Monday 1/30/17

  1. New Era
  2. Alternative Facts & Epistemological Naïveté
  3. Trending Google Search
  4. Unsustainable
  5. Dear Left
  6. City Planning that works as intended
  7. Losing that Loving Feeling
  8. John Hurt

I apologize, right out of the gate, at fully five items that are quite political. Skip to number 6 if you’ve already shut down emotionally from all the shrillness.


Written in May of 2016:

On left and right, it feels as though a new era is beginning.

And a new era is beginning, but not in the way most people think. Though this election feels like the beginning of a partisan realignment, it’s actually the end of one. The partisan coalitions that defined the Democratic and Republican parties for decades in the middle of the twentieth century broke apart long ago; over the past half century, their component voting blocs — ideological, demographic, economic, geographic, cultural — have reshuffled. The reassembling of new Democratic and Republican coalitions is nearly finished.

What we’re seeing this year is the beginning of a policy realignment, when those new partisan coalitions decide which ideas and beliefs they stand for — when, in essence, the party platforms catch up to the shift in party voters that has already happened … The future is being built before our eyes, with far-reaching consequences for every facet of American politics.

(Michael Lind at Politico) If Lind is right about what the policy realignment will look like, I’ll probably remain estranged from both major parties.


Something didn’t quite sit right when Kellyanne Conway referred to “alternative facts” — or when the press set upon her like picadors in response.

Part of what was wrong was that Conway was setting herself up on a topic (the size of inauguration crowds) that no fully sane President would have fretted about enough to compromise a valuable adviser over it. But the other part was that the press was not only cruelly self-congratulatory, but seemed to me to be missing something.

Thanks to Stephen Turley, then, for venturing a theoretical defense of “alternative facts” in this teachable moment:

Now, regardless of the merits or demerits of Mrs. Conway’s case, the mocking and jeering among the so-called mainstream media reveals a rather stunning epistemological naïveté. Scholars such as Mary Poovey have analyzed the social and historical processes behind the cultural construction of what she calls the “modern fact.” The modern fact is a relatively new invention, concocted with an eye toward overcoming the fallibility of subjective conjecture, preconception, and bias. This social construction of knowledge was inextricably linked to the emergence of a new conception of republican citizenship … Facts were perceived as providing the populace with a sense of evaluative contribution to and control over the public square. Even today, numerical indicators contribute to our understanding of everything from tax burdens to stock options, disease to demographics, poverty rates to penitentiary populations.

Unlike the mystical governance that marked premodern societies, facts are believed to reveal a reality considered completely uncontaminated by traditions, biases, and prejudices ….

However, Poovey’s research recognizes that what we call facts is hardly objective, but is rather loaded with theoretical assumptions about the nature of reality, the preconditions for knowledge, and how classifications and quantifications relate to that knowledge …

And so, as the so-called mainstream media tries to salvage what’s left of its damaged credibility, we will no doubt continue to hear about the social epidemic of “fake news” outlets and the supposed absurdity of “alternative facts,” as such foils aim to bolster the utility of modern journalism. But the Chicken Little cackles of press parodies and news counterfeits supposedly so pervasive among the alternative media will matter little; what’s done is done. The 2016 election exposed effectually the news media as a site of political contestation, with a mocking media merely underscoring the partisan antipathy. There’s no going back.

There’s much more there, as well.

I’d certainly like more certainty than this about “the facts,” as I have a fondness for “everyone’s entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Is that naïve?

I do not consider Turley’s piece anything like the last word on the topic, for certainly there remains a class of simple lies, not remotely alternative facts. The only “alternative facts” I can imagine to justify Conway’s cool denial is additive — live crowds + TV crowds + internet streaming + god knows what else — to establish that more faithful worshipped our new deity than worshipped the former deity’s enthronement.

But I feel an undeniably delicious schadenfreude seeing academic boilerplate like “social and historical processes behind the cultural construction [of facts]” turned against the partisan antipathy of a press that increasingly is constituted of college journalism majors with inflated egos, in contrast to the cynical lushes that formerly filled newsrooms and strove for objectivity from a vantage point a bit closer to their readers, which equates to a bit closer to many in flyover country today.


Fake Alternative fact of the day: After nine days of the Trump Presidency, the top Google search is “What’s the difference between mental illness and personality disorder?

One answer:

Personality disorders are described in the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10) as ‘deeply ingrained and enduring behaviour patterns, manifesting themselves as inflexible responses to a broad range of personal and social situations’; they represent ‘either extreme or significant deviations from the way the average individual in a given culture perceives, thinks, feels, and particularly relates to others’ and are ‘developmental conditions, which appear in childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood’ (World Health Organization, 1992a). They are distinguished from mental illness by their enduring, potentially lifelong nature and by the assumption that they represent extremes of normal variation rather than a morbid process of some kind.

Garrison Keillor like many others feels obliged to write about The Donald. Much of it is ho-hum, but this one sentence, out of a forest of near-misses, strikes me as just right:

Everyone knows that the man is a fabulator, oblivious, trapped in his own terrible needs. Republican, Democrat, libertarian, socialist, white supremacist, or sebaceous cyst — everyone knows it.

“His own terrible needs.” I called it extreme narcissism from the early days of his campaign, as soon as I got his measure (because, frankly, I had never paid much attention to him when he was a robber barron and reality TV star). I thought I saw sociopathy, too, but maybe that’s just the lashing out at people who don’t acknowledge his wonderfulness — i.e., another manifestation of narcissism.

I deny that the GOP is unequivocally responsible for Trump — he rather hijacked the traditional Republican Party on his way to helping refashion it — but he ran on their ticket, and they have the numbers to prevent the Democrats from doing anything unaided.


There’s no way Trump is going to be able to keep up this pace of disruption, nor will the country. His audacity is admirable at times, but his utter absence of prudence is going to cause a catastrophe for his administration, and perhaps the entire country. And if it doesn’t, we are going to be exhausted and at each other’s throats soon. Is this what we want?

(Rod Dreher)


Let me contribute my 2¢ to delaying the the arrivals of exhaustion and the circular firing squad.

Dear Left:

Believe it or not, there are millions — probably tens of millions — of conservatives who share your concerns about the policies and, above all, the temperament of Donald Trump. Though not a Republican, I’m one of them. Some of them even voted for Trump as the lesser evil, not as a good.

Anyway, I’m walking the fine line between daily apoplexy (which I’ve successfully resisted) and a “not my problem; I didn’t vote for him” indifference that might let a true fascist emerge unchallenged. I don’t want to dandle a great-grandchild some day and hear the question “Opa, what did you do to resist the coup by Supreme Commander and  Savior Trump?”

Elections have consequences. Donald Trump will successfully implement some policies you don’t like and that I may not like, either.

But please, please, please try to distinguish between policies you don’t like and policies that are fascist precursors. We cannot sustain four years of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” from you, and we’re likely shut down emotionally and be of no help when there really is a wolf if you keep that up.

Thank you.


Luxury housing is not built for anybody. It’s built because the cities and towns in the Boston area have a planning [sic] that is doing what it was intended for: maximize the home values of existing homeowners and so the only housing that can be built must be expensive, simply to keep the developers in business. To add insult to injury, community development corporations and other affordable housing developers are just as affected by high costs and regulations as the market-rate builders, but have no money.

(Matthew M. Robare at Urban Liberty on why new housing in Boston is priced beyond reach of most people)


And now for something completely different: What does it mean for a reconstructed breast to “feel normal”?

The main problem is using the word “feel,” said Dr. Clara Lee, an associate professor of plastic surgery at Ohio State University who does reconstructive breast surgery. Surgeons who use a woman’s own tissue to recreate a breast might tell the patient that it will “feel” like a natural breast, referring to how it feels to someone else, not the woman.

“We don’t always mean what’s important to the patient,” Dr. Lee said.

“Our focus has been on what women look like,” said Dr. Andrea L. Pusic, a plastic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who specializes in breast reconstruction and studies patients’ quality of life after breast surgery. “What it feels like to the woman has been a kind of blind spot in breast surgery. That’s the next frontier.”

Eve Wallinga, 60, a cancer survivor from St. Cloud, Minn., said many women who choose risk-reducing mastectomies believe that reconstructive surgery will make them “whole” again and are not told that the sensation lost during the surgery is unlikely to come back.

“They go into it thinking everything will be the same when they come out — they’ll just have cancer-proof stuffing in their breasts,” Ms. Wallinga said. “Some are very angry and upset, and say, ‘Why wasn’t I told?’ They feel very betrayed.”

I suspect that this story will live on in Women’s Studies departments for generations — and that’s the very nicest thing I’m ever likely to say about Women’s Studies.


His countenance is fishy and bizarre. He has dark, verminous little eyes, a smirky little mouth full of nicotine-varnished teeth, and that British complexion that evokes a poached worm. Even in his early films, he has eye bags and looks like he put on a face that was at the very bottom of his laundry basket. His body, when it isn’t a little overindulged around the abdomen, is scrawny. He has never, in any role, looked particularly masculine. The characters he plays are generally weak, immoral, murderous, slimy or insane. Yet to gaze upon John Hurt, in almost any role, is to feel a drooly adoration; he is irresistible.

(Cintra Wilson, 2004)

Not a big moviegoer, I nevertheless got wrapped up in I, Claudius on PBS, where Hurt was the consummately creepy Caligula. Because I saw him in few other roles, that’s how I’ll always remember Hurt, and I have never fully trusted Edward Snowden because of the “separated at birth?” resemblance.

Hurt has died at 77. R.I.P.

The New York Times obituary calls him “a British character actor who vanished inside dozens of roles,” and the photos in the obituary show a chameleon even in his private life. Check the photo “Mr. Hurt after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle in London in 2015.” I think I’d like to retire to the pub, buy that “old drunk” a Coke, and listen to him spin some yarns.

Mark your calendar now; I’m not sure I’ve recommended anything in Slate before: I found Cintra Wilson’s profile there (linked from the Times obituary) rewarding as well. And the very fact that I, who have no distinct memory of Hurt other than as Caligula, should burn 15 minutes typing this may prove that he truly was irresistible.

* * * * *

NEW: “The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.