Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Has Jerry Coyne Gone Nuts?

In my posts earlier this year I addressed Jerry Coyne's attack against the most basic foundations of democracy and liberalism,  not that one is supposed to notice those are casualties of following his 18th century materialism to its necessary conclusions.

Since there are so many more important things than you can get to in one lifetime,  I don't follow Coyne's blog very closely.   I'd long ago figured he was often marginally rational when not firmly fixed on his narrow topic of professional discipline or under the eye of an editor, I didn't look to him as a source of science news or rational thinking.

I'd missed Coyne's attacks on James A. Shapiro earlier this year until I happened on it when recently dipping into the crazy soup that his blog is.   You can judge for yourself it's accuracy but you should read what Shapiro actually said and his response to Coyne's out of control attacks.   As with so much of what Coyne writes when he's free to say just what he thinks,  Shapiro gives him about as much of a benefit of the doubt as is possible when he says:

Jerry, I think you need to do better next time. Please address my real arguments, not your own mischaracterizations.

But the problem with blogging, as can be seen in Coyne's comment threads, is that a blogger like Coyne doesn't appeal to a wider group that will provide an honest review and come up with something less biased, he appeals to his fellow ideologues, many of whom haven't got the slightest idea what the issues are.  His blog, as so many "science blogs" use the social status of science to present ideological propaganda and attacks as a more reliable truth.    Some others are as ideological but I'm not aware of any other widely read science blogger who more consistently misrepresents his adversaries in a way that makes me wonder at the emotional stability of the blogger.

I think it's time to ask if Jerry Coyne isn't just plain nuts.  As his blog goes on,  he reminds me ever more of Glenn Beck.

UPDATE:   I withdraw the question,  having looked around his blog the last couple of days, he's totally nuts. His fans don't care that he's raving.   I'm aware that the standards of atheist thinking are as unconcerned with accuracy, rational coherence and fidelity to real life as that of your typical tea party oriented site.   It is morbidly fascinating to me how many figures in science, popularly regarded as the high church of reason and sanity,  are so obviously cracked.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg: The Book of the Hanging Gardens

Text:Stefan George

Elizabeth Smith, soprano
Joseph Yungen, piano

One of the great advantages of the internet is that it is possible to listen to recordings of performances that won't be available commercially.   The kind of purpose public radio used to serve but which it has abandoned.   The sound isn't up to studio standards but it is still a valuable thing  to hear artists at work.  It's better than radio sound often is, as well.

Denying We Have Placed Ourselves On The Edge of Extinction: The Book of the Hanging Gardens

Alfred Brendel,  that great pianist,  once said that the reason Arnold Schoenberg's music was disliked wasn't that it was cold "musical mathematics", the most unoriginal of frequently parroted attempts at musical put downs*.   Brendel said that Schoenberg's music was hated because it was some of the most intensely emotional music ever written.   I  recall he mentioned the mono-drama Erwartung  and the early Three Pieces op.11 as examples. (I'd suggest YouTube if you aren't familiar with and want to try them)  Anyone who is really familiar with those pieces of  extremely condensed emotion expressed in  ultra-saturated, chromatic melody and harmony would find his description of Schoenberg's music confirmed.   It is some of the most emotionally intense music ever composed. 

I've loved Schoenberg's music since the first time I heard the quintet arrangement of the First Chamber Symphony as a teenager.  It grabbed me in the third measure and it has never let me go.   The orchestral versions of it are even more intense.   

The Book of the Hanging Gardens is a song cycle from around the same time. [ See post above ]  I've been listening to it for decades and have played piano for some of the songs.   I love the music very much for the same reasons I do every one of Schoenberg's published pieces.  It is extremely beautiful, the production of a musical genius of the same order as Beethoven or Debussy.   Milton Babbitt once said that fifty years after its composition,  music was till trying to come up to it.   The ensuing decades haven't done anything to resolve that situation.   But it is  not an easy work to love, being extremely disturbing.  Disturbing in a way that so far surpasses a superficially unsettling, lesser experience that it's really inadequate to describe what I mean.  It isn't merely in the sound or the words or the interplay of those, it is in the entire context of the work, its two creators and the context of all of them in the very real world of their creation.  The rest of this post is an attempt to merely begin at a description of what I mean when I say that.  Trying, as well,  to give some, small description of  the scope of Arnold Schoenberg's intellectual and artistic capacity, his position in intellectual and musical history and what the failure to listen to him tells us about us.   There is no recent creative genius I'm aware of who was so engaged in external world and who consciously and,  I would guess, unconsciously expressed that world in their art.   

The poetry that Schoenberg set is by the very deeply ambiguous and often repulsive Stefan George*.  There is no other possible description but that it is decadent.   It always seems to be pulled between sublimity and an abyss of destructive self-indulgence.  Schoenberg's music more surely is on the side of the sublime, though it openly chooses to involve itself in the amoral pit that the text plays on.   

George was enough of a fascist that when the Nazis took over Goebbels offered him the leadership of the Academy of Arts.    George refused.   Some think his refusal was not based in moral clarity but in his being enough of an effete aristocrat that he disdained the vulgarity of the Nazis.    He left Germany for Switzerland, not being able to tolerate the Nazis but not openly resisting them, dying within the year.      He had associates and followers who were Jewish (though George was somewhat antisemetic),  Nazis, anti-Nazi fascist (some of them were involved in a plot to kill Hitler).... He was also someone who was semi-openly gay even as the Nazis were beginning their oppression of gay people.   He was nostalgic for the declining Germanic military aristocracy.  I recall reading that he was attended by a Junker at his deathbed but am not sure if that's a myth or the truth.

Schoenberg's choice of poetry in many of his vocal works is extremely troubling or at least strange.   His colleague and associate Eduard Stuermann talked about how the extreme decadence of the poetry of Pierrot Lunaire seemed to inspire him, even as Schoenberg expressed skepticism about using it ("We'll have nothing to do with that!").  In that case the choice of poetry was the choice of Albertine Zehme, who commissioned the piece so she could perform it but, despite his misgivings, Stuermann said that something in the decadent poetry inspired Schoenberg.  He also pointed to his settings of George as another example.   As anyone can hear,  Schoenberg transformed such bizarre material into something that is emblematic of the intellectual climate and the disordered times.   The premier of Pierrot was 1912, two years before the First World War demolished the world Schoenberg grew up in.   He seems to have read the signs of the time and saw where they led. 

I've repeatedly wondered why he would choose to set someone he must have known was as morally tainted as George.   The best I've come up with is that he was expressing the intensely troubled moral ambiguity of the period he was living in.   The absolute morality of  traditional religion was considered passe in his circles and with it an absolute sense of morality.   Much of philosophical writing during his life was the full and far from pure flowering of a brutal materialism that outright rejected morality in favor of a bloody interpretation of natural selection with individual, social and national expressions of its assumptions.  

And that was only one of the many streams of thought current in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century.   Many of those were anything from morally ambiguous to amoral to reveling in the depravity in the wake of an asserted death of morality.   As well there were the intersecting ambiguities of vision promoted by the pseudo-science of psychology as well as the alien, though far less ambiguous, findings of physics.**

Schoenberg lived in that milieu and he was certainly well aware of it.   He was a thoroughly modern man of his times, extremely well cultured and yet not of the same world.  And in Vienna from the late 19th century, through the first decades of the 20th century, the degenerating Austrian empire with its over-ripe to rotting brilliance, the First World War, the aftermath with the staggering inflation and material deprevation, the turn into fascism with the failure of impractical attempts at democracy and the League of Nations, and into the Nazi period and the Second world war,  exile in the United States,  the after war years and into the very beginning of the casual decadence of Southern California in the 1950s,  Schoenberg's witness was almost incomprehensibly broad.   Over all of that was the steady rise of scientific racism, antisemitism, racing to the horrible epoch of the Holocaust, something which endangered and impinged on him, interacting with choices he had made earlier in his life.  Beginning as a somewhat secular Jew, Schoenberg converted to Catholicism in time to have history make that choice extremely troubling in far more than just its implications.    He reconverted to Judaism in response to the Holocaust and wrote several of his greatest works as a direct result of facing the meaning of the history of the 1920s through the Second World War and its aftermath.   For a composer who was dealing so intensely with life in the last years of the 19th century (Transfigured Night),  experiencing the subsequent decades with a high degree of knowledge, intellectual and moral discernment, it is not any surprise that the musical language he expressed his experience in would become far more emotional as time went on.   By the time he reaches clarity in his reconversion compositions,  Schoenberg did more to express the first half of the 20th century than any artist in any medium.  His music expresses more about the subsequent years, under serious consideration, than anyone else I'm familiar with.   By comparison, few others can come away without seeming, in some way, less serious or even trivial.  When he arrives at  his final compositions there is a sense that he had made his final choice, he had committed to a moral vision if not a path in response to  as clear a view of the alternative as aware humanity has ever had.   The issues of moral choice that he faced, squarely, in his music, if not in life,  are unfashionable, rejected as old fashioned and unscientific.   That refusal to choose is a continuation of the same moral failure that led to the disasters of the 20th century.

To ignore Schoenberg's interpretation of his time,  the view of an extremely cultured artist, dealing directly with the horrors and moral issues that are made more exigent from our refusal to learn from our recent past is an indictment of our current intellectual life.   Refusing to hear an artist dealing directly with the dangers of leaning over and looking into the most profound abyss our species has created for our world in a way that is brave, unsparing and absolutely human, is an act of intellectual and moral cowardice.   The failure of the alleged intellectual class to engage with it is a symptom of the failure of our intellectual elite.   An intellectual class that remains indifferent to Arnold Schoenberg betrays its shallowness as certainly as any class that rejects the scientific or mathematical accomplishments of his time.   Imagine if the intelligentsia of the 19th century had rejected Beethoven and you can see what it means.  Considering Schoenberg's macrocosmic address of real life as it deals with issues of life and death,  morality and depravity,  that indifference is a manifestation of complete cowardice and self indulgence.  It is a choice for what lies in the dead abyss,  beyond the the garden terrace.  

* I'm aware of a form of that charge going back to at least the late 18th century.

** I am writing another post about the intersection between these and moral reform with the far from untroubled results.

Monday, June 18, 2012

EschaDone: On The Natural Mortality of Human Institutions

I used to be a regular commentator at Eschaton Blog,  having gone through two pseudonyms there, EPT and, then,  olvlzl,   before posting under my name.   I never hid that all were one and the same .   I got to Eschaton  not long after it started from the legendary Media Whores Online .  MWO  is still my idea of what a lefty political blog should be,  Atrios, the owner of Eschaton,  was also a regular at MWO and was rumored to have been something of a protegee of the mysterious owner, "The Horse".

Atrios often wrote quite cogently on economic topics - his professional training is in economics -  and infrastructure as well as politics.   I certainly didn't agree with everything he said,  Atrios' orientation is more what I've come to think of as liberalish-libertarian than genuinely liberal or leftist but I think his heart is mostly in the right place.  The comment threads have always been notorious as an off-topic free for all.   Which is often too bad as Atrios is competent  in his area of expertise and those posts are worth reading   Sadly, he seldom writes them anymore.

The place being the chaotic bar room it was in those years was far from all bad.  I learned a lot from the links, the citations, the discussions and the fights.   It was extremely stimulating and productive as well as entertaining.   I remember talking with another former regular about how we'd used the discussion at Eschaton to test arguments.

Anyway, from the golden age of Eschaton when clunky Haloscan treads used to regularly go into the high hundreds of comments, often going over a thousand,  things have gradually dwindled down to a small, hard core of regulars who form a sort of in-crowd.    Most of the former regulars have left over the years, some of them once mainstays of the commenting community.   Many of the drop outs were people who provided the most interesting content on the blog.   They weren't often replaced by new regulars.   I saw only one name that wasn't familiar to me on my last fortnight of giving it another try.  Some of those who remain are rather nice people who have something interesting to say.   But, increasingly, the comments are dominated by a core intent on imposing their eternal high school level clique domination  and speech code on it and people who seem to be willing to tolerate that.    Last week there was one relatively recent addition who was rather brutally attacked by the dominant clique on a minor lapse of their imposed decorum.   I haven't seen him there in the several lurkings  that I've done as research for this post the last few days.   No idea if he's gone for good but it was ugly.

You might guess from two of my recent posts, I've clashed with the dominant clique.  More and more, in the past years to the point where I'd several times taken a voluntary leave of it, once for most of a year.    On the Eschaton comment threads it is practically de rigueur to be anti-religious, especially anti-Catholic,  irrationally absolutist in a number of issues  and to maintain the attitude of a, frankly, assholish 12-year-old boy about most areas capable of being considered "transgressive".   You are not to critisize icons of pop culture,  especially those considered very naughty.    At the same time there is a very distinct form of class snobbery that is part of the mix.  Ivy League schools and many other, hardly progressive,  entities are also not to be dissed.  Anything that carries the name of "science", even the most obviously bogus and anti-liberal ideas of ideology posing as science,  is held as far more sacrosanct than most practicing Catholics I know require their religion to be held in.   What was interesting about my stepping over a line last week that has gotten me banned for the second time this year - I'd earlier the same day said that I was going to drop out again - was, apparently, my transgressing against the mandatory respect for the Rolling Stones and Penn Jillette's  boring  one-dirty-joke movie, The Aristocrats.   I admit that I tried to kick up something like the old excitement in those and it's just not there anymore.   It's gone.

I suspect that there is something like a natural life span for human institutions and ten years for any blog is probably as long as you should expect it to last.   I'd lasted longer at Eschaton than I have at other blogs out of affection for a number of the regulars.   But anyone who will stand up to the kewl kids who sit on the school house steps seems to have already left.   This last time wasn't  interesting or entertaining,  despite a few occasions to have some minor fun.   It's over.  It's done.  There's not even any reason to lurk.  It's gone from being a rowdy adult forum for free thought to exactly that,  the clique domination of high school.  Maybe that's what happens when a popular blog gets old.    Can it be avoided?   I don't know, apparently Atrios is OK with things as they've developed and it's his blog.  There are lots of others out there.

Perhaps The Horse was wise to go out on top.   One thing I learned at Eschaton a  long time ago was the phrase "jumped the shark".   

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Atheist Organizations and Tax Deductions

Don't know why it didn't occur to me before this morning while  reading about the gazillionth atheist whine about donations to religious organizations being tax deductible but I know for a fact that donations to the anti-religious:

American Humanists Association
Ayn Rand Institute
Center for Inquiry
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (I ususally write "Skeptical" in quotes in this case)
James Randi Educational Foundation (same for "Educational")
Council for Secular Humanism 
Freedom From Religion Foundation
International Institute for Humanistic Studies

.... are tax deductible.    

How many of them are directly involved in care of the sick, feeding the poor, clothing the naked or other legitimate reasons for tax deductible status? 

You care to add to the list of atheist and anti-religious organizations that have "tax-deductible" status?