The Great Debate

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

[Amazon Link]

This book from Yuval Levin explores the contentious relationship between two rough contemporaries, Eddie Burke and Tommy Paine. They had fundamental disagreements about the nature of man, government, history, and social change; they worked these disagreements out in public via books, letters, and articles. And, Yuval shows, that long-ago conflict echos in our world today, in the differing political philosophies of left and right.

Paine, of course, was one of the major propagandists of the American Revolution. He was a thoroughgoing believer in natural rights of the individual, equality, and (above all) Reason with a capital R. This led him to believe that each generation of a free people could and should design their political institutions de novo according to their wishes.

Burke was on the side of tradition, order, obligation; this dictated that social/political changes should be gradual, with a decent respect for the system bequeathed by our ancestors.

Burke also looked with favor on the American Revolution, but for different reasons than Paine: he saw the British as trying to overturn the decades-old relationship with the colonies by an abrupt and arbitrary imposition of taxes, and other abuses. This offended his views of tradition.

Yuval notes, amusingly, that Burke and Paine ignored different parts of the Declaration of Independence: Burke neglected the first part, with its airy theorizing about rights; Paine ignored the second half, with its tedious list of grievances against the Crown.

Their differences blew up over the French Revolution, though. Paine was a huge fan of overthrowing the monarchy, and starting everything from Year Zero; Burke saw nothing but trouble was likely to ensue.

Yuval meticulously teases out their differing philosophies. I'd say he's scrupulously fair in his descriptions, although I might have detected a slight preference for Burke's sentiments, a slight bias against Paine's hubris in assuming reason's ability to design optimal political arrangements. That might just be my own viewpoint shining through.

Yuval's prose is … not sparkly, sorry. He's done a great amount of careful research, makes some good insights, and (unfortunately) lays it on the page in the dullest and driest manner possible.

Last Modified 2019-09-18 5:36 AM EDT

The Doomsday Calculation

How an Equation that Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe

[Amazon Link]

An impulse checkout from the Portsmouth Public Library. And it turned out to be a lot of fun, William Poundstone's latest exploration into the deep dark woods of fringe science, contemplating some of the ultimate questions of physics and probability.

It begins with a description of the "Copernican method" invented and popularized by J. Richard Gott III, a respected physicist; its purpose is to estimate the lifetime of something, when the only thing you know about something is how long it has been around so far. Called "Copernican" because it assumes that there's nothing particularly "special" about your observation in either time or space. But especially, here, time.

The argument is: you're unlikely to be observing this something either at the beginning or the very end of its lifetime. The most likely scenario is: you've come across it sometime in its middle age. And that gives you a shot at predicting how long it's going to last.

Gott came up with this in 1969, viewing the Berlin Wall, it being 8 years old at the time. He predicted with 50% confidence that it would not be there in 1993.

And (ahem) it was not.

Poundstone explores Gott's Copernican method, where it applies and where it doesn't. And then goes on to visit related and unrelated weirder areas of scientific/mathematical speculation. For example, Zipf's Law, which states that the Nth most-common word in English text has a frequency proportional to 1/N. So, for example, the 50th most common word will occur about twice as frequently as the 100th most common word.

And the math behind this is similar to the math behind the Copernican method. Hm.

Poundstone covers a lot of area. The Fermi Paradox ("Where are all the space aliens?"); Are we living in a simulation created by others? Why are there three macroscopic spatial dimensions? That fine-structure constant, a dimensionless value approximately 1/137: a little bigger, or smaller, and atoms would not be able to exist. The possible menace of Artificial Intelligence (Poundstone is less sanguine about such menace than Steven Pinker). The implication of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. The possibility that our universe is simply a "bubble", one of many created out of a high-energy vacuum.

And more. I suggest you read this book in relatively small doses; there's so much mind-blowing theorizing herein, you might walk around in a daze for days.

12 Strong

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie is the based-on-true story of the first detachment of American soldiers to Afghanistan after 9/11: twelve (see title) Green Berets tasked with helping the native anti-Taliban fighters take the strategic town of Mazar-i-Sharif. The big stars are Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, playing Captain Mitch, the leader. He is assisted by Michael Shannon and Michael Peña.

The movie unashamedly admires the soldiers' devotion to their duty, even when it involves them leaving their loving families to go on a mission where the odds of them returning in one piece aren't very good. There's nary a hint of the usual Hollywood anti-Americanism here. The movie also does an unusually decent job of setting up the details of battles, what the stakes are, the geography of the area, and how things unfold.

There are a lot of very boilerplate war-movie tropes, too. For good reason, of course, but I found myself saying "Yeah, saw that coming" at a number of points.

It was especially appropriate to watch this movie in the context of current events, the President wanting to negotiate with the same guys we were trying so hard to kill back then, with the probable outcome of them taking over the country once again.

As always, the History vs Hollywood site is your go-to for how sorta-true this movie is. Not too bad, as it turns out.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

So shortly after I read Linda Ronstadt's "musical memoir", Mrs. Salad and I drove down to Portsmouth to see this new documentary covering roughly the same topic at the Music Hall.

What can I say? I've been a Linda fanboy for decades.

If you want to choose only one, though, I'd recommend the movie. In addition to Linda's narration*, there are a bunch of famous talking heads: Ry Cooder, Peter Asher, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, … So we get multiple viewpoints, always a good thing. But the same lesson shines through both book and movie: Linda was primarily about her music, not so much her career. (Ry Cooder makes this point explicitly.) She could have been content with her career niche: pop/rock goddess, singer of oldies and ballads. Instead she went to projects that interested her: old American standards, Mexican songs, operetta, vocal partnerships with singers she admired.

When I read the book, I noticed that her $500K gig at Sun City, in apartheid South Africa, was totally missing. That's briefly covered here in archival footage of an interviewer asking about it, and her self-defense.

You'll hear something about Jerry Brown in both book and movie. You will hear about George Lucas and Jim Carrey in neither.

There's a bittersweet ending to the film: 2019 footage showing Linda singing along with her nephew Peter and cousin Bobby. Well, sort of singing. Parkinson's disease has weakened her singing voice. (Although I'd bet she can still sing better than 99% of American citizens.)

Oh, yeah: Peter Asher kind of looks like Yoda these days.

* Given her illness, I don't know if she actually does the narration. It's someone who sounds like her, anyway, speaking in first-person singular.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Jeff Jacoby gives thanks to Beto O'Rourke's gift to the GOP. Specifically, a year after claiming that his position on guns was "you own a gun, keep that gun, nobody wants to take it away from you" (while running against Ted Cruz in Texas):

    During the Democratic presidential candidates' debate last Thursday, O'Rourke dropped the pretense that he "jealously guard[s]" gun owners' Second Amendment rights. When ABC moderator David Muir asked him whether it's true that he would force owners of semiautomatic rifles — "You know that critics call this confiscation. Are you proposing taking away their guns?" — the former Texas congressman was bluntness itself:

    "Hell, yes!" he replied, as the audience of Democratic Party activists cheered. "We're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

    Within the hour, the O'Rourke campaign put out a fundraising tweet playing up his anti-gun stance. Under a picture of an AR-15, it proclaimed: "Beto has a ban for that." Forty-five minutes later, the campaign was marketing a new T-shirt. "HELL YES WE'RE GOING TO TAKE YOUR AR-15" it says in red, white, and blue letters. ($30; available in sizes from XS to 3XL).

    An unofficial version of the t-shirt is our Amazon Product du Jour. Wear it in safe spaces only, please.

    Jeff also links to the Washington Free Beacon video showing a host of Democratic politicians and media figures ("but I repeat myself") assuring that "nobody wants to take your guns away." Truly a herd of independent minds.

  • At the WaPo, Megan McArdle correctly tells us: A vaping ban would be hysteria masquerading as prudence.

    At this point, the best information suggests that a recent spate of deaths from a vaping-related lung disease — six at last report — had little or nothing to do with legal e-cigarettes. Rather, the deaths, and more than 300 confirmed cases of the disease in dozens of states, seem to be linked to illegal cartridges, mostly using marijuana derivatives that had been emulsified with vitamin E acetate, according to Food and Drug Administration investigators. The FDA has warned against using it for inhalation, and it isn’t used in legally manufactured e-cigarettes.

    Naturally, the government wants to ban legally manufactured e-cigarettes.

    It's stupid, bordering on insane. Also, unfortunately, typical.

  • At the Federalist, David Harsanyi: The Smearing Of Brett Kavanaugh Is An Attack On The Supreme Court.

    Sure, it’s about partisanship and peddling books and selling newspaper subscriptions, but in the end, Democrats’ smearing of Brett Kavanaugh is also about delegitimizing the Supreme Court—the only institution that will inhibit the progressive agenda no matter who wins elections.

    Conservatives justices aren’t merely wrong, they’re nefarious and racist and extremist, you see, so virtually anything Democrats do to try and stop them is now rationalized. In this world, the accused, rather than the accuser, bears the “burden of proof.” In this world hucksters like Michael Avenatti are turned into experts and major news outlets will eagerly repeat and spread slander as news.

    Hey, remember when Democrats deplored McCarthyite tactics? How old do you have to be to remember that?

  • Reason's Christian Britschgi contibutes to our "Of Course He Did" Department today: Bernie Sanders’ Housing Plan Calls for $2.5 Trillion in New Spending and Nationwide Rent Control.

    In a speech to trade union members in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Saturday, Sanders laid out his vision for tackling high housing costs, homelessness, and gentrification through a mix of nationwide rent control, increased federal spending on housing vouchers and public housing construction, and higher taxes on the wealthy.

    "I don't have to tell anyone in America that we have an affordable housing crisis in Nevada, in Vermont, and all over this country that must be addressed," Sanders said. "It is unacceptable to me that over 18 million families in America today are paying more than 50 percent of their limited incomes on housing."

    Don't bother checking your copy of the Constitution to try to find where your Federal Government is empowered to do any of that. It ain't there. And Bernie don't care.

  • At the Library of Economics and Liberty, Pierre Lemieux notes the weird and incoherent role of the kiddos in our political debates: Power to the Children and Hail to the State!.

    Specifically: think of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who we are supposed to take as a fountain of wisdom on climate change. Or David Hogg on guns.

    Then look at all the arguments that kids are "fragile snowflakes to be protected from alcohol, tobacco, vaping, ideas, and life in general."

    In fashionable political discourse, then, children are presented either as role models to justify future tyranny or as little parentless incompetents, depending on how exactly their exploitation is required to advance state power. Granted that some statocrats (politicians and bureaucrats) and public-health or environmental crusaders might be consumed by good intentions, but as German poet Johan Christian Hölderlin wrote (quoted in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom),

    What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.

    Mark J. Perry composed one of his famous Venn diagrams to illustrate:

    [Teenager Venn]