Thursday, May 28, 2009

Knuckle Dragging Stupidity

Back in 1970, Senator Hruska of Nebraska defended a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court as follows.

''Even if he were mediocre,'' Mr. Hruska declared, ''there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.''

Senator Hruska didn't go so far as to use "stupid" instead of "mediocre," but would the same argument hold if he had? That is the issue before us today. That is, should President Obama have nominated a person of really knuckle dragging stupidity to represent his critics? (How's that for a straw man?)

Today, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is being attacked by many Republicans because she has been nominated by a Democratic president. They have found many grounds for inflicting wounds upon her.

Some call her a racist because she once said that a Latino woman could enrich the judicial wisdom of a court dominated by white men.

One opined that she might base her judgments upon emotion (well, she is a woman, isn't she?).

One compared her to GW Bush's ill fated and singularly unqualified nominee, Harriet Miers (well, they have some things in common: they are both women and they were both nominated by a president).

Some attack her as a judicial activist because she once declared that the Federal Appeals Courts make policy (but they do).

Now, I do not feel the need to defend Mrs. Sotomayor because I do not know her and because Obama is too skillful a politician to nominate anyone who is not superbly qualified.

My point is this: these Republicans really are knuckle dragging stupid. I do not say that because the Republican Party is the plutocratic party. I do not say that because the Republican Party is the party of fundamentalist ideologues. No, there is much more to it.

The Republican attacks will alienate two very important segments of the electorate. Latinos are the largest and the fastest growing minority group. Women are a slight majority of the electorate.

Furthermore, absent any new and very damaging revelations, Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed by the Senate. They are doing little more than baying at the moon, and much to their own detriment! Are such dunces qualified for national leadership?

Kelly Bundy

Have I missed something important?

Oh that?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

University or Institute?

Across the pages of human history we find a trail of cries like: think like us or we will stone you, think like us or die at swords point, think like us or burn at the stake, think like us or be excommunicated, think like us or be exiled, think like us or be treated at an asylum for the mentally ill.

In the gentler climate of modern America it is more usual to hear: think like us or we will shout you down, think like us or we will not listen.

There seems to be a genetic inclination toward intellectual insecurity and intellectual bullying and groupthink and following the payed pipers of conformity which is inimical to civil dialog and social progress. It is a phenomenon that may be summarily described as a strong form of "ideology." Thinking inside an ideological box is frequently described by ideologues as "principled."

Ideologues may actually believe that their "principles" are sacred and that "principled" behavior is always correct behavior and they will not accept contrary views, however well founded. This attitude may suffice to delay change for considerable periods of time, sometimes for millenia. Long term, it has always failed. In the field of science, which has a better record of achievement than most other human activities, it has been superseded by the scientific method, which depends upon fact and reason and skeptical review.

However, we are what we are and inflexible ideologues have always been with us. The question now is whether ideologues shall be permitted to dominate a university, because universities are claimed to be places where fact and reason are learned and respected. I have a modest suggestion which might relieve the tension.

Let's just agree that ideologues have a right to dominate here and there but that the places they dominate shall not be called "universities." That is a small price to pay for amicable coexistence. For example, instead of the "University of Notre Dame" we might wind up with the "Catholic Institute of Notre Dame" - if circumstances should justify that change.

. . . . . . . . . .

5/17/09 I have now witnessed the graduation ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame. There is nothing so revealing as actually "being there" even if only by electronic media. To my delight, I am now convinced that Notre Dame is and will continue to be a great university.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama's Pragmatism

President Obama has annoyed many Americans (including me) by reversing his previous decision to release more photographs of American abuse of military captives. On second thought, I believe this exception to a policy of transparency is sound.

Politics is the art of the possible. Very few principles are absolute, not even freedom of speech. We are not permitted to shout "fire" in a crowded theater.


Reasonable people will screen every policy choice on the basis of cost/benefit analysis, taking all relevant factors into account. This is pragmatism.

Making important policy decisions solely on the basis of previously declared "principles" is ideological Russian roulette. America is not a suicide pact, although extremists would have it so.

The political danger for Obama is not that he is pragmatic but that he may become just too full of himself. As many have said, "the only thing I can't resist is temptation." He will be wrong now and then because cost/benefit analysis depends upon many fallible judgments. That can't be helped. Being seduced by sycophants and euphoria is something else: powerful and deadly hubris.

Is he still innocent of hubris? Probably not and it is better to call him on it now than to let it develop further. At the recent White House Correspondents' dinner he told the audience that his first 100 days were so successful that he would finish his second 100 days in 72 days. That's a good piece of satirical humor but then he added that on the 73rd day he would rest.

That last part fails the test of pragmatism. It does not add substantially to the joke but it steps on the toes of a great many Bible lovers. In the days of the prophets it might have gotten him stoned to death. One does not have to be a Biblical fundamentalist to see that the humorist is being carried away by his own cleverness. It should have been edited out.

Obviously, there are many more substantive issues on which President Obama can and will be criticized. On the other hand, the character of the man who occupies the office of the president is very important and it should never be above criticism.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I hardly dare approach this subject, which has been just about the greatest crapshoot in human history, at least until the invention of democracy, but approach it I must.

My son, now aged 53 and intellectually feisty, has asked me why the things in this blog were not offered to him long ago, at which time they might have been of more use. My first instinct was to tell him that he probably would have largely ignored them long ago, as the young sometimes do (and as he still does).


I recognize that my spontaneous answers are frequently too shallow, as this one was.

My thinking in the early morning hours, just before rising, tends to be better and I have given his question more thought recently. I do not mean in dreams, which frequently seem to be stupid ways of expressing anxieties but in a form of focused meditation without interruptions. The bottom line is that I was incapable of this blog long ago, for several reasons. I'll review them, one by one.

My father offered me nothing like this. He died when I was seventeen and, being self taught, he was too involved in nineteenth century German philosophy to understand the limited significance of complex linguistic constructions in philosophic systems. His main contribution was to instill in me an interest in science, for which I am grateful. He did not prepare me for parenthood. Regrettably, he was not prepared himself.

Much real world understanding comes from hard knocks. Frequently, hard knocks do not result in wisdom but they seem to be prerequisite. When intelligent people live sufficiently sheltered lives, their opinions tend to be complacent, smug, and even silly. On the other hand, even thoughtful people are usually too preoccupied by hard knocks to generalize their ideas in real time. I was. Only since my retirement from corporate serfdom have I had the leisure and the inclination to do this.

The world has changed a great deal during my lifetime. Science, in particular, has advanced markedly. The simple, deterministic Newtonian universe has been changed by relativity, quantum theory, fundamental particle theory, dark matter, dark energy and string theory. The life sciences have also progressed dramatically in diverse fields such as biochemistry, genetics, and the neurology of the central nervous system. These things have not told us definitively what we are and what our universe is but they have greatly expanded my perceptions. These perceptions were not available in the past.

Change is not entirely friendly. I took form in the womb of a different America, a different world, a different time and I miss it poignantly like a long lost love.

Goodnight Sweet Princess

I miss the optimism of American industry before globalization and Wall Street together developed a model of privilege called the "ownership society" and I miss the majestic power of the old steam engines. I am a small child again gazing up at the magnificent iron horse, listening to the hissing cloud of steam and the first few powerful strokes as it began pulling the old train. You may find that emotional dissonance hard to understand but I have found what has happened to us disconcerting. How can I prepare anyone to accept the future, in which change will be more rapid?

Wabash Cannonball

City of New Orleans

Changes in technology have also opened up the possibilities of electronic publication. Working with this medium and having the hypertext capability of including links in my text and of seeking facts in Google have changed writing from a chore to a world of fun. The blog medium was not available during my working years.

Given all of these problems, how can I characterize the most pressing need?

It seems that our formative evolutionary forces have focused upon the two basic needs: survival and reproduction. Although evolution is slow by human standards, the species that can evolve and adapt to changing conditions most rapidly are the ones that are likely to change and persist in new forms. Consequently, each human life is granted a very thin slice of eternity and the reproductive period is even shorter. The pace of cultural evolution is much faster than genetic evolution.. It follows that we are never sufficiently evolved to have adapted to the current culture. At a time when advanced social, political and economic skills are vitally important many of us are still better adapted to be hunter-gatherers. That is a good definition of Hell and we are living it.

Absent genetic fitness, good parenting and education are needed urgently but they are not here yet. Parents are too young and frequently also too immature themselves. For many of us, senility preempts maturity. Education is very much in need of reform and progress. Where is the redemptive vision?