The Saturday/Sunday Roundabout
Bits and pieces for your weekend, you are encouraged to imbibe along with coffee and croissant
[The sky overhead on a particular day, seen from my front yard, first of three]
Effective altruism, the secularist and utilitarian effort to create a moral movement dedicated to altruistic service to others without any spiritual values undergirding the practice, took a massive hit this week with the downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried, certainly its wealthiest proponent.
Bankman-Fried, who made billions on crypto currency with the professed intention to give most of it away to charities, turns out to apparently have been (perhaps illegally) using funds of his crypto-exchange’s customers to finance risky ventures elsewhere, which eventually caused the crash of his exchange and the loss of billions to himself and his customers.
Sam Harris was lamenting the turn of events on his most recent podcast episode, telling his audience that he noticed nothing amiss with Bankman-Fried when he was a guest on Harris’ podcast, and also asserting his view that, notwithstanding this bad result, effective altruism is still viable.
I think Harris’ faith here—yes, Harris has a faith—is mostly misplaced.
I don’t doubt that there are a few members of our species here and there who might adhere more or less consistently to this philosophy, that is, not just talk the talk but walk the walk. There are often outliers to general principles. But for committing whole societies or substantial parts of them, rather than just a few members, to such an ethic of giving (and I leave aside the very difficult question of deciding how much such giving is ever actually selfless and how much is still selfish but in an enlightened manner), you need religious beliefs, and religious beliefs of a specific variety.
God, it turns out, is a really effective mechanism for motivating sustained if still imperfect good faith efforts at loving your neighbor as yourself.
The Wokeist cancellation mobs in the US have made it abundantly clear that it is not even necessary to have said the horrible thing you are alleged to have said in order to be cancelled. For example, here’s an American professor who was placed on leave for using a Chinese term in class that sounds something like the ‘n’ word. Even though everybody admits what he said was not the terrible thing, he nonetheless had to be punished because some of his students claim they were harmed by hearing him say the thing that kind of sounded a bit like that word the very utterance of which causes such immeasurable suffering.
Now we have an example of how Woke vengeance on evil enemies can be exercised in other languages, even when the evil ones have not said the terrible things those with Woke imaginations want them to have said.
In the French Parliament recently, a black deputy from a left-wing party was lamenting the plight of a group of African refugees who had arrived at the French border when one of his colleagues, a member of the nationalist RN, called out “Let them go back to Africa!” Horrified Woke members of the Parliament insisted that he had said “Let him go back to Africa!” in reference to the speaker, who was born in France to African immigrants, despite the fact that the man who spoke insisted that he was referring to the topic of his colleague’s address, that is, the migrants, who, unlike the leftist deputy, after all are actually from Africa.
In French, the two phrases “Qu’il retourne en Afrique” and “Qu’ils retournent en Afrique,” are pronounced in exactly the same way, so there’s no way to refer to the recording or the transcript to settle the matter. Given this fact, why wouldn’t we just believe the speaker in such a case, since his interpretation of what he said perfectly and logically fits the situation?
Oh, dear friend, we cannot do that because this is an opportunity to destroy an enemy, and Woke principle is to never, ever miss such an opportunity.
I am much entertained by the framing of Anglophone media sources of the story. Fournas, we are told, is a member of a “far-right” party, while Bilongo’s party (which is explicitly socialist) is only “leftist,” but not “far-leftist.” The first line of the story asserts the claims of Fournas’ Woke antagonists, and we don’t get an acknowledgment of Fournas’ account of the words he spoke until much later on. One wonders how many in the American Woke press even know enough French to have a rational position on the matter.
No matter what the man who spoke says he said, and no matter that his account is perfectly in accordance with the evidence. He was suspended and his pay docked. The demands of Wokeness will not be denied.
Two fun things in campus email over the past week or so.
First, campus public safety sent out a note offering a “car maintenance workshop” for students. The curriculum is to include changing a flat, checking the car’s oil, and jumping a dead battery. The note closes, sweetly, with this: “Unfortunately, once you leave campus, we won’t be close by to come to your rescue (and we worry about you) !”
I worry about young people today too. Mostly I worry about those who are not pursuing a degree in institutions like Bucknell, and who are dealing with hardships far more serious than having their car battery die just as they’re preparing to drive to the airport to fly to Cabo or Cancun for spring break.
But I worry too about the fact that elite youth—and that’s mostly who we’re talking about at schools like the one at which I’m employed—are becoming so disconnected from what was commonly understood in my youth as “real life” that they no longer know even how to look at an oil dipstick and use that visual knowledge to decide whether or not to add a quart.
The cultural disconnect between the two great American social classes—the “Have a lots” and the “Have much lesses”—is growing precipitously, and nothing good comes from that distance.
The other interesting campus email was for a presentation on undergraduate research.
The title was: “Anti-Racism in the Social Sciences: Undergraduate Research and Institutional Transformation at Bucknell.” It took place on Thursday.
Among the valuable things to be learned here were the following: “How undergraduate research projects in the social sciences are informing participatory actions that help in anti-racist efforts at Bucknell; How undergraduate research in the social sciences are not only helping us understand Bucknell, but to transform it; How can faculty get in touch with underserved students who can benefit from undergraduate research opportunities; What difference can undergraduate research opportunities make in the life of underserved students.”
Say what you will, it has the merit of honesty. This “research” is not intended merely to understand Bucknell; what a laughably backward ambition that would be if it were not augmented by the effort to “transform” it! You’ve all read that bit in Marx about philosophy not being about understanding but rather about changing the world, yes? These folks evidently have, too.
They apparently believe that some students here are “underserved” compared to others. That word means “provided with inadequate service.” If they sincerely believe that some students here are getting better service than others, it seems to me that they ought to bring that matter to the attention of the administration, not just have a lunch chat.
In fact, this is all a bit of Woke code because the straightforward message is seen as perhaps too hard to swallow (for now, at least) for some on campus not yet fully on board with the program. What they are saying is this: Here are “research” opportunities for minority students in which they can look for (and, obviously, find, even if it has to be cleverly invented) evidence of how terrible conditions are for students like them on the campus, and then to make recommendations/demands about what needs to be revolutionized here to fix that.
It will only be a little while before the coded language will no longer be necessary.
The below went up early last week at Glenn Loury’s Substack.
These are the kind of data you will never, ever hear acknowledged by the academic partisans of race-based affirmative action. The performance gap between races is today just about as large as it was 30 years ago and there is no indication that we can shrink it any further with the current regime of policies that are intended (and claimed) to do just that.
One can certainly be disappointed about this. I feel just that emotion in considering these data. One can even feel demoralized and desperately wish that things were otherwise. To just continue on the same path, though, once you’ve been confronted with the evidence, as though closing your eyes and pushing forward is somehow justified, is a deeply problematic response.
Here’s a comment I wrote on Glenn’s Substack on another topic.
He had been talking on an episode of his podcast about whether Jews can reasonably be considered white (his answer was essentially “yes”), then posted an email a friend sent him in which the friend disagreed.
In the Woke system, there is genuinely no real interest in trying to sort out and rigorously classify ethnic, racial, genetic, historical differences among groups in any empirically verifiable way. It's an ideology, really a quasi-religion, not a scientific apparatus. The whole point is just to construct a rigorously binary moral system in which victims and their moral purity are at one end and victimizers and their moral corruption are at the other.
A central mode by which placement at one end of the binary or the other happens is skin phenotype. Relatively light-skinned? Almost certainly a victimizer. Relatively darker-skinned? Almost certainly a victim. Some other elements can go into the Woke calculus here, but that's one of the most important and first steps.
Jewish whiteness is perhaps further bolstered in the Woke vocabulary by their economic status as a group. By % of families in each income stratum, Jews are the most financially successful group in the US. Almost one in two (44%) Jewish households make $100K or more, significantly ahead of every other group: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/. Placement on this economic hierarchy is not alone enough to determine position on the moral binary, of course, and so Hindus can be #2 in economic status and still count as a victimized group b/c they tend toward darker skin phenotypes.
The most reasonable non-Woke analysis of social power in the US has to start with the economic. Social power is not solely economic, but I would suggest Josephson is stretching well beyond reality in talking about the ethnic/religious group sitting atop the economic success ladder as still significantly victimized (in Woke terms, non-white), especially given the way in which the legal and dominant cultural structures in the US stigmatize and penalize active anti-Semitism.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Japanese giant monster movies. The genre is called kaiju in Japan.
There were many Godzilla films, of course, starting with the original 1954 classic, and in a stretch from 1963 to 1975 there was a new one just about every single year. The plot in the films after the first two (in which Godzilla attacked humanity) never deviated from a basic formula. Some other terrifying giant monster shows up—often from outer space—and attempts to destroy the earth, and Godzilla, now inexplicably converted into a friend of humanity, is called on to defeat the threat.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, I am pretty sure I saw all of those films at least once, usually on late night Friday television, occasionally on the Superhost show from a Cleveland cable station on Saturday afternoon.
In addition to Godzilla, there were many movies featuring Gamera, a gigantic turtle who had the rather unintuitive ability to fly by withdrawing two or more legs into his shell and shooting flame out, and a slew of others, including Rodan, an oversized pterodactyl, and a duo of very weird immense humanoids, one friendly to humans and one who liked to eat them.
I have tried to watch a bit of some of these films again over the years, just for nostalgia’s sake. The joy of rediscovering something I loved as a child is intense for about 30 seconds, and then it becomes too obvious precisely how awful these films are, on every cinematic level, and I give up after a few minutes.
One thing, however, about them that remains enjoyable to me even after all these years is some of the soundtrack music.
Akira Ifukube was the composer of much of this music. He is best known for this work, but he wrote a lot of concert music in the Western art tradition as well. He was apparently self-taught, and he was reportedly inspired as a young man by hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (and if you know the Stravinsky, you will hear some of that in Ifukube’s music—indeed, Disney’s Fantasia put it together with Godzillas of the non-fictional world, i.e., dinosaurs).
In my days as a rock musician, we adapted (stole) a few of these riffs and turned them into doom metal songs. The people who recognized the source from which we’d pilfered these juicy bits instantly became my beloved kinfolk.
Here’s a little mix of both Ifukube’s work in the “Gigantic Monster from Outer Space Sountrack” genre and other stuff.
It is probably a sacrilege to talk about Godzilla movies and Kurasawa in more or less the same breath, but another piece of Japanese cinematic music that has imbedded itself deeply in some interior part of me is from The Seven Samurai, composed by Fumio Hayasaka. I am hard pressed to think of any more striking musical accompaniment to cinema than this example.
Just say the word “samurai” and these melodies and rhythms pop instantly into my head.
I’ve been at this project now for around eight months. Hardly seems possible, but I just checked the calendar and I believe that is the right math.
So, this is a note to you: Thank you.
I’m tremendously flattered by your interest in what I have to say about life, art, politics, death and I’m grateful that you read my ramblings. Every writer desires to be read (Lovecraft’s letter accompanying his submission to an editor notwithstanding) and thus owes a debt that cannot really be repaid to readers, however much the writer sometimes pretends not to recognize this (it’s part of the persona, you see…).
So that’s something I want to be sure to say and say again: THANK YOU.
Now, the other reason for this little note.
I finally got around to doing the technical stuff necessary to provide a paid subscription option.
What does a paid option mean?
It means it’s an option. At present, everything on this account remains open to all subscribers, paid or free. Even if I move at some currently unforeseen point to separating material here into paid and unpaid categories, I still plan to always make the great bulk of it available when it’s produced without cost to everyone interested in seeing it. I’m tremendously appreciative that you read this site and want to do everything I can to ensure you continue to be interested in doing so.
I am hopeful though, and I make so bold as to ask, that if you have a few extra dollars rattling around, you’ll consider kicking some of them my way to help make it more feasible for me to spend more time on this project.
Inevitably, and despite my deepest feelings about writing, I think at least a bit about possible material returns when I am allocating time to writing projects. I have two kids who eat and are in constant need of new clothes and a house in which things are constantly breaking down. Add to that the fact that, to my great regret, I do not have infinite time to dedicate to writing, and it emerges necessarily that sometimes the possibility of writing things for pay trumps writing things here. This is so even though I much prefer writing here precisely because it allows me more freedom to engage with the topics I find most interesting.
If I can generate some paid subscriptions, then, I can spend more time doing this writing, the writing I most care about, and the writing that I hope you find valuable. If I generate enough, I may even finally find enough time and energy to get around to dipping my toes into Podcast World, which is professionally speaking probably the last thing I should do, given my tendency to say things that get me into trouble, but YOLO, as I’ve heard they say.
I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription and, whatever your decision on that, I look forward to writing more for you as All Things Rhapsodical Phase II gets underway. Should you decide to “go paid,” you need only click the button below and it should lead you in the right direction.
Cheers, and thanks again! And very special thanks to those who have already switched to a paid subscription!
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