“To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Left Hand of Darkness:

To oppose something is to maintain it. 

They say here "all roads lead to Mishnory." To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road. 

Yegey in the Hall of the Thirty-Three today: "I unalterably oppose this blockade of grain-exports to Karhide, and the spirit of competition which motivates it." Right off, but he will not get off the Mishnory road going that way. He must offer an alternative. Orgoreyn and Karhide both must stop following the road they're on, in either direction; they must go somewhere else, and break the circle.

Reading this passage, I couldn't help thinking of the 2016 presidential election, and what I think was Hillary Clinton's greatest flaw: she talked endlessly about how terrible Donald Trump was, and how utterly she opposed him and his worldview, but not nearly enough about what she stood for. By opposing Trump, in Le Guin's conception, Hillary maintained him — legitimized him. Message to Democratic politicians, in 2020 and beyond: don't tell me what you're against; tell me what you're for.

December 14, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...of a boy who died at nineteen..."

Joan Didion, on visiting the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 1966:

I would go up there quite a bit. If I walked to the rim of the crater I could see the city, look down over Waikiki and the harbor and the jammed arterials, but up there it was quiet, and high enough into the rain forest so that a soft mist falls most of the day. One afternoon a couple came and left three plumeria leis on the grave of a California boy who had been killed, at nineteen, in 1945. The leis were already wilting by the time the woman finally placed them on the grave, because for a long time she only stood there and twisted them in her hands. On the whole I am able to take a very long view of death, but I think a great deal about what there is to remember, twenty-one years later, of a boy who died at nineteen. I saw no one else there but the men who cut the grass and the men who dig new graves, for they are bringing in bodies now from Vietnam. The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud. The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.

(From "Letter from Paradise, 21° 19' N., 157° 52' W.", in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.)

November 12, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet.” - J. Robert Oppenheimer

October 21, 2018 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“You can’t stay at home with something like this going on. Women are feeling empowered and stronger, and it’s no longer going to be the good ol’ white boys’ club. It can’t be any more.” - Angela Trzepkowski

October 5, 2018 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“I only know that I will never again trust my life, my future, to the whims of men, in companies or out. Never again will their judgment have anything to do with what I think I can do. That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better.” - Toni Morrison

October 4, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rebecca Solnit, on breaking the silence.

From "A Short History of Silence," in The Mother of All Questions

Speech, words, voice sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition, the rehumanization that undoes dehumanization. Sometimes they are the only preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty. Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by society sometimes becomes intolerable. Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence: stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable.

Solnit also has stirring words of praise for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in The Guardian. "What was tolerated by society sometimes becomes intolerable." We can hope.

October 2, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"I mean, I'm not interested in any violent reaction, obviously. But I think that there's something worse than riots, and that's when we end up with a whole generation that has absolutely no confidence in the criminal justice system. If Van Dyke is acquitted, we'll lose a generation. I think that's a worse outcome than a riot."- Reverend Marshall Hatch

September 13, 2018 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.” - Helen Keller

August 7, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” - John Lewis

July 13, 2018 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

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“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing. Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able write it ourselves.” - Rebecca Solnit

June 19, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“The best you can say is that New York is held together by competing antagonisms that tend to cancel one another out.” - Tom Wolfe

May 19, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“All the time, I've felt that life is a wager and that I probably was getting more out of leading a bohemian existence as a writer than I would have if I didn't.” - Christopher Hitchens

May 16, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“A person who does not believe in tomorrow does not repaint his house.” - Henning Mankell, writing about Angola in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (2006)

February 23, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies.” - Joseph Conrad 

February 17, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“To me, being a citizen is a high political and spiritual responsibility. It means holding one’s nation to the highest ethical and moral standards. It also means being constantly vigilant on freedom, liberty and the moral rights of ourselves and our fellow citizens, no matter who they might be; and the upholding of our neighbours’ rights, even if we disagree with them, or if their faith or political persuasion is different from ours. It is a commitment of our souls to the enrichment of the human race.” - Ben Okri

January 31, 2018 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“...the quintessence of humanism is to have conversations. There is a deep connection between communication and ‘communio,’ community. Sitting together, eating together, drinking together, talking together. When people stop talking to each other, then you get into war.” - Rob Riemen

December 29, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

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“Funny how people who accuse their rivals of being unpatriotic worship men who engaged in armed rebellion against the United States.” – Paul Krugman

October 10, 2017 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"An optimist thinks everything will be fine no matter what, and that justifies doing nothing," - Rebecca Solnit

August 27, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Peepshow token

At HiLobrow, Kio Stark writes an elegy for Times Square, through the prism of an old peepshow token. 

We got the new radio, but forgot the batteries. My uncle pulled over again and I hopped out, ran into a fluorescent-lit store and bought them. I felt utterly wild, alone in a flashing, raunchy world with a handful of cash. He was watching me the whole time, and I was never more than 20 yards from the van, but it was wild still.

July 2, 2017 in Current Affairs, Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (2)

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"Through its lack of creativity, slowly but surely this country changes by the men we admire. It is not difficult for people to be snookered, particularly when the most successful movies deal with superheroes — Batman, Spider-Man. These are the big franchise movies that make money. Not just with kids, but adults. So, because of lack of imagination, maturity — many people in this country wanted a superhero. And then this TV guy comes along and says what? Only I can fix it...Only I can do this..." - John Mellencamp

June 18, 2017 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument of the Incorporated National Will. When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.” - Dorothy Thompson

May 23, 2017 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"There is no such thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other. The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside." - Clarence Darrow

April 17, 2017 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it..."

"Few lies carry the inventor’s mark, and the most prostitute enemy to truth may spread a thousand, without being known for the author: besides, as the vilest writer hath his readers, so the greatest liar hath his believers: and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead." - Jonathan Swift, from "Political Lying"

March 2, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt

With the already-widely-read 1984 shooting up the bestseller charts, I can't help wondering if It Can't Happen Here and The Plot Against America will enjoy similar revivals. I'd say Roth is the much better bet - he's still alive and popular, which is far more than can be said for Sinclair Lewis.

February 9, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

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"One is reminded once again to be wary of moments when racism 'ends' in a sudden thunderclap of progress." - Leonard Pitts, Jr.

January 21, 2017 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Charisma Theory

I wish with all my heart that this theory had failed during the most recent election, but unfortunately it held true. A year or two ago it occurred to me that the more charismatic presidential candidate often wins. But once I started thinking about it further, I realized that the theory was true for every election (with the possible exception of 1988, which was a tossup in terms of the candidates' charisma) since 1976:

1976: Carter over Ford
1980: Reagan over Carter
1984: Reagan over Mondale
1988: Bush over Dukakis
1992: Clinton over Bush
1996: Clinton over Dole
2000: Bush over Gore
2004: Bush over Kerry
2008: Obama over McCain
2012: Obama over Romney
2016: Trump over Clinton

Being ignorant of politics prior to 1976, I can't really weigh in on earlier elections. But this trend (though it may just be a fluke) over the past forty years makes me wonder how much charisma, personality, likability etc. (even more so than a candidate's experience and policy positions) influences voters - especially moderate/independent voters who usually end up being the group that decides elections. Something to ponder, at least.

January 20, 2017 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Farewell, Barack Obama

With this being the last day in office for Barack Obama - the greatest president of my lifetime - I will honor the man by reprising a clerihew I wrote about him back in 2006, when he was still a U.S. Senator:

Barack Obama
With Barack Obama,
Each word and each comma
Is perfectly placed. But what sets him apart?
The depth of his mind and the depth of his heart.

During the next four years I will fight every day to withstand the mindlessness and heartlessness of our national leadership. Yes, we can.

January 19, 2017 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“Reckless audacity came to be understood as the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice. In this contest the blunter wits were most successful."
- Thucydides

January 15, 2017 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken

As I've mentioned here previously, I share a birthday and many attitudes (the better ones, of course) with Mencken. (I would have loved to hear his thoughts on our incoming president. I imagine he would have been particularly horrified by Trump's diction.) I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the Mencken I've read - the strength of his prose and boldness of his personality more than offsets the dated and now-obscure subject matter - and hope to read his "Days Trilogy" next.

January 15, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quiet, alone with heavens, nature, and God." - Anne Frank

Maddie, my outspoken 16-year-old, remains incredulous that I still haven't read Frank's Diary. I will rectify this omission in the coming year. I'm prepared for tears. 

December 23, 2016 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hoping for a selfish oligarch

Felix Salmon absolutely nails it:

Trump is, however, motivated by self-interest. And in a world where the choice is between appalling and disastrous, this weirdly counts as good news. His voters voted for a chaos monkey who would deport millions of immigrants, start a war with Iran, decimate global trade, and make America unspeakably racist again. A vote for Trump, in other words, was a vote against freedom and prosperity and equality.

Trump is capable of implementing all of those policies, should he want to. But he is also an extremely rich man who is in the process of putting together a cabinet of unprecedented wealth, from Betsy DeVos to Steven Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross and Todd Ricketts. For these people–and for Trump himself–a global descent into protectionist chaos would be, let’s say, suboptimal: They would lose not only vast amounts of money, but also much of the status they so expensively enjoy.

In this sense, Trump’s multitudinous global conflicts are the main thing keeping him from going completely off the rails.

You know, maybe Trump's refusal to divest his business holdings, or put them into a blind trust, is the only thing preventing him from obliterating the world. If he approaches every presidential decision with consideration for how it could damage his financial net worth, we might actually be saved. I just wish he had hotels in Syria and Iran. 

December 6, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...giving a boundary to all of that..."

From Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness:

How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. 

I admire Le Guin's thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and states (and, in this woeful election season, legislative districts). I also just finished her The Lathe of Heaven. Fascinating premise, and thought-provoking throughout. I've read very little sci-fi or fantasy during my long reading life (much to Julie's disbelief), but Le Guin is one writer I think I could take to. 

(Via Austin Kleon.) 

November 25, 2016 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay."

Dan Piepenbring, at The Paris Review:

If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can.

Come to think of it, I was probably most productive as a writer during the Bush Administration, especially the second term when times seemed at their darkest. Creative ferment, or something like that.

November 10, 2016 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Debs for President

Always nice to see a modern reference to Eugene Debs. Roll Call's Walter Shapiro:

During the same answer, Trump rediscovered his authoritarian side by dramatically announcing that his Democratic opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked.” That’s right — because of charges about her homebrew email server that the FBI director said did not warrant prosecution — Trump would have banned Hillary Clinton from the ballot.

It is worth recalling that in 1920, Eugene Debs, as the Socialist candidate for president, received nearly 1 million votes while serving as Prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Debs’ conviction for opposing American entry into World War I was unjust. But back in 1920, no one suggested that he should be banned from the ballot in a democracy.

October 21, 2016 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A letter to my father, who has just killed himself"

The Guardian has a weekly feature called "A letter to..." which publishes anonymously-written letters in which the writers express what they've longed to say to someone but have never found the strength to do so. The letters are all remarkable for their naked honesty, but this one, "A letter to my father, who has just killed himself", is particularly devastating - yet somehow beautiful.

August 27, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

When I win the lottery

Kim Phillips-Fein, from her essay "Lotteryville USA", which appeared in the June 1995 issue of The Baffler:
If the model for the lottery isn’t Robin Hood, it’s not quite Ronald Reagan either—it robs the poor to give to the school system. That it goes to the state is perhaps a sign of how desperate state governments are for revenue, but for the players it’s no different than other systems that suck their money away. To refer to the lottery as a swindle or a cheat on the poor ignores the basic truth about being poor, which is that you get cheated all the time.
I have a short stack of Bafflers from the 1990s that I dip back into now and then. The journal was revived a few years ago, and I've been thinking about subscribing. In the old days I bought them off the newsstand, but I don't think their distribution is as widespread now as it was back then. Subscribing would be my most reliable source.

August 21, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“In the little time that’s left to me – and I hope it will be months rather than years – I just cling to the hope that the world doesn’t turn upside down again as it did then, though there have been some ghastly developments, haven’t there? I’m relieved I never had any children that I have to worry about.” - Brunhilde Pomsel, the 105-year-old former secretary to Joseph Goebbels

August 16, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wishful thinking, Holmes...

Holmes

Basil Rathbone, in the 1943 film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death [1]:

"There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out...The time is coming, Watson, when we cannot fill our bellies in comfort while the other fellow goes hungry, or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold...And God willing, we’ll live to see that day, Watson."

The days of grab and greed are still very much with us. The Republican Party has even nominated the very embodiment of that ethos as its presidential candidate.

Despite loving the Holmes stories from a young age, and being a fan of the TV adaptations starring Jeremy Brett and (to a lesser extent) Benedict Cumberbatch, I've actually never seen any of the Rathbone films. I should try to catch a few of those one of these days.

[1] Based on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual", which I think is a much better title than that of the film version.

(Via The Ploughshares Blog.)

August 14, 2016 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

"He is a black soul."

"Two things are absolutely necessary in any leader or any person that aspires, wishes to be a leader. That is moral compass and, second, is empathy. This candidate is void of both traits that are necessary for the stewardship of this country. He is a black soul. And this is totally unfit for the leadership of this beautiful country." - Khizr Khan

Expect this to be the first of many political posts here between now and November. Given the deplorable candidate the Republicans have chosen, this will probably be the most important election of my lifetime.

August 1, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere." - Elie Wiesel

July 3, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification." - Geoffrey Hill

Speaking of, have you ever read the transcript of a Trump speech? It reads like the diction of a moderately-literate fourth grader. Talk about simplification.

July 2, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

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"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." - Thomas Jefferson

June 24, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"I honestly think that if you put Trump in a novel before last year, it wouldn’t work. It would seem too far-fetched. You would be accused of writing farce; you would be accused of being condescending about the American people. You’d also be criticised as a novelist for not coming up with a more beguiling demagogue. This guy is crude, he’s a buffoon, he can’t string a grammatical sentence together, he’s unappealing. I can just hear the editorial lunch now: 'You’ve got to do something about this guy, there has to be something appealing about him otherwise he wouldn’t have this constituency.'" - Lionel Shriver

May 11, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...in the bloodpot of human hearts..."

Like father, like son.
I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project...
- Woody Guthrie

January 25, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 18, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world." - Barack Obama

January 13, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"In our society there are two paths to success: One is to be good at computers and the other is to be a sociopath." - Jaron Lanier

December 27, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"When Barack Obama does hipster things in public, it's amazing to see how a politician at his level of importance manages to "get the joke" so profoundly. When Hillary Clinton does hipster things in public, it's like watching that suburban mom who's embarrassing the hell out of her teenage daughters." - Jason Pettus

December 25, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here for some time and may have entered illegally." - Ronald Reagan

September 5, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The powerful man who matches insolence with glibness is worse than a fool. He is a public danger."

What bothers me about Scalia is less his strongly held views than his blindness to his own inconsistencies. He has no problem with overruling Congress’s Voting Rights Act or its limits on campaign contributions (in Citizens United). This Supreme Court has been more activist than any we have seen in decades, but Scalia regards it as a usurping power only when the vote doesn’t go his way.
Robin Bates on Antonin Scalia and his alter ego, Pentheus from The Bacchae.

June 30, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)