Friday, December 23, 2011

Corey Robin: "The Reactionary Mind": a subject I have personal experience with

Author: Corey Robin
Title: “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

Publication: 2011: London, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-979354-7, 290 pages, hardcover, Introduction, Conclusion, two parts, eleven chapters

Amazon link is here

I mentioned this book (which is a bit expensive) on my main blog Dec. 9, with particular respect to the idea of personal agency. That is, the notion that “someone like me”, an outlier, speaks for himself and draws attention, and separates or precipitates out from authority, insoluble, unreachable by it. 

The author, a CUNY political science professor, has pretty well explained a line of thought I have been examining all my life, and that I thought I had nailed in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (1997), but indeed my own understanding of it has somewhat unraveled since then.

The two parts of the book are titled “Profiles in Reaction” (don’t confuse with JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, which I had to read in high school history) and “Virtues of Violence”, but his line of argument is fluid (rather like a Dutch Defense in chess without the Stonewall)  and the two movements (rather like an Op. 111) overlap. 

Here’s the gist of his argument.  Conservatism resents the loss of authority it has over subordinates.  In its sense of loss, it can generate a real fight.  But conservatism, even during “Republicrat” Bill Clinton’s 90s, has become so successful that it has lost its energy. It needs the fight, it needs its objects of derision.  (Hence, libertarianism dies away in morendo.)

Throughout most of human history, social position, wealth, and political authority have largely been “inherited”.   But as conservatives, ironically spurred by the Left, perhaps, take hold of the moral vacuum of such a situation, they invent a new way of thinking: authority is to be generated by meritocracy.  Some of the notion of merit can be expressed in money, in terms of financial success.  But some of it consists of proving your intrinsic worth, of going through your rites of passage.  My name for this idea has been “pay your bills, pay your dues”. 
There is something insufficient about believing that self-worth (and subsequent responsibility and “authority”) is every completely “earned”.  Yup, it’s like the Bible’s (Jesus’s) “man shall not live by bread alone”.  Society is an ongoing community, and no personal achievement would mean anything without if, if others didn’t benefit concretely, tangibly. So one needs a connection to what came before and what comes after – call it “sustainability”.  The radical Left used to call this idea something like “the will of the People”.  But even “The People” will need a political hierarchy.  Generally, history has shown (and Robin is not willing to admit) that the tyrants on the Left are just as corrupt (and brutal) as those on the Right.  Look at North Korea.

So, concepts like "freedom" and "equality" become Janus-faced.  Robin points out that the reactionary sees "freedom" in terms of one's right to maintain a station in life of superiority to others.  
The best way for me to give a more comprehensive assessment of the book is to wall through what I think he is saying in terms of my own experience. And I must admit, I have trouble closing a perfectly logical circle. 
Growing up in the 50s, I was a bit of the “sissy boy”. Yup, you know where this is headed.  I quickly showed an aptitude for piano and music and, after a rocky episode in grade school, suddenly was quite verbal. I liked the idea of attracting attention with my own artistic efforts. But I found that others (starting with my father, and then teachers, etc.) were demanding tribute, in terms of performing according to the expectations of gender complementarity.  (“Girls first!”)  I came of age during the time of the military draft – and student deferments.   It seemed as though “doing your part” – which included sharing risks – was the prime moral imperative.  In a world governed by external threats (Robin’s “national security” paradigm) and the demands of nature – in a time when women took real risks in just having kids – it was essential that everyone did his part just so there could exist a future. If you could not do your part because you weren't physically competitive (according to gender), you were regarded as dependent on or potentially a hazardous cargo for the "group", so you had to do what the more "able" people told you to do.  That was the "logic" of it.
Then, of course, came the issue of homosexuality.  I’ve detailed this difficult period in my college years and early adulthood (and the irony of my own “successful” military service) elsewhere, as in my own books.  But in review, it’s really striking to me now that my declaration of latent homosexuality as a freshman in college (let alone any practice of it) would seem like a greater “wrong” than its inverse, causing a baby to be born out of wedlock.  True, I was (am) an only child.  My statement probably sounded like a death sentence for my family, a repudiation of the permanence of my parents’ marriage (even if they did enjoy 45 years together until my father’s death in 1986).  
Robin has a chapter, the next to last, “Potomac Fever”, on the anti-gay witch-hunts of the period of McCarthyism, defying all logical explanation to the modern person.  (He briefly continues the discussion into an account of the military gay ban, now finally repealed.)  Homosexuality had become a proxy for Communism and even treason, an idea that seems “grotesque” today, as he writes, quoting H.L.A. Hart criticizing the collectivist “moral philosophy” of Patrick Devlin.  But this way of thinking still seems to animate anti-gay thinking in parts of the world today, especially in Islam and in countries like Uganda.  The Vatican is well known for pressing the view that sexuality must come with the price of exposure to (or “openness to”) the future intimacies as risks of procreation. (The Catholic priesthood can hardly live up to its own teachings.)  In a broad view, one can see how sustainability (and now, population demographics) raises the idea that everyone must have a personal stake in those who will follow before being listened to. 
One interesting aspect of homosexuality, at least in my experience, was its irony, or upward affiliation. I became concerned with “who” was indeed the “ideal man” or Nietzchean or Rand-like hero, and what attributes such a hero must exhibit (and not lose – say, remain perfect forever, become an angel and violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy – and you don’t have to reproduce, or run the risks of procreation – which drag the idea man down – when it is really age and time that do so – and it’s a shared future – progeny—that make a sexually continuous lasting marriage possible. (Okay—we can get into the findings that fatherhood reduces a man’s hormones – but so will age.)

When I grew up, "morality" definitely invoked a double standard. It was about much more than taking responsibility for individual "choices" (like causing a pregnancy).  It meant readying oneself to live as part of a social structure, and to share responsibility for other generations -- first by having the capability to do so (according to gender) and then following through.  Life really wasn't just about "choice" or "personal expression".  Parents had both the power and responsibility to bring their children up to both continue their families and live in a community.  But of course all of this idea (that you can state moral rules at all) presumes that society is good enough for individual moral behavior to be meaningful.  So I have to presume that the world I grew up in, while in many ways "unfair" and "flawed", as still better than most other societies that had preceded it. 
Here is where my closed circle finds a kink – the search for the “ideal man” implies an obsession with authority, and a desire to see the “best people” in charge of everyone else – bringing back the “conservative” ideas that oppressed me.  I do remember resenting the idea that my father and others did some things “just for authority” with no other rational purpose. I was to be subjugated. But meet the ideal 21-year-old, I would want to be subjugated, and find it exciting. There’s another unpleasant corollary. Yup, as my Fort Eustis (Useless) Army buddies said, my perfect Ocelot could develop clay feet some day (or balding legs).  But it’s more that I would become cut off from emotion or feeling for the imperfect, for “people as people” (as my father would say, during all the psychiatric mess of the early 1960s).  I would refuse to give people feeling when they genuinely needed it.  There would develop not just a healthy aloofness and impartiality but a coldness, a deletion of empathy. That’s harder to take today than it was fifteen years ago, before 9/11 and then all the recessionary hardships hit the media. 
Robin talks about upward affiliation (a favorite term of socially conservative writer George Gilder when he wrote “Men and Marriage” in the 1980s with a more general term, “sublimity”.  We admire those who can harm or destroy us (I could be more explicit with a word starting with the “failing grade” letter). We lose respect for those who no longer can challenge us.  (I suspect that in giving his own college students essay exams, he asks them to discuss the concept, particularly with respect to Edmund Burke.)   
He also has a chapter where he critiques Ayn Rand. He really doesn’t have much use for her, and calls her work “kitsch”. As to a thinking she was both a novelist and philosopher, she was “neither”.  (That’s been said about me as neither a conservative nor libertarian.) In fact, check out this piece on AlterNet by Bruce E. Levine, “How Ayn Rand seduced generations of young men and helped make the U.S. into a selfish, greedy nation”, link here.

Robin maps all this into our experience of national security in an expected way. He notes that after 9/11, it was no longer easy to mobilize the population into organized shared sacrifice.  But I can remember that resumption of the draft was proposed , not just by Charles Rangel (because it was the poor and minorities who enlisted and bore the risks of American policy) but by Charles Moskos, who found in 9/11 a good reason to drop the military gay ban. (Moskos actually emailed me in late 2001, “Gays must come out for conscription; then the ban would be lifted. “  Moskos, remember, had been one of the authors of “don’t ask don’t tell”.) Robin points out that the majority of us are made to feel more secure by bargaining away the rights of the politically weak and vulnerable. 
I close this review with a quote from someone who misread some of my own writings (Chapter 4 in my 2002 book “Do Ask Do Tell: When Liberty Is Stressed”) and made these angry comments to me in an email about six years ago:
The war on terrorism is the war for *FREEDOM*, and compromises of our liberty are much more our casualties in that war more than any one (or thousand) person's death. Tolerance, privacy and protection of the civil rights of whoever is touched by our country's laws should be (and WAS, before Bush) our most sacred trust. Laws that do not protect the right of the individual, as a rule, oppress the rights of the many. By letting terrorists make us change our lives and laws to make ourselves less free, we concede defeat to them. 
“How many women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq have died for the sins of a few dozen terrorists (assuming it was not a false flag operation by the Bush administration)? There is no question that tens of thousands of civilians have died from acts of violence--that many deaths have been documented and corroborated by multiple press reports of western media--and it appears to be hundreds of thousands have died due to violence, disease and the general disruption that comes from living in a war zone... Saddam is a terrible man who killed hundreds of his own citizens. He used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Iranians. We have descended upon Iraq like a plague, causing the death of one in thirty-five. Is that part of the price that you are willing to pay for your security from terrorism? Would Christ say that your security was more important than peace? 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Time offers "Special Ops: The Hidden World of America's Toughest Warrirors"

When you’re in a local supermarket you may see a notebook-sized booklet from Time, “Special Ops: The Hidden World of America’s Toughest Warriors”, by Jim Frederick, with an introduction by Bob Kerrey, 96 pages, very heavily illustrated, nine chapters.
The book opens with a detailed account of the hit on Osama bin Laden the night of May 1, 2011, with “Operation Crankshaft”.  It ends with an epilogue on how a special warrior can even had a normal family life.  There are many inserts, such as on p 31, Ryan Zinke writes “How the SEALs trained me for life”. 
The most interesting part is the discussion of the grueling training (not only the well-known survival escape-and-evasion where you live off the land, but also preparation for extreme rendition, and exposure to things normally unhealthful, such as extended periods of high-pitched loud noise. The physical fitness requirements would of course be extreme (most of all the swimming and underwater tests  -- the photo on p. 27 is certainly appealing), but there probably are civilians who could pass them.  It is amazing how well some men survive these.  (I didn’t see women discussed.) How would professional athletes (football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey) players match up against Special Forces requirements?  How would very fit actors (Taylor Lautner or Ashton Kutcher come to mind)?  Probably they could pass most of them.  Even some musicians (classical performers, singers) say that they have to remain extraordinarily fit.  (Kutcher played a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in the 2006 film “The Guardian” from Touchstone.)

There is, on p. 55, a Chain of Command Chart, listing the Army Special Operations Command, the Air Force Special Operations Command (including "The Green Berets" – yes, a John Wayne movie in 1968, Warner Brothers), the Naval Special Warfare Command (SEALS  -- “Navy Seals” was a 1990 Orion film with Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn), the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, and the Joint Special Forces Command (in red).  The combined Delta Force selection and training is kept quite secret.
Oh – the head shots are on p. 5.  A few of them are “cute”.  Any entry into Metro Weekly’s contest? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marc Kaufman: "First Contact": the case for abundant extraterrestrial and probably intelligent life

Author: Marc Kaufman

Title: "First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth"

Publication: 2011, New York, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-4391-0900-7, 213 pages, hardcover, indexed, 10 chapters.

Amazon link

Kaufman makes a good case the hope that there is intelligent life besides us within striking distance, probably in our galaxy, maybe out galactic neighborhood, and certainly the Universe, and certainly in a Universe.  In the end, he does answer “anthropic” or “Rare Earther” arguments that the Earth as a habitat for us is fortuitous indeed.  

The range of possibilities is quite large. But Kaufman spends most of his book on concrete evidence within our own solar system. He spends a lot of space on Mars, going back to the 1976 landings, as well as discussing the Mars Meteorite. He discusses extremophiles on Earth, including the organisms in Mono Lake that substitute arsenic for phosphorus.  I would like for him to have spent more space on Europa and Titan. 

The news media has made a lot recently of the discovery of planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” around a star similar to our Sun about 600 light years away. But the large distance to that example raises the question why we don’t have more of them in the 30-50 light year range.  (That particular planet may still be too large, and much hotter deeper in the atmosphere, if thick.)   Most stars likely to have stable planets are small stable M Stars, which would have been around long enough to give life time to develop (such as Gliese – the G planet is still in dispute).  Planets around these stars usually have one side facing their suns because of tidal lock.  This does not preclude intelligent life, and, science fiction writers could have fun describing the politics of an “annular” civilization on such a planet.  Do all advanced civilizations have money for exchange?

The New York Times series on the Goldilocks Problem dates to Dec 3 and is here.

I think there is something to the idea that life develops as a way to counteract entropy.  A conscious being with Free Will and the requirement to absorb the consequences of its actions would be the ultimate challenge to entropy.  So “nature” might have an incentive to let this develop where possible. The universe may be relatively new in developing advanced civilizations; ours may be an early one with many more to follow over billions of years.  The “soul” or element of Free Will, may be an “object” in physics, somehow related to thermodynamics, that cannot be destroyed and somehow persists, to reappear in other civilizations – maybe in other universes through black hole wormholes.  Maybe the Law of Karma applies, and the Afterlife, in that sense, is real.  It’s hard to see how a being in one universe becomes permanent and immortal – either an Angel (locked in physical perfection, like what you want to see on a disco floor) or a Christ figure – without violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics (hence we need biological reproduction).  But maybe there is some mechanism.  Does the birth of stars and galaxies and new solar systems represent some sort of anti-entropy process that is somehow self-conscious and alive?   Are souls somehow processed by Black Holes after death?

I sometimes wonder if artistic works, especially musical compositions, have a consciousness of their own that survives forever.  Because music is based on universal mathematical relationships, a Beethoven sonata would work for sentient aural beings on any world. 

There is something interesting about conventional religion: it’s insistence on only one specially created World, and yet Heaven and Hell (and maybe Purgatory) that by logic must be specific extraterrestrial places (even if in other universes).  

Here’s Marc Kaufman’s lecture at Authors at Google (46 min), May 27, 2011.

I did see "Contact", directed by Robert Zemeckis, on July 11, 1997, the day of publication of my first book, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. I remember the discovery of the signal, the code, the trillion dollar machine (which explodes once), and the travel to the other planet.  I also remember David Bowie as "The Man Who Fell to Earth".  While in Minnesota, I met Timothy Johnson, director of "Six Days in Roswell".

What would happen politically on Day One after "Official Contact"? 

Wikipedia attribution link for Mono Lake picture my last visit, 1985, also a couple of visits in the 70s.   I’ll do it again. US 395 is cool, one of my favorite highways.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Matthew Connelly: "Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population" (review)

Author: Matthew Connelly, Professor of History at Columbia University, New York NY.

Title: “Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population”.

Publication: Belpnap Press, Harvard University Press, 2008;  ISBN 978-0-674-02423-6 paper, 520 pages, heavily indexed; major text ends on on 384; Introduction, nine chapters, Conclusion. 

I had been under the impression that the book is new, but it was originally published in hardcover in 2008 and in paper in 2010. 

The author gives a textbook-like detailed account of the population issues in modern history. He notes that many nations, at different times, have promoted increasing population, imposing a responsibility on adults (especially married women) to bear children and on men to sire them, that goes beyond even the idea that people have personal rights to make reproductive choices at all.  But much of the time, in the past century and a half, there have been many organized efforts to reduce birthrates, particularly among poor populations and in less developed parts of the world.   Connelly covers many attempts at eugenics (not at all limited to Nazi Germany), and the more “modern” history of China’s one-child-per-family policy.

These efforts have sometimes contradicted earlier moral teachings against contraception, let alone abortion. The author gives an interesting history of the legal problems France faced when it incorporated north African areas (Algeria) as part of its sovereign territory, because it suddenly wanted to control Muslim reproduction within its legal framework. 

He also notes that at times, some moral interests have drawn little or no difference between contraception (or avoidance of having children deliberately) and abortion or euthanasia (p 148). The teachings of the Catholic Church figure in, as the Vatican has always presumed one has an intrinsic responsibility to participate in raising a new generation, by parentage if possible (unless one took a vow of celibacy/abstinence and poverty). 

The author, in a few places, notes the possible coincidence of arguments concerning equal rights for homosexuals with the aims of population control. 

In his conclusion, Connelly notices the subtleties of today’s arguments about population. Having already noted that fertility rates in many parts of the world (even the developing world) starting slowing in the 60s, he goes on to note that wealthier nations have been shocked to discover the difficulties they will have supporting aging populations with fewer children.  He soft-pedals the obvious potential political problems:  If western nations see an increase in immigrants (especially Muslims) with higher birthrates and a lower standard of living, western freedoms as we know them could be at eventual risk. So most European countries (much more than the US) have offered parents special benefits (which the childless would potentially pay for).  In a few cases, like Singapore, countries have tried to encourage only those with more education to have more children.

Connelly notes that lowering the growth of population does not directly reduce the strain on the environment.  Families may be smaller, but more people may live and consume resources alone; there could be fewer people but more households.  People may become dependent on hiring services from those who have more children.   In the end, Connelly supports a rather libertarian position on birth issues.   Political attempts to control the reproductive behaviors of other people through coercion just won’t work in the long run, he argues. 

Here is Connelly’s own web page for the book. 

The author appears in this YouTube Cross Talk by Russia Today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ted C. Fishman: "Shock of Gray": the sudden challenges of an aging world

Author: Ted C. Fishman

Title:Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation

Publication: New York: Scribner, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-4165-5102-7, 401 pages, hardcover, indexed, ten chapters with Introduction; also, poem “You Are Old, Father William” by Lewis Carroll, from “Alice in Wonderland”

Amazon link

In the Introduction, on p. 17, the author makes a blunt statement, that summarizes it all: “An aging world is an increasingly dependent world. It will demand that a growing portion of the population devote their lives to the growing share of people who need care.”

An then, on p. 309, in Chapter 9, on China, he mentions that today China’s law allows parents to sue their adult kids for “alimony”, and then in a footnote discusses Singapore’s filial responsibility laws in some detail.  Later he discusses the practice of younger adult workers sending money to parents, comment in most non-western cultures (particularly when they emigrate).  Curiously, he never mentions that in the United States, about 28 states have such laws (rarely enforced, although state budget crises could change that).
Fishman’s book has blocks of comparison. He starts out with a chapter on senior life in Sarasota, FL.  Later, he has a mirror chapter on Rockford, IL.    In that chapter, he latter  discusses the growing and heavily franchised home health care industry, and the tricky problems that come up when clients practice racial discrimination.

He also has separate chapters on Japan and China.  Both countries have dealt with, in different ways, Asian traditions of family solidarity, bending them as necessary for economic (and in China, political) necessity.  Japan has offered 50 year mortgages to encourage extended families to stay together but then has to contemplate taxing adult children who don’t leave home to start families of their own. China, during Maoism, wanted large but socially weak families.  The one-child policy in 1979 would complicated everything, meaning fewer children, but eventually fewer old people. But “little emperors” would grow up and work in a get-rich but autocratic culture, and forget that they would have to learn to take care of people.

Fishman also has a couple chapters of the process of aging.  I didn’t realize that cognitive solstice takes place as early as age 27.  After that, while knowledge may increase, the days get shorter (as well as the ability to play speed chess).  People  (and all animals) age – and therefore must reproduce – because of a process in physics called entropy – decay. By around age 30, in most (not all) people, the effects of age, however gradual, can be noticed on visual inspection.  Men may show a widow’s peak, then frankly receding hairlines (not always) and in time even lose hair from the legs.  Everyone shows facial lines as tissue underneath the skins slowly receded.  (Dr. Phil used to call all this “tissue death”.)  Keeping the partners of a marriage “interested” in one another for life requires social support – procreation and the belief that one is passing on the same sense of socialization onto one’s kids.  It doesn’t always work.

The right wing talks about “demographic winter” as part of a murky strategy to restore the psychological imperative of the heterosexual family and “rule of reproduction” for everyone.  It’s also a term aiming at the politics of what is going on in the West:  immigrant (often racial or religious) minorities have most of the children, ultimately threatening a political unraveling of western secular democracy  (see Bruce Bawer, “While Europe Slept”, discussed here July 25, 2011).

The fact is, however, something has really changed:  wealthier populations are living longer, with longer periods at the end of life with marked disability, particularly Alzheimer’s.  At the same time, individualistic values of “personal responsibility” along with rising costs have discouraged wealthier populations from having as many children.  No wonder we will have a Social Security and Medicare crisis here, and that Europe is in trouble now.  Statist welfare programs, in an era of weaker emotional ties within extended families, are not sustainable.  Earlier, less wealthy and more collective societies, had to have more children, to build enough mass to protect a population from external (natural and manmade) dangers.  They relegated the unmarried to staying at home to take care of filial responsibility, but, paradoxically, the elderly usually did not live long once they got sick.  Today, the system has flipped.

Second picture: law school at Penn State.  In 2005, Pennsylvania tried to strengthen its filial responsibility laws.  See my Retirement Blog, July, 2007. 

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Sherry Turkle: "Alone Together" (review)

Author:  Sherry Turkle (MIT, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology)

Title: “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Publication: 2011, Basic Books.  ISBN 978-0-465-01021-9, 360 pages, indexed, hardcover, two parts, introduction, fourteen chapters, conclusion, epilogue

Amazon link

Imagine, if you will, standing on a ramp above the dance floor at a gay disco. It’s late. Down below, “love trains” form. Then, a little blink at the waist area on one of the guys, and the train breaks apart. The guy looks at the limelight glow of his smartphone.  A CIA spy could probably hack it.
A sentence on p. 280 may summarize Turkle’s thesis well. She writes, “The ties we form through the Internet are not the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” Remember that hymn, “Bless be the ties that bind” that we (I at least) used to sing when Sunday night program services broke up in the 50s, when people talked about “fellowship”?

During a difficult period in my life, the college years, my father (and more than one psychiatrist) said, “You don’t see people as people.”

But today, according to the author, nobody does.

Her book is well bifurcated into the two parts (rather like a two-movement piano sonata).  The of these is “The Robotic Movement: In Solitude, New Intimacies”, and then the second is “Networked: In Intimacy, New Solutions.”

The first half of the book takes where the movie “2001” with the robot spaceship leader HAL (“IBM”) left off.   People really take seriously the idea that robots can help raise kids (or keep them company), and particularly, now, take care of the elderly, freeing us from involuntary filial responsibility.  Kids may have a hard time learning the difference between a “living soul” (as my father called it) or a machine – or a symbol, something psychiatrists (even in my case) call a “part-object” (which she mentions).

In the second half of the book, she gradually migrates toward the now common discussion about the total gutting of privacy as we used to view it, in a social networking world where teenagers have to design whole strategies around getting to know what amount to avatars rather than real people – just to have a chance to compete in the world of real people.  She provides a lot of parallel diversions, such as a discussion of Second Life, as a total substitute for what my mother called "real life". (She called herself "Rachel" there; in more recent times, social networking sites have discouraged pseudonyms or anonymity, as I've discussed elsewhere.) She makes the odd comment that kids don’t see bullying as an unforgivable transgression the way they see observable political disloyalty.  The former is normal social combat. The latter exposes one to the roving cameras of others – the tagging, the matching, the archiving, the timelines, and the assessment of future (or even current) employers.  Yet kids barely understand the real implications of online reputation in the adult world – whole countries can fall on it.

We may, despite the compulsive behavior that social networking sites may drag us into (almost as mandatory) be losing our ability to live as social creatures.  If so, our sustainable future could be bleak.

Google presents an hour long interview of the author on YouTube about the book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Helen Schulman's "This Beautiful Life" shows the perils to a teenager from one careless moment online

Author:  Helen Schulman

Title: “This Beautiful Life

Publication: Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-202438-1, 222 pages, hardcover; no chapter numbering, no table of contents (fiction) 

Amazon link:   The Amazon page includes "A Novel" as a subtitle. 

While the media has focused somewhat on the dangers of teen cell-phone “sexting”, this novella is based on the same concept, but with ordinary laptops (Macs, in fact).  In a nutshell, an upper class teenage boy, Jake Bergamot, goes to an unsupervised party, things happen; an eighth grade girl films some of it (involving him, her, and other minors) and emails him the video. Titillated, he forwards it to one friend. It goes viral. His school suspends him, even though the entire incident happened off campus and had nothing to do with the school. There are business consequences for his parents, and so on.

The setting of the book is a kind of literary “Gossip Girl”, a notorious CWTV series that shows how a rogue blogger can pull strings in the social world of Manhattan (and upstate suburban) preppies (even pre-Facebook).   The author brings to life the emotions of family and peer life in this world quite graphically, and uses particularly adept metaphors and soliloquies in dealing with the physical coming in age.  For example, a couple of times she mentions the surprise of Jake and even his mother at the sudden pubescent appearance of thick hair on his lower legs and feet, where in one scene Jake is curiously disgusted by his own maturation. Jake's (heterosexual) urges, driven by emerging hormones, seem quite immutable and driven by underlying biology, without much conscious supervision. (I can remember my own father's saying to me, "One day, blue eyes will confuse you..."  From the viewpoint of my parents' progeny, they were the wrong eyes.) 

In communicating the compelling biology here, the author shows a tendency to repeat the same words or phrase; my proofreader caught this when I worked on my own books.

 Later, Schulman describes pretty well the issue of taking final exams when you’ve been out of class and suspended, and wondering how many points you could drop and still pass.  Jake had been a good student. What happens to him is almost a tragedy. All he did was forward an email to one other person; he didn’t even create the video or consent to it.  It seemed as though the school and authorities could have been going after a lot of other kids and parents.  (The legal question has to do with possessing and disseminating “child pornography.”)  But Jake could bear the worst consequences. Order off the web, maybe get sent to a military school, or something. 

It's interesting here that the risk came from a single "private" email transmission, not from what one posted on one's own to a blog or website available to search engines.   "Online reputation" companies (like Dan Fertik's "Reputation Defender") and other psychological consultants like Dr. Phil are always warning kids of how one mistake online can sink them; digital files never go away.  Dr. Phil is always reminding us that teenagers can't see around corners; their brains are not developed biologically well enough to calculate and weigh all possible consequences.  But even the grownups here have difficulty grasping what happens and gets out of control. 

There was a story today on AOL that comports with this novel: a customer wrote a rude comments about a server's weight on a restaurant bill (with tip of 0), and the server posted it on Facebook; other people with the same name as the customer caught flack; story here

Human Relations Media has a video on the danger to teens from the issues here:

I couldn't find a YouTube interview by the author. 

This book could generate an interesting film, maybe for Lifetime, maybe HBO, or maybe the festival-arthouse market. I hope Schulman tries to sell it or develop a screenplay. 

Readers might also enjoy the review of this book in the Washington Post by Michelle Singletary, here

Friday, October 07, 2011

Martin Millette's "Stormy Whether": a curious "autobiography" and history lesson; a pitch for "Certainism"

Author: Dr. Martin H. S. Millette, apparently speaking for David Tolstoy Hugenberg
Title: "Stormy Whether: Certainism: Reason over Morality"
Publication: S-Star LLC, ISBN 978-0-61540023-5  304 pages, paper, ten chapters
Amazon link:

Author’s site.   I received a complimentary copy of the book to review. The book title contains a homonym; "Stormy Weather" could have worked as a working title. 

First, I have to deal with the “observer” in the book. In the first person, it appears as though the author is telling the story of David, born in 1920 in Massachusetts, as if he had been David.  It’s not clear from what find that he is David. The author is said to have started his own career in Christian education.
The boy grows up in a home with an authoritarian father of German ancestry.  The grandfather, however, was protective, and the family had enough money for David to go to Yale, despite the Depression. However, when David, as part of class homework, finds evidence that the mother’s side of the family is partly Jewish, a family crisis ensues, but the father soon dies.

The younger brother enlists in the Marines first, skipping college, after WWII breaks out, and argues that the world would not be worth living in unless freedom is defended. David eventually is commissioned as a 2LT himself and storms the beaches on D-Day, and then is part of a party that liberates a concentration camp, accounts that are quite riveting.

Throughout this “autobiographical” narrative, the author teaches us quite a lot of history, starting with turn of the century matters that confronted him in school as term papers. Much of it is just the “usual”, but he is always adding a lot of obscure detail, such as how Jews were affected by the English civil wars in the 17th Century (part of his family secret) and how the Boer Wars affected Nazi thinking.  Gradually, he gives us his own interpretation of the two great World Wars and what drove the establishment of National Socialism in Germany. In a plain word, religion. In fact, back in 1951, Dr. Edward Pruden, the Richmond-raised progressive pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC had written about some of the same problems in his Judson Press book “Interpreters Needed”.

His writing style is guilty of a lot of “author intrusion” (as literary agents call it).  The randomly alternates his theory of history with his explanation of “Certainism” as a rational answer (and agnostic) to religion. Certainism comprises familiar elements from libertarianism:  the idea of personal autonomy, of “different strokes for different folks”, of localism, and scientific pragmatism, perhaps just short of objectivism as Ayn Rand sees it.  But do all of these have to be “incompatible” with religious faith?

He spends some space talking about the Ninth Amendment of the 1791 Bill of Rights.  From that, he deduces a mid-90’s style “classically liberal” theory on gay rights, more or less centered on privacy and the right to be left alone, pretty much what would go into the 2003 decision “Lawrence v. Texas” on the sodomy laws.  All of this is put forth as he described his own personal heterosexual epiphany with “Olga”.

There are many today who question whether a society based on “hyper-individualism” is sustainable, but the context for posing these questions seems to have recirculated.  Various theories are advanced regarding getting the individual to anchor himself in goals shared by a larger (if still locally accessible) group, in order to guarantee a “sustainable” civilization. Not all of these tomes are based on religion, but certainly the “religious right” has its hands in the “natural family” movement as well as in preaching about “demographic winter.”

The author, however, pays particular heed to an aspect of National Socialism, namely, that only certain peoples would be able to carry civilization on.  We all know the horror this led to, with the eugenics and eventually the “Final Solution” which caught an incredulous world by surprise.  This sort of idea, of contraction of the people, may have been unwittingly encouraged by various “well-meaning” 19th Century intellectuals (Nietzsche  –  and Spencer more than Darwin, and of course Maltus) and the author here notes the dangerous power of the “pen”.  It’s not so clear that this idea of elimination was a critical to secular (or areligious) forms of totalitarianism – Communism, from Stalin to Mao and even Pol Pot.  Mao, however, remember, was very determined that all intellectuals (except him) would learn physical sacrifice.  And “radical Islam” seems to be carried away with the idea of self-righteousness for its own sake, to the point that anything remotely sinful is to be eliminated.

The author mentions the sacrifice of the younger brother Georg, and at least once talks about the military draft, voluntary service, and deferments.  That caught my eye as particularly interesting.

As a supplement, check out Lisa Miller's columns in the Washington Post about faith v. reason, and even as to whether atheists are "smarter"; here on Oct. 8.

I couldn't find an author interview on YouTube, but I'll offer my own video of a visit to "Occupy DC" yesterday. It's distantly relevant. 

On my TV blog there is a coordinated review today of BBC's "Nietzsche: Human, All to Human" (1999, 2007). 

Monday, October 03, 2011

Perseus offers new service for self-publishing of e-books; questions rise about conflict of interest for literary agents, even about 'amateurism"

Julie Bosman reports in the New York Times today on a “New service for authors seeking to self-publish e-books”, link here.  

The new service will come from the Perseus Books Group, which will structure a service that offers 70% royalty to authors.  It will be called Argo Navis Author Services. This seems to refer to Kindle-like books and not to print-on-demand. The Perseus site, however, mentions its doing POD.

Another account of the new service is at PaidContent, here where there is mention of possible conflict of interest for literary agents (or maybe eventually “third parties” that agent screenplays).

This last story links to another story at the same site, “The Rise of Agent-Publishers Is Bad for the Book Business”.   There can be a serious conflict of interest if one is an agent and a publisher at the same time for the same client, not for different clients.  The long piece, by Jason Ashlock, describes an evolving “tragedy of the commons” and seems also to allude to concerns about amateurism that we’ve seen discussed already with respect to Web publishing. 

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Announcing my booklet "Do Ask Do Tell III": for right now, self-distribution only

As I noted on my main “BillBoushka” blog on Friday, I have recently (as of Sept. 19, 2011), posted an online version of a new “book” in my “Do Ask Do Tell”.

You may find the book by keying in (by http) and looking down the right column for “Do Ask Do Tell III” a few lines.  (There are reasons why I don’t give links to my other sites, having to do with concerns over “link farming”; this one is easy to find). 

The title is “Do Ask Do Tell III: Speech Is a Fundamental Right; Being ‘Listened To” Is a Privilege”.

The online index leads to eight PDF files: a title-TOC, an Introduction, five chapters, and an Epilogue. The document adds up to 87 pages.  I have given two ISBN’s from my DADT series established with the ISBN agency RR Bowker (0-9656744-4-4 and 0-9656744-5-2).  I have printed copies with two slightly different versions of Chapter 5, and posted online the slightly “smaller” version because of the possibility of potential disclosure sensitivities.

I may consider making this an Amazon Kindle later.

This is very “personal” material, and I published it intending to make a “definitive statement” before moving on with resurrecting my music and trying to sell my motion picture plans, in “retirement”, my mother having passed away in December 2010, at age 97.  I’m planning to post another “high level summary” on my main blog in a few days.

The five chapters focus on specific “images” from my life and generate discussions in a few specific areas, with the purpose of generating fresh interpretations. These are: (1) Why I didn’t or pursue a music (composition and piano) career (2)The “meaning” of my homosexuality (3) My “second career” as a self-publisher (4) My mainframe IT career and what really happened to it, leading to the personal tugs at me to follow (5) My experience caring for my Mother .

Picture: (below):  Some people have no shame!

 Below: Tidal Basin near MLK Memorial in Washington DC  : (mine, 9/27/20011)

Update: Nov. 25, 2011

I've updated Chapter 3 with information about SOPA, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, in Section 8. I've also added a few details to Chapter 5.

Update: Oct. 16, 2013

I have extensively revised the book and added much new material.  I am submitting it for formal publication as a book.  I believe that the revised text will be posted sometime shortly before the end of the year 2013.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

A note about Amazon image icons

I have, until recently, used the icons from Amazon Associates to display images of the books I review. Recently, the gadget has stopped working. Here is one explanation which I will have to experiment with, from the help forums (link):  I could not get this to work today. 

The problem appears to be related to programming within the Amazon widgets, with some problems with “instances” of the email address.  Maybe there is a problem in that my gmail address is used by the gadget, but my regular Amazon account uses an AOL email address. 

Icons previously created by the gadget on this Book Reviews blog still display.

In the meantime I’m displaying my own image of the cover and giving an Amazon link manually.

Mitch Pearlstein: "From Family Collapse to America's Decline"

Author: Mitch Pearlstein (president of the Center of the American Experiment, Minneapolis).  (link)

Title: “From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation

Publication: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; paperback, 165 pages (also available hardcover), indexed, Introduction and seven long chapters;  ISBN 978-1-60709-361-9

Amazon link

I sometimes visited the sessions of the Center of the American Experiment when I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003. One time, John Stossel spoke there for a luncheon.

The book, which is a bit expensive, has a “mouthful of words” for a title, suggesting the conservative message that America’s economic problems are the result of weak families rather than corporate “exploitation”.   There’s no question that the recklessness on Wall Street in the last decade contributed to our current mess, but there’s also no question that a lot of people in trouble with “pineapple upside-down cake” mortgages “tried to get something for nothing”.  If you want to look for blame, there’s plenty to go around. All the current presidential candidates know that.

The book is also somewhat dense in writing style, compared to the earlier collection “Closer to Home” from the same source (Mitch Pearlstein and Katherine Kersten, reviewed here March 28, 2006; I had made a major comment about an essay in this earlier book on my “Issues blog” Feb. 3, 2011.)

In this book, the term “family fragmentation” and the synonym “family collapse” largely refer to people having babies out of wedlock, or getting divorced and leaving single parents. (At the start of his last chapter, Pearlstein, somewhat painfully, tells the story of his own daughter.)  But a corollary process is the reduction in family formation in the first place.  This trend has many causes, including the accumulation of males who are seen as “unmarriagable”.  Toward the end of the book, Pearlstein discusses the way people with relatively minor criminal records get effectively blackballed, with the Internet making it worse (grazing on the “online reputation” issue I have covered at length before).

He also discusses, in a few places, discusses the notion that individual goals have changed over the years, with an outlook we might call “expressive individualism”.  Here, it gets tricky. Once people have children, they need to be prepared to put their kids first (and stay together in a marital relationship); that idea itself is not controversial (or maybe it is to some people).  But in recent decades there has been a tendency to postpone marriage for career or “self-advancement”, resulting in lower birthrates among people who can probably afford children (the “demographic winter” problem), and a greater likelihood people will grow old alone (he discusses on p 71) – which ties into another notion of “family fragmentation” discussed by Jennifer Roback Morse and others – that extended families are made weaker by single people who leave the nest and leave eldercare to “government programs” like Social Security and Medicare (that gets into a complicated and controversial area that I have covered a lot elsewhere – Morse’s idea is oversimplified, to say the least). Pearlstein pays heed to gender-specific problems, that boys are affected a lot more than girls by deficient environments, and notes that we seem to be heading toward a society where women don't need men -- an issue George Gilder had written about in the 80s.

Pearlstein doesn’t address gay issues in this book much, beyond the same-sex marriage debate on pp 21-23. (In his native Minnesota, a blue state, there is a proposed state constitutional amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman.)  But I have, in my own mind, done a lot of introspection, as to why over the years others made so much of my own homosexuality, and personal aloofness, which in me are hard to separate.  I think that a lot of this has to do with an expectation that everyone be ready for the kinds of permanent relationships that can both raise children and (especially recently, with longer lifespans) take care of the elderly and disabled, without so much government intervention.  I took myself out of the game, in the minds of many people; if too many people were allowed or particularly encouraged to opt out this way, a free society could not sustain itself and could “slouch” toward totalitarianism.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Albert Brooks: 2030: Until debt do us part

Author:  Albert Brooks

Title: “Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America”, a Novel (aka “2030”)

Publication: New York: St. Martins, 2011, ISBN 978-0-312-58372-9, 375 pages, hardcover

Want to know what happens to America?  It’s not like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “2010” (already passed). No, shortly after 2030, the US gives up its sovereignty (and a lot of people’s civil liberties) to China.  Donald Trump told us so.

In fifty-seven short chapters, Brooks lays out, in real time, docudrama fashion, how America unravels under its first Jewish president.

Cancer and (more or less) heart disease have been “cured”,  and the elderly, with their clout, are living forever.  Medicare benefits have been slashed, and their adult children are getting stuck with the bills. (Brooks could go into detail on filial responsibility laws if he chose to.)  And the health care system is still fragmented into islands of self-interest.

Most of the US budget is taken up paying the debt.  Then, one June morning in 2030, LA is leveled by a 9.1 earthquake.  Flash mobs rule the city, and the US cannot afford to rebuild. So it enters into a political “parthership” with China to rebuild, eventually jeopardizing its sovereignty.

For newly homeless seniors in LA, the new powers that be come up with an ingenious “final solution”: retirement ships.  Seniors turn over their lives for little cubbyholes on a ship that carries 2500 of them at a time out of harms way forever.  But that sets up the climax of the “novel”: the hijacking of the ship by the rogue “young people” who, among other things, demand that no one be allowed to vote after age 70.

Brooks does allude to various other issues, like how the news media has become fragmented by bloggers and amateurism (p 38).  He mentions gay bars and a gay conservative writer at one place (is that me?, or is it “Gay Patriot”?).  He could have talked more about the “demographic winter” issue, but his view is that the senior care crisis is coming anyway (he could have gone into Alzheimer’s more). At one point, a younger character expresses the view than an elderly person has lived his life and it's the young person's turn. But the young people have been assigned the filial debt of their parents and grandparents. 

There is something about a catastrophe of the size of the LA earthquake in the book: it makes the monetary system and paper wealth rather irrelevant.

Michelle Singletary, Washington Post financial columnist, wrote a review and dire warning based on this book Aug. 7 here, "'2030': This financial horror story could be our future", link here

The AP has an embeddable clip:


Check YouTube also for a NYTimes interview of Brooks. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New book makes pitch for resurgence of the Fair Use doctrine in copyright law

Amazon link

Authors: Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi

Title: "Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright"

Publication: University of Chicago Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-226-03228-3; 200 pages, paper, indexed, five appendices

We hear about copyright infringement allegations by Internet users almost every day now, to the point that a few businesses, especially Righthaven, most recently, have been set up to troll the Internet for possible violators.  We’ve heard a lot about copyright and P2P with all the older RIAA lawsuits, and about the Safer Harbor provision of the DMCA.

This book traces the history of – the decline and recent resurgence of the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law in the United States, particularly by Internet speakers and most specifically by documentary filmmakers.

In earlier times, legal conventions tended to favor the idea that copyright owners or publishers could monopolize the industry and hinder the appearance of critical and competitive materials.

In film, and in other media projects, there are many practical obstacles for obtaining permissions in many cases, which studio or investor lawyers are likely to demand. For example, a license might stipulate that the filmmaker or writer cannot criticize the source of the media used, which would undermine the integrity of the work.

When one claims Fair Use, one does not ask for specific permission from the content copyright owner.
The book maintains that industry codes of best practices are the best way to win both copyright owners and judges over to more support of Fair Use in practice.

In 2008 American University released the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use, link here. There are similar codes at this site, such as the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video, link

Here is Jaszi speaking the Fair Use Keynote at a USC conference in 2008:

(For some reason, Amazon direct link "gadget" from Blogger is not working for me now.)

Cynthia Close reviews this book in the Winter 2012 issue of "", review not available online yet  (see Bill Boushka blog Dec. 15, 2011).  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Honore: "Survival", family tips for disaster preparedness tag along behind his autobiography: a word of warning, however

Author: Lt. Gen. Russel  K. Honore (US Army, Ret),with Ron Martz

Title: “Survival: How Being Prepared Can Keep You and Your Family Safe

Publication: New York: Atria, 2009; ISBN 978-1-4165-9901-2, 274 pages, paper, also available as e-book; Prologue, Epilogue and 18 chapters, indexed.

Honore achieved some “notoriety” recently with an op-ed inviting members of Congress to take boot camp and learn the meaning of “physical sacrifice” (Issues Blog, Aug. 3, 2011), after their prolonged partisan bickering during the recent debt ceiling crisis.

He describes himself as mixed race of “mutt” Creole and Cajun, born during a hurricane decades ago. He was the unofficial head of military rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina, although he had much less formal authority than people think, or so he says.

The book starts as an autobiography of his military career, where he admits that writing was not one of his skills – and that shows in the book, which seems episodic. Each chapter is an autobiographic segment (most of the chapters deal with Katrina, and then Rita and Wilma later in 2005), ending with a shortlist of specific recommendations for disaster preparedness, which don’t necessarily follow from the content of the chapter.
But the subject matter is, of course, of critical public interest.  Very early, around p 26, he points out that our modern culture of individualistic capitalism is deceptive; we don’t know how to do things for ourselves the way people in earlier generations did, and the market economy doesn’t really take care of everything.

He has an interesting perspective on the behavior of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. Most were poor, and left living in vulnerable areas below sea level (and around inadequate levies) after the jobs left. (He doesn’t get into the Army Corps of Engineers’s failures the way he could have.)  And their behavior after the catastrophe was driven by survival, not by a desire to loot.  He makes an interesting point that people who live in crime-ridden areas do not like to leave home frivolously, and may not be as responsive to evacuation warnings as needed.

He does suggest that it is constructive to have better building standards for low-lying or vulnerable areas, but it is not wise to put too much stock in expecting people not to live in hazard-prone areas.  People may have less choice in these matters than others think. Furthermore, the range of disasters that could occur is very great. He mentions the risk pandemics (without discussing the need for vaccines, for example, for smallpox and H5N1), and also talks about the earlier efforts to have the public prepared to survive nuclear attacks (which probably was not very realistic, given the dangers we faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962).  The list of other dangers includes not only earthquakes and wildfires, but electromagnetic pulse (from a high altitude terrorist blast or certain other microwave devices) and even severe damage to the power grid from coronal mass ejections on the Sun (related to “solar flares” or geomagnetic storms or “space weather”  -- more could be done to mitigate these risks by electric utilities than is done now).  Other dangers could include a huge East Coast tsunami from the Cumbre Vieja volcano (and undersea landslide) off the coast of Africa, as well as conceivably the Yellowstone or Mono Lake caldera supervolcanoes.  On p 176, he mentions the Defense Authorization Act for 2007 which makes it easier for the president to declare martial law when a state is unable to control an emergency.  It was not declared during Hurricane Katrina.  He also suggests that school teachers should be cross trained as Red Cross workers everywhere. Does this include subs?