Friday, December 2, 2016


Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), via Peplum, a website entirely devoted to the sword-and-sandal film genre.
Commenter Ohsopolite had a useful thought after everybody was identifying Emperor Trump with Caligula this morning:
Maybe he'll go the Nero route and take up the violin.
Of course Nero did not actually have access to a fiddle, or a lute either—that only happened for Italy a thousand years later, when all the hipster crusaders picked up rababs and ouds in the Middle Eastern bazaars as souvenirs to bring home and took to writing troubadour poetry, and it was another 500-odd years before the violin itself was invented, but that's another story.

Nero's performance art wasn't so much the instrumental music as the declamation of Greek and Latin poetry, accompanying himself on the tortoiseshell lyre, and focusing on his own big Latin epic, apparently (per Juvenal) one of the worst poems of all times, the Troica—what he would have been out there chanting during the great fire of 64 C.E., if he was (there's no real evidence) would have been his own description of the burning of Troy, illuminated by the flames of Rome, what an incredible dramatic effect! He might have had the fire set himself, just to find out how cool it was (no, there's no evidence he did that either).

And you know what other famous dictator of history fancied himself an especially gifted artist? (It's OK, Mike Godwin himself says we can start doing this if we want, as long as we make an effort to know what we're talking about.) Not those watercolors, either, I'm talking about movies. I got this idea from one of the greatest movies I've ever seen, as a matter of fact, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Unser Hitler: Ein Film aus Deutschland (1977), which I saw twice, believe it or not (it's 442 minutes long), in which a major thesis or thesis-like theme is that Hitler increasingly saw himself as a filmmaker, in particularly from the war onwards, what we'd later call an auteur, literally having the war filmed, as we know, and watching the takes in his redoubt like a studio director going over the rushes. A Wagnerian film, obviously, with a Götterdämmerung at the end. Like the emperor Nero, Hitler felt the destruction of the world around him was interesting and deep, and a credit to his deep artistic sensitivity. Hitler was the Dramaturg of the end of the world.

And then, you know, there's Trump, who does "reality" shows, of which our experience in the last couple of years is certainly an example, and who is, as we know, similarly psychotic. I will doubtlessly be coming back to this thought, but I want to let it sink in a little. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Ontological insecurity

You don't need to have it on the couch in a psychiatrist's office to identify this animal, and diagnosing Donald Trump's narcissism is the same kind of thing.
The great psychological thinker and writer Alfie Kohn (you may recall the time we caught David Brooks not only plagiarizing him but pretending the material he stole meant the opposite of what Kohn intended) has offered some important remarks from the liberal psychologist's point of view on the Trumpian narcissism, not bothering with the false humility of saying you can't diagnose illness at a distance (you can when it's on that scale), which I recommend everybody read in full:
Even if you set out to consider different sorts of deficits, you’re pulled back to the psychological issues. It’s not just that he’s ignorant or even incurious; it’s that he seems incapable of acknowledging that there’s something he doesn’t know. It’s not just that he lacks the cognitive wherewithal to view himself as others view him (or to reflect on his failings) but that his psychological makeup is such that he can’t bear to stop and think about who he is; he’s like a shark, a blind eating machine that must always move forward or die. Similarly, while his speech rarely ventures beyond elementary-school vocabulary or grammar, what’s more alarming than his cognitive limitations is his egocentrism. One careful analysis found that he inclines not only to the monosyllabic but to the megalomaniacal: The single word he uses more than any other is “I” — and his fourth-favorite word is his own name.
Donald Trump seems to me a textbook illustration of how a lifelong campaign of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement (acquiring as much as possible and then pasting his name on everything he owns) represents an attempt to compensate for deeply rooted insecurity. He fears being insignificant, worthless. In fact, his quest to humiliate and conquer, to possess and flaunt, may be strategies to prove to himself that he really exists, reflecting a condition that R.D. Laing called “ontological insecurity” (in a chapter of that name in his classic book The Divided Self). He doesn’t even bother — or maybe just lacks the sophistication — to conceal how desperate is his craving for attention and approval, how precarious is his mental state....

The implications going forward are nothing short of chilling. It’s not just how little he knows but how little that fact bothers him — the overweening arrogance that leads him to believe he has nothing to learn, that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do.” It’s not just that he’s an extreme risk-taker, but that he takes those risks purely in the service of his own wealth and glory. It’s not clear that he has any principles, as such; what he has is an overwhelming need to be the center of attention, to be liked, feared, admired. Apart from considerations of personal profit, his foreign policy is likely to be determined at least in part by which individuals on the world stage stroke his ego and which ones criticize him — never mind that despicable leaders may do the former and reasonable leaders the latter (which is actually more likely than the reverse, if you think about it).
His hunger for approval means he’s likely to keep surrounding himself with those who tell him what he wants to hear and flatter him — the engine of Shakespearean tragedies. His belligerence and volatility, that hair-trigger temper, are the last qualities you want to see in someone holding a position of power, particularly when they’re coupled with a childish us-versus-them view of the world: xenophobic nationalism and compulsive competitiveness. His disorder leaves no room for consensus and collaboration. How can one not tremble at the thought that someone like this will command the military and have access to nuclear weapons?
There's a lot more, with attention to the issues we're going to be facing and some to the terrifying question whether we'll be able to do anything about it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Emperor Trump, continued

Image via Alabama Today, from a story on the nomination of Tom Price (R-GA) as secretary of destroying the Affordable Care Act. I have no idea why they ran this particular shot, unless Kellyanne wrote a song about it.
So it's my theory—trigger warning, this might make you feel a little sick—that the Romney concept really belongs to Barack Obama, as part of the Trump Whispering campaign.

Yes, I'm old enough to remember when Romney owned the world record for political lies per minute (about 0.76), but that was back in ancient times, before a presidential campaign in which Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina, some of the most prolific and dedicated liars in US history, making the Mittster look like a gentleman amateur, were themselves completely outclassed by the winning candidate, our president-elect, who reached the stunning rate of a lie every 50 seconds (1.2 lies per minute) during the presidential debates. (Oh, and both sides do it, because Hillary Clinton once said she landed under sniper fire in Sarajevo in 1996, which was not true, but then Brian Williams, who seems to have claimed to have spent pretty much his entire life under sniper fire, still has a job as a news broadcaster, so who knows what it all means.)

Cheap shots: Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of curiosities from the collections of the Victor Wynd Museum, via ChurchOfHalloween.
I'll be back later...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Stuck in the middle with Milt

Leatrice Joy, Walter Long, and William Boyd in Paul Sloane's Eve's Leaves (1926).
World-famous Young-Hegelian dialectician David F. Brooks has some great news ("The Future of the American Center")—you know that election they just had this month? The center won!

What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War — bipolarity gives way to multipolarity. A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers. Instead of just R’s and D’s, there will be a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus, a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi Democratic old guard.
The most important caucus formation will be in the ideological center. There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.
I think it may resemble the end of the Cold War more in the way the vultures of privatization circle in to gather up the spoils of victory, led by the president-elect, to make sure there's no rent money left lying around on the battlefield, but maybe that's just me.

Then again, former conservative vulture Dr. Bill Kristol seems to have moved in on the carcass of the No Labels movement, in partnership with former liberal vulture (and No Labels co-founder) Dr. Bill Galston, who is possibly Dr. Kristol's only rival for the title of America's Wrongest Columnist, I dare you to click that link if you don't believe me. Dr. Bill and Dr. Bill have issued a manifesto

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Annals of Deception: Jeff Sessions

Photo via Politico.
From the Wikipedia biography (in its current state) of United States Attorney General–Designate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, on his experience as US Attorney in Alabama in 1981-93:
Sessions' office investigated the 1981 killing of Michael Donald, a young African-American man who was murdered in Mobile, Alabama by a pair of Ku Klux Klanmembers.[13][14] Session's office did not prosecute the case, but both men were arrested and convicted.[15]
As a U.S. Attorney he filed several cases to desegregate schools in Alabama. And he also prosecuted Klansman Henry Francis Hays, son of Alabama Klan leader Bennie Hays, for abducting and killing Michael Donald, a black teenager selected at random. Sessions insisted on the death penalty for Hays.[16]
That second paragraph startled me for a few reasons, especially because it wasn't there last time I looked at this (which wasn't long ago at all), and because it directly contradicts the first paragraph, for which I'd checked the documentation—duh, of course Sessions did not prosecute the Michael Donald lynching case (nobody ever calls it a lynching, but the killers hung their victim's body from a tree), since he was US Attorney and the case was tried in state court by Mobile District Attorney Chris Galanos; and because in this way there is a demonstrable lie in a Wikipedia article, which really pisses me off.

The paragraph was added on November 25 between 17:46 and 17:59 by somebody under the username Azarbarzin, and the link is to a November 18 article by Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard, which seems to be based on lies Sessions told Hemingway:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The work of providence

Pope Honorius I, via
Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street ("His Holiness Declines to Answer", New York Times, November 26 2016):
You think you Americans are having problems, with your obscene president-elect and all, you should see what we members of the One and Apostolic Roman Catholic Church are experiencing, where the Holy Father is refusing to come out and say openly whether he thinks it's lawful for some divorced hussy to receive Holy Communion, as appeared to be suggested in the encyclical Amoris Laetitia, how cutting-edge scary is that? Some say the Holy Ghost has sealed his lips on the subject and prevented him from saying what he really thinks because if he did that he would surely say something contrary to Church doctrine and God will never allow such a terrible thing to happen.
That last bit is for real, a reference to the official teaching of the doctrine of papal infallibility, with the implication that Francis doesn't really want to be forced into a position where what he says on the subject crosses into that almost never invoked territory (strictly speaking, it's only ever been invoked twice, once in 1854 before the formal proclamation of infallibility for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, whose parents conceived her, uniquely, without sin, and once in 1950 for her Bodily Assumption), but Ross pulls it all the way out for this colossally important issue, as usual not explicitly, but with a Trumpian "people are saying":

Friday, November 25, 2016

Zealously seized and manically attentive

Via SilentsPlease, from Alfred Lind's Il Jockey della Morte (1915).
Book report time from David Brooks ("Does Decision Making Matter?"), on Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds about the story of the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founders of behavioral economics, a book not yet released (it comes out December 6), so I can't tell you whether there's any evidence he's read beyond page 40, or how much the column plagiarizes it, or that kind of thing.

I can tell you Brooks spells Tversky's name wrong ("Twersky", 11 times), an error no editor has caught, though he's spelled it correctly in five columns since 2006.

The intellectual excitement over the work of Kahneman and Tversky was at its peak around 1979, when they published the seminal paper on "Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision making Under risk" which was at the center of the Nobel Prize in economics Kahneman received in 2002 (Tversky died in 1996), so at the time when Brooks was an undergraduate, so perhaps what he retains is a sense of their fashionableness, though in 2011 he wrote a column calling them "the Lewis and Clark of the mind" (in a book report on Kahneman's memoir, Thinking Fast and Slow).

Today he's pretty excited over the emotional intensity of the collaboration (Lewis's book sounds like a great read, and I mean that in a positive sense), but when he comes to what I think is the most important aspect of their work together, on the fundamental irrationality of human decision making, which should have had a revolutionary impact on the conduct of economics (human irrationality was already pretty well known to psychologists by the 1980s), and unfortunately didn't, a radical attack on the choice theory that is at the base of all conventional microeconomics and still used as the foundation of economic prediction and planning—when it comes to that, he's strangely dismissive, because after all decision making didn't play much of a part in Kahneman's and Tversky's lives: