Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tao Well Head

I really wish people would be more careful getting random quotes off the web. I really wish people would stop dumbing down the Tao Te Ching. A UK government report has as a chapter head
Go to the people. Live with
them. Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.
But with the best leaders,
when the work is done,
the task accomplished, the
people will say
“We have done this
Lao Tzu (600 – 531 BC)
Chinese Taoist philosopher

Go to the fucking people? That's not what the sage does. In Legge,
In the highest antiquity, (the people) did not know that there
were (their rulers). In the next age they loved them and praised
them. In the next they feared them; in the next they despised them.
Thus it was that when faith (in the Tao) was deficient (in the rulers)
a want of faith in them ensued (in the people).

How irresolute did those (earliest rulers) appear, showing (by
their reticence) the importance which they set upon their words!
Their work was done and their undertakings were successful, while the
people all said, 'We are as we are, of ourselves!'

which softened slightly comes out as
The best leaders go unnoticed by the people.
The next best are loved and praised by the people.
Then there are those who are feared by the people.
Lastly there are those who are despised.

When the leaders lack faith, then the people lack faith in them.

The best leaders make their words valuable and precious. Their work is done, and their undertakings successful, while the people say, "We are as we are, of ourselves!"

The point is that the sage has moved the people to the correct path by his reserved inaction, by the Tao - the people didn't do it themselves, they are just under the illusion that they did it themselves.

And that crap about learning from the people? No way. Loving the people? In the original, the love goes the other way.

It's worse than "Confucius say" jokes.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Shout

Joining in an argument over at Larvatus Prodeo:
Civilisation in the west has been very largely a mechanism for the development and circulation of alcohol, so there aren't going to be any easy fixes. We drink not for reasons that can be ticked off on a list but because it's constituitive of who we are. It's very difficult to find a socially valued off-the-rack identity that doesn't include drinking.
Saying that alcohol is just another drug still misses the point, though. The missed point being that for both alcohol and drugs the main source of the opposition to their use is not that they're damaging but that they're enjoyable. It comes out most clearly with (illicit) drugs. If we merely objected to this or that harm caused by drugs we would pay chemists to come up with a new drug that had the same euphoric effects but lacked the side-effects, and once we found it we'd push that one hard to take up the territory of the others. We would, for example, encourage the use of ecstasy to reduce the harm caused by heroin (or alcohol). We don't: we treat them as equally bad, with the e perhaps more menacing because it's harder to have doomladen commercials about it. It's like Macaulay on the Puritans - they objected to bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.
And no, I'm not saying that any of these things actually are harmless - I'm saying that if they were harmless society would still wish to place them in this inflamed area of fascination mixed with condemnation.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Exactly so

Some more of my work for University Reform back in the 70s, part whatever of a continuing series:

Farrago, Friday April 29 1977
Banging your head against a Brick Wall

I was giving a talk in O-Week to a very very small audience on what made the university tick. At the end somebody said "But you make everything sound so pessimistic, so hard to change. Surely if you can show the people at the top that something's not working properly they'll be willing to change it?" It was a difficult question because the short answer – “No, they probably won't" - makes the people at the top sound stupid or evil, and the long answer - that they have rather different ideas on what constitutes “working properly" - brings in rather too many complications for a snap answer. Either way, though, you end up' with the changes not getting made, and it is difficult to make this sound other than pessimistic.

A lot of us around this place started out, with the same illusion; that a well-written report with a set of logical proposals will convince people to alter their habits. A number of such reports were produced. It was quite a while after that that we began to notice that while the reports themselves were fine, models of cogent reasoning and closely argued recommendation, they had about as much effect on the university as a sparrow trying to fight its way out of a house through a picture window. The phrase "They just didn't want to know about it" has never been more to the point; and the point is that there is simply no way that you can convince someone that a problem exists if they choose not to believe it.

You say that some indisputable fact is a fact - that honours gradings are capricious and unfair to students, for example - and the heavies say it isn't. You go away and do a survey and bring it back to them; this takes a year, so they say that those are last year's figures and out of date, things have changed. And they're not being particularly devious, they just have a different view of the world and the university's place in it and the student's place in the university, which is, in their eyes, to become 1/26 scale professors as soon as possible with the minimum of unnecessary fuss. Under this system of thought there is no way student discontent, or student grievances, or student boredom can indicate anything other than faults in the student. Anything else would be like saying a yard is the wrong length, a meaningless concept.

Well, what's the alternative? Apart from sitting back and taking it, which can lead to permanent brain damage. It helps to observe that while top university people are usually fairly shoulder-to-shoulder in theory and attitude there are differences in their material interests, and one can work on these. Such theories and attitudes didn't come just from the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge. To a large extent academic discourse serves to give an alternative argument, a moral argument, when the rights and privileges of professors and lecturers come under attack.

On admissions policy, for example, the rationale for the HSC is that it picks out those best able to benefit from the university; but let us not forget that it also selects, if it works as it should, those who know most, are the easiest to teach, and give the least work to the teaching staff. That's a general interest, but there are also particular ones - the Professorial Board, for example, while deaf to any complaints that honours grading is unfair to students, can be aroused by suggestions that it's unfair as between departments (and professors) - that some departments give higher marks and thus get more postgraduate scholarships and more students and more research money and more power and status. It's having another look into that now.

That's a complicated way to win, all politics and wheeling and dealing and knowing your enemy and not looking too closely at your allies. The other way is more scenic but less feasible, and that's the way of alternative power. Power, simply defined, is being able to make people - in this case academics - do things they don't want to do, and gets round all these difficulties of not being able to convince them. The difficulty is that students don't have very much of this power unless they are really worked up on a mass basis in a way that doesn't happen very often.

That still sounds pretty pessimistic. But you can't begin any real fight for change around this university unless you register two things. One, convincing the heavies is about as hard as selling a gold brick to Ralph Nader. Two, if you front up to the heavies thinking you have power behind you and you haven't they'll mulch the concrete lawns with you. Despise the enemy strategically, yes, but respect him tactically.

Chris Borthwick, Assembly

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

I was wrong

No, it is his owner. Which makes the 'female' tag even odder, really.

Son of a gun

The ABC site flags a video
A dog rescued from a roof drifting off Japan's tsunami-battered north-east coast has been reunited with its female.

Not its owner, its mate.
What we would some while ago have had no hesitation in calling a bitch.

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