Results for “straussian reading”
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A Ross Douthat proposal on guns

So I would like to see experiments with age-based impediments rather than full restrictions — allowing would-be gun purchasers 25 and under the same rights of ownership as 40- or 60-year-olds, but with more substantial screenings before a purchase. Not just a criminal-background check, in other words, but some kind of basic social or psychological screening, combining a mental-health check, a social-media audit and testimonials from two competent adults — all subject to the same appeals process as a well-designed red-flag law.

Here is the full NYT Op-Ed.  And speaking of Ross, and guns, or rather gun, Ross gives the correct Straussian reading of Maverick, namely that Tom Cruise dies early in the movie, and the rest of the film is his pre-death fantasy.  This take is all the more plausible if you have seen Michael Powell’s Stairway to Heaven/Matter of Life or Death, where this is clearly the correct interpretation.

*Dune*, the movie (no real spoilers)

Score and soundtrack: A+, Hans Zimmer

Visual intelligence and sophistication: A+

Beauty: A+

Drama: I thought the first half was weak here, though the movie became progressively more gripping.  But too many of the proceedings felt stagey rather than organic or evoking of real interest.

Memorable characters: I give this award to the sandworms and the blue-eyed Fremen warrior chick.  The others were “good enough” but didn’t click for me in a huge way.

Fidelity to the original novel: Good enough, without being too slavish in its homage.

Unusual element: Huge dose of French imperialist “Orientalism.”

Straussian reading: It is trying to make both jihad and Islam intelligible and sympathetic to non-Muslim viewers.

Bottom line: I am looking forward to the sequel, and very much hope Villaneuve is on tap to direct.  It was wonderful seeing this one surrounded by the sands of Arizona.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Microsoft Taj Mahal no Straussian readings allowed.

2. Evictions have not skyrocketed.

3. Claims about overrated and underrated historical events.  Interesting, though I think he is quite wrong about ancient Greece and Rome.

4. Deriving Covid heterogeneity.  And is Africa more protected?

5. Beethoven’s AI-finished 10th symphony, with a 3:38 clip at the end of the piece.  Eh.

6. A guy who works full-time within VR.

7. Mortality: “Power calculations make it implausible that there is an upper bound below 130 years.”

Thursday assorted links

1. Vaccination rates and air travel are not correlated as they should be.

2. If I understand this correctly, UT Austin professors are now free to pay students to wear masks in their classes.  Many are outraged.

3. South Australia Trials App To Monitor Quarantine Compliance Through Facial Recognition and Geolocation.  And New South Wales update.

4. Truly amazing that Australia is just sitting on six million doses of AstraZeneca [Covishield] — it might be the most effective vaccine right now!

5. The rhetoric here is not entirely safe for work, but the piece is about the behavioral economics of the cam sector.  Startlingly good.  And Alex’s earlier post.

6. Will rural America see a lot of rapid change soon?

7. Corporate America’s $50 billion vow — surprisingly good feature story, requires only a modicum of Straussian reading.

8. Why the press is (sort of) hawkish on Afghanistan (Bloomberg).

Wednesday assorted links

1. Rob Schneider likes Mises.

2. Nakamura’s life and income.

3. Where are the Covid deaths in Europe?  Some people had been wondering.  And cross-immunities from Asian history?  And using wearables to detect pre-symptomatic Covid?  And Dolly Parton Fast Grants.  And more on Dolly.  And “Hospitalizations are rising faster in Sweden than any other European country…

4. Why do Chinese liberals support Washington conservatives? (NYT, excellent piece once you inject the Straussian reading; note the fear that liberalism will be redefined in the direction of Hayek).

5. FDA authorizes 30-minute at-home Covid test, supposedly to sell for $50, crazy though to still require a prescription (NYT).

The Harpers free speech letter and controversy

Many of you have been asking for a more detailed account of what I think.  Here is an NYT summary of the debate, in case you have been living under a rock.  Of course I side with those who signed the letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters, and I am very glad they took the trouble to move forward with this project.  I know many of the signers, and those individuals I like, admire, and respect, to a person.  But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world.

So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

Best movies 2019

I am happy to recommend these selections, the links going to my earlier remarks about them:

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (animated)

Campernaum (Ethiopian refugee in Beirut)



Ash is Purest White (Chinese, obscure)

High Life (best science fiction movie of the year?)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (big screen only, Chinese obscure)

Woman at War (Icelandic, wacky)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (duh)

Booksmart (full of energy on the screen)

Echo in the Canyon (L.A. music scene in the 1960s and beyond)

The Farewell (American-Chinese, about a dying relative)

Honeyland (Macedonian, about bee keepers)

Inside Bill’s Brain (Bill Gates, short documentary)


Parasite (Korean, the Straussian reading is anti-egalitarian)

JoJo Rabbit (modern-day anti-Nazi comedy, mostly they pull it off)

Marriage Story


The Rise of Skywalker

A Hidden Life

From those my top picks would be Marriage Story — the American redo of Scenes from a Marriage, and then Honeyland.  Overall it was a much better year for movies than last year.

As for marginal choices, Ad Astra and Knives Out were two movies I liked, and came close to making this list, but didn’t.

As for historic cinema, I am very glad I purchased the complete Blu-Ray set of Ingmar Bergman movies, spectacular transfers and the American viewer can watch the true, complete version of Persona for the first time.

As for the rest of the year, I have high hopes for The Souvenir, Little Women and also the new Adam Sandler movie, but I have not yet seen them.  The documentary For Sama has potential too.

What am I forgetting?

Addendum to best books of 2019 list

Here is the original non-fiction list, the original fiction list, and these are my post-Thanksgiving additions:

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity.

John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Herself Alone, volume three.

Susan Gubar, Late-Life Love: A Memoir.

Bernardine Evaristo. Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel.  The Booker co-winner and yes the focus of black women’s gender-fluid lives in Britain sounds too PC, but I was won over.  There is a Straussian reading of it as well.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again: A Novel.

On the classical music front, Jean-Paul Gasparian’s Chopin CD is one of the best Chopin recordings ever, which is saying something.

The list of add-ons is I think a bit shorter than usual, which suggests that other people’s “best of” lists are declining somewhat in quality.  In essence I construct this add-on list by ordering the items off other people’s lists which I am not already familiar with.  I didn’t find so many undiscovered-by-me winners this time around, the Gubar and Strout being the main choices I drew from the discoveries of others.

My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.


COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.


COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.


COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

Recommended throughout.

The excellent David C. Wright podcasts me on *Stubborn Attachments*, and on other things

It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.  (If you read the transcript, the sentence in the middle about my believing in God as a teenager is a transcription error, it will be corrected.)  David is one of the best, and best prepared, interviewers I have interacted with.  Here is the audio and transcript.

Here is one bit from the middle:

David: …should academics or people who seek to influence the world, and according to your value system should they try and boost economic growth more? I’m thinking of in your podcast, you’ve had venture capitalists. I think of these in some ways as public intellectuals who are trying to boost economic growth.

[00:39:12] Tyler: They think very conceptually venture capitalists.

[00:39:14] David: They do.

[00:39:15] Tyler: They’re generalists.

[00:39:15] David: They are. Are they similar to university professors?

[00:39:19] Tyler: Well, they’re much better.

[00:39:20] David: Better at?

[00:39:21] Tyler: Almost everything. They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.

[00:39:35] David: Yet they don’t win a Nobel Prize, and they can’t become call it historically famous or much less so. Obviously–

[00:39:41] Tyler: I think they will become historically famous.

[00:39:43] David: Do you?

[00:39:43] Tyler: Well, they already. Well, like Mike Moritz or Marc Andreessen or Sam Altman Y Combinator. I think they will go down in history as major figures of great import.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Bryan Caplan

Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive.  Here is the audio and text.  We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?

CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.

Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.

Here is one of my questions:

What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?

Here is another exchange:

COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?

CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.

There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.

What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.

Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.

I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.


COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?


COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?

CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.

COWEN: I was teasing about that.

And last but not least:

CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .

COWEN: And when they get mad at me?

CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.

Hail Bryan Caplan!  Again here is the link, and of course you should buy his book The Case Against Education.

My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…


COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.

Iron Fist is Weak

Iron Fist, the latest Marvel-Netflix, superhero show, is by far the weakest. [Mild spoilers] The show has been accused of cultural appropriation because it casts a white actor rather than an Asian as a kung-fu superhero (Iron Fist is also white in the comic book but those were unenlightened times). I could live with that if the white actor actually fit the role. Unfortunately, lead actor Finn Jones, whatever his other talents, doesn’t look imposing or powerful. Bruce Lee wasn’t a big guy but he was ripped and you could see at once that despite his charm you didn’t want to mess with this guy. In contrast, Danny Rand, as portrayed by Finn, is a sniveling, crying, whining child who can’t get over the death of his mommy. Despite having supposedly been subjected to beatings, deprivation, and fifteen years of intense martial-arts training, Rand shows none of the hardness that surviving, let alone thriving, in such an environment produces. His fist may be iron but nothing else is.

The fight scenes with Jones are, with one exception, lackluster. The exception is a fight between the Iron and Drunken fist. Drunken Fist (Zhou Cheng) portrayed by Lewis Tan steals the scene. Not only does he clearly give Iron Fist a beat down (despite the nominal outcome) he does so with humor, intelligence and charisma. Watching this scene you cannot help but think, heh, they should have made Lewis Tan the Iron Fist. In fact, Tan was considered for the role! Ironically, after meeting Danny Rand, many characters ask, “Why did this guy get chosen to be the Iron Fist?” It’s a very good question.

The politics of Iron Fist are also annoying. Danny Rand inherits a powerful firm and in one of his first acts as owner he forces it, over the objections of the board, to sell its new drug at cost. What a sweet guy. Blech! The show does give some pretty good arguments for why this is a bad idea–namely it will reduce R&D and because of subsidies from charities and governments the drug will in any case go to everyone who needs its–so you could give Iron Fist a Straussian reading but I don’t give the writers that much credit.

The most serious failing of Iron Fist is that it breaks the cardinal rule: superheroes need supervillains. Outstanding performances by Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin and David Tennant as Kilgrave made for riveting conflict in Daredevil and Jessica Jones respectively.  Luke Cage disappointed for its lack of a supervillain. Iron Fist is even worse as it jumps from villain to villain to villain, none of whom are especially super and some of whom are not even all that villainous.

The “hand” are supposed to be the supervillains but they come in (of course) right and left versions. The “left” hand are drug dealers and assassins. But the motives, actions, and consequences of the right hand are difficult to see. Although it’s not clear how the hand operates, their leader makes a case that their actions improve society. The Iron Fist almost joins the hand until he discovers that they have a bunch of computers and surveillance equipment. Then he and sidekick Colleen Wing go on an all out killing spree. What??? I’m no fan of the NSA but surveillance isn’t necessarily evil, Batman also had his sources of information. Iron Fist, however, has difficulty controlling his anger. He acts rashly and with little thought. He sees the world in childish ways. His actions often have unintended consequences and that is why in any battle between the Iron Fist and the invisible Hand, I will take the invisible Hand.