September 28, 2007

Words that are just fun to say.

Posted in Personal, Poetry at 8:43 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve been involved with speech and debate for a long time, and  over the years one learns a little bit about the flow of language. It’s not anything I’ve ever really studied or thought consciously about. Over time, one simply learns what works and what doesn’t.

The tone of prosaic speechmaking is very different than the exultant imagery of poetry or the rhythmic rhymes of hip hop, but there is still an amazing degree of nuance, of subconscious expression, that hides behind the words that we choose, the language that we use to breathe meaning into our methodical, asinine arguments. Some words are fun to say, and fun to listen to, and the trick lies in finding those words, those phrases, which express the substance without sacrificing style, so that the words are not mere vessels for communicating ideas, but are decadently decorated, flowing together so well that the argument itself is passively persuasive. 

There are some pretty simple tricks to this. Rhyming is fine, some of the time. Alliteration works wonders. Using rhetorical couplets and trios can be both useful and pretty; they grab the attention, misdirect the focus, and beautify the speech. Establishing a pattern and flow to speech increases the likelihood that the listener will have a generally positive impression, but decreases rational comprehension in order to do this. It can be very effective to vary one’s pace, veering off course to break the ice.

“We must never stand down! We must never surrender! We must never stop fighting! Act now.”

The dramatic effect of the repetitive rhetorical trio only heightens the impact of the culminating statement, which is unique in its structure, in its length, in its grammar (1st person plural declarative to 2nd person command), and should be verbally delivered at a different tone, speed, and volume, and possibly even separated by a short pause.

All of that to say, I often find myself walking down the street, mulling over catchy turns of phrase, and thinking about which words roll trippingly off the tongue. I suppose it’s a weird, nerdy habit, but I’m a rhetorician. It’s what I do.And today I decided that “co” words are fun, especially if they have a hard vowel (like “p”) along for the ride. “-ate” and “-ing” words are great when used in conjunction with like words, because they pseudo-rhyme without any real difficulty. (Mental note: rap would’ve been way easy in Ancient Rome.) And words that are archaic enough to be unusual, but not so much that they are unfamiliar, are great. Especially old violent words, for some reason. They become silly.

Here are some cool words: 

Corpulent
Cognizant
Concupiscent  
Coptic
Copulate
Castigate
Castrate 
Postulate
Prostate 
Inundate
Inoculate
Frustrate
Fisticuffs 
Blowhard 
Blunderbuss 
Dashing
Smashing   

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September 27, 2007

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Posted in Media at 3:09 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve recently finished Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel, The Watchmen.

The book raises a lot of very interesting questions about the nature of evil, utilitarian calculations for the sake of the Greater Good, the role of reason and emotion in moral determinations, and the question of determinism vs. free will. At the end of the book, the reader is as unsure as the characters themselves whether The Right Thing was done. It is a powerful, challenging, stunningly well-written exploration of some important themes, full of glaring insights on human nature.

I think it will merit further discussion and analysis…

September 26, 2007

The Right are Mighty? (1/2)

Posted in War on Terror at 10:31 pm by Caleb Winn

… with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations. ~ Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Neo-Conservativism

President Bush campaigned in 2000 as an isolationist, who did not believe that it was the U.S. responsibility to be global peacekeepers or policemen. After 9/11, however, all of that changed. Since that fateful day, the U.S. has pursued an aggressive foreign policy, not only defending our economic and security interests, but actively seeking to institute democratic regimes around the world, beginning in the Middle East, with Iraq. This belief – that the projection of U.S. Power can promote global stability by planting the seeds of Democracy in foreign soil – is the doctrine of Neo-Conservativism. To quote Bush’s 2nd Inaugural:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. ~ President George W. Bush, January 20, 2005.

From 2002-2004, it seemed as if the Neo-Conservatives ruled Washington D.C. Their idea of promoting Democracy through the military might of the United States was the guiding force of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Their ideas predated the Bush Administration, but after 9/11 their promise of global peace through universal democracy and freedom seemed to be the answer to the most pressing questions facing America. A global rebirth of freedom would, they argued, promote the security interests of the United States! After years of supporting tin-pot dictators in defense of national security, here at least we could unite our ideological commitments with our pragmatic concerns! As President Bush said in his Second Inaugural, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

The American people stood firmly behind it as long as it looked like it would be successful. For all the talk of “values voters” deciding the election, it’s worth noting that Bush made gains over his 2000 numbers in virtually every single demographic group. While so-called “values voters” were important, most non-evangelical voters supported Bush in greater numbers than they had in 2004, because they stood behind their wartime President.

However, as the war has dragged on and more Americans have died overseas, the people of these United States have lost their stomach for the conflict. As an intellectual force, Neo-Conservativism is out of fashion. But it still reverberates within the halls of the West Wing, and Bush’s policies and attitudes toward the War in Iraq reflect this still today.

In the face of plummeting public support for the War in Iraq, the Bush Administration has stayed the course, seemingly inflexible, unchanging, and unwilling to learn from their mistakes. Bush seems unflappably optimistic, convinced that temporary set-backs will not forestall eventual U.S. victory and the democratic transformation of the Middle East. Many consider this a mark of stupidity. In reality, this optimistic outlook makes perfect sense within a Neo-Conservative intellectual framework.

In short, President Bush and his Neo-Conservative advisors are confident that we will win, because we are right.

The (Inexorable?) End of History

It is impossible to understand Neo-Conservative doctrine without doing so in light of the post-Cold War environment. Many leading NeoCon thinkers and officials were movers and shakers during the West’s prolonged conflict with the U.S.S.R., and their ideas were formed against that historical backdrop.

This historical perspective is really crucial because Neo-Conservativism depends on a certain linear view of history. In the minds of Neo-Conservativism, history is not a random series of events, the conjunction of this person and that in a particular time and place, write large over millennia. Rather, Neo-Conservatives tend to hold to a more Hegelian dialectic view, that history has a story, a purposefulness, an “end.” (That is, a telos, not a literal termination point.)

Probably the best example of this view is Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End Of History, And The Last Man. In it, he maintains that the 20th century was a grand ideological battlefield, on which political systems were developed, tested, and discarded. Monarchy, Facism, Totalitarianism, Communism, and Democracy have all had their day in the sun. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama argues, the verdict is definitively in: Liberal Democracy wins. The ideas that individuals have certain inalienable rights, that governments exist for the people, and that the state should derive its power from the consent of the governed, is Fukuyama’s “End of History”.

Ideological Inevitability

This perspective leads to a couple of implications:

First, President Bush understands the battle with Islamo-facism as an ideological conflict, rather than a merely military action. Success doesn’t come through killing our enemies or conquering their lands. Success in this conflict through conquering their hearts and minds. The War in Iraq isn’t about beating the insurgents physically. It’s about discrediting their system of thought in the eyes of the Iraqi people, and providing enough stability and security to allow the Iraqi people to establish self-governance based on freedom and human rights.

Second, President Bush believes that Democracy will – must – win this conflict. The success of Liberal Democracy is inevitable given human nature. It’s not necessarily that God is watching out to make sure that the Good Guys win. Rather, mankind naturally cries out for freedom, and given the ideological choice between the two, Freedom will always prevail. As President Bush said in his recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries’ peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer.

To Be Continued…

This provides the intellectual framework within which we should try to understand Bush’s foreign policy, especially the War in Iraq. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? And how is it working out in the real world? I will explore these more specific, practical question in greater depth soon.

September 24, 2007

On Childhood.

Posted in Personal at 9:19 am by Caleb Winn

We will do the undoable! We will think the unthinkable! We will consider the ineffable and see if we can’t eff it just a bit!

~ Douglas Adams, The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul 

I have a little 4-year-old friend named Emma, and on Friday night I was playing with her outside of a coffee shop, drawing with magic markers, singing songs, and helping her to catch crickets. This girl is so active, so full of energy and life and enthusiasm and curiosity. She is happy to run around and explore new places, and to sit down and create new things. Watching her at play is mesmerizing and, in a way, humbling. To explore for the sake of exploring! To create without self-consciousness, simply for the joy of putting crayon to paper! Would that I had such a taste for the sweet marrow of life.

There is a child-like sense of curiosity, the desire to know, and to learn, and to explore new things, that is an essential human characteristic. They have an innate desire to create, to express the beauty around us and to find a place in this world for the visible and musical expressions of love and joy. Children know better than most that the world is unfathomably large, and that excites them! It’s as if life is a great game, with grand and glorious surprises around every corner. It’s a shame if we ever lose that bold curiosity (as I am sure I had for many years, only to slowly begin to reacquire it).

At the same time, children may be afraid of the unknown. One child will take risks (for he knows not that they are risks!) to explore something new. Another will tremble under his covers, afraid of the dark. Indeed, the same child may do both: one part curious, one part coward. These stand in direct opposition with one another. Curiosity seeks to conquer the unknown, while fear of darkness hides from it. In the one case, children populate the hidden corners of their universe with thrilling fantasies and glorious adventures; in the other case the closets and the spaces beneath their beds become the homes of monsters too horrible to name. The vastness of the world becomes a source of fear, and not of hope.

When confronted with the unknown, we may boldly go where no man has gone before, or we may withdraw into ourselves in fear. These responses are easy to identify in the hearts of children, but they are not absent in adults. We may settle into the mundane routine of life, or we can continue to pursue education for its own sake. We may seek out new experiences and strange companions, or we can shut out anything dangerous or unusual, holding to our bleak suburban lives. Our gut-level response to the unknown will determine a great deal about how we live our lives.

Will I explore the 100-acre wood? Or am I afraid of the dark?

September 22, 2007

Why I Love U2.

Posted in Media at 5:46 pm by Caleb Winn

I was driving down the road the other day, and I heard When Love Comes To Town, by U2 feat. BB King. I’m amazed at the power and truth of their lyrics. An example:

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

At work the next day, I was thrilled to discover that Popmart was recently released on DVD! They don’t play this particular song (sorry Phillip!) but it’s full of glitz and glam and a gigantic, 60-foot lemon. It’s well worth watching. And U2 is a band well worth loving. =)

September 21, 2007

The Rationality of Irrational Investments

Posted in Economics at 10:23 am by Caleb Winn

In his recently-released book, and in interviews to promote said book, retired FED Chairman and economic “maestro” Alan Greenspan takes a swing at the irrationality of investors, specifically during times of rapid economic growth or decline. Money-quote:

Greenspan also turned to psychology and anthropology for explanations of economic irrationality. The erratic behavior of investors during and after bubbles—excessively exuberant on the upside, unwarrantedly pessimistic and fearful on the downside—continuously confounds economists. . .“There’s a long history of forgetting bubbles,” he writes. “But once that memory is gone, there appears to be an aspect of human nature to get cumulative exuberance.” When the bubble inevitably breaks, as reality fails to meet expectations, “the result is a dramatic 180-degree switch from exuberance to fear.”

These “bubbles,” such as the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble that has recently begun to deflate, can cause rapid economic growth, but at the expense of fiscal stability. Investors all jump onto the same bandwagon, driving up prices and pouring in money until it reaches a level that is simply not sustainable. Investors are [i]too[/i] excited during times of rapid growth, and [i]too[/i] fearful during times of rapid decline, and these wild shifts in moods only exarcerbate the problems of investment bubbles. From a macro-economic perspective, this just doesn’t make sense.

Greenspan’s conclusion from this is that investors are irrational, acting emotionally, and not intelligently. In summarizing his position, MSNBC writes:

The ultimate rationalist seems to have concluded that fear, resistance to change, exuberance and human limitations play a bigger role than expected in economic development. And he recognized that economists have proven so human—i.e., fallible—in their forecasting because the force actually driving the economy is humans who are prone to act on emotion rather than reason.

Part of the problem here is that investors are pursuing short-term personal gain, and give little thought to how their actions impact the broader economic health of the U.S.. From a macro-economic level it makes little sense to create and sustain bubbles, or to yank out assets when the bottom falls out of the investment sector. As far as Alan Greenspan is concerned, that is foolish bevaiour because it is not good for the economy overall.

But for the individual investor, it is hard to resist the benefits of an investment bubble even if their actions will hurt the broader economy in the long-run. No individual investor has enormous control over the economy, and so no individual investor feels a sense of responsibility for the overall economic health of these United States. Any given individual investment has no real impact on the broader economy, but can have a huge impact on the investor. Each investor has an incentive to take a slice of the pie, but no responsibility for it, since they are only one tiny part of a much broader economic system, and their choice won’t make any real difference one way or another. Because of this, investors make their choices on the basis of rational self-interest, seeking to maximize personal profit.

So while this investment pattern seems irrational from a macro-economic perspective, it may be the product of perfectly rational individual decisions. The problem lies in the fact that the decision is replicated millions of times, and what makes sense for the individual becomes catastrophically unsustainable for the economy as a whole.

September 20, 2007

To catch a fallen star…

Posted in Media at 10:36 pm by Caleb Winn

Stardust is an amazing film, and a phenomenal book. There are numerous changes from the book to the movie, as indeed there must always be, and I enjoyed both versions immensely. The adventure and merriment found in the fantastic, magical world over the wall make my heart glad. You should watch it, and read it, though not necessarily in that order.

Cryptic thought(s) of the day:

Posted in Personal at 11:02 am by Caleb Winn

Redemption isn’t just about the past; it’s about the future.

I’m sure that there is a line between sarcasm and sincerity, but I have no clue whither it lies.

The child who is afraid of the dark can go on the grandest of adventures in his dreams if only he has a little light.

September 18, 2007

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun.

Posted in Personal at 9:24 am by Caleb Winn

Heaven ain’t close in a place like this…

I went to see Stardust again last night. It is a delightful adventure story about a magical Kingdom where fallen stars are more than just space dust: they are men and women who look down on our humble lives and shine with joy and love.

I went outside last night and looked at the stars. I grew up in Southern California, where there aren’t many stars. Even in Texas, light pollution obscures all but a few dozen. But nevertheless, there they were, twinkling away in the heavens. The sheer number of stars, and the realization that there are millions more than I could see, was astounding. And the millions and millions of miles between us was amazing as well. The universe is so great, so big, so mind-bogglingly enormous, that contemplating the heavens should make any man feel humbled to the point of insignificance.

Bring it back down, bring it back down tonight…

But somewhere along the way, we stopped looking at the stars. Maybe it’s because the lights of the city distract us from contemplating the eternal, and so the heavens became unimportant to us.

Or maybe it’s because we tried to bring them down to our level, and bridge that gap between earth and sun. We use telescopes and cameras to understand the world, learning what a star is only to forget what a star means. We seek to learn out of a sense of wonder and whimsy, and somewhere along the way we lose that wonder, and the whimsy is replaced with a lab coat. Rather than being humbled by the enormity of God’s creation, we grow confident in our ability to comprehend the deepest mysteries of the universe, though our understanding is so very superficial. What should cause us to feel small only makes us feel grand indeed, as we shrink the world down into pieces small enough to fit into our tiny brains. We are like the playground bullies who belittle the universe in order to make ourselves feel big and tough and wise.

What does it mean to consider the heavens?

September 17, 2007

Politically confused.

Posted in Politics at 10:49 pm by Caleb Winn

I am a Republican, and loyally so. I have great affection for the Grand Ol’ Party. I love Ronald Reagan, and think that Democrats are, by and large, the “bad guys.” But these emotional attachments don’t necessarily translate into corresponding policy views, which leaves me wondering where I lie.

The nature of partisan politics

The party establishments tend to hold opposing and divergent views on almost everything. This is caused by their divergent constituencies, and is dramatically worsened by fierce antagonism between the parties, which accentuates those differences and makes compromise virtually impossible.

The GOP establishment depends on corporate fat cats, upper-middle-class suburbanites, rural rugged individualists, and angry evangelicals for support. In order to win in primary elections, Republican candidates have to adopt positions that appeal to these voters, sounding ‘tough,’ ‘fiscally responsible,’ and ‘values-oriented.’ A “real” Republican must be pro-life, pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration, hawkishly pro-war, anti-environment, and no matter how low taxes are already, they can always be cut again!

Democrats, on the other hand, must answer to a myriad of interests all their own. Labor unions, feminists, environmentalists, the GLBTetc lobby, anti-war doves, and the urban poor, especially among minorities. This leads to a whole host of policy commitments that most democrats must honor if they hope to be successful. While some pro-life, pro-gun Democrats may be successful in Congressional elections in states like Tennessee, they often find themselves snubbed by their national caucuses, and could never succeed at the national (Presidential) level.

To make matters worse, these groups don’t really like each other very much, which leads to reactionary policy-making. If the Democrats propose an idea, Republicans will often oppose it regardless of its merit, or vice versus. Additionally, niche groups within the party will adopt the political views of the party that extend beyond their niche, so that evangelical Christians borrow the economic policies of the corporate fat cats, simply because the opposing economic views are held by the “other team.” For this reason, people whose moral convictions cause them to be pro-life are also, by extension, anti-tax, anti-welfare, and pro-gun. We have these bizarre groupings of tangentially-related interests in place of a consistent political ideology, wherein the economic libertarians are married to the socially fascist, and the social libertarians are in bed with the economically socialist.

So where does that leave me?

I am a very partisan man. I really do like the Republican party. At some level, politics is an exciting game, and I want “my team” to win. But while this makes for engaging (if sometimes soul-destroying) political showmanship, it almost certainly makes for bad, inconsistent policy. The fact of the matter is, I am not in lock-step with the GOP. On a whole host of issues, I might break ranks with my party and try to find common ground with the Democrats. On some issues, I just think that the Democrats have it right, and the GOP needs to get its head on straight.

So how does that work? As a political non-entity outside of the power and influence of the Beltway, I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think. I can borrow ideas from both sides without anybody really caring. And when it comes to selecting a candidate, I just have to choose which issues I care about more passionately. Do I suppose the candidate who shares my social views, or my economic views?

It’s just a darn shame that a candidate can’t succeed in this political climate without spreading divisiveness and vitriol. It’s a shame that a candidate can’t transcend constituencies and seek meaningful compromise on important issues. Well, maybe he can, but we’ll see how successful he is.

Policy laundry list

Economic policy

I am in favor of a guest worker program (call it “amnesty” if you want), with or without securing our borders.

I am opposed to universal health care, especially of the nationalized variety.

I do, however, support Bush’s plan to make all medical insurance costs tax-deductible, whether through an employer or not, and may even support a Massachusetts-style plan to mandate health care coverage, with limited government subsidies.

I also support Bush’s approach to social security reform, though I may also consider lifting the $90,000/year cap on FICA-eligible earnings in order to increase the pot. Regardless, the Democratic head-in-the-sand approach to Social Security reform is as shameful as it is asinine.

I think that sometimes we honestly just need to raise taxes, or at least stop cutting them. Deficits are sad.

Social policy

I am ardently pro-life. This is a (the?) big one for me.

I don’t have a problem with affirmative action, gay marriage, or sex education in public schools.

I don’t believe in an innate right to bear arms, and generally favour gun control, though it’s probably best left to localities where possible since NYC and KY have rather different threats and needs.

I oppose the death penalty, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and a whole host of other wrong-headed anti-crime bills that are based more on anger than on common sense.

Security policy

I am opposed to torture in all instances, and support the legal rights of the very worst in society.

I hold to a fairly Neo-conservative foreign policy, and think that withdrawing from Iraq would create a situation so violently awful that it would make Darfur look like Disneyland.

I think that the UN is generally a good thing.

I believe that Globalization leads to greater security through greater economic interdependence, provided that our bilateral investments are diversified.

I believe that the United States probably isn’t doing enough to engage in the ideological, intellectual struggle against Islamo-fascism.

In conclusion

I support John McCain for President, because he isn’t a partisan hack. The man is the Real Deal, a principled Statesman who holds firmly to his beliefs even when it hurts him politically (see immigration reform), and is willing to stand up for what’s right to Democrats and Republicans alike (see torture). But he is a man who is willing to meet in the middle, to try to reach meaningful bipartisan compromise on the details wherever possible. He’s a man who understands what is at stake in the Global War on Terror, and can be trusted to be an effective Commander-in-Chief.

Sadly, I suspect that a Statesman cannot succeed in the modern political climate.

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