Tuesday, September 28, 2004

You say you've got a real solution/
Well, you know/
We'd all love to see the plan/
Ask me for a contribution/
Well, you know/
We'll be doing what we can...

Hard at work in Chicago. Sleeping well, eating quite well, brain restarting.

My roommate has already set his pants on fire while wearing them (the latter of which he does less often than most people might prefer).

Bad news: PS2 isn't this irked with everybody in the math department. Just me.

Eh, I'll write a real post when I feel like it.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Warning: Amateur Critic!

Did you know that the new release Criminal (John C. Reilly, Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a remake of the Argentine film Nine Queens? The original was so good that I found myself entranced by it despite (a) not being able to hear the sound, as Alice was watching it on her iBook with headphones, and (b) ostensibly being very busy cleaning my room in preparation for ScavHunt. The plot and dialogue are brilliant all the way through, and the payoff is stupendous. I hear that Criminal was done well as a remake, so if you haven't seen Nine Queens, go and see Criminal or rent the original. And while you're at it, get The Spanish Prisoner, which is up the same alley.

I've finished a slew of books this summer, most of them nonfiction. Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas was a collection of essays he wrote for Scientific American, some interesting, some great, some forgettable. It falls short of his masterwork Gödel, Escher, Bach, one of my favorite nonfiction books, but I'd recommend you read the chapters of Metamagical Themas on the Prisoner's Dilemma. Roger Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind failed to really refute the strong A.I. hypothesis, but offered the most cogent explanations of Turing machines, computability and entropy that I've read. As a bonus, he presents an intriguingly plausible conjecture for quantum gravity, which might reconcile quantum mechanics with the large-scale phenomena we actually observe. I almost recommend the book.

I also read two very different novels over the summer; one might say that Doctor Zhivago and Brideshead Revisited represented the universal and the particular. I can't say how deeply Zhivago moved me without sounding like a fool. The characters and plot are flung about with reckless abandon, in an overarching effort to encapsulate all the grand ideas of the time and to express the themes of love and duty, art and change, suffering and joy- and it works superbly. The characters are more types than persons, the coincidences trump anything out of Dickens, the prose is dry and the imagery shallow, the climax requires Yuri to do something I don't believe he would actually do, and yet the novel floors me with the grand inarticulate cry of its meaning.

Brideshead is the opposite in this respect: the book has the sense of real life to it. Evelyn Waugh humbly and perfectly captures the mystery of each character, rather than allowing the reader to "fit" any of them inside their mind. The book avoids contrivance in plot almost entirely. The characters speak as we all do; discussions of grand topics end with them speaking at cross-purposes and confusing themselves, rather than with the pronouncements which can only be invented by the hand of an author. Brideshead uses foreboding only in the way that life does: in retrospect it all makes sense, but at the time you have no idea what might be portended. The humble idea of the author comes through naturally in the climax, as a surprise of sorts and without a heavy-handed explanation.

My hierarchy of novels might now need reordering. Or perhaps scrapping. Maybe it's juvenile to rank my top five books of all time (perhaps I did so last year only because I'd just seen High Fidelity). But in any case, it's been a worthwhile summer in literary respects as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I didn't mean to take up all your sweet time,
I'll give it right back one of these days...

What do you mean, nobody got angry at my meta-political rant? I guess I'll have to try harder next time around. I never did get to that systematic exploration of voting ethics, mostly because I'm too lazy to look up relevant documents in Catholic social thought. That ought to alarm me more than it does.

I watched two movies this past week. The Manchurian Candidate was pretty poor, in my estimation; it suffers from the extreme predictability of at least two major plot twists, as well as an ending that betrays all the rules of the previous 100 minutes and is a few deleted scenes (I assume) short of really making sense. And the movie has nothing in the way of great acting, visual imagery or deeper meaning to make the plot problems forgivable.

Hero was much, much better, although it too suffered from predictable stretches and didn't live up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's standard for supernatural swordplay. The film showed great visual imagination in parts, and it beautifully illustrated the power of word or idea. Of course, the central concept of the movie was a reflection of communist China- the pure dream of utopia that accompanies any violent revolution. Still, I'd recommend this movie for a pensive evening.

Ten days till I head back to Chicago. But then, who's counting?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Politics As A Team Sport: "Ode to the Yankees"
(Warning: contains 100% of RDA for Rambling, and is manufactured in a factory that handles Rants)

Recently, I've started to feel as if political parties are rather too much like the sports teams we cheer for. Speaking in general probably isn't the best way to approach this. So here's my own story of early political formation, and why I no longer belong to a political party.

My parents didn't discuss politics in front of Katie and I, so it never occurred to me to bring up the subject myself. My politics at first came from reading TIME Magazine every week in middle school. This made me a Democrat.

(Nota bene: yes, I'm saying that TIME in general has a bias toward the left. That doesn't mean they're consciously unfair; they do a good job of presenting different opinions. But by the nature of forming a community of writers, reporters and editors, they come to see the world in certain shared ways, and that always comes through in writing. So the liberal viewpoint was, in the world as reported by TIME, the one in accordance with reality- to such a degree that it determined my first opinions.)

So as a naive 14-year-old, I trusted Clinton's honesty more than any sane person ought to trust their leader. Thus the Lewinsky scandal left me feeling betrayed, and I switched sides my freshman year with the rapidity of innocence. I never questioned or even articulated my foolish assumption that one of the major parties had to be right about it all.

And it was for an exceedingly superficial reason that I chose political parties then. Don't kid yourself that you were thinking straight in your first allegiances, either. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they weren't chosen by pure reason. A person's original political beliefs are chosen the same way I begin cheering for a non-Saint Louis sports team: because I know someone in the city, or because they look heroic in the first game I see them, or because they are rivals to a team I root against.

Of course, my political swap happened around the same time as I began to take my Catholic faith seriously, and to examine how the Church's morality applied both to my life and to my participation in society. Respect for life meshed with my recent trade to the Republican team; preferential option for the poor did not. But a funny thing happens in such situations, and mine was no exception. I'd previously had the image in my head of Republicans as Social Darwinists and Scrooges, an image which was shattered quickly. I mean, here were nice people I talked to, people who worried about poverty in America, people who donated and volunteered for private charities. So I must have been wrong about the prudent ways to help the poor! And in all my talking with the other Republicans, I got to hear about how wasteful government was, how liberals were really out to expand it for other reasons when they talked about the poor: "class warfare", et cetera. It all seemed so reasonable when you talked to the "good guys" and knew you couldn't trust the "bad guys" on the other side. I let my affiliation change my opinions, so naturally and quietly that I would have denied there had been any shift.

Before you use this as evidence of scheming Republican ways, ye of other parties, consider very carefully whether the same applies to you. How often has one of the following seemed true?

"They just talk about issue X to win votes, but we really mean what we say!"
"Our side has to use shady tactics sometimes to keep up in elections. Look at what they've done- isn't that worse?"
"Getting votes is the most important thing, so we don't want to make dissenting or extreme views public right now..."

More importantly, do you agree with 90% or more of what your political party stands for? The Republicans and Democrats certainly don't present coherent, complete, compelling visions of political philosophy: they bring in different planks to capture constituents, anything which doesn't outright contradict a more important plank. There's no a priori reason correlating one's views on lawsuit awards, the United Nations, stem cell research and the FCC. One begins to follow a particular team, and most often all of his or her opinions fall in line!

The problem is that it's always much simpler to believe that some people and some groups are good, and some evil. When we support a political party, we do so because we believe the actions they would take in power are preferable to the alternatives (or to the likely alternatives, depending on how one votes). No problem there; however, we often aren't content to stop there. There is an unspoken, irrational chain of logic that goes like this:

1. The actions of party A would be better than the actions of party B, SO
2. A is the good party and B is the evil party, SO
3. A must be right wherever A and B disagree, since it is the good party, SO
4. The people belonging to A have their hearts in the right place and are doing what they need to, while the people belonging to B are either malicious or duped, and their actions are noxious and calculated.

It sounds ridiculous when written out, and of course it is ridiculous. But it happened to me, and I see it in other people as well. Maybe it's our basic social instincts, belonging to a tribe, removing empathy for the enemy. Whatever it is, it seems to me that many acolytes of each political party get slowly suborned over time to agree with the full platform. Resistance is futile, and all that.

The rest of my story took place over the course of college: talking with insightful and ethical liberals and conservatives, witnessing and acknowledging dishonest behavior from the Bush Administration, coming to know the Church and her ethics of government, reading political philosophy from the ground up (Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and the rest), and recognizing the fallen nature of humanity and politics in general.

I've been amazed at how deep party loyalty runs, especially when compared to religion. In the Catholic blogosphere, I'm amazed how much more often I find writers defending their political party where it conflicts with the Church. Some Catholic Republicans will say that the Pope can be disregarded on capital punishment, foreign policy and poverty (you'd be surprised how far "prudential judgment" get stretched). Some Catholic Democrats will pretend that the Church didn't really say that it is unethical to support legal abortion, and claim that the Democrats are in line with the "spirit" of the Church. Neither is ever willing to blog much about insisting that their party become more in line with Catholic morality; after all, it's too important to win this election first.

What's more, conservative evangelicals by and large tolerate agnostic Republicans just fine; it's the Democratic Christians they have all the vitriol for. Similarly, liberal atheists get along fine with those Democratic Christians and despise the agnostic Republicans. I find a lot of condescending behavior over religion, but the hatred is generally saved for politics. I suppose politics is more fractious because a political adversary appears to be working for evil, while a religious opposite simply misses the reality. In any case, politics is by all accounts thicker than blood.

That's why I feel that cheering for sports is analogous to participating in politics. We take a fair, inconsequential pastime and manufacture heroes and villains, good and evil. I want the Cardinals to win a World Series, though it wouldn't significantly change the lives of anyone I know; I cheer for Ohio State football despite having no family in Columbus, simply since I once knew the coach's daughter and started rooting for them. I pull for the Lakers to lose, and portray a silly win-at-any-price egomaniac (George Steinbrenner) as a sinister fiend.

I don't think there's any harm in all that drama (modulo the crazies who throw batteries/stab Seahawks fans/beat up first-base coaches), but in politics there are consequences to the victories and losses, so we let the fantasy of good and evil become the reality. We don't snap back so easily into the knowledge that they usually are trying to do what's best as much as we are. I can laugh through the "Ode to the Yankees", all the time really knowing that it's only hyperbole to say "Even though they win / it's a cardinal sin / to root for the Devil's team." It's not so funny in politics, where each side calls its opposite a party of murderers- and all too often people really do imagine the other side in terms that stark.

The frustrating part is that after several years of alliance with the Republicans, I've developed the habit of cheering for them. When I read a news article mentioning Bush, I still have the desire for him to succeed (much as I want Kurt Warner to do well with the NY Giants even after he left the Rams), though I as often as not realize that I disagree with Bush on the issue at stake. My mind is used to the catch phrases of conservatives and suspicious of the tropes of liberals. That disturbs me, and it makes me wonder at those on all sides who are convinced that their minds work solely rationally, and that thus the rational party is theirs. At least I know now that the human mind is more than rational-particularly in politics.

I still don't know whom I would vote for in the Presidential election. Quite possibly I'll leave that part of the ballot blank (angering, no doubt, everyone who knows me; Missouri is a swing state). Or maybe I won't. For now, I do believe that I'm better off outside of any political party; certainly I'm better off outside of any American political party I've seen thus far.

(Okay, I'm well aware I've exaggerated here, and I've offended most everyone in some way. Let me have it in the comments section.)
Back again after my trip. I'm definitely applying to Princeton, MIT and UCLA. Then I need backups like crazy.

Katie's doing well at NYU now, found a theatre-wholesome crowd to run with, walking to Chinatown and Central Park with her friends.

I had a filling in a back molar today. I have three more fillings on the other side. Blast you, soda!

Yeah, I basically have nothing much to report on the personal side. I just spent all day writing a blog post, for Pete's sake!