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"Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything." – John Gay, The Beggar's Opera, II xii
My e-mail queue is like a little grocery store parking lot -- filled with card tables holding petitions to sign -- but it's a good grocery (maybe a co-op), because I want to sign. I just have to ensure that sign only once. If I sign the People for the American Way petition on fracking, I can't sign the DailyKos one or the Credo petitions on the same House bill. If I sign the Credo petition for an increase in minimum wage, I can't sign the same petition from one of the others. For Net Neutrality, I signed the Daily Kos petition, and I personalized my message.

You see, I'm in Georgia. Personalizing the petition is mandatory.

John Barrow, who was a reliable Republican vote, was replaced by a three dimensional camo swatch named Rick Allen. My senators are Johnny Isakson and David Perdue (R-Dollar General). The first of these senators has the remarkable achievement of not being noticed within or without the senate by anybody in a score of years, and the second of them is remarkable for saying that as CEO of Dollar General he outsourced "only" a few thousand jobs. As for Rick Allen, he was known for getting rich with government contracts while screaming about how evil gummunt is.

You can imagine that I had low hopes for sending the petitions. I personalized them, therefore, with,

"Sir, equal access on the Internet is vital for free expression for conservatives as well as progressives, for education as well as invention. Whether the website is Red State or Daily Kos, and whether the site manager is publishing poetry or novel ideas on agriculture, the future of innovation and the health of our national discussion and democracy depends upon equal access to Internet visitors. Do not sell the public's resources to corporations and silence the voices of America."
It was a flowery bullet, and I expected it to have about as much force as one. I was surprised, therefore, when I got an envelope in the mail from Rick Allen containing his response. Follow me below for what he said, and for my reply.
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Sun Feb 15, 2015 at 05:42 AM PST

Certainty is the Enemy

by The Geogre

"Skepticism (is) the virtuous mean between two vices: absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance." -- Odo Marquard, "Skeptics: A Speech of Thanks," in In Defense of the Accidental
I think Aristotle's reputation is strong enough even these days that I don't need to defend it. He was a smart guy, and we have to use his terminology to criticize his failings anyway. The problems came when people began to use Aristotle's rationalism as a sort of natural Bible -- a set of principles capable of describing the true regulation of an orderly universe from first causes. "Ipse dixit" became a fallacy because of the strength and the allure of his reasoning, sure, but the real problem there was not Mr. Aristotle. The problem was the natural tendency of porridge to unceasingly migrate into the nearest human cranium, until the headpiece is completely full, or fulsome, if you will, and the noggin is infinitely dense.

Once people get just a little bit of porridge up in their brain pans, they begin to exhibit symptoms of Mythical Childhood. They feel comfortable, certain, and at home in any environment. However, as the porridge begins to agglutinate (or acquiesce, if you will), it slowly occludes the retinas from the inside, muffles the ear drum from above, and causes periodic eructation of the olfactory nerve. Late stage victims of porridge see through their porridge, hear through their porridge, and walk about wearing the expression of one worried by a stink of unknown origin.

Porridge thinking is not liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist. Porridge comes in many flavors, from apple pie to schnapps. Porridge is really just sure, certain, in complete mastery of the unknown, and comfortable with its methods.

It's porridge, for example, that says that medieval man was oafish and superstitious. The porridge says, "Everyone back then took everything on faith and ignored sense data, but then the Great Ensmartening came, when Science was developed by brave martyrs who taught us to rely upon experimentation."

No one should have to refute this gruel. Like all just-so stories, and especially the ones that make "us" the heroes, it's obvious foolishness with a political agenda. After all, the real history of the change toward today's science is a tale of learning to prefer inductive reasoning over deductive reasoning when dealing with unknowns, but the lesson was slow, Europe was a difficult student, and its enemies were those who liked their porridge. The enlightenment was about accepting uncertainty in a way that most of us today cannot.

Below, I'll take a look at Christiaan Huygens and David Hume and show why the enemy of progress is neither knowledge nor ignorance, but certainty. I'll also have a personal application.

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I've never done a "breaking" story, but this one comes almost wholly from Al Jazeera.

The detainees' lawyers said courts have previously concluded that Guantanamo detainees do not have "religious free exercise rights" because they are not “persons within the scope of the RFRA.”
But the detainees’ lawyers say the Hobby Lobby decision changes that.
The news writers at Al Jazeera America stand clear of editorial opinion. We do not. Every dissenting voice to Hobby Lobby said that it would be used and used and used. Justice Ginsberg concluded that it was a decision of sweeping breadth, and so it has seemed to everyone else: corporate persons with only close holding (51% family holding) getting religious exercise, such exercise being defined in novel ways to exempt from practically any properly formed legislation?

Alito assured the world that it simply couldn't lead to unintended consequences, like exempting blood transfusions, but there was nothing in that "couldn't."

Here, we asked "What if a corporation used it for Sharia?" Barring someone attempting to encode outright religious discrimination, this is the world Hobby Lobby created -- a pre-1920 world.

Thanks to johnny wurster in the comments, here is an excellent analysis of the motion, with an explanation of how the new case is a way of getting at the courts' prior definition of "person" to exclude detainees and the effect of Hobby Lobby's glib expansion.

"He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men." -- John Aubrey (for once not being plagiarised by Anthony "a" Wood) on Thomas Hobbes.
Note: I link book titles to copyrighted works in translation and to Project Gutenberg when works are public domain. For copyright restricted works, I link to only independent bookstores (Powell's and Politics & Prose) and, a consortium of used bookstores. I am not aware of any conflicts with Alibris.

I was fourteen years old -- the age when boys turn into frenzied creatures half monster and half angel -- innocent in deed, perhaps, but not in thought -- the age that Vonnegut described as the most dangerous force on earth -- and I was in Boney's Rexall in Claxton, Georgia. It was 1976. Claxton, Georgia, incidentally, is where those rectangular fruitcakes come from, and they are not a joke. In 1978 I would go to Europe as a "high school ambassador," and every Stuckey's I would see would have the Claxton Fruitcake product. Boney's drug store was on the same block as the bakery, and it had cool toys, and it had spinner racks of comic books and spinner racks of paperback books.

There, I saw


Cover of the Bantam edition of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf (1973). Illustrator appears to have been the same for all of Hesse's works for Bantam in the 1970's.
Pretty hot, right?
the Bantam edition of Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse. The cover has a woman with her dress coming off as she demurely turns from the viewer! I turned the paper sideways to see if I could get a better view. (If you haven't been a fourteen year old boy, don't judge. At that age, the male gaze is like deep water on a diver, always present, always pressing, pretty nearly always unpleasant.)

Now, I knew that the band that had the hit with "Born to be Wild" didn't write a book. I knew the book was old (maybe 1940's, I guessed). Later on, I would see Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and think that the band Aerosmith had punned off it (but there is also Robert Arrowsmith). However, I figured, "The book must be pretty good, if a band named itself in honor of it," and, more importantly, I wanted to see what inspired that cover painting, so I bought it and became a Philosophy major and then an English major and then on to graduate school.

Of course.

If you have read Herman Hesse's 1928 novel, you will know that it's not exactly a sex, guns, drugs, and sex guns sort of thriller. It isn't even trippy by the standards of the mid-70's. When I finally re-read it as a professional jade (i.e. English professor), I marveled that I had read it as a teenager. Like a few European novels of the 1920's, one has to pay admission in the first one hundred pages by being bored to death. How did I manage it?

Well, when I was fourteen, I was hungry. In fact, as hungry for the lady on the cover as I might have been, I was starving for the anti-middle class perspectives inside the cover. I grew up with the vain and vapid culture of a corporate suburb, where grown men hectored McDonald's counter workers for not having a hot hamburger, because they knew how to run a business, and here was a non-stop criticism of the bourgeoisie. My craving for sophisticated dinner parties with intellectuals (where the cover model might be) and my starvation for any attempt at discussing the instability of the self, which is what adolescence is all about, performed a strange alchemy. They made me wolf down the book and then begin hunting down Hesse's allusions.

Hesse mentioned Nietzsche. Right! Back home in Atlanta, I was off to the book stores to get The Portable Nietzsche. Hesse mentioned Kant. You betcha! Critique of Pure Reason looked pretty good, and the all black cover (can't find an example to show you) was really enticing. Most of all, Hesse goes on and on and on about "Wagner" and Jung. I couldn't find anything, in 1976, by "Wagner," but The Portable Jung was the meat and dessert for all my meals. I was fifteen.

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Stephen Colbert has had the best career a comedian could hope for, but for good reason. He is a monumental talent, has a serious work ethic, and happens to have good looks. He has gone from voice talent to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," to his own show, and now he will go to "The Late Show" on CBS. For fans, we should remember that he is gaining, and we're not losing.

However, "The Colbert Report" is a special achievement in comedy. It is a rare, nearly magical act of performance, and I will miss it immeasurably when it is gone. Larry Wilmore's "The Minority Report" will be great, as Larry Wiltmore is himself superb at another particularly difficult type of humor, but I think it is alright if I now say why "The Colbert Report" will be, for a generation, a defining moment in political satire that cannot replicated.

For those of us who remember them, the first two seasons of "Saturday Night, Live" were revolutionary. It is impossible to tell a young person how unexpected Chevy Chase was as the local news anchor "caught" on a commercial break talking on the phone with his girlfriend, how brave it was that he played Gerald Ford falling down and petting a stuffed dog. In just such a way, though, it will be impossible later to explain why "The Colbert Report" was a perfect moment and a perfect performance -- lightning in a bottle that struck continuously for more than 1,300 episodes and nine years.

"The Daily Show" frequently employs parody and parodic satire. In particular, Jon Stewart's correspondents will pretend to be venial political hacks or dull witted "professional journalists," and they will report with exaggerated gravitas. Jon then offers questions to provide the satiric vision the audience needs. He, as the host, will stand in for the viewer to provide the set of normative values missing in Washington or network television, and the correspondents will act out the villainous point of view, but with a commitment to being overt rather than sly.

If you need an example of "The Daily Show"'s version of parody, consider this one.

Jason Jones speaks for Harry Reid's flexible point of view on Koches vs. Adelsteins, while Jon speaks for "us." He, therefore, acts as our spokesperson and hero. This is one reason why, when Jon Stewart interviews a rightwing guest and fails to hit hard or actually concedes ground, viewers get a bit upset. "Their" voice has been taken.

"The Colbert Report" is all the way different. Follow me below for a generic discussion of what the show has done, and why it is such a rare jewel.

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First, construction guys, I apologize for assuming that you are construction guys. You might be plumbing guys, electrical guys, tree guys, or a bowling league organized around weekday meetings. All I know is that there were four of you in blue Dickie's work shirts and work pants, with your names embroidered on the flaps of the shirt pockets and a patch on the rear of your shirts with the name of a business. It is hasty for me to jump to a conclusion that you were construction. You might have been the princess rescue league for all I know.

However, you sat across from me at the local ambience-free dining facility and began talking. That's good! In fact, I was the weird one -- reading The Tempest and eating alone. I'm glad you didn't sit there and look at telephones across from one another. But your conversation showed that you had an hierarchy: there was The One Who Speaks, the One Who Agrees and Extends, and the two Young Guys who agree or keep quiet and learn.

Y'all began to talk about the issues of the day, and, obviously, there is only one issue of the day, and that's how "this Affordable Healthcare Act" "has his name on it now" and "it's going to drag them down," and I was very obvious in grabbing my food, my check, my drink, and my book and going into another room.

I know y'all don't read

DailyKos, but I wanted to explain in pixels what I was too livid to explain in person. As y'all know, a gentleman does not cause a scene or "talk politics" in public. As I know, saying whatever Rush Limbo or Neil Borscht said on the radio power hour is "not political," but disagreeing is. You seemed shocked, and I understand, since you obviously hadn't talked politics. It's only politics to disagree with the radio. The other is "common sense" and "normal stuff" and "knowing how the world is." I'll explain, since I probably don't live in that real world of real people with real problems and real jobs, after the bimp.


At a restaurant where a loud repeat of the Mike Huckabee radio show is being enacted by the diners, you:

21%82 votes
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11%44 votes
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16%63 votes
13%52 votes
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| 382 votes | Vote | Results

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Wed Mar 12, 2014 at 05:00 AM PDT

Babel, Babelfish, and Googlefish

by The Geogre

One of the most potent stories about language is the Tower of Babel. It occurs in Genesis 11. In the account, all humanity began by speaking a single language, even after exile from the Garden of Eden, and the tower is not exactly a mark of pride, nor is the curse of multiple languages exactly a scourge. Instead, the Tower is the natural consequence of the migrating people settling into a city, and "And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do" (Gen. 11:6). The confusion of the languages is to keep humans frustrated and wandering, to keep them from achieving their goal of "(making) a name for ourselves."

Pieter Breugel the Elder's "Little Tower of Babel"
Babel came to be seen as a second Fall, or at least a second exile, when man's fundamental punishment -- being denied communion with God -- was amplified through being denied communion in society. However, until the twentieth century linguists (excepting people like Ludovico Vico) believed that words derived from things, or things were manifestations of ideas (and so were words), and the division of languages and loss of the original language meant loss of magical and spiritual power.

I recommend Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language for the medieval to enlightenment European invention of linguistics as a side effect of the quest for the pre-Babel tongue.

For every person mounting Pegasus to overtop Babel, there have been five standing on the plains below having a giggle at our human noise and ten, at least, offering to translate for a fee. John Gay has a very funny letter to Mrs. Howard complaining about how he only knew French poetry; thus, to say that they went hunting, he would have to write that they had declared war against the feathered inhabitants of the air.

Americans have been accused of monoglot ignorance for a very long time, but American humorists have avenged themselves by making fun of the affectation of other languages. Even better, American authors have wondered at translations of idiomatic Americanisms. The new nation generated new environments, and the adaptations immigrants made to each other and the land made for colorful habits of voice.

Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was originally published in 1867, and it was a hit. In 1875, Twain published "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which is one of the funnier things you can read. It is an account of Twain reading his own story translated into French and then translating the French back into English. Click this link and enjoy.

"'Rev. Leonidas W. H'm, Reverend Le--well, there was a feller here, once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of '49 --or maybe it was the spring of '50--I don't recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume warn't finished when he first come to the camp; but anyway, he was the curiousest man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody to bet on the other side; and if he couldn't he'd change sides.'" Becomes
"It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of '89, possibly well at the spring of '50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed."
Inspired by Twain's retranslation of a translation, there was a "Babelfish" game that people would play to get comic results in the early years of the world-wide web. ("Babelfish" comes from the universal translating parasite in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Infocom game by the same name was legendary for the absurd lengths one had to go to in order to get the Babelfish.) I remember seeing the game played in the early naughts, but it doesn't work any more.

There are reliable ways of "breaking" machine translation, but Google Translate has killed the Babelfish game. . . sort of. Follow me, below, and I will show you two attempts to break Google Translate, the Googlefish experiment, and then an example of Google Translate failing on something easy -- along with a potential explanation for why.

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Thu Feb 13, 2014 at 08:39 AM PST

Bray Gouty, a Poem

by The Geogre

Trey Gowdy, R, South Carolina, is one of many making a bold move to be the dumbest man in Congress. He had been in the running for "least self-aware," when he commented that $174,000 a year was too little money for him to live on, but he has since tried to claim the glittering prize of "most offensive comment."

There is money to be had in shouting "You lie!" during a State of the Union address, after all. Joe Wilson, also of South Carolina, has absolutely no legislative accomplishments, but he has good fund raising. He does not have much of a record of constituent services. So, if he isn't able to please corporate donors with legislation or constituents, how does he have money? By being offensive, of course, when President Obama said that undocumented immigrants would not be covered by the A.C.A.

. . . By the way, where are all those examples of the President "lying?" Right.

Well, Trey Gowdy wants to get that golden halo of "Biggest Nut in the Can," it seems.

Here is Trey Gowdy saying that the A.C.A. is giving people the "choice between" writing poetry or "working." As Charlie Pierce points out, Trey Gowdy worked one out of three days a year and got $174,000+ for it. Previously, Trey had complained that his salary was too low, by the way. Yesterday, Charlie Pierce followed up with a poet's response to Trey Gowdy.

Now me, I'm of an antiquarian mindset. I thought that "Trey Gowdy" is already a metrical unit. I thought, "What poem does his name belong in?"

Then I realized that that wouldn't work, because it would lead me to one of those poems with a trisyllabic foot, and I'm no good, and they're hard to read. Then I thought, "What poem would Trey Gowdy be able to read?" It had to rhyme, of course. Couplets would be good. Keep the lines short to match the length of thought. . . .

This brought to mind only two things: Namby Pamby by Henry Carey and John Arbuthnot's "Petition" by the funeral directors of London against the new apothecary reform law. The second one is not well known. Dr. Arbuthnot wrote a satire modeled on Samuel Garth's "The Dispensary" pretending to represent all of the undertakers in a union protesting that regulating apothecaries would be bad for business and therefore ought not to be a law.

Arbuthnot's satire lays bare a point that we should all consider. When we ask, "What's good for private industry" when we consider public policy, the answer will always be, "Pass no law," because somebody will profit from everything -- even if it's just the funeral homes.

Below, I do not promise that it's good, but it rhymes: "Bray Gouty."

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Look, it appears now that power suffers the fate today that it has always suffered: those who have it believe that it is, and they are, indispensable. They know their own souls, and they know their intentions, and they know their colleagues and friends, and they understand their competency, and they alone "stand on that wall" between us, in our overstuffed recliners, and the rampaging darkness of savages bent upon our destruction, and they know that secretly we want them to have power. We need them to have power. Civilization itself depends upon it.

Oh, sure, the speech in Wheeling might have been an exaggeration. Perhaps it wasn't necessary to hunt down Communists inside the U.S. Army, but those were silly mistakes made by people back then. Today's threats are existential -- not like the Soviet Union or the international menace of Communism. After all, any shopping bag could be a bomb, and that's sufficient to justify every shopping purchase being a spy-bot.

I get it.

Our guy isn't like their guy. Our guy is smart, and their guy was dumb. Our guy wouldn't freak out unless the threats were really freaky, while their guy was easily spooked.

Fine. It doesn't matter, anyway, because the courts won't listen, and elections appear to have little capacity to move the debate. Therefore, I have a suggestion for making this all to the good. Follow me below for a proposal for making all the data acquisition an unequivocally good thing.

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Confession: I live in the middle of radish fields, and the only movie theater plays nothing but "Smash and Boom III" and "Tyler Perry Presents Loud and Noisy." Consequently, I will sound like a moron if I talk about Spike Jonze's film, "Her." I will, therefore, instead, talk about reviews of the film and the premise of the film and hope that I don't so mangle things that it invalidates my commentary.

Tentatively, therefore, I want to propose the following: "Her" plays upon the Classical myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and yet it does so in such an attenuated and developed way that reviewers either miss the model or do not bring it up. This mythic structure has a great deal to offer us, both in terms of a contemplation of art and the powers of humanity, chaos, love, creativity, and, indirectly, politics. In its Classical form, it's a perfect love, but for us it is a story of the power of art and obsession.

The story occurs in Ovid's Metamorphoses X, in one of the Orphic songs. You can read a translation here. The song is very, very short, and the tale is very evocative. Pygmalion is a sculptor who is, in some versions, very ugly. In all versions he is very skilled. He makes a sculpture of a woman whom he could love -- the perfect girl. In Orpheus's version, she is chaste by virtue of her marble-whiteness ("whiteness" is code rather than the assumed skin color of women). He loves the sculpture so much that he wants no real woman for a bride. At one point or another, Venus/Aphrodite turns the statue -- Galatea -- into a real woman.

The Victorians inherited the story from the later Romantics -- in particular Rousseau -- and they loved the story. W. S. Gilbert did a version, and G. B. Shaw (yes, yes, a Modern in . . . and yet not) did the famously class-based satire Pygmalion that became the rather denatured My Fair Lady. Of course Rousseau's reflected the later-Romantic fascination with the limitations of creativity, and this would show up in pictorial treatments by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

For the artists of the turn of the 19th - 20th century, the theme seemed to be the power of imagination, and the dangers of fascination. "The Lady of Shalott" is, in some ways, a mirror of Pygmalion: that which can be imagined can be beautiful, but realizing it brings danger. Their versions of Galatea, like other products of artistic imagination, inevitably transferred human stains or impossibility when they crossed into reality. Either the human malleability of the lover or the demands of perfection would, like Frankenstein or Mr. Hyde, show the impossibility of the perfect more than they would affirm the value of the real.

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I sometimes write arcane stuff that will have a specialized audience, and what follows may be an example. However, before anyone goes confirming stereotypes, I'll explain why I am writing on this subject.

I never set out to teach in religiously affiliated schools specifically, but, at this point, I have been teaching in them for more than twelve years. I have taught in schools aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and now with the largest Protestant denomination. While I have been a practicing Christian since eighteen, I am the product of public education. I went to public primary and secondary schools, and I went to state universities for my graduate work. I certainly noticed sneering from other intellectuals, but I never saw anything in public education that impeded my spiritual expression.

The problem is that, despite being a practicing Christian and a believer, people who advocate "Christian education" scare me. I am terrified today, because each school, each head master, each board of trustees, that enunciates a clear commitment to "Christian education" either has such an amorphous definition of the term that it amounts to "professional conduct" or one with such idiosyncratic terminology that the phrase seems to be no more than a way to fire faculty -- a language trap rather than a pedagogy.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has more registered aliases than any other online journal, apparently. There is a reason: teaching at the collegiate level is tenuous, and "academic freedom" exists only in stories we tell about the 1970's. For those working at religiously affiliated schools, the sand beneath us is even weaker, because there is always a new purge in the offing, a new awakening, a new movement that begins with the assumption that all of the present faculty are part of the problem.

Five or six years ago, my former college president assigned each faculty the job of writing up how we were pursuing "Christian education" in our courses. We were to submit these reports to him. Fortunately, he was easily distracted and never followed up, but, when he issued that order, I heard a fire alarm. I knew what I would say, but I also knew that any answer could be attacked by interested parties.

Now, my college has a new, extremely controversial president, and I am scared. I do not know what will happen, but I wanted to take a look at "Christian education" as a phrase and try to start with what most of us not inside the evangelical and home school movement would assume it meant and then discuss what the term can mean in the mouths of those who use it as a battle cry.

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Fri Dec 20, 2013 at 06:00 AM PST

How to talk to an Anecdote

by The Geogre

I've long (I guess) noted that our most effective opponent is the slushy, porridge thought process of those who know what's what and support their eternal verities with anecdotal evidence. Decrying "ivory tower" and "book" learning as from "elitists," they think it's time to hear from regular people (and regular people must, ipso facto have no college or book education). I've tried to be sympathetic to the impulses that drive these enemies, even as I less than secretly want to subject them to a potato masher (1).

Steve King of the sainted cantaloupe calf and Louie "Gomer" Gohmert, along with Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann, are masters of the personal observation. Each has offered up a first hand, eye witness account of extraordinary piquancy, whereby they have learned the Secret Truth that Big Government wishes to suppress and we liberals want to achieve. During the next get together you have with Crazy Uncle Wally, you might hear a recycled e-mail, but you also might hear a personal anecdote that proves "it" (2).

Below, I'll detail the above mentioned right wing stars' shiners, and I'll offer up a way to answer the anecdote. I can't promise that it will lead to peace, but it might lead to quiet. I think most of us would settle for that.

1 $17 for a potato masher? Can you believe that? It's just a wavy doodad, and that's the Mal*Wart price.
2 "It" is that "the government" is out to get "us," except the military, which is a divine force of good, and "we" need to "take our country back," even though it was never ours or it has never not been.

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