Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: The Buddhist Fable of Bob and Maureen McDonnell

by Levi Asher on Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

Philosophy Weekend: Wealth and Envy

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 1, 2014 11:33 am

A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.

I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.

And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.

The Editor's Story: Andre Schiffrin and Daniel Menaker

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 06:08 pm

Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:

Notes From Dot Gov Land

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 26, 2013 09:14 am

As some of you may remember, I spent 2009 writing a memoir about my experiences in New York City's "new media" industry from 1993 to 2003. I've often wondered if I would ever write an update.

I might someday, and I might even write about the work I've been doing since 2009, when I moved down to Northern Virginia to get married and began working in Washington DC and in Northern Virginia's tech corridor.

I only write memoirs in past tense, so I won't be writing about my current jobs and projects anytime soon. But I wish I could, because lately it's been as exciting as Silicon Alley down in here. The big local story is the epic #fail of the Obama administration's website, which was built by several NoVa firms like CGI Federal.

History Weekend: Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 24, 2013 07:53 am

Every once in a while, a pacifist blogger gets to yell "stop the presses".

There was a Philosophy Weekend blog post all ready to go up this morning -- till I heard that the United States of America, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, France and Iran have suddenly reached a preliminary peace agreement that will turn back Iran's path towards nuclear escalation. This is very good news.

The CNN article above is headlined "3-decade gridlock broken: The nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva". Actually, this peace treaty ends not three but six decades of bad karma between the USA and Iran. It was sixty years ago, in August 1953, that agents of the USA's newly powerful Central Intelligence Agency led by Kermit Roosevelt successfully schemed to overthrow Iran's democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossaddegh and replace him with a royalist tyrant, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who promised to allow American and European powers (primarily Great Britain) to continue to control Iran's oil exports.

Mossaddegh was a moderate and noble popular leader who seemed to be steering his country towards greater freedom and self-reliance. Most significantly, he had been fairly elected by the Iranian people. The CIA-led overthrow was probably the most blatantly shameful and immoral act of foreign intervention in my country's recent history, and of course it led to an intensely hostile relationship between the USA and Iran.

The history of the USA's bad relationship with Iran is undisputed and widely known in Iran, but few Americans know about the roots of our conflict with Iran. Today's news of a peace agreement may be met with confusion and disinformation by shallow journalists and commentators who don't know much about history, and I suggest that anyone who wants to understand the big picture behind this peace agreement read an excellent book by Stephen Kinzer called All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. The history of this 1953 overthrow reads like a conspiracy theorist's bad fantasy, but it's all undisputed fact, and the only reason the story isn't widely known in my country is that the truth still makes us uncomfortable.

Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:31 am

Slovenian philosopher and Litkicks favorite Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging this protest in a Moscow cathedral:

Philosophy Weekend: Alienation in America

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 10, 2013 08:41 am

Today's Philosophy Weekend is a question: what is the meaning of the extreme alienation that seems to be growing between two loosely defined political opinion groups in the United States of America?

Of course, the division between conservativism and liberalism is nothing new. But the emotional intensity of the split has been remarkable in the past few months, stoked by the rollout of Obamacare, which has led to an explosion of political noise, paranoia and apocalyptic drama way beyond the bounds of any normal political debate in this country. The break can be seen in the word cloud above, which shows the terms used by Republican voters to describe President Barack Obama.

It's notable that "liar" dominates the word cloud. This shows the depth of the problem Barack Obama faces in trying to communicate with his opponents. "Liar" is a tough word to fight back against, because it indicates a complete alienation between speaker and listener. If a President is perceived by opponents as incompetent or stupid, some cure for the condition can be imagined. If a President is simply seen by opponents to be a liar, there is no path to a common ground, because there is no common trust.

Philosophy Weekend: Why Russell Brand is Right

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 26, 2013 11:13 am

The pointing finger in this photo belongs to Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist. The pointee is Russell Brand, a brash and popular comedian who has guest-edited a new "Revolution" issue of the New Statesman, in which he says things like this:

Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people … Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change.

Philosophy Weekend: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 19, 2013 09:02 am

Here's a timely one, to cap off a week of truly bizarre politics in my country, the United States of America. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi looks like a children's book, with appealing and funny drawings by Alejandro Giraldo, but is written for grown-ups. Each page represents a different common form of logical fallacy.

Generously, the authors have placed the entire book online, where it can hopefully help to unwind all the bad philosophical arguments that are hovering thickly in the air. Logical fallacies are timeless and universal, of course, but this book feels especially relevant now, as my country moves cautiously towards implementation of the sorely needed health insurance reform law known as Obamacare, and free market conservatives, corporate lobbyists, Tea Party congressmen and Ayn Rand followers explode in fury.

Philosophy Weekend: Chomsky the Hopeless Anarcho-Syndicalist

by Levi Asher on Saturday, August 3, 2013 11:12 am

I wish I could love Noam Chomsky, the American political philosopher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of important books about revolutionary politics like Hegemony or Survival and Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky made his name decades ago as a psychological linguist, but then like Bertrand Russell he risked his academic reputation by speaking out and eventually writing popular and controversial books about politics. Today, Chomsky's career operates on two levels: he remains highly respected among academics as an authority in linguistics, and is also well-known in the United States of America as an angry critic of the country's aggressive foreign policy and banal two-party system.

I wish I could love Noam Chomsky because he is a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, which means that he favors a society with minimal government -- not a state of pure anarchy, but as close as can be safely and reasonably acheived -- and a cooperative, share-based economy that would enforce social justice not by coercion but by mutual agreement of the citizens. Anarcho-syndicalism is a friendly political ideal that emphasizes idealism within realistic boundaries, and has proven effective as a loose ideological backbone (to the extent that any such single ideological backbone exists) for movements like Occupy Wall Street.

Anarcho-syndicalism is often seen as a form of liberal/left-wing ideology, but its emphasis on individual freedom and small government ought to make it appeal to idealists of any wing, including conservative libertarians and open-minded Tea Partiers who don't believe the hype that all liberals favor large government. In an anarcho-syndicalistic world, there would be virtually no federal government (this is anarchy, after all) but everyone would be expected to voluntarily follow rules and pay taxes in compliance with whatever social groups they choose to be a part of.


Subscribe to Economics