There Is No Shire Party

Friday, October 1, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

If imitation is a form of flattery, it must be some sort of testament to a writer’s skill when partisans of both sides of an issue become intent upon placing each other as the villains of the same work of fiction. Some examples of this are, perhaps, unsurprising. The original Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984 is such a wonderfully universal government baddie that it is little wonder that those on both the right and left see each other as being like it.

However, one of the odder (to me) manifestations of this trend is the tendency of those on both right and left who are of a certain SF/F geek stripe (and political and genre geekdom do seem to go together more often than one might imagine) to identify themselves with the Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and to identify their opponent with the modernizing and destructive elements who take over the Shire under Lotho Sackville-Baggins and “Sharky” (Saruman) while Frodo and his friends are away, and who are driven out in the Scouring of the Shire.

For those less familiar with those aspects of the story that didn’t make the movie version: While Frodo and this three friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are off on the quest to destroy the One Ring, Frodo’s cousin Lotho uses the influence and affluence of belonging to one of the Shire’s leading families to run the Shire into a bit of a ditch. Most of the crops are exported, including nearly all the pipeweed, leaving Hobbits themselves with little left for themselves. Various “improvement” projects are undertaken, such as knocking down the picturesque old mill on the river in Hobbiton and putting up a large new brick structure which belches smoke and pollutes the river.

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Obama To Announce New Business Tax Cuts

Monday, September 6, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

President Obama will propose several new tax cuts and incentives for businesses on Wednesday, September 8th, including one which is billed as having a decidedly right-leaning flavor:

President Barack Obama, in one of his most dramatic gestures to business, will propose that companies be allowed to write off 100% of their new investment in plant and equipment through 2011, a plan that White House economists say would cut business taxes by nearly $200 billion over two years.

The proposal, to be laid out Wednesday in a speech in Cleveland, tops a raft of announcements, from a proposed expansion of the research and experimentation tax credit to $50 billion in additional spending on roads, railways and runways. But unlike those two ideas, both familiar from Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, the investment incentive would embrace a long-held wish by conservative economists that had never won support from either Republican or Democratic administrations.
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German Economist: America Is Becoming Too European

Friday, September 3, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

I found this piece from the English-language edition of Der Spiegel by University of Hamburg economics professor Thomas Straughaar very interest, in part because it reads very much as written by someone who is looking at American history and culture from the outside, yet trying to understand it for what it is. A key passage from the second page:

This raises a crucial question: Is the US economy perhaps suffering less from an economic downturn and more from a serious structural problem? It seems plausible that the American economy has lost its belief in American principles. People no longer have confidence in the self-healing forces of the private sector, and the reliance on self-help and self-regulation to solve problems no longer exists.

The opposite strategy, one that seeks to treat the American patient with more government, is risky — because it does not fit in with America’s image of itself.

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Natural Does Not Equal Good

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 \AM\.\Wed\.

“Unnatural, mummy? You tell me, what’s nature’s way? If poison mushrooms grow and babies come with crooked backs, if goiters thrive and dogs go mad and wives kill husbands, what’s unnatural?”
Richard, The Lion in Winter

One of the claims to which people seem peculiarly susceptible at the moment is that if something is “natural”, it must be good. “Natural” foods are believed to be uniformly healthy. The finding that some particular behavior (say, polyamory) is found in nature is taken to be some sign that it is a good thing.

I think a fair amount of this results from our culture having lost a sense of tragic vision in regards to nature — we naturally assume that unless some active force comes along and makes things bad, that they will be good. This could not be farther from a traditional view of nature. While neo-pagans are sure that being “in tune” with nature would be a blissful and pleasant state, real pagans of the ancient world saw the natural forces that were bound up with their gods as capricious, sometimes cruel, and almost always unconcerned with the impact of their actions upon mortals.

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Proxy Morality: Advocacy and ‘Solidarity’

Thursday, August 26, 2010 \PM\.\Thu\.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I’d like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.

Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality. Read the rest of this entry »


Just Build the Damn Thing

Monday, August 23, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

Travelling in the second half of last week, I had occasion to realize how pervasive the TV news coverage of the “ground zero mosque” has become — perhaps in part because it is doubtless a dream situation for TV news producers: All you have to do is draw 3-4 people into the studio and have them debate the question for twenty minutes, throw in a couple of commercial breaks, and voila! you have another 1/48th of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I was reminded again of how glad I am to have cancelled the cable TV subscription and never put up an antenna.

As I think about it, this seems to me a made-for-TV controversy in more ways than one. For all the talk about this being the “ground zero mosque”, the location two blocks away will not be visible from the WTC monument itself, and is currently occupied by sacred precincts such as the offices of the University of Pheonix, Marty’s Shoes and the Dakota Roadhouse. This is New York, for goodness sake. A thirteen story building isn’t exactly going to stick out. And the visible symbols of religion closes to Ground Zero will remain St. Peter’s Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and John Street United Methodist. (If anything, it’s a little disappointing the plans for the mosque look rather like a vertical shoebox with abstract patters on it — no minarets here.)
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Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

Monday, August 16, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity — in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.

Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it’s more a question of individual versus collective good.

When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.

Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.

“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.

Now, it’s possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.
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