Saturday, May 28, 2005

Independents or cranks?

Below is an editorial letter I sent to the local paper recently.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle is the major news outlet up here, and of late they've been on the warpath against the way things have always been done up here: behind closed doors, for the most part. Sometimes they seem to be on the side of the angels vis-a-vis opening up the town to contributions from new quarters, as I urge in my Creative Class article.

At other times, though, they seem to be both myopic and obsessed: endlessly beating on one small issue while letting the real story get away.

For instance, in a long series of articles last year, the paper brought forward a curious feature of the town's "Cool City" grant: a lot of the grant money was going to end up in the hands of the local chamber of commerce. The purpose of the grant was to set up an institute for creative entrepreneurship in the brand new Chamber of Commerce Building in town, and a lot of the cash from the state was going to end up going toward the rent for the offices.

Now, as a general idea--setting up an office to make it easier for people with cool ideas to cut through the red tape, communicate with potential investors, and imagine new markets--this was great. I had some problems with the details of the plan and how certain local interests groups were getting an inside track on the thing (e.g. the local "stop development" group), but all in all it seemed like a good idea.

The paper, though, went ballistic throwing around innuendo that the whole thing was setup as a cash bailout for the egotistical chamber, which had built its expensive downtown castle and now couldn't find anyone to rent the extra space in the building.

While the situation could certainly be construed in this way, the trouble was no one with any direct knowledge of the players involved (not even anyone at the paper, I'd guess) actually believed this to be the case.

Some months after the paper broke this story, the state suddenly decided that the proposed use of the grant was not consistent with the Cool Cities program, so they pulled the plug on the grant. The paper then proceeded to fulminate about how such a thing could possible happen and to question the competence of the folks who wrote the grant proposal and planned the spending. The net result was that in their dogged pursuit of cronyism and behind-closed-door decision-making, the paper ended up burning the grant writer, the least old-school public official in the area.

And because they were so terribly obsessed with tarring as many local officials as they could, the paper never asked some pretty basic questions of the state, like "How was it that it took you months to figure out how the city wanted to spend your grant money?" or "What were your officials doing when they came on officials visits to the grant recipients? Didn't they look at the spending plans, or did they just pose for photos? Why did it take you months even after the paper reported the story to find out how the grant money was to be spent? Why didn't the grant materials spell out that rent was not an eligible cost for grant spending?"

That was where the story was, and no one at the paper seemed to have the least curiosity about it.

The Record-Eagle has also reported on things like the financial situation of the local community college without having the least notion of how college finance works. They've reported, for instance, that certain departments are "losing money" when the fact of the matter is that tuition doesn't cover costs in any department across the campus. The whole point of giving the college a county millage and state grant money is to keep tuition low--to keep it from reflecting the true costs of running the college.

Every academic discipline "loses money" by design. The paper has written several articles on the school in a blissful state of unawareness of this fact.

One has to wonder what lets them think that this kind of reporting is OK: Laziness? Ignorance? Low staffing levels? A fear that accurate information kills drama?

I don't know the answer. But I do wish the paper would hold itself to some higher standards on these sorts of stories, rather than avidly trumpeting half-baked local scandal stories.

There's been some equally half-baked local opposition to the paper, one example of which you can find here

You can read the paper's coverage of these two issues by searching "cool cities" in its 2004 archives or "MTEC" in its 2004 and 2005 archives. The Record-Eagle search page.

Anyhow, here's the letter.

Independents or cranks?
One really has to wonder where the editorial writers of the Record-Eagle gain their uncommon wisdom and insight.
For instance, the May 22 editorial embrace of the Anne Melichars of the world. I would have thought that folks like Melichar and Jasper Weese were what are known as "cranks"; people who, as a matter of ego, are willing to ride their personal hobbyhorses at public meetings until an unruly mob or Robert's Rules of Order makes them stop.
But the Record-Eagle apparently knows better: these folks are actually freedom fighters, our own Yodas and Obi-Wans fighting against an evil empire of consensus.
All fun aside, I think it is time that the newspaper put aside its own hobbyhorse and admitted that Traverse City is not the last bastion of the Masonic Conspiracy, and that Know-Nothing obstructionism is a bad thing for local commissions, not a good thing.
When the public asks "Who's lobbying for us?" I think they generally have better sense than to answer "the local civic egomaniacs." The jury is still out on what to think of a newspaper that at the moment seems to be far more dedicated to self-aggrandizement than to things like "critical thinking."
Oran Kelley
Traverse City

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bertrand Russell

Yesterday was the birthday of this great mathematician, logician and philosopher of liberalism.

So I thought I'd post a little something from the large Russellian ouvre that caught my eye of late, from his History of Western Philosophy.

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose fundamental certainty is the existence of himself and his thoughts, from which the external world is to be inferred. This was only the first stage in a development, through Berkeley and Kant, to Fichte, for whom everything is only an emanation of the ego. This was insanity, and, from this extreme, philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of everyday common sense.

With subjectivism in philosophy, anarchism in politics goes hand in hand. Already during Luther's lifetime, unwelcome and unacknowledged disciples had developed the doctrine of Anabaptism, which, for a time, dominated the city of Munster. The Anabaptists repudiated all law, since they held that the good man will be guided at every moment by the Holy Spirit, who cannot be bound by formulas. From this premise they arrive at communism and sexual promiscuity; they were therefore exterminated after a heroic resistance. But their doctrine, in softened forms, spread to Holland, England and America; historically, it is the source of Quakerism. A fiercer form of anarchism, no longer connected with religion, arose in the nineteenth century. In Russia, in Spain, and to a lesser degree in Italy, it had considerable success, and to this day it remains a bugbear of the American immigration authorities. This modem form, though anti-religious, has still much of the spirit of early Protestantism; it differs mainly in directing against secular governments the hostility that Luther directed against popes.

Subjectivity, once let loose, could not be confined within limits until it had run its course. In morals, the Protestant emphasis on the individual conscience was essentially anarchic. Habit and custom were so strong that, except in occasional outbreaks such as that of Munster, the disciples of individualism in ethics continued to act in a manner which was conventionally virtuous. But this was a precarious equilibrium. The eighteenth century cult of 'sensibility' began to break it down: an act was admired, not for its good consequences, or for its conformity to a moral code, but for the emotion that inspired it. Out of this attitude developed the cult of the hero, as it is expressed by Carlyle and Nietzsche, and the Byronic cult of violent passion of no matter what kind.

The romantic movement, in art, in literature, and in politics, is bound up with this subjective way of judging men, not as members of a community, but as aesthetically delightful objects of contemplation. Tigers are more beautiful than sheep, but we prefer them behind bars. The typical romantic removes the bars and enjoys the magnificent leaps with which the tiger annihilates the sheep. He exhorts men to imagine themselves tigers, and when he succeeds the results are not wholly pleasant.

Against the more insane forms of subjectivism in modem times there have been various reactions. First, a half-way compromise philosophy, the doctrine of liberalism, which attempted to assign the respective spheres of government and the individual. This begins, in its modem form, with Locke, who is as much opposed to 'enthusiasm'-the individualism of the Anabaptists-as to absolute authority and blind subservience to tradition. A more thorough-going revolt leads to the doctrine of State worship, which assigns to the State the position that Catholicism gave to the Church, or even sometimes, to God. Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel represent different phases of this theory, and their doctrines are embodied practically in Cromwell, Napoleon, and modem Germany. Communism, in theory, is far removed from such philosophies, but is driven, in practice, to a type of community very similar to that which results from State worship.

Throughout this long development, from 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. With this difference others have been associated. The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in a greater or less degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proved empirically. They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not the good, but that 'nobility' or 'heroism' is to be preferred. They have had a sympathy with the irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion. The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion. This conflict existed in Greece before the rise of what we recognize as philosophy, and is already quite explicit in the earliest Greek thought. In changing forms, it has persisted down to the present day, and no doubt will persist for many ages to come.

It is clear that each party to this dispute--as to all that persist through long periods of time-is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers; ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible. In general, important civilizations start with a rigid and superstitious system, gradually relaxed, and leading, at a certain stage, to a period of brilliant genius, while the good of the old tradition remains and the evil inherent in its dissolution has not yet developed. But as the evil unfolds, it leads to anarchy, thence, inevitably, to a new tyranny, producing a new synthesis secured by a new system of dogma. The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation. The essence of liberalism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irrational dogma, and insuring stability without involving more restraints than are necessary for the preservation of the community. Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can determine.

Liberalism has often been disparaged as a dishonest, half-measure sort of political philosophy, but it seems surprisingly strong in Russell's presentation.

Russell is definitely someone who is worth a read. A brilliant man in a number of different fields. One good place to check him out is Cosma's site down at the U of M. He's posted a bunch of interesting texts, including a fair many by Russell (you'll have to scroll down the page to find the link to the Russell material).


Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Finished the Pears (last week actually!). Not much of an ending really. As I wrote earlier, this novel is a long monologue and there got to be a point perhaps 20 pages from the end where the novel stops elaborating a point of view and begins to provide a motive for murder . . . and here is where it begins to break down a bit. The very human motive is believable, but it just seems to be beside the point.

As we read, the monologue is spoken to a portrait sitter who is also an art critic. And much of the monologue is about the critic. The novelist (and the reader) want the critic to die for our own reasons. I think the book would have been much truer to itself if it would have dispatched him for his crimes as critic, rather than throwing a few graver sins in just to make sure no one felt guilty.

Anyhow, still a fine book. Well worth the short time spent reading.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Portrait, pt. 2

Oddly enough, as The Portrait starts working around to its climax there is a crucial part of the story that occurs exactly 95 years ago:
I think it's time to tell you what made me leave England. You'll love it; it will appeal to your egotism. You did. It began at half past nine on a Tuesday morning, May 10, 1910 . . .

I can only suppose Pears set this up so on Tuesday morning, May 10, 2005 someone like me might read it. Well, it worked, though I read it a tad earlier than 9.30.

Not quite finished with it, so I won't say too much here, but it's been a fascinating read and a good way to reflect on my own experience with art, the academy, fashion and earnestness.


Monday, May 09, 2005

The Portrait -- Iain Pears

I'm reading Iain Pears new book The Portrait.

It's a long monologue by an artist spoken to an old friend/enemy who is a prominent art critic.

I'm about halfway through and I am really happy with the way pears deals with a lot of the issues surrounding aesthetics that have very little to do with art itself--rivalry, in-groups and out-groups, fashion, Oedipal feelings, salability . . . some of the things I'll end up writing about here quiote a bit, I suspect. The best thing is that it's presented with a generous (but far from non-judgemental) understanding.

A short and fast read, to boot.

Pears is the author of a series of art history mysteries and of Instance of the Fingerpost (mystery set amongst the scientists and spies of seventeenth-century England. Like Stephenson's Quicksilver, but better written) and of Dream of Scipio, which I haven't been able to finish yet but which seems to be about the parallel declines of a) Roman Culture b) Medieval Christianity c)the French Third Republic and d) Us.

Anyhow, so far I can give this one a strong recommendation.