December 16, 2006

WEEKEND SPECIAL: THE CANINE FILM CRITIC CONTINUES


Goat Rope is pleased to once again feature a contribution by boxer and official Goat Rope Farm film critic Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY). You can check out his previous two weekend contributions in the Goat Rope archives.

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege sustained a head injury whilst crashing into a wall chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he sometimes transposes the plots of the films he discusses. Nevertheless, we are convinced that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that these weekend features will help to elevate the level of public discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

A BOXER EXPLAINS "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE"

OK, so this is like everybody's all time favorite Christmas movie. It's about this Jimmy Stewart guy, except he's pretending to be someone else. That's acting, which sometimes happens in movies.

After he loses a bunch of money and thinks he messed up his whole life, he thinks about killing himself. But just before he throws himself into the river, this big twister comes and picks up his house and drops it on a witch. Only her feet are sticking out. And these little people are real happy about it.

Glenda the Good Witch tells Jimmy/the other guy that he needs to go see the Wizard to figure it all out with this angel named Toto who wants to get his wings.

Toto kind of looks like a squeaky toy to me.

So anyway he takes off on the Yellow Brick Road and is joined by some hobbits, an elf and a dwarf. They have to fight off a lot of orcs and trolls, which is kind of cool.

Moomus and Doodus say I look like a cave troll...

So anyway, they finally get to the wizard and destroy the ring. And when the bell rings, Jimmy gets his wings and goes back to Kansas.

And here's the thing: he could have got there all along.

The cinematography is outstanding. This is a technical film critic thing, but it's like in these old movies they take a bunch of pictures and show them quickly so it looks like people are moving around. So it looks like there are people moving around.

They say if you play Pink Floyd's The Wall while watching this movie you get real confused and depressed.

I think that's only true if you run out of popcorn.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 15, 2006

GETTING THERE

Caption: We apologize, but the gratuitous animal picture feature didn't work today. It would have been an adolescent peacock displaying.)

This is the fifth and final post in a series on what a just society might look like. It was written in response to a challenge from a Goat Rope reader. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

(Also, sorry for the delay in publishing this post. Goat Rope is undergoing some renovations.)

El Cabrero survived graduate statistics classes at (we are...) Marshall University by attempting to entertain his professor. Fortunately for me, the late great Dr. Bill Westbrook was easily amused.

I could at least count on getting one question right on his tests because he asked it every time. It gave sage advice on breaking down complex statistical problems (not that I ever did) and might work pretty well in terms of solving social problems.

Here it is:

Q. How do you eat an elephant?

A. One bite at a time.

In the context of working for a better society, that would mean approaching problems through what Karl Popper called "piecemeal social reform" rather than trying to swallow the whole elephant at once. The whole elephant approach would lead to gastronomic problems in a culinary sense and a lot of carnage in the social sense if past experience is any indicator.

For one thing, many if not all human actions produce unintended consequences which could be good or bad. We don't have enough experience or knowledge of complex causal connections to anticipate all these. Nor can we predict the future or control the actions of others. A piecemeal, experimental approach gives us a chance to fiddle with things and make adjustments and corrections before too much damage is done.

Given the choice between the New Deal and the other revolutions of the 20th century, I'd take the former. It is one of the cruel features of history as I see it that during most of it revolutions are impossible and, on the rare occasions when they are, they often make things worse (admittedly, there may be some exceptions).

To quote again from Karl Popper,

In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error, by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations may be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. Accordingly, it is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system. Rather we should expect that, owing to lack of experience, many mistakes would be made which could be eliminated only by a long and laborious process of small adjustments; in other words, by the rational method of piecemeal engineering whose application we advocate.

That doesn't mean we should just work on one issue at a time. We don't have that luxury when so many things are being thrown at us.

And it may be true that if we get better and better at working together to make things less bad, the world would look a lot different than it does today.

And if not, we should try something else and see how that goes.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 14, 2006

BAD IS LOUDER THAN GOOD


Caption: For Seamus McGoogle, every day is utopia. Would to God that we were cats...

This is the fourth post in a series on what a just society might look like. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

The series is a result of a challenge from a Goat Rope reader to use "the vision thing" as a step on the way of trying to get there. I'm trying it even though my utopianism has been eaten by weasels over the last few years.

To recap briefly, El Cabrero would settle out of court for a messy political democracy where extremes of poverty have been eliminated and people are able to meet their basic needs and duke it out over everything else.

I agree with Aristotle that happiness in the sense of the full development of the individual's potential over a lifetime is a good goal for personal and political life. With the understanding that you can't legislate other people's happiness.

Anyway, El Cabrero sometimes thinks that people are wired for ingratitude. That is to say, we often don't notice when things are going fairly well but are keenly alert to the slightest increase in pain or discomfort.

People often have to look back to realize that certain periods of their lives were comparatively happy ones. Often we don't value or appreciate the positive things in our lives until they are threatened or gone.

Bad things are often "louder" if not stronger than good things in that we often tend to notice them more. Similarly, while we can't "make" someone happy, we can make them more or less miserable.

We do know, for example, that wealth may not make people happy although poverty generally makes people miserable and that it is well within our reach today to eliminate extreme poverty in the world and extreme relative poverty in the US. (See the link to the earlier series on happiness in Monday's post.)

Having access to medical care when you need it doesn't necessarily make anyone happy but doing without it can definitely make you miserable.

We'll all be less miserable in the future if we start taking serious action on climate change and environmental degradation.

"Making" people happy through political action is probably a doomed project although making people less miserable isn't. As Karl Popper put it in Vol. 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies,

...the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions.

Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, the 'agenda' of public policy (as Bentham would have said). The 'higher' values should very largely be considered as 'non-agenda-, and should be left to the realm of laissez-faire.

In other words, the best way to (non) utopia might be to work step by step to reduce unnecessary misery. Once that's done, the patients can minister to themselves.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 13, 2006

THE LIMITS OF UTOPIA: SAMSARA, SIN AND ALL THAT


Caption: For Lily, utopia would be her Mom, food, and stinky dead things to roll around in. And maybe a fireplace.

This is the third post in a series about what a just society might look like. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the last two entries.

This series was inspired by a challenge from a Goat Rope reader to others to think about this as a way of starting to achieve it. The first two posts laid out very generally what some of the ingredients might be.

This one is about the limits to how far we get.

Sneak preview: El Cabrero believes the Buddhists, ancient Greeks, Christians, Walt Whitman, the existentialists, and Freud are onto something.

First, the Buddhists. Methinks life inherently involves suffering and is impermanent and insubstantial. They talk about six major kinds of suffering: birth (I've seen it happen and the little ones don't seem to be having a lot of fun); death (or at least a lot of the stuff that usually comes before or with it); sickness (especially if you are male and there are catheters involved); aging and loss of abilities (I can vouch for that); having what you don't want (self explanatory); and wanting what you can't have (ditto).

Second, the Greeks and Christians (some of them anyway). El Cabrero may not pass rigorous test of theological orthodoxy, which makes it handy to be an Episcopalian, but I'm with the program when it comes to sin or hubris (Goat Rope readers excepted, of course).

Individuals and especially groups tend to over- or under-reach, view themselves as the center of the world, and do harm to each other, themselves, nature, etc. I think that's a permanent feature of the model. And that's reason #243 why any social system needs checks and balances to limit the amount of harm we can do to each other.

Third, Walt Whitman. Like Gloria Radnor used to say on Saturday Night Live, "it's always something." That's true even when we make substantial progress on some things. Here's Walt:

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? Yourself? Your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well--it is provided in the essence of
things that from any fruition of success, no
matter what, shall come forth something to
make a greater struggle necessary (Song of the Open Road)


Fourth, the existentialists. There is an element of absurdity and tragedy in human life. You'll just have that sometimes. And although Albert Camus disliked the label of existentialist, he's close enough for Goat Rope. In The Rebel, he said:

Man [sic] can master in himself everything that should be mastered. He should rectify in creation everything that can be rectified. And after he has done so, children will still die unjustly even in a perfect society. Even by his greatest effort man can only propose to diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world. But the injustice and the suffering of the world will remain and, no matter how limited they are, they will not cease to be an outrage. Dmitri Karamazov's cry of "Why?" will continue to resound; art and rebellion will die only with the last man.


Fifth, Freud. Living in civilization, such as it is, involves a certain amount of frustration or discontent since we can't run around doing all the things we sometimes think about without getting in big trouble. And that is not altogether a bad thing.

Maybe the art of politics, broadly conceived, is to try to remove as much as we can of unnecessary suffering and deal with the rest the best we can.

Next time: bad and good and which we notice more.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 12, 2006

WHAT'S THE POINT?


Caption: For Denny Dimwit, bantam rooster and noted free market economist, utopia is a BIG HEN.

This is the second post in a series on what a just society might look like. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to yesterday's entry.

This series is the result of a challenge from a Goat Rope reader to think about that subject as a step on the way to getting there.

Back in the early days of Goat Rope, there was a series on the connection or lack thereof between economics, politics, and human happiness. Here's the link. Look for March 27-31. There's a little bit more in the April 3 post.

Short version: El Cabrero thinks Aristotle was onto something when he said in The Nicomachian Ethics that happiness is the goal or end (telos) of life because we want it for its own sake but want other things for the sake of happiness.

He also argued that happiness is not the same as pleasure, although pleasure would be one component of a happy life. Instead, happiness had to do with the all round development of a person's potential throughout the course of a lifetime. He also thought that politics exists for the sake of the good life.

This was what Jefferson et al were getting at when they talked about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In order to have a good chance of developing the human potential and having a happy life, you need some material basics and a decent and open society. You also need to work at it.

A political democracy with checks and balances probably provides the best framework for this for most people to achieve this. But formal democracy is not enough: people also need a good education, access to health care, a means of gaining a livelihood with an adequate standard of living, etc.

Obviously, we can't force people to be happy or to develop their potential, but we can take steps to make people less miserable and remove some of the obstacles that may keep people from fully developing.

But while it's hard to say where the fixed limits are of developing human potential or improving social life are, perfection is not an option in part because people have a really great knack for screwing things up.

Next time: the limits.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

December 11, 2006

THE VISION THING


For Venus, utopia would consist of alfalfa cubes, grain, and lots of illicit flowers and ornamental shrubs to eat. And fences to jump over. And perhaps an occasional visit from a gentleman caller.

A while back, El Cabrero received a challenge from a Goat Rope reader who is by no means shy about kicking his butt when she thinks it needs it (a not altogether infrequent occurrence).

It has to do with what the first President Bush called "the vision thing." Specifically, the challenge was to try to answer the question of what a just society would look like as a way of thinking about how to get there.

I think she'd like others to take up the challenge too.

In the next few posts, I'm going to rassle with that.

For starters, I'd recommend looking at last Friday's post on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's--peace be unto him--call for a Second Bill of Rights that includes things like a good education, housing, jobs with living wages, health care, etc. Keeping the first Bill of Rights would probably be a good idea too.

Here's a disclaimer though. Somewhere a long the way, and mostly during the last five or six years, I lost all my remaining utopianism. I'd be glad if things weren't awful.

It's kind of like thinking your life bites and then getting a toothache--it puts things in a whole new perspective.

Next time: the point of human existence (if there is one).

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED