star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

Do you care more about the process or about getting results?

I suspect most people would say “results”. Maybe not everyone, but my feeling is that most people care about the bottom line. I could be wrong, though.

In theory, these two things should be complementary.  If you have a good process, it will generate good results. Most processes get created for the purpose of getting better results.  And everyone lives happily ever after.

Except sometimes–especially in large, bureaucratic organizations–process takes precedence over results.  This is especially true in government, because the organization doesn’t have to worry about making money. In that setting, people will start to focus on implementing new processes mindlessly–just because it gives them something to do.

If you focus only on results, on the other hand, you can sometimes get extreme cases where people are willing to do anything to get results.  This can include doing illegal things. (This is why you see cheating in highly competitive fields–anything to get an edge.)  In fact, from a certain perspective, morality is a sort of process that people follow by social or religious custom, and that some people (criminals/politicians) ignore in order to achieve results.

Bottom line: in a good organization, processes exist and are followed, but only with the goal of ensuring good results. Good organizations do not implement new processes for their own sake; but only with the intention of getting better results.

I stole this idea from Barb Knowles who got it from Paul who got the idea from Aaron who stole it from Jess. (Whew! It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song “I got it from Agnes”–quite possibly the dirtiest song ever written without using a single off-color word. But I digress.)

  1. Blogging
  2. American football
  3. Pizza
  4. Economics
  5. The color red
  6. History
  7. Desert landscapes
  8. The movie Lawrence of Arabia (combines 6 and 7)
  9. Writing
  10. The book A Confederacy of Dunces
  11. A good scary story.
  12. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
  13. Political theory
  14. Hazelnut coffee
  15. Conspiracy theories
  16. Well-written, metered, rhyming satirical poetry.
  17. The number 17
  18. Thunderstorms
  19. Friendly political debates
  20. The sound of howling wind.
  21. The unutterable melancholy of a winter sunset in a farm field.
  22. Pretentious sentences like the one above.
  23. Knights of the Old Republic II
  24. Halloween
  25. The book 1984
  26. Niagara Falls
  27. The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”
  28. Pumpkin-flavored cookies. coffee, cake etc.
  29. The book The King in Yellow
  30. Hats
  31. Chess
  32. Trivia competitions
  33. Numbered lists
  34. Mowing lawns
  35. The smell of fresh-cut grass
  36. Black licorice
  37. Beethoven’s 3rd,5th and 9th symphonies
  38. The color light blue.
  39. Exercise machines
  40. My iPad
  41. Feta cheese
  42. The movie Jane Got a Gun
  43. Etymologies
  44. Gregorian chants
  45. December 23rd
  46. The story “The Masque of the Red Death”
  47. Mozzarella sticks
  48. Leaves in Autumn
  49. Long drives in the country
  50. Fireworks
  51. The song “You Got Me Singin'”
  52. The book To Kill a Mockingbird
  53. Constitutional republics that derive their powers from the consent of the governed.
  54. Strategy games
  55. Puns
  56. Ice skating
  57. My Xbox One
  58. The smell of old books
  59. Hiking
  60. Tall buildings
  61. Bookstores
  62. Gloves
  63. Rational-legal authority, as defined by Max Weber
  64. Bagels with cream cheese
  65. The Olentangy river
  66. The movie The Omen
  67. Far Side comics
  68. Planescape: Torment
  69. The song “Barrytown”
  70. Reasonable estimates of the Keynesian multiplier
  71. Stories that turn cliches on their heads.
  72. Editing movies
  73. Really clever epigraphs
  74. The movie “Chinatown”
  75. Ice water
  76. Deus Ex
  77. Silly putty
  78. Swiss Army Knives
  79. Anagrams
  80. Wikipedia
  81. Radical new models for explaining politics.
  82. Weightlifting
  83. Lego
  84. Madden 17
  85. The song “The Saga Begins”
  86. Trigonometry
  87. Writing “ye” for “the”
  88. Well-made suits
  89. Popcorn
  90. Pasta
  91. The word “sesquipedalian”
  92. The movie Thor
  93. Blackjack
  94. The movie The English Patient
  95. Pretzels
  96. Cello music
  97. Bonfires
  98. The story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
  99. Soaring rhetoric
  100. Astronomy
  101. Getting comments on my blog posts.

Hypothesis: The majority of the problems in the world are caused by two types of people: Bureaucrats and Total Crazed Fanatics.

By Bureaucrats, I mean go-along-to-get-along careerist types, who will follow their bosses’ orders no matter how stupid or evil they are, and who will go “by the book” no matter what. These are the types of people who operate on mantras like “no one ever got fired for buying IBM“. They are prone to groupthink and “not my department”-style passing the buck.

Adolf Eichmann is an example of this type carried to the very extremest evil.

Total Crazed Fanatics, on the other hand, feel accountable to no one except themselves.  They will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if it is considered immoral or evil.  TCFs are relentless and will use any means necessary. They are also usually prone to wanton cruelty and violence.

Most of the infamous dictators in history fall into this category, including Hitler, Stalin, Caligula, and so on. But you can see this personality type on smaller scale in anyone who uses bully-style tactics.

Moreover, there is an ecosystem of sorts that evolves between these two types that guarantees the continued production of both bureaucrats and TCFs, in the sense that strong bureaucratic systems with lots of rules are usually created to constrain TCFs. But because bureaucrats are cowards, they will yield to someone who applies enough pressure–that is, someone crazed and fanatical enough. So bureaucracies exist to stop TCFs, but ultimately cause more extreme TCFs to emerge in response and topple them.

What do you think?  Is this hypothesis correct? Does it explain most (or any) conflicts you see in the world, or not?

(Note: This occurred to me while thinking about Max Weber’s classification of authority. I recommend reading about that, whether you agree with my hypothesis or not.)



Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

–John 18:37-38, King James Version

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida

Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.

–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.

I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.

My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.

My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well.  Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.

“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.

“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”

According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections.  He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.

“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.

He shakes his head.  “No–liberal propaganda.”

“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.

He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument.  Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.

The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.

And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.

If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say.  People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.

There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.

You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.

At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)

The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.

Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority.  However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.

But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.

There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain.  In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking.  He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.

Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk.  They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.

(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)

The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.

The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.

Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.

Derived from this image;
Image from “Deus Ex”

Lately, Donald Trump and his supporters have been accusing his opponent, and the press, of being part of a globalist conspiracy.  This CNN money article sums it up well:

In the Breitbart worldview, the mainstream media is just as agenda-driven and prone to bias and falsehoods as right-wing media — it’s just that the mainstream media doesn’t acknowledge it.

“This is a group of people serving the same agenda,” [Breitbart News Editor-in-Chief Alex] Marlow said.

Trump echoed those remarks in Thursday’s speech: “The establishment and their media enablers wield control over this nation through means that are very well known,” he said.

That agenda, Bannon and Breitbart’s fiercest partisans believe, is the advancement of open borders, free trade and progressive poliicies at the expense of American sovereignty. “Liberal vs. Conservative” no longer adequately describes the partisan divisions at play in American politics today, Marlow said. The real battle is between populists and globalists.

As my readers know, I have been saying practically the same thing for years now.  I use the word “cosmopolitan” instead of “globalist” and “nationalist” instead of “populist”, but it amounts to the same thing.  Marlow even uses the word nationalist later in the same article, saying:

“It’s less about the left-right dichotomy, and more along the lines of globalists and elitists versus populists and nationalists.”

I could see myself saying that, to be honest.

So, does that mean I think that the Breitbart/Trump crowd has the right idea? No; not at all.

The saying “even a broken clock is right twice a day” is apt here.  The Trump supporters (the so-called “alt-right”) have stumbled on to a fact about American politics that most political scientists, analysts and commentators overlooked.  In fact, they might even be the cause of the phenomenon, since all of them take the nationalist side.

However, despite the fact that they are aware of this dichotomy, very few of them seem to understand any of the historical, political or economic reasons for it.  They simply happened to notice this state of political affairs, and rather than try to understand it, they simply chalk it all up to a sinister conspiracy. This makes for a good story, but it’s not how the world works.

Globalism is popular because it works very well with ideas espoused by both the Democrats and the Republicans. It fulfills goals of diversity and multiculturalism that the Democrats historically support, and free trade, which the Republicans historically support.

The nationalists often disparage the “global elite” but it is not necessarily a bad thing that successful, well-educated people from different nations tend to find common cause and work together. This increases the probability that disputes between nations can be solved through negotiation or trade deals, rather than through wars.

This brings me to one of the reasons that nationalism is so unpopular nowadays, which is that it is considered responsible for two World Wars.  As a consequence, it fell out of favor as a governing philosophy.

I’m not saying that massive wars are the inevitable result of nationalism, or that wanting to protect national sovereignty is inherently bad.  I’m just saying that nationalists need to explain why it won’t cause any giant wars, since that has happened before.

There is no doubt that there are drawbacks to globalization.  It is possible that its adherents have not considered these, or that they have overreached in the pursuit of globalization, or that globalism is not the best governing philosophy for the current moment in history. All these are topics worth discussing.

The problem is, almost no one on the nationalist side is interested in discussing things. They have simply decided that globalism is an evil conspiracy invented by bad people.  They do not have, and do not appear to want, any context or understanding of its origins or the reasons it exists.

Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism.  His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic.  He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016

The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.

It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“.  Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole.  What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places.  Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.

“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.

But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society.  I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory.  Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.

Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties.  (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)

Longtime readers know that I really admire actress and director Natalie Portman. One reason is that she is a committed non-meat-eater, as am I. So when she wrote that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals turned her from being vegetarian to “a vegan activist”, I had to read it.

First of all, the book made me very glad to be vegetarian. The conditions Foer describes at slaughterhouses are appalling. He documents it thoroughly, and it is tough to read even if you have never eaten meat. It is probably worse if you have. It was more viscerally disturbing than Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and that book was famously effective in introducing reforms in the meat industry. (Of course, it was a fictionalization.)

The section on the breeding of meat animals was especially good. I first became aware of this practice when I was a kid and my parents bought pet chickens. We would let them roam around our big country yard and collect the eggs when possible. Flocks of chickens are really fun to watch. They move almost as a unit, and if one gets distracted and breaks off from the group, she will panic and run back. They are funny.

Anyway, our chickens all started as normal chicks, but some grew up to be so large they couldn’t even move. These were the “meat chickens”, bred to grow big quickly and be killed. We had no idea of this when we got them, of course. My parents did their best, but these birds were sickly and died well before the rest. So, I can vouch for Foer’s point that it’s not enough to have “free range” animals, if those animals are already intrinsically unhealthy as a result of being bred for slaughter.

You might dismiss Foer (and me) as wimpy bleeding-heart types who are too idealistic to understand the cold reality that the suffering of animals is necessary to feed people. “We can’t waste time worrying about stupid animals when we need to eat”, you object.

Ok, but there is more bad news for you in Eating Animals: the conditions under which the animals are slaughtered is not just bad for the animals, it’s also disturbingly unsanitary and results in unhealthy meat. Foer suggests that many so-called “24 hour bugs” that people pick up are actually the result of eating bad meat. So, even if you don’t care about animal welfare, you might consider that the meat industry may not be doing a bang-up job on human welfare either. (Some good news: I recently heard that scientists are developing synthetic meat, which can be made without killing animals. If that works out, it could solve all these problems. But it’s a long way off.)

As far as turning vegan: the book definitely does leave you feeling sickened by the whole farming industry. The conditions of dairy cows and egg chickens is really not much better than those bred for meat. I suspect that humanely farmed dairy and egg products might not be so bad–or at least, they might not be as bad in theory, provided they are healthy animals, and not the mutant breeds. But again, Foer notes that just having a label like “free range” or “no cage” is almost meaningless–many of these animals still suffer horribly.

Another phenomenon Foer documents well is the hostile reaction he often gets from people who eat meat when they learn he doesn’t. People seem to feel that vegetarians and vegans are judging them just by existing. It makes people defensive.

(Actually, people are sensitive about dietary advice of any kind. Look at the reaction to the First Lady’s nutrition programs.)

While Foer himself definitely comes down on the side of pure vegetarianism, he does give supporters of meat produced by small family farms (as opposed to “factory farms”) a fair chance to argue for their position. I do wonder about some of his assertions concerning practices at the factory farms. If things are truly as bad as he suggests, I can’t understand how people are not dying by the thousands daily from contaminated meat.

Foer is a very good writer and–in the early chapters especially–quite witty. There are several turns of phrase that made me laugh aloud. His knack for humor disappears in the later chapters that deal with the gory details of slaughter, but it helps to ease the reader in to some very depressing stuff.

I highly recommend this book. Parts of it are sickening to read, but I think it’s always better to know the truth than remain ignorant. If you have the stomach for Eating Animals, I predict you will no longer be able to stomach eating animals.

Interesting article in The Guardian about a renewed interest in witchcraft, or “Wicca”, and the associated mystical stuff among young women.  The general point of the article is that witchcraft is feminist because witchery is about female-headed authority structures. Naturally, traditionalists are upset by this trend, though whether they don’t like the witchcraft because it’s feminist, or that they don’t like the feminism because it’s witchcraft is hard to say.

I bet somewhere conservatives are saying “See? We told you the “Harry Potter” books would lead the youth into more serious pagan witch-cults!” Although it’s not like Harry Potter invented presenting magic as a good thing.  Why not blame Samantha Stephens? Or Glinda the Good Witch? Actually, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure when people were not interested in witchcraft in some form or other.

I wonder when traditionalists and conservative religious people will realize that the only reason people get into tarot cards and potion-brewing is because they know it will annoy the conservatives.  Once they quit acting upset by it, it won’t seem cool anymore.

I’m not kidding about this–most of the people I know who are into this stuff are doing it because they are rebelling against their religious families.  Personally, as a non-religious (though not really anti-religious) person, I find it pretty tiresome. It’s just trading one set of rituals and relics for another, as far as I’m concerned.  Wicca is religion for hipsters: they’re only doing it because it’s not mainstream.

People are always getting renewed interest in the mystical and the occult.  Back in the 1920s, there was a wave of fascination with the occult. I think it waned a bit in the 1930s what with the Depression and all, but there was still Aleister Crowley being Aleister Crowley. Find me some point in history when there wasn’t interest in the occult among some group or other.

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.