious.

So that brings us back to what I should be doing instead. Right now I’m reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself for review at my place of work. The book’s basically one long interview with David Foster Wallace, and in one of the earlier portions he talks about how the nonlinear structure of Infinite Jest is intended to mirror the chaotic way in which we’re inundated with information in the modern era. Keep in mind that this interview was conducted in 1996; the phenomena he notes has gotten far more extreme since then.

So writing was, among other things, DFW’s way of sort of imposing order on this massive flood of information. I think there’s a lot to that; it certainly explains why recently I’ve found myself adopting (some might say to terrible excess) his footnote/parenthetical habit. But I also think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, on a day-to-day basis, for this blog. Maybe instead of just saying to myself, “This is going to be a blog about politics,” or “This is going to be a blog about political philosophy,” or “This is going to be a blog about pictures of mopey-looking hipsters juxtaposed with funny captions,” I should just think of this as my place to pick out the most worthwhile of the 500+ discrete pieces of information I receive per day, expand on some of them, and then see if any of them are worth further expansion or interact with the others in interesting ways.

With that in mind, the only two strict rules about content on here are going to be:

1.) Keep my personal life as separate as possible.

2.) Say something novel and interesting. Don’t just crap on other people’s ideas, even when they’re asking for it.

We’ll see how that goes.

But Right-Wing Terrorism is Just a Liberal Myth
February 19, 2010

So remember that report from the Obama DHS suggesting that there might be an uptick in far-right domestic terrorism? I sure do! I also remember most of the conservative messaging apparatus–by which I mean Michelle Malkin, most of FOX News, Joe Scarborough, some right-wing law center, the nominally objective but distinctly hackish Mike Allen and, of course, the Boehner in Chief–flipping the fuck out.

Of course there wouldn’t be any uptick in right-wing terrorism, because right-wing terrorism doesn’t exist! Sure, conservative leaders might occasionally throw a giant convention where each speaker inches closer to inciting outright violence than the last, but none of their legions of followers would actually go out and do anything violent. Any suggestion to the otherwise is just the Obama administration scrambling for a justification to violate the civil liberties these same conservatives hold so dear but wouldn’t extend to non-right-wing radicals.

Of course, that didn’t really explain this. And it still doesn’t explain yesterday’s attack on the IRS.

Speaking of yesterday’s attack: the aforementioned convention finds that shit hilarious!

Malkinmania 2010
February 17, 2010

One thing I didn’t mention in the full write-up at NYU Local–but which, I think, is still worth noting–is just how dreadfully boring this entire thing was. I don’t mean “boring” in the sense that I often criticize journalists for using when talking about speeches or debates in which a politician is insufficiently shocking or combative; what I mean is intellectually emaciated.

NYU Republicans President Michael Collins, who introduced Malkin, called her “very intellectual,” but what made her speech and the ensuing Q&A so dull was that she had no real ideas to offer. Instead, all she really did was air her long list of grievances.

Not that one should expect anything more, of course, given that long lists of grievances are basically the heart and soul of modern conservative political thought.

So Hard to Say GoodBayh
February 15, 2010

(Yes, the obvious pun is “Bye Bayh,” but I’ve seen no less than four separate political blogs already use that, not to mention one of my friends suggesting it and Steve Clemons’ slight variation on the theme, so in the interest of variety I’m trying to play a different chord on the same instrument.)

So. Evan Bayh is out. I’m late in commenting on this because I resisted doing so for most of the day, which in turn is because even the pun-related bases have already been covered by other, sharper analysts. However, I do feel like I should say something, if only because the callow, perfectly coifed Indiana Senator has been a bête noire* of mine for so long. Yglesias, as usual, puts it best:

Obviously, Evan Bayh’s never been my favorite Senator. And the more one learns about both the manner of his departure, and the thinking behind it, the clearer it is why. Simply put: He’s an immoral person who conducts his affairs in public life with a callous disregard for the impact of his decisions on human welfare. He’s sad he’s not going to be president? He doesn’t like liberal activists? He finds senate life annoying? Well, boo-hoo. We all shed a tear.

What this whole thing most reminds me of is Palin’s abrupt departure from the Alaskan state house over the summer. In both cases, it came off as a tactical move by a political sociopath who realized that s/he had already milked his/her current position for as much press attention and moolah as it was likely to yield. And for that reason alone, I find it difficult to mourn the potential loss of yet another seat for the Democratic Party in 2010; because Glenn Greenwald was spot on when he called Bayh “the pure expression of virtually every attribute that makes the Beltway so dysfunctional, deceitful and corrupt.” The absolute worst case scenario is that he gets replaced with someone every bit as monstrous as he is, but who happens to be a Republican. Either way, good riddance.

*Which is French for “pretentious phrase to use on a blog but go to hell imaginary critic because I can use whatever term paper-caliber prose I want.”

Monochrome Philosophy
February 15, 2010

Modern philosophy–errr, scratch that, I meant all of Western philosophy since the dawn of civilization–is undoubtedly a white dude dominated discipline, but my rigorous study and observation1 suggests a promising shift away from being an all boys club. Granted, practically all of the TAs and grad students I’ve encountered have been male, and I can’t name a single female philosopher that we’ve actually read in class2, but given historical precedent I think we can take anything more than a departmental ASF3 as a victory.

And look, Philosophy departments across the country should really be concerned with this. They should, in fact, be doing everything they can to correct the gender disparity, and not just for the usual reasons related to fairness, glass ceilings, not wanting to work in an office that demographically speaking makes Sterling Cooper look positively progressive, etc. That all matters a great deal, but male philosophers who are genuinely interested in new ideas and advancements in their field should also desperately want to make their departments as diverse as possible out of self-interest.

After all, as much as one might like to believe that new concepts in Western analytic philosophy get unearthed through some kind of mathematically precise excavation process, that’s more of a useful fiction designed to let us focus on the arguments instead of the person. As much as I might dress up my own essays in academic prose and carefully logical steps, the sorry truth of the matter is that my background and personal inclinations are all too relevant when it comes to what I actually believe. The arguments just follow that.4

That’s why a homogeneous field leads to an impoverished discourse. Disturbingly, it also makes knocking down stuff like Schopenhauer’s surreally outlandish misogyny5 more difficult because there are slightly fewer people around to be deeply and personally horrified by it. That’s not so suggest that I’ve encountered much–or, really, any–sexism amongst the professors and TAs I’ve had, but only to point out that it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to identify the more subtle and nefarious forms of sexism when there’s no one around who isn’t in a position of undeserved privilege.

Really, though, I’m not saying anything particularly novel. This is the same discussion that’s going on in jurisprudence, journalism, and a lot of other fields and departments. But it’s an important conversation to have, and it always bears repeating.

1By which I mean a couple quick glances around the lecture hall while sitting in an NYU Philosophy class.

2Imagine my excitement to discover we were reading Hilary Putnam in Philosophy of Mind. Now imagine my disappointment to later discover that, yup, that’s a dude.

3Absolute Sausage Fest, the technical term for a 100% male grouping of individuals.

4At this point, a couple of you might be saying: “Yeah, but that’s you. Me, my philosophical views are plucked from the aether.” Well congratulations, because you’re either full of shit or hilariously non-introspective.

5I actually think Schopenhauer has a lot of interesting things to say, but anything he’s ever written that even glancingly references the opposite sex should nauseate all decent human beings.

Pondering the Imponderable
February 14, 2010

It’s an utter mystery to me why George Will is considered such a deep, serious thinker when he’s capable of churning out a column like this. Is it the bow tie?

The gist of it is that Democrats have some sort of deep, ideological commitment to making sure that people are as dependent on government as possible; essentially, that the party’s end goal is a nation of developmentally stunted children who can’t imagine a life not spent perpetually sucking at the teat of the nanny state. What he never explains is why they might see this as a desirable objective. Some deep down desire to live in a Huxleyesque nightmare?

There might be something interesting in Will’s thesis, but he seems intent on keeping it superficial. Why try to understand where your political/philosophical opponents are coming from when you can bend everything they do to your main point by taking the least charitable interpretation possible of their each and every move? Why, for example, assume that liberals supported an SCHIP expansion because making sure as many children are insured as possible is itself a good when it’s so much more convenient to speculate that SCHIP supporters just wanted to “swell the number of people who grow up assuming that dependency on government health care is normal?” Only in George Will’s tweedy headspace could getting health insurance to minors be interpreted as one step in a giant Soviet master plot.

If Will really wants to be taken seriously, perhaps he could stop ascribing spooky motives to the left and instead focus on their actual proposals. If he has alternatives, he should offer them up. But what he’s doing here is taking this tired old “government expansion is always automatically bad” nonsense and dressing up the associated ad hominem attacks in subtler, less inflammatory and more academic rhetoric that sets him apart from Ann Coulter.

In Which I Get My Ass Personally Handed to Me By Lou Dobbs
February 12, 2010

Full story here.*

*WARNING: The above link contains a lot of footnotes, and may be a textbook example of tl;dr. But it does, as promised, include an anecdote about me being personally humbled by a former CNN personality, so that has to count for something.

In Which I Get Way Over My Head in Literary Theory
February 11, 2010

Last night I finished writing a paper on a novel in which I suggested that a lot of the textual evidence weaved throughout the book undermined its basic thesis (yup, it was one of those novels; the kind that has an easily spelled out thesis in the first place). I think I did a pretty good job on it, but really it’s hard to say. The problem is that I found the aforementioned thesis to be deeply objectionable,* and so it’s hard to say how much of my rebuttal was based on textual evidence, and how much of it is based on the fact that I think the book is just wrong.

On the one hand, my inability to engage with that book, or any book, purely on its own terms can be kind of frustrating. But it’s also why I love reading; when you read, you’re not passively absorbing information but actively grafting terms and concepts from your prior experience onto the words of the author to give the ink on the page texture and meaning. There’s an intimacy to it that I haven’t quite found in any other artistic medium. What I’m absorbing isn’t the thoughts of Lewisohn the author, or me, the reader, but a third entity that the two of us created together.**

*The book was Ludwig Lewisohn’s The Island Within, which concludes by repeatedly bludgeoning the reader with the assertion that Jews will only cause themselves pain if they consort with non-Jews and try to be full and equal members of society outside of their community.

**Further reading on that note: Borges’ “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald.”

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