Wednesday, March 28, 2012

R.I.P. Earl Scruggs

I debated about making note of Earl Scruggs' passing. I'm as familiar with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" as anybody, but that hardly constitutes being a fan. Yet Scruggs was a giant in his spheres of music (which went beyond strict bluegrass) and it seems only right to acknowledge the loss of a legend, especially when I'm such a sucker for the plaintive touch a well-plucked banjo can add to an ordinary song. R.E.M.'s "Wendell Gee", for instance, is all the more memorable because of the rippling, gentle banjo that slowly dances around the bass line. Scruggs deserves as much credit as anyone for popularizing the banjo so it could find a place in genres beyond bluegrass.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spaghetti sauce

A while back I saw chef Scott Conant recommend not only finishing one's spaghetti (or any pasta, really) in the simmering sauce just before or as it hit al dente, but also taking a little of the water in which the spaghetti was boiled and adding it to the sauce to thicken it so it would coat the spaghetti better. I'd tried following this tip before, but hadn't noticed the difference. It turns out that for about two quarts of sauce, about a half-cup of the starchy water does the trick, sort of. The result is a little gummier than I'd like, but I put that down to overcooking the pasta (again) and adding just a bit too much cooking water. I'm still experimenting, but it's getting better.

No, I haven't been all that invested in the news lately. Although I did find it intriguing that Dick Cheney needed a heart transplant, since he seems to have been chugging along without one for over a decade.

Friday, March 9, 2012

John Dewey on faith and inquiry

A passage from philosopher John Dewey's A Common Faith (1934):
Understanding and knowledge also enter into a perspective that is religious in quality. Faith in the continued disclosing of truth through directed cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation. It is of course now usual to hold that revelation is not completed in the sense of being ended. But religions hold that the essential framework is settled in its significant moral features at least, and that new elements that are offered must be judged by conformity to this framework. Some fixed doctrinal apparatus is necessary for a religion. But faith in the possibilities of continued and rigorous inquiry does not limit access to truth to any channel or scheme of things. It does not first say that truth is universal and then add there is but one road to it. It does not depend for assurance upon subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world, being themselves promoted and improved in the operation. There is such a thing as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality -- a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel such faith to be a dangerous rival.
Nearly eighty years on, and Dewey's point is still, er, on point.

The Dewey passage especially resonated with me since I recently finished An American Religion by Harold Bloom. It's curiously instructive to read the two back-to-back. Bloom is (was?) a curmudgeon in the deepest sense who grouses too frequently about political correctness, but he got in my good books by characterizing contemporary American religious fundamentalists not as "fundamentalists" but rather as "Know Nothings" carrying on in the destructively anti-intellectual spirit of those 19th century populists. I knew the anti-intellectual streak in American society went back a ways, but it still pulled me up short to encounter a serious thinker (Dewey) grappling with it nearly a century ago.

There have always been people so disoriented by the pace of social change that the only response they can muster is a reflexive and irreflective insistence on turning the clock back to a presumed better day. Technology being an accelerant of change, today's conservative response (and I mean "conservative" in its most basic sense as a desire to preserve what is rather than to embrace novelty for its own sake) worldwide is correspondingly sharp.

Does the conservative response have value for humanity?

It's tough to say it does. In principle, slowing our headlong rush to the future in order to take stock of who we are and what kind of world we're creating would be a great thing. However, too much conservative rhetoric is focused on elevating faith in organized religion over all else. Not only does that devalue and thus impair support for scientific research, but the accompanying siege mentality of many sects (of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, for instance) in these tough times contributes to a balkanization of humanity and increases strife between faiths to dangerous levels. Absolutely the last thing humanity can afford is a war over who has the keys to heaven (or Nirvana, or ...). And yet, that's where the apocalyptic rhetoric of many end-times clergy, echoed by their political henchmen (Rick Santorum, for instance), would lead us. (A lot of Muslims would argue that the U.S. has already led us there, with Iraq and Afghanistan as prime exhibits for the prosecution.)

As long as conservatives worldwide put their trust in holy writ rather than human intellect, conservatism cannot contribute to solving our problems. To the contrary, its regressive and anti-intellectual attitude will only make things worse.

Dewey knew that. Would that more of us today also did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Limbaugh the unashamed

I've been busy, so by the time I heard about Rush Limbaugh's vicious attack on Sandra Fluke I thought it would be too late to comment (and frankly, redundant). Leave it to Rush, though, to keep the thing going by standing firm behind his characterization of Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute" who, in return for federally subsidized contraception, owed the taxpayers a free sex tape.

Standing firm, that is, until the advertisers started jumping ship. And kept jumping. Finally, enough of them bailed out that Rush had to make pretend amends.
"For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week," he wrote. "In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke."
Bullshit, Rush. You very much meant a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. You're just sorry that your reflexive hatemongering hit the fan this time.

Or rather, your employer is sorry (that you cost it advertisers). You aren't. You never are.

Whether it's racism or misogyny, you delight in playing to the basest, most hateful and most hurtful instincts in your consciousness. You claim hyperbole is needed to ensure that your audience is not merely informed (if that's the word to use), but entertained as well. Everything outrageous about your show is defensible, in your mind, as exaggeration for the purpose of humor.

But "slut" as you used it is not humorous. It's just vile. Most of us know that.

So do you, for that matter. The thing is, you can't afford to admit it. You'd also have to admit that your show's aim isn't to be humorous. You'd have to admit that your show's aim is to be inflammatory.

You'd have to admit that you mean every word you say, that you know exactly the effect each of those words has, and that you aren't sorry for any of them.

That honesty just might cost you your outsized profile in the national consciousness. And you won't risk that because as that profile goes, so goes your income.

And so the rest of us are treated to yet another tedious non-apology from you. Yawn.

At this point, I don't give a shit about Limbaugh's fake apologies (should he bother to give them). What I'd really like to hear is an apology from his listeners. They are the reason he's still on. What's their excuse for enabling his bitter spitefulness, if not that they share his hostility and bile?