Sunday, April 30, 2006

Comedist Sunday School

For an introduction to Comedism, the new religion; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the War on Comedy, see these links.


We talked about knock-knock jokes earlier in the week and asked why we teach them to children when they really aren't that funny. In fact, the reason we teach them to children is the same reason they aren't that funny.

Remember how a joke works, there is a set up that sketches a situation that the listener thinks she understands, then along comes the punchline and the listener realizes that she was really supposed to understand the situation in a completely different way. The humor is in the transition, the time when the listener's brain is forced to try to see the world in two irreconcilable ways. We noted last week that humor requires the granting that there is always more than one way to see reality and this is fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism.

What the knock-knock joke does is to bring out the structure of the joke and make it a formalized part of the linguistic exchange. Every part of the joke is made explicit.

A: "Knock-knock" (read, I'm going to tell you a joke)
B: "Who's there?" (read, o.k. what's the set up?)
A: "Dwayne" (read, think of the normal situation in which a person is at the door)
B: "Dwayne who?" (read, ok, I'm thinking of the situation in which a person is at the door, but now give me the punchline so I can think about it differently)
A: "Dwain the tub, I'm dwowning!" (read, it wasn't a person's name, but a command given by someone with a speech impediment, isn't that funny?)

We teach children knock-knock jokes because they wear the intricate structure of a joke like an exoskeleton; the form that is usually contained on the interior is on the outside. In order to teach children how to tell jokes, we teach them to tell highly structured jokes first because joking is a sophisticated means of communication that requires training and linguistic sophistication. Knock-knock jokes are not funny because the structure is brought out to such an extent that we all know when the punchline is coming, we expect it. The timing of a knock-knock joke is telegraphed, something that in a normal joke is a bad thing. We surrender the virtue of timing, a crucial element of the joke, to teach the structure.

But while we need to teach children to express themselves like adults to be funny, they teach us to see the world like them. Children are funnier than we are. Children live in worlds in which there are not the rigid boundaries that we need jokes to help us shed. They are always seeing reality in multiple ways. When my wife's grandfather passed away years ago, her niece, quite young at the time, asked my sister-in-law where he was. She was told that "His body is back at their house." With innocent curiosity, but no revulsion, she asked, "And where is his head?" The thought of decapitating our recently deceased is horrible for us adults. Descerating a body, we would scream. But for children, whose world is fluid in ways we could only dream of, things are always open. True humor is a combination of adult linguistic sophistication and child-like openness to a world of multiple senses. Humor is a comedic joining of opposites.

To celebrate this, here is a knock-knock joke, a child's joke that ought not be told to the children.

A: Knock-knock.
B: Who's there?
A: Fornication.
B: Fornication, who?
A: Fornication like this, a black tie is optional.

Irreverend Steve

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Who do you feel sorry for?

I feel sorry for the White House staffer in the communications office who is part of the group that needs to track media coverage of the administration and has the job of reporting back every morning about the Daily Show with a straight face and a somber or outraged tone of voice.

I feel sorry for Jeb Bush. He must watch every press conference by The Decider and feel like the Pete Best of politics.

I feel sorry for the callgirls hired by Mitch Wade and Brent Wilkes for Duke Cunningham and the alleged other Republican Congressmen. Having to do suffer the indignity of doing what they had to do for those pasty old white guys and then having to watch the media make a big deal about armoires. At least the fancy French furniture got to keep their drawers.

Whom do you feel sorry for today?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Marriage for (and against) Dummies

I'm working on the section of (what will hopefully be) my new book, Was It Morally Good For You, Too?: A Guide to Rational Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words to be called "The Ins and Outs of Sexual Ethics." Comments and criticisms gratefully accepted.

There is, perhaps, no subject that provokes worse moral discussions in American culture than sex. As a culture we have no clue about how to talk about that part of every human life that ought to be the source of joy, passion, and intimacy. Instead we are presented with a classic case of false alternatives where we seem to be forced to choose between complete sexual abstinence except for the few instances of intentional insemination, on one hand, and whatever-floats-your-boat, anything goes, free-for-alls, on the other. And then mixed in with all of this are questions about marriage, as if marriage had anything to do with sex. Marriage has several distinct meanings which are conflated in our social conversation, often to hide a distinctly political agenda. If we want to talk coherently about the ethics of marriage, we need to make sure to clearly work out what these meanings are and keep them separate.

Some of the views we are arguing against often contend that sexual ethics are inextricably tied up with the notion of marriage. Marriage on some of these views is a sufficient condition, a sort of "have sex free" card, and on others it is merely necessary for ethical sex – you still can't wear a rubber thingy on your weewee. In order to set out the relation between sex and marriage, we first have to understand what marriage is.

This is not as easy as it might seem because there are several different meanings to the word and what often happens in our sloppy discourse about the topic is that people knowingly or unknowingly slide back and forth between different meanings when it suits their political purpose.

One sense of the term relates to a religious rite. Religions perform marriage ceremonies and those so wedded are seen within the faith community as having entered an special sort of relationship with one another or a three-way with God. This ceremony usually comes with rights and responsibilities on the part of the partners; sometimes symmetric, sometimes not depending on the faith and brand of theology within the faith.

But "marriage" has meanings beyond the religious rituals associated with it. It is also a social status. Married couples are seen by society as different from unmarried couples. There are non-religious, social expectations attached to being married, these of course, vary with the time and place, but we can think of sexual exclusivity, shared responsibility in the household, and the right to constantly bitch about your spouse's mother (For the record, I have a wonderful mother-in-law). These expectations may or may not be included in any given religion's picture of marriage, but hold across the society as a whole. What is expected of a wife or a husband, even for those with deep faith, comes from social structure as well as religious institutions.

In addition to the religious and the social notions of marriage, there is the legal sense which is completely distinct. Under this notion, marriage is a contractual arrangement between two people to adopt a legal status which confers upon them certain legal rights. In fact, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, issued a report in 2004 that stated that there are 1,138 such rights, privileges, and protections under the law afforded to married couples. We do tend to couple off and in doing so we arrange our lives so that it makes no sense to consider the couple to be separate individuals in certain legal contexts. There isn't my money and my wife's money, there is only our money. There isn't my house and my wife's house, only our home. As a couple we function in certain ways as what Hobbes' called "an artificial individual." It makes sense that we should file our taxes as a single entity and that inheritance rights should be implied.

Because there is no distinguishing between a couple in terms of ownership of property or guardianship of children, or authority on matters germane to their life, the married couple makes decisions as a unit and thereby assumes responsibility for those decisions as a unit. For this reason, they are given the special status of being able to speak for each other. This means that power of attorney in cases where one spouse becomes incapacitated automatically rolls over to the other spouse. If your married partner is in an accident, you make choices related to his or her care (even if those choices are disliked by an elected official who happens to be physician who makes a diagnosis from a video tape which disagrees with specialists who have actually been in the same room as your wife).

Notice that none of this has anything to do with having sex. Marriage, in this sense, is a legal status based upon joint ownership, responsibility, and decision-making. This is the only sense of marriage that the state has any jurisdiction over. It is a status granted by, defined by, and controlled by the state relating to matters of the government for legal purposes. State-sanctioned marriage has nothing to do with the morality of any given sexual activity engaged in by the married couple. Of course, we hope that all married couples have engaging, enriching, and enjoyable sex lives. Life partners make the best lovers. There may even be social or religious expectations relating marriage to sex, but these are entirely independent of marriage as a legal question.

For this reason, the contemporary debate over gay marriage is deeply flawed. The question at hand is purely one of assigning rights. The only version of marriage at issue is legal marriage. Put clearly, this is a question of rights, and anyone who opposes gay marriage is saying that there is a group of honest, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of this nation who should be deprived of rights, privileges, and responsibilities under the laws of the land simply because they do not like who those people have chosen to make their lives with.

The appeal to religious definitions is a red herring. No one would force any church, synagogue, mosque or temple to marry anyone in their faith that they chose not to. If gay marriage was legal and a religious organization did not want to perform a religious ritual for a gay couple, they are perfectly free to decline. If your theology declares that in the eyes of your deity no same-sex couple can be joined in the bonds of holy matrimony, those are your metaphysical postulations, have at 'em. But the question of gay marriage has nothing to do with theology. It is a legal question of rights and rights only, and anyone who opposes gay marriage is saying that there is a group of honest, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of this nation who should be deprived of rights, privileges, and responsibilities under the laws of the land simply because they do not like who those people have chosen to make their lives with. In my book, that's what we simply call biogtry and that is wrong.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Wizard, Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes To You

As he is wont to do, PZ Meyers at Pharyngula has put up a great post looking back at the Dover/Intelligent Design decision, wherein he quotes a Seattle Times article on the Creation Wars. There are a couple of points from his discussion that I would like to comment upon.

The thesis of his post is call to remain vigilant. One court case does not a victory make. The Dover decision, he argues is merely a "stopgap." While a positive local development, it will become a rallying cry for the most intensely anti-scientific players to redouble their efforts. "We're holding the top of the wall while they undermine our foundations, and we know where that is going to lead." Those leading the attack on evolution theory are working on younger minds, while most of those on the front lines are working in higher ed. By the time the college profs get at them, their views have hardened and infected a wider population that may not make it into a college classroom at all or at least not one that deals with these issues. As such we need for our focus to be broader than our classrooms. "Every court case in this struggle, from Dayton to Dover, has failed to change a single mind, and while they have told us much about creationists and creationism, they've done nothing to educate people about science and evolution. And that's the only place where this war can be won, in public education, both in the schools and among the general public."

While I agree with the central proposition, I think that the situation is both better and more dire than presented. Dover wasn't a mere stopgap. It was more important than that. Sitting here in Gettysburg, not far from Dover, I would equate the case with Pickett's charge, the Confederates' move into the Union lines. The ID folks had soft general support until they started gaining traction with their "teach the controversy" campaign. This was brilliant packaging on their part. The question ceased to be about science and became a moral question of fairness. "If you are so sure about the superiority of evolution theory, why are you afraid of a fair fight?" It was a smartly placed trap. Any response could easily be typed as elitists or cry-baby. They were winning the PR in a big way.

I think the turning point was with Barbara Forrester's testimony. It was there (indeed throughout, but especially there), that the "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" defense was destroyed. The mask came off and the ID people had to shed their sheep's clothing and stand as the creationist wolves they are. What this did was crucial. Their case was built on a moral claim of fairness to two competing scientific theories; but at this point, they were shown to be liars. They were trying to deceive the public by putting up a product that was not "as advertised". As such, they lost the foundation for their moral case because the people who had bought into it realized that they had been played. They lost the fence-sitters who while generally not well-schooled in science, aren't knee-jerk anti-science either. At this point, the narrative changed. Science went from "Nasty big guy with a stick who refuses to play fair because he thinks he's above the rules" to "misunderstood victim who was innocent all along." what this has done is give us an advantage, an advantage we need to seize. The charge was repelled, now we need to make sure it will be the high water mark.

How to do it? Here is where PZ is exactly right. We need to take it outside the college classroom because that is where things really are won and lost. Not only because that is where the creationists have focused their efforts (they figured out that many high school science teachers are in their camp, those who aren't are less well trained at responding to their talking points, and those who can respond are often nervous about administrations and school boards who are in their camp), but because young minds are the ones who grow up to be citizens, scientists, and scientist-citizens.

I was in a 6th grade classroom a couple of years back because they had questions about relativity theory from a reading they had done. The request got forwarded to me by a colleague(I'm a philosopher with a physics background, work on interpretations of relativity theory, and have given several lecture series on the history of science and Einstein) and I went in trying to figure out how to make all of my best jokes age appropriate. I work in classrooms every day, but I was not ready for the energy I was about to experience. Oh, my, goodness. These kids were more than hungry for knowledge, they were starving. They had amazingly insightful questions about all kinds of scientific issues. At one point, a child was so excited about his thoughts on why a candle flame always goes up that he jumped out of his chair, grabbed the chalk from my hand, charged the chalk board and launched into a lecture. Boys, girls, children of color, children of European heritage -- they were ALL exploding with interest in science.

Then I came back to my afternoon college class with their blank stares and "Is this going to be on the exam?" I wondered what the hell we did to make those kids into these kids. Some of it, no doubt has to do with puberty and that hormone thing, but part of it isn't. I have a schtick I do at the beginning of every class. I say, "Ask me any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Anything." I get all kinds of questions, politics, personal relationship advice, smart-ass silliness. But a stunning amount are about science. But the sad thing is that they come from students who would rather stick an ice pick in their left eye than take a science course. They want to know about science, but we have lost them. On the other side, whenever I have a student excited to study science there is always a story about this incredible physics/chemistry/biology teacher s/he had in high school. Teaching at the secondary and high-school level is so unbelievably important that it is criminal that it does not receive more support.
But then there is the real opportunity afforded to us by Dover. We now have the big mo' in terms of public sensibility. We need to make the most of it. We need scientists to regain their places as public intellectuals. We need Mr. Wizard back, damn it. I am extremely proud of a former student of mine is now working for the Boston PBS station and is involved in the production of NOVA (the show that first made me fall in love with science). We now have outlets like the Discovery channel and Animal Planet. We need a new generation of Carl Sagans. We need people to make science fun and funny and interesting and exciting. We need to make science so cool that you start seeing designer lab coats coming down the Paris fashion runways.

But I'm worried that we're not set up for it. We don't have the infrastructure. We train Ph.D.'s as lab technicians. We reward them with jobs and tenure only if their work stays inside the building. We need to realize that advancing science requires more than advancing science. As a physicist colleague of mine says, "I was never taught to talk dinner party physics." Just as lawyers have to do pro bono work, so we need to take our intellectuals and start to realize that outreach is a necessary part of the gig. It is too easy to be insular and when we don't come out to play, the vacuum is filled with charlatans and charismatics. We need an army of Don Herberts and Isaac Asimovs. Dover has given us this moment.

UPDATE: An intersting ID-related post today over at Buridan's Ass . Well worth the read.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Claim: There are no funny knock-knock jokes

Then why are knock-knock jokes always amongst the first jokes we teach kids? The topic of this weekend's Comedist sermon.

If you care to try to prove me wrong, give it your best knock.

For an introduction to Comedism, the new religion; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the War on Comedy, see these links.

PNAC, PNAC. Who's There? Iran. Iran Who? Iran Away From The IAEA and There's Nothing You Can Do About It.

Iran is rattling sabers this morning. Nothing terribly new there, or is there? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is threatening to take Iran's nuclear project underground (figuratively, literally that's where much of it already is in order to avoid bombing attack) and Iran Focus is reporting that "Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a direct threat at the United States on Wednesday, saying that it would 'harm' American interests all over the world if an attack was launched against its nuclear installations, state television reported." The problem is not the threats, but the likelihood that they feel comfortable enough to possibly go through with them with the US completely bogged down in Iraq.

And things were looking so good in Iran not so long ago. We had figures like Mohammed Khatami who was the voice for a new generation of Iranians for whom the revolution was a chapter of history. Significant democratic reforms seemed imminent. Relations between the US and Iran were beginning to thaw. There was so much promise. Now the country is ruled by the hard-line ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad, is, or is about to be, a nuclear power, and is threatening to make $3/gallon gas look cheap. How did we get from point A to point B in so little time?

Part of the answer surely is comes from Khatami failing to deliver on big campaign promises. Despite a few head to heads with the old guard controlled Guardian Council -- many of which he lost -- major social changes didn't occur. But the international surely was as important as the domestic. Nothing helped the Iranian conservatives more than the American conservatives. In the 90's, when America could not be easily portrayed as the Great Satan, the pull of the clerics was diminished. When my cousin visited her in-laws in Tehran during this period, she found them, literally, doing the Macarena. But now, it is quite easy to redraw the old cartoon of America and have it pass as a portrait. The hatred is back and we have the neo-conservatives, in large part, to thank.

When George H. W. Bush replaced Ronald Reagan, he brought in his own people. He replaced many of the names we see today with a group that has come to be known as the "realists." Where Reagan's people saw the military as a tool of foreign policy to be freely used in places like Panama and Granada, Bush's people like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell saw the military differently. Their picture was that the military ought to be used only when necessary; before committing troops, there must be a clear plan for going in, doing what needed to be done, and getting out; the military would go in heavy "with a big footprint" of overwhelming force and then get the hell out. The Reagan people had other ideas.

While on the outs, especially through the Clinton years, they organized themselves into a group called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Their founding figures are now household names: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, I Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush, and our current ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. When Cheney was appointed the chair of the committee to find a vice-presidential running mate for George W. Bush, the return to power of this group was all but assured. All that needed to happen was for G.W. to be installed in the White House.

The group included Francis Fukuyama who argued that liberal democracy had triumphed over all other political systems and that there was an emerging consensus about this across the globe. Like Hegel and Marx, who posited an "end of history," Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as the ultimate resting point towards which we as a planet were moving. The idea was simple. People want to be like the US, if we simply eliminate the obstacles, it will happen on its own. The central PNAC picture would be to eliminate authoritarian rulers, allow democracy to spontaneously appear, with it would come free market economies. This would be aided by our major corporations who would be part of the plan so that they would be right there on the ground behind the troops to provide the necessary technologies to bring the occupied country up to speed. They would have immediate access to the market and be able to corner it before anyone else stepped in. Democracy would spread and US based corporations would rake in HUGE profits. What could be better?

The only question was how to get rid of those pesky governments already in place. For this, we needed to reshape our military. No longer the 800 pound gorilla, it would become a cobra. No heavy footprint that required a lot of logistics and time, it would be quick, silent, and lethal. The rules against assassination would be lifted, special forces elevated, covert operations made easily available for foreign policy use. As soon as Bush Jr. was sworn in the changes started. Rumsfeld began working on transforming the military, Cheney began working on dismantling the standard diplomatic means, and Iraq was put immediately on the table as the first domino that would tip. It was easily vilified, it was under sanctions and so had a weak military that didn't require concern, and it had some of the largest petroleum reserves in the world.

Once Iraq was converted, every nation in the world would have two choices: fall behind us or fall because of us. You were in or out; and if you were out, you would soon be out. It would lead to American hegemony and any nation that was seen as a potential rival in power was seen as an enemy. Domestically, the quick victory with few casualties would win over the public. There would be none of the Viet Nam style pictures of coffins coming back and anti-war sentiment could be easily branded as anti-American because this would not be a protracted war, but the taking out of a dictator who opposed democracy and, after all, everyone loves a winner. If war could be waged with all the patriotic hoopla and none of the sacrifice, it could be easily sold. Inside and out, the world would have to follow the neo-cons. The 21st century would be the American Century.

And so we invaded. When Army General Eric Shinseki suggested that several hundred thousand troops on the ground would be necessary to secure Iraq after an invasion, he was immediately attacked in the media by PNAC founders Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and pressured out of the job into retirement. That many troops was old school, this was PNAC time. It would be done quickly with fanfare, embedded media for PR, and...

The spokesman had to sell the new branding. We needed the President to draw the line between us and them. He needed to use phrases like "us vs. them," "you are with us or against us," "dead or alive." Black and white language would mirror a distrust of diplomacy. We talk with our fists, so that we don't need to talk much. The initial group of targets would be set out as an "Axis of Evil."

But there were two main problems. First, the world did not fall in line. Europe -- old Europe, at least -- and much of the rest of the globe saw exactly what the plan was (of course, it was posted on their website, so this was not really very difficult) and didn't like it. Second, things in Iraq didn't quite shake out as planned. The result was a one-two punch to US foreign policy interests: on the one hand, the countries we most worry about perceive a pressing threat to their own well-being and feel the need for the most powerful weapons to defend themselves, on the other hand, with the US mired in Iraq, they see that we are virtually powerless to stop them.

And now, instead of having everyone cowering at our feet, they are laughing in our faces. By being school yard bullies, we have legitimized all the other school yard bullies. We taunted instead of talking and now we are getting taunted back. We're like the wide receiver who spikes the ball and does his in-your-face touchdown dance only to realize that he never really made it into the end zone, but spiked the ball on the 5 yard line. When Iran approached the US to discuss the situation under the former president Khatami with whom we surely could have done business, Dick Cheney's response was "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it." General Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff said "The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran." PNAC made our bed and now we are laying in it. Damn shame the pillow is radioactive.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

All Those in Favor of Personal Responsibility, Raise Your Invisible Hand

Over at Mad Melancholic Feminista, my fairy blog mother Aspazia has an amazing post about health care, women, and class. It is well worth a read. As a good philosopher, I will respond by completely ignoring the point of her discussion and taking off on a complete throw away line she tosses in. She makes a reference to the "personal responsibility crowd" and I responded with a half-cryptic comment that I think deserves to be filled out.

The idea is that when conservatives use the phrase "personal responsibility" they don't mean personal responsibility. It is dog whistle politics. It means something else, it is a code word that they understand. What they are really saying when they use the phrase "personal responsibility" is that all sociological factors must be ignored in policy discussions. Any social forces that produce predictable regularities in a given population are sheer accidents. The only thing you look at when explaining why someone acted the way they did is personal choice. "Personal responsibility" is meant to convey to the listener that agents are fully and completly culpable for their actions because there are no external influences to be discussed.

The politics of personal responsibility is a reaction. Sociology was founded in the 19th century by people who were trying to expand the fields of psychology and economics -- which themselves were still well in the early phases of being treated scientifically. Physics envy among those interested in looking at people-related phenomena led them to model the human sciences on Newtonian physics. In the 18th century, Newton's gravitational action at a distance would be taken over as Smith's invisible hand. Just as physical forces guided a planet in its orbit, so economic forces would guide rational people in their fiscal dealings. In the 19th century, this would be expanded beyond labor/currency questions to social properties more generally. We can observe, put forward hypotheses, and test statistical regularities in the same inductive way and expect there to be invisible social forces that guide things like class, education, unemployment, criminality,...

The founding fathers of sociology were not disinterested students, but were social reformers as well. They wanted to know how society worked so that they could help improve it. Since those early days, the left has been fascinated with the ways in which social forces play into social ills and the ways in which that structure could be remolded to make it more equitable. The idea of social progress through social engineering (back when that wasn't a dirty phrase) has remained a hallmark of the approach to society's problems from the left.

In the US, this hit its zenith during the civil rights movement. It was undeniable that American society was set in a way to at least disadvantage, at most completely disenfranchise a subpopulation. The social structure was clearly unfair and for justice to be done, the structure itself needed changing. The left succeeded to such a degree that even Elvis was singing "In the Ghetto." LBJ's "Great Society" promised/threatened to be a new "New Deal." White guilt allowed for progress in rehemming the American social fabric.

But white guilt has a short shelf life. In the Reagan 80's, it lost its potency amongst those in the middle and Reagan played this like a virtuoso. Personal responsibility became a buzzword that meant, "Sociology does not exist. The structure of society is irrelevant. We are not making anymore changes. Don't even look to see if there are advantages and disadvantages. They do not exist. We are not listening. Lalalalalalalala. I can't hear you. Oh, say, can you see..." It was a full on backlash against addressing social ills by changing sociological factors. You are to look at the individual and that is all. Nothing else matters. People are not pre-disposed by their circumstances, they act in complete freedom. (Yeah, there's something like this on the left of the early 20th century amongst the existentialists). They make this move, of course, because reshaping society means social programs which are tax funded.

Have some on the left taken it too far and downplayed the agency of the individual? Sure, but by in large most on the left are more than happy to say that individuals bear some responsibility for their actions. Liberals do not deny that people are responsible for their actions, but just because people bear some responsibility does not mean that society as a whole does not bear some as well. If my brother and I hold up a 7-11, I am not innocent because he is guilty. But if this is true, then we are responsible for helping bring about the changes needed to make these sorts of things less likely. And that may mean surrendering some unearned privileges. And this is exactly what those pushing the personal responsibility line do not even want on the table.

The irony, of course, is that these privileges are the bouncing baby boy of Adam Smith's invisible hand. The market forces to which those folks defer at every step were simply extended beyond the economy. But when the move was seen as disadvantageous, they simply refused to say, "Like father, like son."

Monday, April 24, 2006

PTSD and Normality

In last week's discussion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, MT made an interesting statement,

What especially makes distant times and cultures seem unfathomable to me is that what I count as "trauma" begins there as a child, and even the concept of what childhood is for and about may differ (even for a time and place so near as the coal-mining regions of the U.S. before child labor was abolished...or growing up nowadays in crack-ridden urban gang warfare zones). I suppose it's hard for something to get noticed as a syndrome when it applies to whole classes of people.
This touched on some thoughts that I myself have been having about PTSD.

We do take very much for granted the ease and lack of danger of contemporary life. Our personal sense of history tends to go back three generations. One's grandparents' time is likely the farthest back one gets a sense of and anything that has been constant over three generations intuitively appears to have always been the case. But life outside of the last three generations in the Western world is quite different. Statistics about infant mortality just 100 years ago are stunning. MT is right that our sense of trauma is one that comes from a staggering degree of comfort and security.

Add to this the fact that in the state of nature, we are from somewhere in the middle of the food chain. We were not the top predator, we were prey. Our psychological capacities came about quite recently in an evolutionary time frame. While I have concerns about certain claims by folks playing in evolutionary psychology, there is no doubt that mind has an ineliminable biological component that is the result of selection pressures. Our psyche, deep down, is that of the hunted. Hobbes was right that life in the state of nature was "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short" (I once had a blind date with a woman like that). Since our biology is in part derives from our place in the state of nature, is, as MT suggests, PTSD natural?

I do not mean natural in a normative sense in which natural is good and ought not be tampered with or prevented. Rather, I mean it in the sense that farming is not natural, we take land and we get from it more than would naturally be produced by it. We remove what would naturally be growing there, plant what we want, keep out weeds that would otherwise grow there naturally, augment the nutrients in the soil beyond what would normally be there, add water beyond rainfall,... I have to work very hard to keep my garden from reverting back to its natural state. I may work with nature to some degree in trying to grow organic vegetables, but there is no doubt that I am working against nature as well. In the same way as we cultivate land, we seem to cultivate minds in the way we structure society and perhaps PTSD is a type of weed that occupies a particular niche in the cerebral ecosystem of the psyche of a hunted species.

PTSD seesm to be the result of rewiring certain parts of the brain by experience. Such an encoding mechanism would make sense in learning to avoid dangers. But this is exactly what worries me. It was not as if some infectious agent had invaded my grandfather's body and we just needed the proper drug regimen to ward it off. It was his own body he was fighting. Websites like this one from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health seem to aim for what my grandfather experienced as a best case scenario. He was able to go on to live a normal life despite the PTSD that haunted him until his last moments. If this is the case, and PTSD is something that must be lived with and not cured, then we must come to grips with the real human costs of our social choices -- not only war, especially wars of choice, but also social and economic injustice as MT points out. Unfair labor laws and unsafe neighborhoods can have lasting effects. If Hobbes was right that morality is what takes us out of the state of nature, then we seem to be ethically bound to be vigilant in creating a civilized world where as few people as possible live lives afflicted by trauma.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The War on Comedy

If you have not read them, see these posts for an introduction to Comedism, the new religion; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; and how Comedism was founded.

This week's sermon: The War on Comedy

Fellow Comedists,

While we work to spead our message of joy and laughter across the planet, there are dark, unfunny forces opposing us. Yes, there is a war on comedy. But we cannot let them win. We must be vigilant in doing the work of the Cosmic Comic. We will prevail.

It is not the secularists we are worried about, no, they tend to be a pretty funny lot by in large. No, the war on comedy is being waged by the fundamentalists. Don't let the "fun" part fool you friends, there is nothing fun about the war they are waging against us.

The central concept in Comedism is the joke. Think about how jokes work. There are two parts to a joke. First comes the set up that makes you think about some situation in a particular way. A chicken crosses the road; the Pope, a rabbi, and a Viagra salesman walk into a bar..., some possible world is sketched for you, a scene that you think you understand.

Then comes the punchline -- "to get to the other side" or "well, at least my beer is no longer flat." What makes the punchline funny is the incongruity that it forces upon you. You now must make sense of the situation from the set-up in a completely different way. The humor exists in that moment when your brain is struggling to make sense of the two completely different competing scenarios. For a joke to be a joke, there must be more than one way to look at the world.

And that is the central belief of Comedism. There are always different ways to look at reality. The world is a multi-faceted place and it is the appreciation of these distinct perspectives, even ones that seem irreconsilable, that makes life rich, interesting, and most of all, funny.

But this is exactly what the fundamentalists of all stripes deny. They think there is one truth and one truth only...and they think that they alone have it. They do not even allow the possibility that there are multiple ways to understand reality. This is why fundamentalists are not funny and why they have declared a war on Comedy.

But we will not stand by and let them try to eliminate humor, joy, and laughter. No. We must be funny. And so I will leave you with this joke:

Sol Rosenberg dies and his soul appears before the pearly gates. There was a book and behind the book stood Saint Peter. "Oh no," Sol wails, "All this time I was a good Jew and now this happens. Just my luck." "Calm down, Sol," Peter says, "All that really matters is that you have lived a good and caring life, and you have, so I am pleased to welcome you into heaven." "Thank you so much," Sol replies.

St. Peter leads Sol down a long hallway with many, many doors. "Excuse me for asking," says Sol, "but what are all of these doors for?" St. Peter explained that each door led to a different room in heaven and that each religion had their own room.

"Which one is this?" asked Sol. "That is for Catholics," St. Peter said. "I hate to ask," said Sol, "but my son married a Catholic and his in-laws were such lovely people before they passed away. Would you mind if I just said hello?" "Of course not," said St. Peter.

After a few minutes, Sol emerged and they continued down the hall. "And what door is that?" asked Sol. "That is the atheist room." "I feel terrible for asking, but when I had my shop, the fellow next to me was an atheist, and..." "Please," said "St. Peter, motioning towards the door, "It is no problem at all."

After greeting his friend, Sol and St. Peter continued down the hallway. After a little while, St. Peter stopped Sol and motioned for him to be quiet and walk very softly. "We must not make a sound," St. Peter whispered. The crept slowly and silently along until they stopped in front of a door down the way. "Here you go, welcome to the Jewish heaven," said St. Peter. "Thank you very much," said Sol, "but I must ask. Why did we have to be so quiet when passing that one door?" St. Peter rolled his eyes and said, "That's the fundamentalists, they think they're the only ones up here."

Friday, April 21, 2006

PTSD: What About the Children?

My grandfather, with whom I was very, very close passed away from cancer while I was in graduate school. I was very fortunate that he lived only minutes from Johns Hopkins where I was finishing my dissertation and that his last couple of weeks were clearly his last couple of weeks, so that I and the family as a whole could be with him.

He had lived a full life: raising a family, running a business, raising orchids and making bonsai trees, kibitzing with everyone he met. But the defining time of his life had been World War II, during which he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd airborn, jumping behind the enemy lines before D-Day. As a teenager, I would mow my grandparents lawn and then sit with him for hours listening to old Yiddish jokes, arguing politics, and hearing the war stories. He always made sure that I knew that it was the convicts, colorful criminals with off-color pasts, let out of jail so they could serve in this unit that brought him home alive. And though it remained unsaid, it was always clear that in some indirect way I owed my existence to these people I was very lucky not to have had to associate with. Big Boy Buchanon, Jimmy D, the whole cast of them led to stories that might have been left on the editing room floor after shooting the Dirty Dozen. They were exciting, they were funny, they were poignant. Those were Pop Pop's stories and I heard them all countless times.

But when he was dying -- it was the cigars, not the Nazis that finally got him -- even though he was surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, it was the war that commanded his attention with a ferocity I had never experienced. My parents, my brother and his fiance, my soon to be wife, my aunt and uncle, all my cousins, we all sat with him up in his bedroom; but in his last two days he drifted back to Europe and the war. Sometimes it was hallucinatory, other times he knew he was in his bedroom, but he couldn't pull his mind off of the war. I saw in my grandfather's face something I had never seen before, fear. Beyond fear, it was true horror. And he would not talk about it. I tried for two days, hoping that describing it would exorcise it from his spirit. His agony was not from the disease of his body, but something in his mind. It was so painful to see my beloved Pop Pop in this anguish that I gladly would have taken the burden. But he would not speak. He would not dare expose me to whatever it was. His last act on Earth would be to protect his loved ones from his deepest demons the way he had protected the country decades before.

I will never know the particulars of it, but I know full well what it was. It was post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. In America, we think of the homeless Viet Nam vet mumbling to himself when we think of the problem. It is a soldier's ailment; a sad, but necessary part of defending larger abstract principles. But that is wrong. In our comfortbale lives, it is only our military who are most often exposed to the sort of trauma that gives rise to the disease.

And this underlying assumption about PTSD came out last week when we had Pacifica radio correspondant and author Aaron Glantz on campus for a talk (please read his book How America Lost Iraq.) He is a very insightful person who has spent much time in Iraq as an unimbedded reporter seeing first hand what real life is like for real people in Iraq. As several of us sat and chatted, someone mentioned one of the lingering costs of the war being returning troops with PTSD. His response was to look curiously and say that, yes, many of our soldiers will likely come back with it, but did we not realize that we are leaving an entire nation with it.

Much of the entire current generation of children in Iraq right now will have the same time bomb planted in their minds that my grandfather had. And it is not only Iraqis: children in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, wherever the tragedy of war is allowed to exist. They will be able, most of them, if their political, social, and economic situation allows, to grow up and function, but the trauma of their past will never leave them. There is no closure or any other pop psychology notion that can be brought in here to smooth the edges -- their minds, souls, spirits have been unalterably affected. That change will incapacitate some, but for others will be more dormant, but still present.

Our two oceans are such an incredible luxury for us. It keeps us at a comfortable distance from most of the rest of the world so that the suffering need only be observed from our living rooms between game shows and sitcoms. But that suffering does not end when the cause is mitigated. PTSD is not just for soldiers. Political decisions have lasting human consequences with very long half-lives.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Science, Society, and Lingerie

Two very interesting studies out to show that the naive version of the nature/nurture distinction has no place whatsoever in discussions of human sexuality:

Echidne of the Snakes discusses a University of Chicago study comparing the relative happiness in one's sex life with the relative status of women in one's culture. They found -- surprise, surprise --

Sex is more satisfying in countries where women and men are considered equal, according to an international study of people between the ages of 40 and 80 by researchers at the University of Chicago. Austria topped the list of 29 nations studied with 71% of those surveyed reported being satisfied with their sex lives. Spain, Canada, Belgium and the United States also reported high rates of satisfaction. The lowest satisfaction rate - 25.7% - was reported in Japan. The study was led by sociologist Edward Laumann, considered a top authority on the sociology of sex, who believes the findings show that relationships based on equality lead to more satisfaction for both genders.
As an entrant in the "obvious truth of the year" contest, we have Professor Laumann who summed up his findings with the old chestnut, "When mama's not happy, nobody's happy." Social structures influencing satisfaction with that part of life that ought to be the source of joy, passion, and intimacy...who would have thought?

The other study, blogged over at Goldbricker in her usual insightful and snarky fashion, was recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. This study demonstrates that men shown images of attractive women and lingerie are more likely to act irrationally. Subjects who were exposed to the images while engaged in a financial game were more likely to enter into unfair deals than those in the control group. Challenging Professor Laumann for "obvious truth of the year," are the researchers of the University of Leuvan with,

The suggestion is that the sexual cues distract the men's thoughts, preventing them from focusing on their task - particularly among those with high natural testosterone levels.
At the press conference, the lead researcher was quoted as saying,
These finding are preliminary, but certainly suggest a statistically significant relat... hey, who is she? I wonder if she's Austrian...
And in response to the obvious next question,
The researchers are conducting similar tests with women. But so far, they have failed to find a visual stimulus which will affect their behaviour."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Green Beret? Red Herring.

A dozen retired Generals have called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. The President continues to insist he's done a heckofa job and stand by one of the architects of the incredibly successful plan to invade Iraq and disband the Iraqi Army, leaving trained military forces, angry, recently, and unemployed, while leaving depots full of military-grade explosives unguarded. The call for a Secretary of Defense's ouster by formerly high ranking military insiders during wartime is almost unprecedented. It is a big deal. So how does the administration respond?

The President got two questions about it yesterday at his press conference announcing his new chief of OMB and sounded quite testy, on the verge of throwing a fit. The transcript does not do it justice, you have to listen to the audio.

Rumsfeld himself held a press conference yesterday at which he laid out his successes as Secretary of Defense, including those from the Ford administration, but assiduously avoiding mentions of Iraq. He contended that the generals were really just upset about the changes he wanted to bring to the military and characterized the generals position as one of a normal disagreement that people have all the time.

But today, we saw the next phase. Yesterday, Rumsfeld met with a standing group of retired generals who meet regularly with the Secretary before going off to do press interviews. They get a briefing at the Pentagon and receive their talking points for the week's news programs. We got an inside look at them this morning from retired Major General Robert H. Scales who was interviewed on Morning Edition this morning by Steve Innskeep.

We see from both Rumsfeld and Scales the three main moves that they are using to deflect the real discussion instead of legitimately answer it. (1) Red herring -- don't actually talk about the major blunders in Iraq, change the subject, (2) Strawman -- instead of dealing with the actual argument put forward by his detractors, claim that their really beef lies somewhere else and that it is trivial, (3) Ad hominem -- give caricatures of the dissenting generals as whiny, back-stabbing cry babies who are really acting out of sour grapes.

The question of Rumsfeld's performance and the accusations of incompetence by the generals is a major topic. But in response, Scales takes the conversation in a different direction. What we talked about wasn't the past, it's the future.

Specifically the issue we had for him was, "What's the next big thing in Iraq? What should the American people be looking forward to as a sign of progress? Is there a signpost or is there something along the way in the next few months that will give the American people confidence that this war is going in the right direction?" And the answer, curiously Steve, was that he responded it was the formation of a government. He made the point, which I think is probably valid, that this is much more political than it is military right now. And a lot of the confidence of the American people, and also the Iraqi people, rests on the ability of Iraqi parliament to get its act together.
Notice what just happened. Instead of addressing the actual concerns about whether the prosecution of the war has been marked with incompetence, Scales changed the subject to what would be good news to look for in the future. Admire the rhetorical power of this move. First, it takes you away from the errors of the past which are real and puts you into the fantasyland of your hopes for the future. Something that is not real and hence cannot be challenged on any factual basis. But it also is a fantastic emotional jujitsu. You were concerned with the incompetence concerning the leadership of the war effort because you really care about the country and the troops. But now by looking backwards instead of forward and in playing the blame game, you are neglecting the war and the troops. If you really cared about them, you would forget about what we did or didn't do for them and just help us envision the future. Nothing could be more uncaring than caring. National security demands forgetting about what we did to national security.

But not only that, the herring gets redder when you realize that the move was to take us completely away from the war at all. Progress in the war comes from political progress in the Iraqi parliament. If you want to see how well the war is going, look somewhere other than the war. This is the logical version of "your shoe is untied."

When Innskeep gently tried to call the general on Rumsfeld's strawman reconstruction of the generals' objections, suggesting that there might be actual reasons why the generals were making their voices heard other than a desire to avoid change, we got a new direction.

Well, certainly, the Secretary has been an instrument of change. I don't think any of us doubt that, but I'd also contend that the change in the Army began before he came on the scene. Many of us who were involved in what's commonly referred to as transformation began out efforts in the mid-90's after the first Gulf War in an effort to do what Mr. Rumsfeld continued to do when he came into office which was to build a streamlined Army, to build an Army built around brigades rather than of divisions, to build an Army that was capable of projecting itself into distant, very remote places in various corners of the world. This was something that we've all bucked. Those of us wear a green uniform have been engaged in for over a decade.
So, again, let's avoid the real question about competence in Iraq and make it about a trivial issue.

But there's one more subtle point in there that warrants pointing out, the "green uniform" comment. One undertone to the characterization of the generals as whiners is the claim that they are angry because thy are Marines and they perceive a bias on Rumsfeld's part towards the Army and its special forces instead of the Marine Corp. The dig that we in green have been doing this for over a decade, is a subtle backhand slap at Gen. Zinni and company. Pure ad hominem.

When Innskeep once again tried to get Scales to reply to the actual claims of the generals, we got the whipped cream on top.
I don't want to speculate on where the concerns are. I think the consensus among the group was as follows: this is not about Mr. Rumsfeld, this is not about disgruntled generals, it's really about what's in the national interest. That's where our focus was, Steve. The real question is to get on with the war, to look forward instead of backward, and to figure out where we're going. To establish a secure Iraq defined by a free market economy, representative democracy, and most of all security. And most of the discussion back and forth between us wasn't about his past record, but was questions from him about where we should be going in the future.
How to deal with actual concerns? Say that even discussing them would be "speculation." Clearly, to speculate would be irresponsible, so there is no sense in actually dealing with the real charges at all. Cute. We'll just call the generals "disgruntled" a label that doesn't address their concerns, but lets you the listener know that you shouldn't even consider what they have to say.
Then we get that phrase "the real question is." I train my critical thinking students to be on the look out for this varmint. Any time you see it, odds are you are looking at a red herring. The reason someone is telling you what the real question is, is because they don't like the actual real question and want to change what it is you are talking about. And what is the real question? The future, couched in terms of concern for national security. If you really cared about keeping this country safe, you wouldn't ask questions about the competence of those whose job is keeping the country safe.

Almost makes you want to not even assign a critical thinking text sometimes.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

It's a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World... or the MAD cHatter

Much is being made of whether the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would still work with a world of nuclear powers like Iran and North Korea. Ron Jacobs at counterpunch, James Robbins at National Review On-line, Slavoj Zizek at In These Times, and Belle Waring at Crooked Timber all weigh in on the question.

With the Soviet Union and China, the line goes, we could be assured that they wouldn't if we didn't and we wouldn't if they didn't. But it is different with these rogue states. I mean, they're crazy.

Surely the "mad mullahs" caricature heard from alarmist voices on the right is a cartoon. The idea that "'those people' are not rational and since we see them supporting suicide bombers, why would suicide nuclear bombers be any different" is surely flawed. But at the same time, the logic that undergirded MAD is different in this case than it was in the Cold War. There seem to be two main senses in which the current context is different.

1) The US, USSR, and China were all in the same league with respect to international reach, economic security, and military power (until the Soviet Union collapsed, of course). But with Iran and North Korea, you walk up to the table with an imbalance. You have a big guy/little guy situation and this does make for a different equation. When the odds are against you, or at least can be perceived to be against you, moves that would be utterly irrational in a normal situation can become quite rational. The odds of hitting the lottery are so slim that it is not a rational thing to do, but if all you have is a buck and you desperately need many more and it is the only possible way out of your jam, then the move becomes rational despite the long odds. The MAD doctrine as originally understood was based on a big guy vs. big guy, Cold War model of diplomacy, and that ain't what we've got here. Iran and especially North Korea may perceive themselves of having their backs against a wall while surrounded by bigger guys. This is not a good scenario for the stable stalemate that lay at the heart of MAD.

2) Bush's doctrine of premature Iraqulation threatens the basic premise underlying MAD from the other side. MAD only works if both sides perceive an immovable stalemate as the most likely, and most secure option. Each must believe that their arms will deter the other side as much as the other other side's cache will deter them. Both sides need to be completely comfortable in the belief that as long as they don't move, the other side won't either. There needs to be a universal perception of predictability. But the invasion of Iraq weakens this. Bush has shown himself, in word and deed, to be one who does not provide an absolutely dependable sense of necessary predictability. The saber rattling and undertaking major military action without complete planning gives evidence that one cannot rely on a stance of "war only when absolutely necessary." Just as the American right sees "mad mullahs" in Iran, the Iranian right sees "baffling Bushies" in Washington. The last thing you want, if you are looking for a stalemate, is nervous or unpredictable people with twitchy trigger fingers.

Add to both of these, the work that the Bush administration has done to undermine MAD: the push to develop the Star Wars missile defense shield and the bunker buster nukes both deny the central premise that we won't if you won't. The smaller sized packages make it more likely that we will use atomic means as strategic and not catastrophic weapons and the missile defense shield is designed to make it so that we can launch a nuclear strike on you with fear of reprisal. MAD was on the ropes before the announcements from Pyang Yang and Tehran.

This is not to predict a catastrophe. Iranians and North Koreans love their children, too. There is no doubt that having one of three "axis of evil" members invaded and occupied by US forces made nuclear arms seem all the more necessary for the other two evil-axees precisely for MAD-based reasons. If they have bomb, they won't be invaded -- they're playing for a tie. MAD is likely to hold -- not making it, of course, any less mad. The point, here, however, is that the foundation for this version of MAD is nowhere near as stable as it was during the Cold War, not because of mad mullahs, but for a number of other factors. And that makes me, at least, quite nervous.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

I Don't Get the Flag Burning Thing

So the House has passed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning again. I understand that the reason this continues to come up is that it is red meat for the conservative base. I understand that this is a clear-cut appeal to emotion. What I don't understand is why it packs any sort of emotional pop at this point in time.

The American flag is a symbol, nothing particularly interesting there. But a symbol for what? The trivial answer is that it represents the country. As a representation of the country, it also represents the values, ideals, and aims of the nation. Among these is freedom, which is why it was a favorite in the 60's amongst the counter-culture -- think of Peter Fonda's character "Captain America" in Easy Rider. The freedom that the hippies sought certainly was not in line with what the conservatives pictured as American, but the use of the flag as a symbol that invoked this freedom was not exclusive, it was not meant to draw lines between us and them. To the contrary, it was meant to say that they were Americans, too -- that they loved the liberty afforded them by their citizenship and showed that they were far from anti-American -- indeed, it was intended to show that they were fully realizing what they thought was the potential of being an American.

But then came Viet Nam. The flag was now adopted as the symbol for the pro-war movement. But, as Hanno pointed out to me a while back, it was at this point that the symbol became exclusive. When an overtly and explicitly political movement adopted the flag as a symbol, it now came to signify that only conservatives were real Americans.

It was in this context that flag burning became a political statement. It was meant not only to express disapproval of the war in Viet Nam, but also outrage about the terms which were now being used to define "American" in a way that kept them out of their own country. The right, by turning the flag from a symbol of unity, representing the whole country and its common shared history and values, into a mere tool of political persuasion desecrated it as a symbol. It was this politically degraded flag that became a target of political speech. Burning the flag was not an anti-American act, an act of attacking a symbol of the nation because the flag's function as a symbol of the nation as a whole had been lost. Destroying a flag, at this point, was no more anti-American than destroying a peace sign. The two were not representations of the nation as a whole, but mere political symbols representing viewpoints and their destruction was a visual representation of opposing the political perspective.

But that was then. This is now. The flag no longer has the same symbolism. No one on the left cringed when the captain of the US Olympic hockey team draped himself in the flag after their stunning victory in 1980. It was a standard part of the stump speech of Howard Dean that the flag belongs to all of us, not just to the right-wing of the Republican party. After the 60's, the flag became the national symbol again. It was largely depoliticized.

This is not to say that the right hasn't been trying to repoliticize and reclaim it. The magnetic flags on the bumpers of cars, trucks, and SUV's is clearly an attempt to redraw that line using OUR flag, the flag of ALL AMERICANS, but no one on the other side is biting (with the exception of ANSWER-type folks who seem eager and more than happy to repeat every mistake the left made in the 60's out of some sort of misplaced sense of romanticism). No one, at least no one inside of the US, is burning flags. It ain't happening. No one opposed to the conservative movement is really interested in burning flags, except to bring a potential legal challenge to what is clearly an unconstitutional abridgment of political speech. But that is not a protest burning, but a technicality necessary to protect the most basic liberties that this country stands for. So I don't see why is it still a rallying cry for the right. What am I missing?

I would say it's a strawman, but even strawmen don't burn flags. (Strawmen, after all, are themselves quite flammable and stay away from fire altogether -- remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz.) So why is it back? Is it a bizarre form of nostalgia on the right just like electing someone named "George Bush" in 2000 would make seem as if Clinton never defeated George Bush I in 1992? Is it a generational thing? Do older conservatives support this more than younger ones? Why would this be one of the things the GOP is rolling out as a central plank of their strategy for the upcoming elections? Is it like Hollywood remaking the classics hoping that the new King Kong would capture people like the original when anyone with half a brain could tell that the new version would be so inferior to the original that it would only bring derision? I just don't get the flag burning thing.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Birth of Comedism

How did the new religion, Comedism, come to be? It was many years ago (well, nine), when I was teaching ethics at night for a local community college. I was trying to draw the distinction between ethical precepts and social mores. A student raised his hand and asked, "What are mores?" I looked straight at him and replied, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." Hearing the groans of pain from my students, I realized that set ups that perfect don't just happen. That could not have been a random humorous occurrence. Think of all the possible combinations of words. To have those exact words, phrased as a question, with a captive audience,, that had to be the result of humorous design. I was in the presence of the Divine Comedian.

And so I came to realize that it was my job to spread the gospel of Comedism.

The structure is similar to that of the Judeo-Christian picture. Life is a test, when you die, your soul ascends to the pearly front of which is The Book. Behind The Book is Saint Shecky who tells you of your eternal judgment. You get only so many set ups in your few years on Earth and for every punchline you deliver, that is one mark in your favor. The "that's amore" line, one in the plus column for me. But if you miss one...

A year after the ethics class, I was out for a walk. As I ambled along, a couple walked past me. The man looked at me with a strange puzzlede look on his face. He said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" I said, "No. You must have me confused with someone else." As they walked away, I realized the correct answer was, "Excuse me. That was my wife." I had lost a Divine set up. So much the worse for my comic soul.

If you make more than you miss, you are admitted into comedy heaven where you sit at the right hand of Groucho. If you miss more than you make, you go to comedy hell where it is very hot and all the drinks are in dribble glasses. If you come out even, it is comedy purgatory for you, where you have to watch nothing but re-runs of Three's Company for all eternity.

So live a holy life, be funny. Remember the first two commandments. "Thou shalt not kill...unless thy have really good timing" and "Thou shalt not steal...unless it's a really good line and you're sure you can deliver it better."

Live, love, and laugh.

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Secular Jew at Easter

A colleague asked me the other day whether we were having a seder for Passover. We're not. She's not Jewish, but her husband is...well, he is as much as I am which is not very much. They were doing it for the kids.

Now, if there were anything resembling a regular Jewish ritual that I would want my kids exposed to, it would be the seder. It was always my favorite. With my family, that many words, that much time, and that much wine, something very, very funny was bound to happen...a lot. With the singing and the laughing, I always loved Passover. But since my brother, my cousins and I have started rolling out the next generation, no one has the room to do it. But the question is whether we should do something inferior, something less spirited, so there is at least some trace of it for the kids.

This is an issue that I have wrestled with since TheWife was first with youngin'. I abandoned the "invisible magical man in the sky" hypothesis long, long ago -- before my bar mitzvah, but that's another story. I have no desire to enforce faith traditions upon my kids that I do not subscribe to, but at the same time I feel that there is something they are being denied. It was my choice to step away, a choice my kids won't have since they won't have anything presented to step away from.

At the same time, even without the religious aspect, in some sense, I am a Jew. When I watch Woody Allen or Mel Brooks movies, I get the jokes. I like a good deli sandwich--on rye, no mayo. There is a long tradition of activism at the heart of the community that I would love to see them in touch with. Whether it was labor laws, registering African-American voters in the South, the women's rights and gay rights movements...there were always disproportionate numbers of Jews on the front lines fighting for justice. This is the part of the community I am proud to be associated with. Like any community we are multi-faceted and there are sides that I do not miss, as well. But I know all this because I was raised in Yiddle Central. There were so many Jews in my school, even the African-American kids stayed home on Yom Kippur. My kids, on the other hand, are growing up in an area where secular, muchless Jew, is rare.

Their lives aren't completely deviod of Jewish influence. I play Klezmatics CDs around the house. They see my family arguing politics loudly around the dinner table. We make lots of puns and bad jokes. They love fried matzo, latkes, and blintzes. And they know how to use all those yiddish phrases I know how to properly use in context, but don't know the literal translations of. But my in-laws are Catholic, and, while TheWife is not, we do the Easter thing. There's a great egg hunt all over our yard, a nice dinner at the in-laws, Easter baskets... I mind none of this because (a) it brings my children joy and (b) TheWife only lets the kids eat one piece of the chocolate, meaning... (and you goyim get much better chocolate. The stuff in those cheap little gold coins? Dreck.)

It seems that if they are getting one side, they should get the other as well. But, to be honest, I feel it would be disingenuous to just go through the motions of a religious ritual that I don't believe in. I don't think all Jews should be in Jerusalem next year. This would be a lot of Jews and the only way we'd fit is if we spilled over into East Jerusalem...and many of the Israeli government's actions in that sphere make me ashamed to be a Jew. My own relationship, like so many of yours, I know, is complicated. If there was a family seder, we'd go as we have in the past. But to do it myself? I would feel wrong doing it, but I feel wrong not doing it.

The part I always liked least was the bit about the Wicked Son who was called wicked because he did not include himself amongst those who needed to partake in the Passover rituals. With all of the real evil in the world, all of the suffering, war, malice, and lack of genuine empathy for others, this hardly seems to make him truly wicked...but I'm sure he was conflicted.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Catfish and Creationism

It was reported in the New York Times today that scientists in the arctic found a fossil of a 375 million year-old fish able to walk on limbs. It is being cited as a possible connection between ancient sea dwelling animals and tetrapods, the earliest land-dwellers. Filling in this missing part of the puzzle will generate plenty of work for evolutionary biologists.

And, of course, every boon to evolutionary biologists requires the usual political nonsense. From the Times article,

Dr. Shubin's team played down the fossil's significance in the raging debate over Darwinian theory, which is opposed mainly by some conservative Christians in this country, but other scientists were not so reticent. They said this should undercut the argument that there is no evidence in the fossil record of one kind of creature becoming another kind.
First of all there is no "raging debate over Darwinian theory." As if (1) this evidence was really that crucial to making a reasonable case for speciation, (2) the opponents will treat it honestly. But it does warrant some thought about how and why it undercuts the creationist or intelligent design argument.

The usual line that you see so frequently is that creationists or ID folks are putting together a purely eliminavist case. They do nothing but try to poke holes in evolution and then assert that this shows that their preferred alternative must therefore be true. But this alternative is not scientific, the line goes, because, following Karl Popper, it is not falsifiable and all scientific propositions are falsifiable. These discoveries serve to not only undermine the negative arguments of the anti-Darwin crowd, but highlight the unfalsifiability of their own view.

The problem is that Popper's view is wrong. Even the best scientific theories have parts that are unfalsifiable. Take Newton's first law that anything in motion with no net external force applied to it will move in a straight line at uniform speed. This is unfalsifiable -- there are no objects subject to no net external forces. This is not true of anything and yet is a founding principle of the theory.

One claim is that there theory as a whole is falsifiable. But when counter-examples are found, we do not -- as Popper requires -- consider the theory refuted, rather we make changes to parts of the theory but do not touch other parts. This was exactly what happened when the planet Neptune was discovered. The orbit of Uranus was not as predicted,so instead of throwing out Newton's theory, we changed another assumption, that there were seven planets. Real scientists, doing real science, refused to allow parts of the real sceintific theory to be falsified.

This was all pointed out by Popper's student Imre Lakatos. Lakatos argued that parts of every scientific theory are considered unfalsifiable. This hard core would never be messed with, but was surrounded by a protective belt of other assertions. This belt could be adjusted as needed to save the hard core. There are unfalsifiable parts of evolutionary theory, just as there are in ID. Indeed, the work of some of the more clever ID folks seems to show that in information theory and other branches, there may be something that is at least indirectly falsifiable about intelligent design. If some versions of creationism and intelligent design are indeed unfalsifiable, it doesn't mean that every such version is necessarily, in princple, so.

But we can, according to Lakatos, tell better from worse theories. Better theories are ones that need less adjustment or whose adjustments make it more testable -- that is, open to more cases where it might make wrong predictions. These theories are progressive. Worse theories are ones that need more frequent adjustment and whose adjustments make them less testable. These theories are degenerate.

This is what we see with each new fossil. It takes evolutionary theory makes a big progressive leap and the non-evolutionary theories need to adjust their protective belts in a way that makes them degenerate. There is reason to think that each one of these new discoveries does support evolution over its theologically inspired competitors, but it is not because of falsifiability as we often see claimed.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nazi References, Patriotic Correctness, and Survivors on the Current State of Affairs

There was a piece on NPR yesterday about a self-described neo-Nazi running for the state legislature in Montana (although he's the only Republican in the race and MT tends to be quite red, it's a heavily Democratic district around Butte so there was little chance of his winning to start with -- less of a chance now that his allegiances are out in the open).

Over at Kos, there was a discussion about it yesterday under the title "Are Republicans Nazis? One Nazi says not quite, but close enough for him!" The diarist requested that we "pay special attention to the part where he describes why he's running as a Republican." The reasons stated by Sean Stewart, the candidate, for his choosing to run as a Republican were an understanding that third party candidates almost never win and that there were certain affinities between his beliefs and those of the Republican party, namely, being anti-abortion, pro-gun, and anti-gay.

The on-line world is well acquainted with Godwin's law which states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." The claim in this case was that it was the exception to the rule because the person in question actually is a Nazi.

But this is wrong. What we are seeing here is the fallacy of guilt by association. It may be true that this neo-Nazi has some views in common with mainstream Republicans. This does not mean that comparisons between Nazism and American conservatism are warranted. Having some views in common with evil people does not entail that you share other views -- especially the really, really evil ones. It is a little known fact that the Third Reich was the first modern government to pass nature preservation laws. But the fact that Hitler's government passed the Tierschutzgesetz of 1933, the Reichsjagdgesetz of 1934, and the Reichsnaturschutzgesetz of 1935 does not mean that the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club can be tarred as fascist organizations.

Hitler and Nazi references are too cheap. Jon Stewart said it best when he said that, "that guy worked too hard for too many years to become that evil to have any Tom, Dick, or Harry come along and say, 'Hey, you're being Hitler.' No. You know who was being Hitler? Hitler." Any time someone of this generation makes a Nazi reference it ought to send up a red flag (not the kind with a swastika on it).

The people who have legitimate warrant to make such references are the ones who were there. To compare that time to this or any other time takes a sense of perspective that may only be acquired through direct experience or serious historical scholarship.

It is interesting, though, to hear from those who were there. I have been working for the last couple of years on an oral history project relating to the philosophers I write on. They are called the Logical Empiricists and worked mainly in Vienna and Berlin between the World Wars. When Hitler came to power and purged the universities in 1933, they were scattered as many of them were Jewish and all were quite vocal opponents of Nazism. I have been speaking with the few remaining members of the movement and their widows, children, and students. These people have been wonderful. They have been incredibly open with their stories and their remembrances, even ones that are quite personal.

But a strange thing has happened in virtually every interview. Once we have finished the conversation, there is always an awkward pause and then the person, at first somewhat tentatively but more and more stridently, voices serious concern about the current state of affairs in the US. When I engage them in the discussion, they go on to tell me how worried they are about the path that the US government is going down. Of course, if you sit long enough in a room with Jews you will eventually start talking politics. That is how life is. But this was different. It was as if they just want to make sure that something got said, that these things wouldn't go without having been talked about, that there would be no sin of silence.

These are people who all were affected by the war. One had his father, a logician trained under David Hilbert, die in Auschwitz; another, the widow of a prominent philosopher, had her father who was old and suffering from Parkinson's put a gun to his head and pull the trigger rather than wait for the Nazis to come for him; one was the daughter of a famous philosopher whose girl scout troop got folded into the Hitler Youth; and two were mathematicians and completely secular Jews who escaped -- the symmetry of these cases was stunning, in both cases their American wives (both remarried) felt it necessary to tell me their husbands' stories and how hard it was for them because the husbands themselves refused to say anything as they felt that any hardship experienced on their part was trivial compared with the suffereing of so many whom they knew perosnally. It seemed inappropriate, almost obscene, for them to dwell upon or glorify their own story in any way when they had the unbelievable good fortune to come to America and have wonderfully successful personal and professional lives while their friends and extended family suffered inexpressibly.

It is from these people, not some punk, college kid in Montana, that we ought to pay attention and take serious pause. The situation on the ground here seems to have changed since I first started conducting these interviews. No longer is the Minority Leader of the Senate publicly declared unpatriotic for voicing mild criticism of the administration. The protectors of Patriotic Correctness seems to have lost some of their enforcement power. But, nevertheless, we need to pay attention when our elders speak. And they are worried for their grandchildren.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How did ethics get reduced to abortion?

Aspazia, over at Mad Melancholic Feminista, asks a good question -- do anti-abortionists use the same logic as racists? The answer is, in part, yes. The explanation of that answer related to another interesting and seemingly obvious question that no one seems to ask, "How did abortion -- out of all the issues that we deal with in this culture -- become the issue?" how did all of ethics get reduced to abortion?

The answer is similar to why Ward Churchill, a little known academic, is opposing David Horowitz in public debates as the face of the left. How did this guy, who had little recognition, muchless influence on contemporary progressive viewpoints, become someone who could be put up as the face of the movement? The answer is that the right chose him and they get to set up the debate. This is not merely a quesiton of framing -- that deals with the linguistic structures we use in discussing issues. This is the even more important question of detemrining what it is that gets onto the cultural agenda in the first place, and the left was suckered into giving up that power. The source of this shift goes back a couple of decades.

Under Nixon, the Republicans realized that the only way to break the strangle hold that the Democrats had on federal politics was to find a way to bring some of the traditional Democratic voters into thier ranks. they looked for the most tenuous connection and found it in the South where vestiges of the not-so-Civil War had made the Dems the party of the region. But there was no wedge so divisive in the area as race and it could easily be used to sever the connection between the Dixiecrats and the party of the Voting Rights Act. (Kevin Phillips, one of the architects of this plan, has a new book out American Theology -- read it.)

After picking off low-hanging fruit like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and those behind them, the right realized that just as Martin Luther King's power was in his pulpit, so too the white churches could be the best place from which to launch their political attack in the coming decades. The growing evangelical movement contained many working class voters who traditionally voted Democratic -- if at all. If they could be turned out on election with explicit instructions from clergy on how to vote Republican, it would allow them not only to control the South, but also the Midwest where racism under the guise of "states' rights" was not the motivator it was in the old slave states.

The problem was that the Republican platform opposed the actual intersts of those people.The solution was to refocus the southern strategy. No longer about segregation, they would pick a small handful of issues that these folks would go nuts over and paint a bulls-eye on the fronts of the despicable liberals. The left’s views could be lampooned as against the church, against God and country. This handful of bogeymen would keep closed ranks behind charismatic preachers wiht whom political bonds had been forged. And if the church was behind you, then the ethics game is won because how could the church not be on the side of moral values? And so absolute adherence to theological doctrine, some of it quite non-mainstream, became a standard substitution on large swaths of the right for any and all moral deliberation of any real depth.

The key is, in the Bard’s immortal phrase, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Conservatives would take both the middle class and Evangelical working class away from the Democrats by being clever. The trick would be not only to pick their battles, but to then sucker the left into making those and only those battles into the entire war. It was the equivalent of setting up a rigged bet and making the rube go in all or nothing. It was ethical three-card monty and the liberals were sure they could find the queen this time.

The left had won the morality battle over civil rights, so the key was not to press the old racist line – that line is known to be a sure loser with the suburbanites. Instead of trying to reinstate Jim Crow, the right would instead focus their entire attack on a tiny little insignificant corner of the discussion, the unfairness of affirmative action. Everything else having to do with civil rights would be eliminated from the discussion and affirmative action in hiring and college admissions would become the sole battleground for all civil rights issues. Further, affirmative action would be spoken of only in terms of blind quotas that are cast as forcing the promotion of less qualified minorities into positions that by all rights belong to more qualified white men. The deepest, darkest fears of Suburbia – the loss of upward mobility, not only failing to keep up with the Joneses, but not even keeping up with the Jacksons – would be exploited. The delicious irony of this move is that civil rights advocates, those who had been willing to sacrifice their own lives to secure the rights of others, could now easily be portrayed as the ones in favor of discrimination. In this framing, supporting civil rights isn't morally right, it's morally wrong. Opposing civil rights is now both in the interest of white suburban families and morally justified.

Similarly, the left won the morality battle over women's suffrage and were making head roads into the furthering of women's rights. So pick your battle and make that the only issue on the table. Instead of trying to take away the vote or defending unequal pay for equal work, all discussion of women’s rights would be single-mindedly focused upon the legality of abortion. Abortions aren’t needed by good girls from suburban homes, only those promiscuous sluts from the other side of the tracks who need to be taught to take responsibility for their wicked ways. By opposing abortion, the entire suburban ethos, as well as the chastity of their precious little girls, was being defended. Even more, everyone knows that God hates abortion as much as he hates gays, maybe more. Those who don’t condemn abortion are clearly showing how much they hate God. Those who were advocating justice for women, control over their lives and bodies, and a more fairly constructed family were portrayed as trying to murder innocent babies and destroy the foundation of the family and undermine faith itself. In this framework, with every other issue that concerns the welfare of women securely off the table, supporting women's rights isn't morally right, it's morally wrong.

And the same move is made on the environment, foreign policy, gay rights, public health, education,...wherever the left had the moral high ground, the right would seek some very small corner of the fight where the issue could be reframed in such a way as to threaten the comfort of the middle class. That issue would have its profile raised to the point where it could be substituted for the entire area of moral concern. In this way, the right could reduce the complexity of inter-related issues to one single debate that they were confident they could win and thus deem themselves morally superior. By carefully picking and choosing their battles against public schools, against helping needy children, against environmental regulation, they could invert the ethical equations making right into wrong. The left had attacked moral issues like the British Redcoats, openly marching in a row stretching all the way across the moral battlefield, sure of their power. The right would hide behind trees waging a guerilla war against morality, choosing where and when to fight moral battles.

And like Washington’s rag-tag army, they won.

What cemented the success of this move was its reception on the left. Progressives have a deep, core distrust of people or institutions who claim to have exclusive possession of unrevisable truth and/or principles of moral rightness and who demand unquestioning adherence. This is why blind patriotic correctness and certain forms of institutional religion are seen as deeply problematic. Liberals look at history to learn that even our most cherished beliefs may in time be shown to be wrong, there is something to be learned from folks who see or do things differently, and that when we hand over our minds to some authority – even one that is claiming to protect us from earthly or other worldly evil, be it Osama or Satan – we are inviting serious abuses of our loyalty by those in power. The examples are legion.

It was from this desire to avoid the closed-minded absolutism that lay at the heart of the new so-called “Moral Majority” on the right, that the left placed tolerance in a privileged position above virtually all other virtues. Since no one knows everything, we need to allow everyone a seat at the table. “If the right wants to say that ethics is a matter of appeal to absolute authority,” said progressives, “then we want no part of it. Let them have it.”

And so the liberals accepted the picture of ethics as blind adherence to radical theology and rejecting radical theology, they forfeited virtually all public discussions of ethics. And that is a big part of how we got to where we are today. That is part of the reason that war, hunger, pollution, and health care are no longer seen as issues of morality.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Giving Thanks and Birthday Wishes

Over at Mad Melancholic Feminista, my fairy blog-mother Aspazia had a wonderful post about realizing how good you have it. Today is my birthday, making it a good day for some introspection and reflection.

Like Aspazia, I am incredibly thankful in a world where so many get trapped in a mindless, "gotta keep the paycheck and health insurance, but I really hate my" job, that I get to do what I love. I play for a living. And do it with wonderful playmates, some at the college and others who also come out to play here.

Most important is my family, the joy of my life, especially TheWife. It amazes me just how many families out there are really screwed up, so to have a wonderful, warm, supportive family who is healthy (one recent surgery, not withstanding) around me is a source of comfort to no end.

One thing that this blog-thingy has brought back is the number of dear friends -- from every part of my life, from childhood to former students of the last couple years -- who are an indelible part of me. Thank you all for being there and for being thoughtful, passionate, and funny.

Life is a busy place and you often forget how charmed a life you live, especially when there are many who have it so hard. Thank you all and please know that I love you guys -- even the ones who for some reason have come to enjoy this silliness and come here to read, but whom I have yet to meet.

As I blow out these candles on my e-cake, let me make one wish (now that Tom Delay has droped out, it's down to one). TheWife took me out to celebrate the other night and as we were watching Big James and the Chicago Playboys, it was announced that Miss Olga was there celebrating her birthday, too...her 85th birthday. While I hope none of us are spending too much time in bars when we are 85 years old, I do hope that all of us, like Miss Olga, get to enjoy not only great longevity, but never give up enjoying that life we have. I wish for everyone the ability to seek out joy for years and years. Happy birthday Miss Olga...I want to be just like you when I grow up.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Judas, Spotted Owls, Bogeymen, and the "N-word"

Judas, the bogeyman of the Easter story, seems to be getting a facelift. Apparently not the greedy turncoat, he was instead the trusted confidant only doing what was asked of him according to a recently released Gospel.

It is interesting how, at times like this, texts which were seen as set and sacred and to the minds of many delivered fully translated and edited, are revealed to be the work of political wrangling. So it is with many of our narratives, they are works of politics and the bogeymen are constructed.

I've been seeing busses with advertsing for a movie called "Hoot," with the tag-line "It's time to stand up for the little guy." The image is of three kids standing between a bulldozer and a cute little owl (looking spotted). Kids protecting cute little owls against nasty developers. No doubt every bit as formulaic as any other Hollywood, kid's movie.

But what is interestng is that it is owls that are getting the protection. The anti-environmentalists have a narrative in which the spotted owl plays a special role. For them, the spotted owl represents what is wrong with caring about nature -- it shows how out of touch liberals care only about silly little birds they will never see and nothing of the people who live near them, their jobs, lives, or property rights. It is a strawman argument designed to justify a lack of concern about the world we leave our kids. If you are green-minded, then you prefer spotted owls over families and you are not the morally upstanding person you think. By not being worried about the environment, I am more moral than you. It is another classic example of the sort of inversion of values that Nietzsche pointed out.

What is interesting is that this is a deliberate effort to undermine that narrative, to take the spotted owl back as a symbol. To reclaim it much in the same way that Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor tried to reclaim the word "nigger" in the 60's and 70's -- by embracing it in a way that re-assigns its meaning, you counter those who use the symbol against you.

Judas and the spotted owl were bogeymen whose image may be getting a make-over. Others that we could reclaim?