Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Life is chaos but we love it.

Here are some pictures and video if you are interested.
http://picasaweb.google.com/exceptionknoll/January2010?authkey=Gv1sRgCLWxy5Tn24bM5AE&feat=directlink
I'd love to post about
the interesting things I'm learning in my classes
or the long hours we've spent to get our house spic and span
or the things we gave away, tried to sell online or through consignment
or how long it took me to find a pair of shoes that fit Abigail
or the two drawstring bags that I made myself in under an hour
or the funny things that Abigail is doing lately like getting into everything and mimicking words that we say
or the progress Ben's making on his dissertation
or the cute pages I am making for a quiet book group
or the friends I've hung out with lately
or our plans to head to KY for spring break to look at houses
or the FREEZINGLY cold weather that we've been experiencing
or the bittersweet week that we spent without Internet
or the new carpet that we got installed in our living room
or the fun family time that we spent dancing around the empty living room
or the big stuffed gorilla that Abigail carries around, hugs, and kisses
or the maid service that Ben hired to come help me out with all the cleaning
or the cold, marshy, icy mornings we moved stuff from our basement to our neighbors to store while we are trying to sell the house
or for the bruises and cuts that Benjamin has due to slipping on the ice while moving
or the baby shower I am going to help plan
or the dangerous items that Abigail has managed to get in her hands, near her mouth, and around her head
or the basketball games that Benjamin is suddenly so interested in watching
or the efforts we're making to eat healthier and to be more active
or the babysitting swap between a friend and I that gives me 12 hours a week to work on homework
or the fact that I have not even begun to prepare for my comprehensive exams in March
or the wonderful experiences I've had with my calling as a Family History Consultant and the names I've been able to find on my family tree
or the beautiful baby boy that my sister delivered in just under an hour from the time she woke up and her water broke,

but I'm tired and I am trying to decide between a nice hot bath and then bed or just heading straight to bed. Life is good. I want to journal and blog more, but not today.

Friday, January 22, 2010

What I've been reading lately...

A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock by Judith Bennett - I picked this up at a used book sale in the History Department for three dollars. It describes what life was like for peasants in England during the Middle Ages. The main character, Cecilia, lived from around 1297-1344 AD. We learn details about her life that were derived from suprisingly detailed contemporary court records. The book contains all sorts of interesting information about the Medieval world - what people ate, what they wore, how they worshipped, what family life was like, etc. It was a quick read and very interesting.

Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage by Edith Gelles - Alexander Hamilton has always been my "favorite" American Founder from the time I was in high school. Recently, however, the Adams duo has been giving Hamilton a run for his money. This book is a biography of the couple, as opposed to one or the other exclusively. The author provides an impressive insight into their personalities, core world-views, values, and political and religious beliefs. Abigail is described as having a strong calvinist world-view where everything that happens is either divine reward or punishment for human behavior. John is presented as politically brilliant, but prone to vanity and pride. They are both described as having a pessimistic view of human nature, that people cannot be trusted to be virtuous in the absence of external constraint (and thus, both advocaing a strong, energetic government to provide the appropriate constraint on human behavior). In terms of their marriage relationship, the book describes how their "unspoken agreement" was an understanding that John had to be gone for months and years at a time while Abigail tended to the children and the home. They both tolerated this situation because they both fervently believed in the concept of duty. Duty, duty, duty. They believed that the most important role that one could play in life was to fulfill one's duty in the public sphere. As such, they willingly sacrificed an easy life of domestic tranquility for the sake of their country. This book made me once again proud to have named my daughter after Abigail Adams.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown - This was my Christmas present from Katie this year. I've read all of Dan Brown's novels and this was, by far, my favorite. As expected, it is a very fast-paced thriller with lots of twists and surprise endings. And there were a lot of cool factoids about Washington, D.C. and American history. Surprisingly, however, this was also a very philosophical book. While not explicitly endorsing religion or Christianity, at the very least it casts them in a favorable light. Latter-day Saints will find this book especially fascinating, as the primary "secrets" revealed in the plotline parallel some very core fundamental LDS doctrines. Indeed, while "The Da Vinci Code" was widely seen as anti-Christian, "The Lost Symbol" (at least to me) presented a very different perspective. In fact, Latter-day Saints will probably find themselves much more in agreement with the arguments made in this book than most of the "mainstream" Christian world. Anyway, I had a great time reading this book and I'm sad that it's over...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy birthday, Katie!

Monday, January 18, 2010

At last!!!

For all the adoring fans out there, I'm happy to report that the Abigail posts have at long last returned. First up, a short video clip. Abby's Grandma gave her a "counting cow" toy for Christmas. It's a little toy cow that sings counting songs. One of the songs goes: "I like counting, yes I do, counting with a MOOOO!" Observe what Abigail has internalized from this toy:


Cute, huh? And here is a link to a Picasa album with 30 or 40 pictures from her trip out to Utah to visit family:

http://picasaweb.google.com/oincphotos/Jan2010AbbyPictures?authkey=Gv1sRgCM-H09HuyKiI-QE&feat=directlink

She can also say the following words:

  • "ay-chay" (leche)
  • "crah-kuh" (cracker)
  • "ag-wa" (agua)
  • "ock" (Spock - I'm very proud of that one)

She also says "hi" and can say "mama" and "dada" but she says those last two while random babbling just as much as anything else... oh, well.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Batman and Political Philosophy: Part 3

This is the last of a three-part series discussing the implications of Batman: The Dark Knight for politics and political philosophy. I’m sure you’re all excited for Katie to get home and resume posting pictures of Abigail…

In his classic work Leviathan (1660), Thomas Hobbes (pictured left) paints a rather dark and cynical view of human nature. He describes what life would be like in the absence of a powerful central government:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes, in essence, argues that human beings are motivated by one principle instinct: to stay alive. In the absence of a government to restrain people’s actions, they will continually fight and kill each other over scarce resources. Life, without a strong central government, becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To avoid this unpleasant existence, Hobbes argues that people will collectively give up many of their freedoms to what he calls a “Sovereign” – a powerful monarch who will rule with absolute power and ensure order and security in a society. People are willing to be ruled because, at least, they will live free of fear of violent and painful death.

Why would this be the case? Hobbes argues that when it gets right down to it, people look out only for themselves. They are not altruistic. They are selfish and mean. And it’s not about religion, sin, corruption, or morality. It’s about self-preservation.

The Dark Knight is a film that Hobbes would whole-heartedly approve of. What type of people exist in the Gotham universe? Thieves. Murderers. Crime lords. Petty thugs. Criminally insane demagogues.

Even those who are supposed to be the “good” guys still can’t quite overcome their more primal instincts. Harvey Dent, Gotham’s new “White Knight”, eventually succumbs to his underlying violent tendencies. The police Lieutenant Ramirez gives in to the influence of “bad guys” and gives up the location of one of the main characters.

It’s not just the elites, either. It’s the masses of Gotham as well who are portrayed as self-interested and animalistic. The previous post discussed at some length how The Dark Knight portrays the ignorant masses. In this film, the Joker makes it his personal mission to demonstrate the dark side of human nature. At one point in the movie, he makes a rather “Hobbesian” observation:

They [the citizens of Gotham] need you [Batman] right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

From Harvey Dent, the paragon of Gotham virtue, again echoes the Hobbesian view of self-preservation being the only form of morality: "You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. But you were wrong. The world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair."

At one point, we see the Joker publicly identify an individual, Coleman Reese, and say, “If Coleman Reese isn't dead in sixty minutes then I blow up a hospital.” What do the citizens of Gotham do? They try to kill Coleman Reese. Their rules of morality go out the window when death is on the line.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight presents a very unflattering a dark view of human nature. Through the character of the Joker, we are presented with a Hobbesian view of the world in which true animal instincts emerge as soon as the constraining government structure begins to break down.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Batman and Political Philosophy: Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series discussing the implications of Batman: The Dark Knight for politics and political philosophy.

In terms of how political leaders should treat citizens of a polity, The Dark Knight has two key messages: we need to be fooled, and we need to be ruled. Clearly, these are two fairly controversial positions to take in contemporary American society.

In a classic work in political theory, The Prince (published 1515), Niccolo Machiavelli (pictured left) gives a number of recommendations to a hypothetical prince on how he should gain and keep political power. In Chapter 18, he shares the following advice:

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he … may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

In essence, Machiavelli argued that effective political leadership included deceiving the people and presenting an appearance of virtue in order to maintain power and control the populace. The Dark Knight explicitly endorses this view. At the end of the movie, the District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes “Two-Face” and becomes one of the very criminals he was originally fighting. After his death, Batman takes the blame for the crimes that Harvey Dent had done, thinking it more important that the citizens of Gotham continue to see their District Attorney as a virtuous leader than to know the truth. The citizens needed to be fooled.

Moreover, in Machiavelli’s world, the “masses” were seen as a single, homogenous unit. They cared only about their day-to-day concerns. So long as they were not starving and not too terribly oppressed by their ruler, they wouldn’t really care who was governing them. If their leader provided the basic necessities of life and an appearance of virtue, they would willingly submit to his authority.

We see interesting parallels in the Batman universe. The citizens of Gotham city are much like the masses of Machiavelli’s world. In the original Batman movie, we see the citizens go bananas when the Joker appears on the float and begins to throw out free wads of cash. It was the classic “bread and circuses” – the citizens of Gotham were more than happy with the Joker if he’d give them free money. After all, what could be more virtuous than dispensing free money at a parade?

In The Dark Knight, we see again see the citizens as a homogenous, ignorant unit. The citizens play an important role only insofar as they react to Batman, the Joker, the Mayor, the police commissioner, etc. The main players in Gotham city are the political leaders, the crime lords, the prominent criminals, and Batman. The “people” are there only at the fringes, and when they make their voices heard it is only to express disapproval of Batman and the other political leaders for their inability to provide the “bread and circuses”, i.e. keep them safe and content. The “people” are reactive, waiting around for the Batman and the other leaders to make their world a better place, while not proactively making an effort to do so themselves.

Because of this, The Dark Knight also endorses the idea that citizens need to be ruled. The “masses” are reactive and ignorant. Thus, they are incapable of ruling themselves or defending themselves in times of national emergency. At one point in the movie, Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, and Bruce’s date sit down to a meal at an upscale restaurant. They discuss how Gotham needs a “White Knight” to, essentially, fight the bad guys and rid the city of criminals. It comes up in conversation that perhaps an elected official would be better to this than the unelected, vigilante crime-fighter Batman. Interestingly, it is Harvey, the elected District Attorney, who makes the case for authoritarianism, describing how in Roman times, the people gave all their power to a single person to protect the city. In essence, the people need to be ruled because they are unable to fight their own battles and solve their own problems.

This critique of democracy is further evidenced by the “vote” taken by those on the boat at the end of the movie. It was a classic
“prisoner’s dilemma”. Do we save ourselves or those on the other ship? It was proposed that they put it to a vote (after all, democracy is a good thing, right?). By a vast majority, those on the boat voted in favor of self-preservation instead of self-sacrifice. The “right” decision was made at the end, only because no one was actually willing to get their “hands dirty” by carrying out the will of the people as expressed through a democratic vote. Here, democracy did not lead to the right decision.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight endorses a very undemocratic version of political societies, with a very unflattering view of the ordinary citizen. Not only are they unable to cope with the truth about their political leaders, but they also are unable to solve their
own problems or sacrifice for the common good, necessitating an authoritarian ruler to fight their battles and ensure order in the political community.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Batman and Political Philosophy: Part 1

This is the first of a three-part series discussing the implications of Batman: The Dark Knight for politics and political philosophy.

In addition to being an awesome movie, Batman: The Dark Knight is also an excellent source of commentary on contemporary political events, as well as on ancient debates in political philosophy. This first post examines the position that The Dark Knight takes on the perpetual debate between security and liberty.

Senator Dodd was recently quoted as saying: “We make our nation safer when we eliminate the false choice between liberty and security.” President Obama echoed this sentiment, saying that we do not need to accept the “false choice between our security and our ideals.” Despite these optimistic remarks, security and liberty have almost always been conceptualized as mutually-exclusive, zero-sum goods.

This can be traced all the way to the pre-existence, where the opposing plan was to guarantee 100% security in exchange for zero free agency. On the other end of the spectrum we have anarchy and chaos, 100% freedom but zero security. (This assumes, of course, that humans will not act virtuously in the absence of external restraint. There are those who disagree with this position (anarchists, libertarians, etc.) However, I tend to side with both James Madison “if men were angels no government would be necessary” and scripture “the natural man is an enemy to God” on this argument.)

This argument continued throughout history. In the pre-modern era, governments favored security over liberty. A Caesar/King/Czar would exercise complete control in an attempt (theoretically) to provide order and security. Hobbes in his Leviathan favored such a government. With the dawn of the modern era came a shift toward liberty over security. Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and others believed that human freedom was the utmost priority and that governments should have to justify every law that decreased individual freedom and liberty. This came to be known as “liberalism” (i.e. in favor of increased liberty).

Although the American Founders were all liberals (in the classical sense), they varied in their approach to balancing security and liberty. The Federalists (Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, etc.) tilted more toward the security end of the spectrum (Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, e.g.) while the Anti-Federalists (Jefferson, Madison, etc.) favored the liberty end of the spectrum (Jefferson was a big fan of revolutions which are high on freedom and expression but low on safety and security).

That debate has continued on to this day. Much of this previous decade was characterized by a debate over the extent to which freedom should be traded for security and safety from terrorism. The Bush administration’s
warrantless wiretapping program was one such controversy. Should the government be allowed to listen in on your phone conversations without a warrant in order to identify and capture potential terrorists?

Hollywood is notorious for taking liberal (not to be confused with the Lockean/Millian classical liberals) positions on contemporary American politics. It is interesting, then, that The Dark Knight endorses the conservative argument: that increased security is worth the price of decreased individual freedom.

Toward the end of the movie, Bruce Wayne develops a method of “fighting the bad guys” by tapping into the cell phones of everyone in Gotham City. (A not-so-subtle reference to the warrantless wiretapping program…) His assistant Lucius Fox disapproves of this tactic, telling him that he would no longer support Bruce in his efforts if he continues to do so. At the end of the day, Bruce destroys the cell phone program, but not before taking full advantage of it in order to find the Joker, stop the bad guys, and save the day.

It seems that in the debate between security, safety, and order on one hand and freedom and liberty on the other, The Dark Knight sides squarely on the side of security and order, even if it means less personal freedom for all.

Post Script: A legitimate objection could be raised that I do not distinguish between the
positive (enabling) and negative (restrictive) forms of liberty in this analysis. It could be argued that by sacrificing Gotham’s negative liberty that Batman actually increased their positive liberty and security at the same time. To this objection I must agree. However, negative liberty is more commonly associated with the concept of “freedom” in contemporary American society, and thus is the conception I used in this analysis.

This could lead to all sorts of other interesting conversations, including the application to Christian gospel doctrine, which requires an ultimate sacrifice of all negative liberty in all personal behavior and will, in exchange for ultimate positive liberty of eternal life. I will leave that discussion, however, as well as its implications for governments and society, for another day.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ten Psychology Studies from 2009 Worth Knowing About

This is very cool:

http://trueslant.com/daviddisalvo/2009/12/28/ten-psychology-studies-from-2009-worth-knowing-about/

My favorites are #1 and #5.

I like #1 because it validates my arguments to Katie that we should use our money to travel and go on trips instead of on home improvements or new furniture.

I like #5 because it made me pause and reexamine my behavior, especially because I'm an obsessive-compulsive recycler. Now I understand that it's linked to the guilt I feel every time I put a bag of 30 baby diapers in the garbage, knowing fully well they're just going to sit there in the landfill for 500 years...