Mike Kueber's Blog

June 30, 2012

Philosophy in America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 1:12 pm
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Early in my adult life, I adopted the adage that the unexamined life was not worth living.  I probably first picked up the phrase at the University of North Dakota, where one of my freshman classes was Introduction to Philosophy, with a sub-set of the classes reserved for the study of logic. 

While I worked at my career in the insurance industry, my love of philosophy went into quasi-hiatus.  Although I never stopped examining life, it became more of an incidental pasttime instead of a focused examination.  Since leaving the insurance industry, however, I have resumed thinking about philosophy and enjoying it more. 

A few years ago, when my third son told me that he was taking an Introduction to Philosophy course at UTSA, I was pleased.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than knowing my child enjoys thinking about life and doing the right thing. 

Then a few weeks ago, my youngest son, who is getting ready to matriculate at Franciscan University (“Academically excellent, passionately Catholic”), told me that he was thinking of majority in philosophy.  BINGO.  (We can worry about a job later.)

The New York Times Sunday Book Review this weekend included a review of a book that provides further encouraging news about philosophy in America.  According to the reviewed book – America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano – “America is the best place to do philosophy that there has ever been, surpassing even the Athens of those ingenious and polite men Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In one fit of enthusiastic chauvinism he goes yet further, and announces that it is the ‘perfectly designed environment’ to ply his trade, as if no greater intellectual paradise could be imagined.”

The book’s critic, Anthony Gottlieb, notes that Romano is able to make his argument only by first re-defining philosophy to make it more practical.  This variation of philosophy was first articulated by a contemporary of Socrates:

  • Isocrates (‘A Man, Not a Typo,’ as Romano headlines him) wrote that ‘it is far superior to have decent judgments about useful matters than to have precise knowledge about useless things.’ For him, philosophy was the imprecise art of public deliberation about important matters, not a logic-­chopping attempt to excavate objective truths. Isocrates, Romano says, ‘incarnates the contradictions, pragmatism, ambition, bent for problem solving and getting things done that mark Americans,’ and his conception of philosophy ‘jibes with American pragmatism and philosophical practice far more than Socrates’ view.’”

That makes perfect sense to me.  I never understood the philosophical question, “Do I Exist,” or the witty rejoinder, “Who wants to know.” 

Keep it real.

Saturday Night at the Movies #36 – Revanche

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 1:02 pm

Revanche is a 2009 Austrian movie that was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film.  It is one of the best movies I have viewed in a long time.  If you liked Fargo (and not for its ugly caricature of Scandinavian-Americans), you will love Revanche.  Its settings are intriguing yet plain (a legal brothel in Vienna and a small town and farm on the outskirts of Vienna), its characters are fascinating yet believable (an ex-con and his prostitute-cum-girlfriend, and a small-town policeman and his grocer-wife), and its story is convoluted, yet understandable (the two couples from different worlds are fated to have a profound effect on each other.) 

Incidentally, revanche is German for revenge.

The Rotten Tomato critics loved Revanche (96%); its audience not so much (79%).  I give it four stars out of four.

The Supreme Court kills the Stolen Valor Act

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 4:19 am
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Although the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare has dominated the news this past week, the Court also handed down another interesting (and disappointing) decision on the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime for individuals to lie about their military-medal achievements.  Unlike its ruling that approved ObamaCare, the Court’s opinion on the Stolen Valor Act held that the Act violated free speech and thus was unconstitutional.  Thus, individuals in America have the right to falsely claim that they have earned a Congressional Medal of Honor.  You can’t know how much I appreciate having that right. 

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the Act “would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable.”  And what would be wrong with that? 

Under current law, content-based restrictions on free speech have been permitted only for a few historic categories of speech, including incitement, obscenity, defamation, speech integral to criminal conduct, so-called “fighting words,” child pornography, fraud, true threats, and speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the Government has the power to prevent.  Justice Kennedy concluded that the harm from medal-related lies was not sufficiently significant to be included in this list.  Based on the Court’s apparent intention with its ObamaCare decision to find a way to uphold a federal law, it seems the same intention did not apply to the Stolen Valor Act. 

Personally, I disagree with the decision because I think the harm caused by medal boasters is significant.  Not only does it mislead the listener, but it also diminishes the honor of those who earned their medals.



June 29, 2012

Krauthammer on the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare ruling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 11:15 am
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When I ran for Congress two years ago, the #1 plank in my platform was titled “Constitutional, right-sized government.”  The plank read as follows:

  • “Government should be big enough to maintain our national security and keep our businesses honest, but not big enough to create a welfare state.  Unlike my Republican primary opponents, I don’t argue that the current expansion of the federal government is unconstitutional.  I don’t want the Supreme Court to make that important decision, just like I don’t want the Supreme Court to decide abortion issues.  Those decisions are for us voters to make.  If we think the federal government is getting too expansive, then we should vote out our federal politicians.

As I read Charles Krauthammer’s column today on the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision (titled “Why Roberts Did It”), I was struck by how similar his reasoning was.  According to Krauthammer, Chief Justice Roberts was concerned about the Court’s diminished credibility based on its perceived arrogation of power, first with the liberals and Roe v. Wade and later with the conservatives and Bush v. Gore

Krauthammer concludes his column with the following sage advice (from himself and Roberts):

  • That’s not how I would have ruled. I think the “mandate is merely a tax” argument is a dodge, and a flimsy one at that. (The “tax” is obviously punitive, regulatory and intended to compel.) Perhaps that’s not how Roberts would have ruled had he been just an associate justice and not the chief. But that’s how he did rule.  Obamacare is now essentially upheld. There’s only one way it can be overturned. The same way it was passed — elect a new president and a new Congress. That’s undoubtedly what Roberts is telling the nation: Your job, not mine. I won’t make it easy for you.

Because I am an admirer of both Krauthammer and Justice Roberts, I am pleased to find myself in such good company.

June 28, 2012

ObamaCare, politics, and nihilism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 8:01 pm
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Days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on ObamaCare, the Washington Post’s Charles Lane wrote one of the best columns I have read on the Court’s soon-to-be momentous decision.  He began the column as follows:

  • We have two days until the Supreme Court rules on health care — two days until we find out whether Akhil Amar’s life has been a fraud.  Amar is the Yale constitutional law professor (my former teacher), who recently told The Post’s Ezra Klein that a 5 to 4 ruling striking down Obamacare would destroy his faith in the court.
  • “If they decide this by 5-4,” Amar said, “then yes, it’s disheartening to me, because my life was a fraud. Here I was, in my silly little office, thinking law mattered, and it really didn’t. What mattered was politics, money, party and party loyalty.” 
  • Amar’s cri de coeur was a dramatic but otherwise typical expression of sentiment in legal academia, where it is widely assumed that no serious person could doubt the law’s constitutionality.

This sort of dramatics is getting too common.  Remember Alec Baldwin’s histrionic threat to leave America is Bush-43 were elected? 

Of course, it’s not just liberals that act this way.  I remember receiving a comment from a blog reader accusing far-right conservatives of adopting a philosophy of despair that verges on nihilism.  And I had to admit that I had conservative friends who were almost dysfunctional because of their anguish about America’s future.

To these people on both sides, I suggest that they take a deep breath and keep working for the common good.

Antonin Scalia comes under attack

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 2:07 am

Antonin Scalia has always been my favorite Supreme Court Justice, not simply because he is reliably conservative, but also because he writes and thinks with such gusto.  He is the Justice most often cited by Republican presidential candidates as the kind of person they would appoint to the Court if they become president.  One of their misconceptions about Scalia by these candidates is that Scalia believes in strict construction.  As I previously pointed out in a blog posting, Scalia actually abhors strict construction and believes in something called textualism.   

Scalia came under a coordinated attack today by the Washington Post.  One its leading columnists, E.J. Dionne, Jr. penned a column demanding the Scalia resign because he had the audacity to question, during the announcement of the controversial Arizona immigration decision, President Obama’s executive order that exempted 1.4 million illegal immigrants from America’s immigration law because it was “the right thing to do.” 

Dionne seems to think that judicial decisions are made in an ivory tower and Justices don’t need to concern themselves with practical, ongoing political activities.  Of course, that sort of practicality is only offensive to Dionne when conservative jurists practice it.  He has no problem with a liberal jurist like William Brennan deciding in Plyler v. Doe (1984), based on practical considerations, to require the state of Texas to provide a free primary and secondary education to all illegal immigrants:

  • Sheer incapability or lax enforcement of the laws barring entry into this country, coupled with the failure to establish an effective bar to the employment of undocumented aliens, has resulted in the creation of a substantial ‘shadow population’ of illegal migrants – numbering in the millions – within our borders. This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents.  The existence of such an underclass presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.”

It makes sense for Supreme Court Justices to understand what is going on in the executive and legislative and to consider those activities in rendering decisions.  Dionne’s column is mere partisan carping.

But the Washington Post was done with Scalia yet.  The paper’s entire editorial board penned a column titled, “Justice Scalia’s partisan discredit to the court.”  The Board cited not only Scalia’s comment about President Obama’s executive order, but also his colorful questioning during the ObamaCare oral arguments.  Apparently, the Board thinks that Scalia’s references to the “Cornhusker kickback” and the bill’s 2700 pages are unseemly and inappropriate.  More importantly, they threaten the dignity and legitimacy of the court, according to the Post.

As I noted at the outset, Scalia writes and thinks with gusto.  If that ever becomes disqualifying for a Supreme Court justice, that will mean the inmates are running the asylum.

June 26, 2012

Giving someone the finger

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 7:39 pm
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While lounging in the apartment pool this last weekend, our resident cardiologist, a highly literate fellow, regaled several of us about the origin of “giving someone the finger.”  He was prompted to tell the story because some smart-ass remark by me had caused him to give me the finger and to prevent me from resorting to fisticuffs he smartly decided to shift our exchange into something educational.  I’m always a sucker for education. 

According to Doc, giving someone the finger had something to do with a war between the French and British in the 1400s and the practice of cutting off a captured soldier’s middle finger to prevent him from being able to use a longbow made of yew (“pluck the yew”). 

The story was interesting and Doc is credible, but I decided to verify.  Sure enough, there is a colorful blog posting that repeats the story almost identical to Doc’s rendition, including the reference to yews and the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.  But there are also comments to the story suggesting that it is apocryphal. 

The consensus of internet wisdom is reflected in Wikipedia, which traces the practice of using the middle finger as an insult suggesting sexual dominance back to ancient Greece.  The Wikipedia article also includes the first-known photograph depicting someone giving the finger – a player in the 1886 team photo of the Boston Beaneaters, a professional baseball team. 

The Wiki photo reminds me of a team photo that I took in the early 70s during high school.  But instead of making a statement by surreptitiously giving the finger, which would have surely earned me an expulsion, I made a peace sign with each hand resting on my knee.  When the administration learned of my unacceptable display, they edited my fingers out of the picture.

In hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t get into trouble and should thank my lucky stars.

Arizona v. United States

Filed under: Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:11 am
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Earlier today, the Supreme Court handed down a long-awaited decision regarding Arizona’s immigration law known as S.B. 1070.  In a 5-3 decision (with Roberts and Kennedy voting with three liberals and Sotomayor recusing herself), the court struck down three of the four major provisions in the law, but sustained the most controversial one – 2.b. – which requires police officers to make a “reasonable attempt . . . to determine the immigration status” of any person they stop, detain, or arrest on some other legitimate basis if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States.”

The three provisions that were struck down are the following:

1.         Section 3 makes failure to comply with federal alien-registration requirements a state misdemeanor.

2.         Section 5(C) makes it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to seek or engage in work in the State.

3.         Section 6 authorizes state and local officers to arrest without a warrant a person “the officer has probable cause to believe . . . has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States.

In sustaining Section 2.b., the Supreme Court Three noted that there are three significant limitations built into the law:

  1. First, a detainee is presumed not to be an alien unlawfully present in the United States if he or she provides a valid Arizona driver’s license or similar identification.
  2. Second, officers “may not consider race, color or national origin . . . except to the extent permitted by the United States [and] Arizona Constitution[s].”
  3. Third, the provisions must be “implemented in a manner consistent with federal law regulating immigration, protecting the civil rights of all persons and respecting the privileges and immunities of United States citizens

The second limitation above has always been the most problematic, and I have yet to see any credible discussion on how to separate “reasonable suspicion” from racial profiling.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decision failed to address this concern, so we will have to continue struggling with it.  Like the producer in The Newsroom last night who, when asked to describe a worker who had helped him, felt it would be inappropriate to describe him as “Indian” even though that would have been quickly effective.  Or like me today, when the black physical-therapy receptionist asked me to identify the therapist who previously handled my knee therapy.  I felt uncomfortable describing him as a black guy, and after some hesitation, I said he looked just like Cuba Gooding.

Although political correctness is becoming a cliche, I don’t know how else to characterize our floundering with this issue.

June 25, 2012

Is America the greatest country in the world?

Filed under: Culture,Education,History,Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:11 pm
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HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, premiered last night.  In its opening scene at a college lecture, a jaded, politically-correct anchorman (the show’s hero, Jeff Daniels) and two caricatured talking heads (one liberal and one conservative), are asked by a ditzy co-ed to describe “in one sentence or less” why America is the greatest country in the world.  The liberal answers, “diversity and opportunity,” and the conservative responds with “freedom and freedom.”  When the moderator refuses to accept the anchorman’s cynically trite responses, the anchorman eventually explodes with a long speech that first provides statistics that strongly suggest America is not the greatest country in the world and that finishes by nostalgically describing how America acted in the past when it was the greatest nation in the world.

Interestingly, the anchorman does not use the same standards for the past-great America (doing the right thing, doing the big things) and the current-mediocre America (low student scoring, income inequality, high infant mortality).  And the show never gets around to elaborating on what should be the criteria in determining the quality of a country.   Thus, if The Newsroom prompts a viewer to think about what the right answer is, that viewer will have to first need to select the appropriate criteria.

To get some other perspective, I surfed the internet and found a variety of opinions.

  • A composite indexNewsweek in a 2010 article proposed the following for identifying the “best” countries in the world – “Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life.”  Based on those metrics, Finland is #1, followed by Switzerland as #2 and Sweden as #3.  America was ranked #11.  A wit commented as follows about the Newsweek rankings – “The world’s “best countries” seem to have this in common: they avoid war, they live in the dark, and they maintain a steady state of depressive and productive activity.
  • Happiness.  The people at World Database of Happiness take into account a number of different things such as average life expectancy and most importantly the answer to the following multiple choice question ‘How happy are you?’”  Based on that criteria, it found Denmark as #1, followed by Switzerland and Austria.  Finland was #5, Sweden was #7, and America was in the rear at #17.  But other worldly powers were even worse – Great Britain – #22; France – #39; China – #44; India – #45; and Japan #46.
  • Another composite index.  The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic used to rank countries by level of “human development,” taken as a synonym of the older terms (the standard of living and/or quality of life).  The HDI is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living of a country.  Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands lead the list, but America is 4th.  The next powerful country on the list is Germany at #9 and Japan at #12.  Milquetoasts Finland is #22, Switzerland is #11, and Sweden is #10.

What do I think makes a country great?  My first reaction is to think that a country is great to the extent that its people are able to flourish.  That pretty much eliminates consideration of America’s unparalleled economic and military power.  (It might be more accurate to revise the question to ask for the best county, not the greatest country.)  Unlike the anchorman on The Newsroom, I don’t think the greatest nation necessarily has the smartest students or longest life expectancy. 

Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart argues the self-reliance and freedom are essential for an individual to flourish and that rings true to me.  That also sounds a lot like a combination of the caricatured liberal (opportunity) and conservative (freedom) in the opening scene of The Newsroom. 

So maybe Jeff Daniels wasn’t the smartest man in the room at that college lecture, but, based on freedom and opportunity, is America the greatest country in the world.  Anchorman Daniels doesn’t think so.  In fact, during his outburst, he specifically stated that America doesn’t have a monopoly on freedom – i.e., more than 180 of the 210 sovereign countries are free.  That sounds like a remarkable broad, almost indefensible statement.  There are certainly variations of freedom.  In fact, there are composite indexes that focus solely on freedom that I will save for another posting.  But the following is an example:

  • None of the well-regarded rankings seem to concur with Clinton and Kern about America’s standing. One widely cited annual study, the Freedom of the World report, encompasses 194 countries and 14 territories, each of which gets a score on a scale from 1 (Free) to 7 (Not Free), based on the prevalence of political rights (e.g. fair elections) and civil liberties (e.g. freedom of association). For 2010, the United States was one of 48 nations to receive a 1 in both the political rights (PR) and civil liberties (CL) categories. But within that elite cohort, it fell behind countries such as Barbados, Portugal, and Uruguay. Failure to root out government corruption, technical glitches in voting machinery, and a reliance on congressional gerrymandering damaged our showing. We also got docked for having a higher incarceration rate than any other democracy—and because our justice system is broadly perceived as racist in practice, since a disproportionate number of black and Latino males fill our jails. Freedom House’s winners? Norway, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Finland, and Sweden.”

I am concerned, however, that in America opportunity is decreasing and economic inequality is increasing and that these trends threaten America to its core.  It is shocking to hear that there is more economic-social mobility for individuals in some European countries like France than in America.  Unfortunately, there are not any known levers for reversing these trends without doing even more damage to freedom in America.

Like Charles Murray, who spoke about these trends in his book, I am cautiously optimistic that Americans will not be satisfied until we have a meritocracy where everyone has the opportunity to flourish. 



Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom vs. James Poniewozik

Filed under: Media — Mike Kueber @ 4:31 am
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Time magazine this week included a review by television critic James Poniewozik of HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom.    The writer/creator of The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin, whose previous work includes A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball.  In my mind, that puts him in a category with Shakespeare, Falkner, and Dickens.

Poniewozik’s review of The Newsroom was mostly negative, but it reminded me of how much I enjoyed Sorkin’s writing and prompted me to arrange my Sunday night around the Sunday premiere at 9 pm.  I was not disappointed.  Sorkin writes for people like me who love articulate, idealistic characters.  But Poniewozik has warned that, of the four episodes that he has watched, the first was the most serviceable and the others get progressively worse.  We’ll see.

As good as Sorkin writes, I was almost as impressed by Poniewozik’s insights in his review:

  • Sorkin’s dialogue, at least, is as nimble as ever. If you want to watch The Aaron Sorkin Eloquently Expresses Things You Already Believe Hour, this is your show
  • [Sorkin’s hero/anchorman] jousts with a string of Tea Party politicians, tabloid journalists, and wicked corporate suits who may as well be allegorical figures named Ignorance, Vanity and Avarice.
  • [The hero/anchorman’s] producer/ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) explains: “Reclaiming the fourth estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid–” She’s not nearly done, but I have only a page here. Yes, articulate characters are Sorkin’s gig.

While searching the Time magazine archives for the on-line edition of the Poniewozik review, I discovered that he had blogged much more extensively about the show a couple of weeks earlier.  In the blog, he provided even more insights:

  • Sunday night, HBO premieres The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to do for cable news what The West Wing did for politics: present a romanticized version of a beleaguered institution, with a cast of hard-working idealists, long impassioned speeches and lots of walking-and-talking. I was not a fan.
  • You may argue that you could make many of the same arguments—about the sanctimony, the deck-stacking, the too-perfect stylized dialogue, &c.—against The West Wing. I agree, and I made them when The West Wing was on. But I also included The West Wing in my list of the 100 All-TIME TV Shows, because it also gave us rich characters, a sense of proportionality and an infectious feeling of romance with the country and the people who want to make it better. The Newsroom, after four exhausting, smug episodes, gives us none of that: just Aaron Sorkin writing one argument after another for himself to win.

Poniewozik completed his blog entry on The Newsroom by listing his most serious reservations about Sorkin’s writing:

The Women Problem. Either Sorkin is no longer able to write credible women characters, or he no longer wants to.

It’s Intellectually Self-Serving. One of the principles that Mac sets for Will’s new newscast is that it will always try to present the best version of a party’s argument, not the most provocative or caricatured one for ratings. The Newsroom does not follow its own advice.

A Résumé Is Not Character Development. Mac, we are told, is a tough, smart journalist who made her bones covering wars, but in practice she’s an emotional ditz. We are told Will is a Republican but he spends much more time making Democrat’s arguments. We are told that Will was a wishy-washy anchor concerned only with ratings, but his conversion to truth-telling crusader is near-instant and almost without conflict. Sorkin behaves as if simply telling us that someone is something is a substitute for actually having them behave as that thing.

Bias Is a Qualification? I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that journalists can admit they have opinions and still be fair, so in a way I’m with Sorkin when he argues for impassioned journalism. But two exchanges in the second episode really bothered me.


“That’s the right answer.” I think there’s a very good argument that journalists can and should have strong opinions about the things they spend all their working time covering—it shows they’re intelligent, engaged and applying analysis. But that’s not the point these scenes are making. They’re saying that a good journalist is one who has the right opinion, and that having the correct opinion—Sorkin’s—is proof they’re ready to do the job.

Zingers Are Not Drama. I’ve written it before about The West Wing, but Sorkin’s TV drama is all about esprits d’escalier: the snappy comeback you wish you had given somebody in a political argument, the debate performance Democrats wished Al Gore had had against George W. Bush. In The Newsroom, it feels like Sorkin spent two years watching cable news and jotting down comebacks, then handed us the notebook. It’s empty-calorie drama, replacing real debate and character work with the quick thrill of canned superiority. (The Newsroom is the kind of hectoring drama that fans say “People need to see,” meaning, of course, other, less enlightened people than themselves.)

Call me mealy-mouthed, but I like both these guys.  Although I accept Poniewozik’s criticisms as valid, I will continue watching Sorkin and reading Poniewozik.

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