Prisons as deterrents

“In punishing wrongdoers, no one concentrates on the fact that a man has done wrong in the past, or punishes him on that account, unless taking blind vengeance like a beast.  No, punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed–after all one cannot undo what is past–but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again.  But to hold such a view amounts to holding that virtue can be instilled by education; at all events the punishment is inflicted as a deterrent.  This then is the view held by all who inflict it whether privately or publicly.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)

This will be on the test

“No one is angered by the thoughts which are believed to be due to nature or chance, nor do people rebuke or teach or punish those who exhibit them, in the hope of curing them; they simply pity them.  Who would be so foolish as to treat in that way the ugly or dwarfish or weak?  Everyone knows that it is nature or chance which gives this kind of characteristics to a man, both the good and the bad.  But it is otherwise with the good qualities which are thought to be acquired through care and practice and instruction.  It is the absence of these, surely, and the presence of the corresponding vices, that call forth indignation and punishment and admonition.  Among these faults are to be put injustice and irreligion and in general everything that is contrary to civic virtue.  In this field indignation and admonition are universal, evidently because of a belief that such virtue can be acquired by taking thought or by instruction.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)

Equality, entropy, and justice

“We mold the best and strongest among ourselves, catching them young like lion cubs, and by spells and incantations we make slaves of them, saying that they must be content with equality and that this is what is right and fair.  But if a man arises endowed with a nature sufficiently strong, he will, I believe, shake off all these controls, burst his fetters, and break loose.  And trampling upon our scraps of paper, our spells and incantations, and all our unnatural conventions, he rises up and reveals himself our master who was once our slave, and there shines forth nature’s true justice.” — Plato, Gorgias (trans. Woodhead)


“Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” is the result of taking a handful of ideas languishing in the workshop, mixing them together to see how they might fit, and making a prose bracelet out of them.  It was published in The Writing Disorder on New Year’s Eve last year.


“The honor of parents is a fair and noble treasure to their posterity, but to have the use of a treasure of wealth and honor, and to leave none to your successors, because you have neither money nor reputation of your own, is alike base and dishonorable.” — Plato, Menexenus (trans. Jowett)

On the road to nowhere

Colorado is one of the places where God kissed Mother Earth.  Susanne and I spent the past few days there, in and around the Conejos River valley.

When we arrived at our lodge, the first thing management wanted us to know was that a bear had been through the compound the night before, thoroughly inspecting the trash cans.  The District Wildlife Manager had been by later that morning and had left a supply of circulars to be circulated, “Be Bear Aware.”  We have bears near where we live, so we already generally were.  One of the things the circular instructed one to do “if bears are present” is to “remove all bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders.”  Lodge management had taken down the hummingbird feeders not long before we arrived.  The hummingbirds were pissed off.  They were diving down on the chains from which the newly-removed feeders had been hanging, and were flying about with the angry buzz they put in their wingbeats when they are upset.  They’re fiercely territorial animals, as anyone who’s ever been buzz-bombed by one can attest.

We didn’t get to see the bear, it didn’t come back around while we were there.  We saw deer, which is not hard to do in Colorado.  They were mule deer, so common they might be considered the four-legged finch of the Rockies.  There were also plenty of GEICO squirrels, playing Truth-or-Dare with passing vehicles.  And free range cattle, there were those, at one point a herd of them being driven down the road by two mounted drovers (“cowboys,” yes) and an Australian sheepdog.

There was a train, the Cumbres & Toltec, which pulls carloads of tourists through the mountains along a narrow-gauge track that a century and more ago was the way to get around up there.  The train is pulled by one of the little engines that could, chugging along, slightly sulfurous black smoke pouring from its funnel.  Susanne and I rode it, taking the parlour car, which is the last car on the train, far removed from the smokestack.  We were served Danishes, fruits, and rum cake, while the car attendant was quick to evict anyone from the car who hadn’t secured parlour-car passage.  No, the attendant did not throw the miscreants under the railcars, simply shooed them back to the cattle-car where they belonged.  Several of the Republican guests in the parlour car complained, having preferred to see the interlopers tossed from the train and made to walk back down the mountain to the station, but the Democrats, who always outnumber the Republicans though at times are slothful and inattentive, would have none of it and proposed that everyone on the train be allowed into the parlour car.  “Let them eat rum cake,” the Democrats said, “a crumb apiece for everyone,” to which the Republicans struck up a chant of, “Nanny-staters!  Nanny-staters!”, until the car attendant got everyone settled down and back in their proper and duly-purchased places.

Susanne and I spent the next day along the banks of the Conejos, sitting under the trees while the waters rushed by.  Downstream a little ways, a fly-fisherman cast and cast again.  Susanne had her pencils and her sketchbook, and she sketched.  I had a copy of the manuscript I’ve been working on, and on it I did work.  Robins and crows and other birds were about.  Mosquitoes sought meals, and many died for their efforts.  Hummingbirds remained angry and went elsewhere.

“Conejos” means “rabbits,” but we didn’t see any of those.

Not only that, they spent all the money, too

“The US government’s disregard for human rights in fighting terrorism in the years following the September 11, 2001 attacks diminished the US’ moral standing, set a negative example for other governments, and undermined US government efforts to reduce anti-American militancy around the world.  In particular, the CIA’s use of torture, enforced disappearance, and secret prisons was illegal, immoral, and counterproductive.  These parctices tainted the US government’s reputation and standing in combating terrorism, negatively affected foreign intelligence cooperation, and sparked anger and resentment among Muslim communities, whose assistance is crucial to uncovering and preventing future global terrorist threat.” — Reed Brody, Getting Away with Torture

Just lay back and enjoy it

“The upper classes of this country raped this country.  You fucked people.  You built a castle to rip people off.  Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.  Nobody ever said, ‘This is wrong.'” — Steve Eisman (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

You can’t get there from here, or from anywhere you’re at

“Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world.  If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”

— Rory Stewart, The Places in Between, pp. 247-248

Keeping things balanced

“Patriotism is a curious passion. It does not seem possible to love one’s own country except by hating some other country.” — Archibald MacMechan (from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 10)

Make it maybe not so new

“Of all the criticisms that have been passed upon the Declaration of Independence, the least to the point is that it is not original. The material was at hand, the argument had been elaborated, the conclusions had been drawn. For originality there was as little opportunity as there was need. What was required now was a concise summing up of the whole matter, full enough to give a clear impression of completeness, vigorous and bold enough to serve as a national manifesto, and polished, dignified, and incisive enough to catch the ear, to linger in the memory, and to bear endless repetition.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 8

Mutatis mutandis

“No history of the American Revolution, or of the political literature to which it gave birth, would be complete without consideration of the loyalists. That independence was in fact the work of a minority, and that the methods by which the loyal majority was overawed and, in part, expelled were as high-handed and cruel as they were active and vigorous, must be freely conceded. Weighty as was the colonial argument, force and violence were freely employed to give effect to it.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Ch. 8

You can depend on it

“If a people is to be judged solely by its crimes and its sins, all the people of this planet are utterly damned.  Such judgments can produce only the deepest kind of anarchy.  The civilized judgment, on which depends all the possibilities of a decent human life, requires that men, while condemning and resisting evil deeds, should be unfaltering in their faith in and their response to the healing impulses of their fellow men.” — Walter Lippmann, 1933

Is this why American schools are a dysfunctional mess?

“In every State it should be a fundamental maxim that the education of youth should be particularly formed and adapted to the nature and end of its government.” — Thomas Sheridan, 1756 (from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XIV, Ch. 14)

Job security

“The history of diplomacy is the history of relations among rival powers, which did not enjoy political intimacy, and did not respond to appeals to common purposes.  Nevertheless, there have been settlements.  Some of them did not last very long.  Some of them did.  For a diplomat to think that rival and unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is all about.  There would be little for diplomats to do if the world consisted of partners, enjoying political intimacy, and responding to common appeals.” — Lippmann, The Cold War

Oh, come on, let them eat cake

“Laissez-faire is dead and the modern state has become responsible for the modern economy as a whole.  The task of insuring the continuity of the standard of life for its people is now as much the fundamental duty of the state as the preservation of national independence.” — Walter Lippmann, Godkin Lectures, 1934.

Bargain prices in the Potemkin village

“In an earlier era men like John Milton and John Stuart Mill had argued that liberty depended on a press free from censorship and intimidation.  They were concerned primarily with freedom of belief and expression.  But in modern democracies the problem was different.  The press could be ‘free’ and still fail to do its job.  Without accurate and unbiased information the public could not form intelligent decisions.  Democracy would be either a failure or a sham.” — Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century