Helmut, over at phronesisaical a few days ago asked a good question -- "What sort of post do I need to write to get lots of comments and links?" I think I've succeeded in answering the inverse question -- how do I write a post to guarantee no comments? Two words: Polish politics.
So what makes a post that you respond to and what makes one that you don't?
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Helmut, over at phronesisaical a few days ago asked a good question -- "What sort of post do I need to write to get lots of comments and links?" I think I've succeeded in answering the inverse question -- how do I write a post to guarantee no comments? Two words: Polish politics.
The Polish Prime Minister is in Brussels to try to smooth over the rough relations that have developed of late with their fellow European Union member states. Things seem to be a bit odd in Poland and I'm wondering how seriously we need to be concerned about it.
A recent EU report found some troubling trends in the country.
In a resolution adopted in Strasbourg, the deputies condemned "the general rise in racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic intolerance in Poland," blaming it in part on religious platforms like Radio Maryja. "The EU should take appropriate measures to express its concerns and notably to address the issues of the participation in the government of the League of Polish Families, whose leaders incite people to hatred and violence," it said.At a remembrance ceremony at Auschwitz last year, groups representing homosexuals were not invited to participate.
The director of the Museum of the Former Camp of Auschwitz did not reply to a request from Poland’s gay activist NGO Campaign against Homophobia to lay a wreath to the gay victims. Neither was the Campaign’s delegation officially admitted to the ceremony of commemoration.This, of course, is that illustrious "New Europe" that our administration was dearly hoping would replace that stodgy old Europe with their socialized medicine, free college, and liberal vacation policies. There are also now rumblings about trying to bring back capital punnishment.
Poles elected identical twins, Lech and Jaroslav Kaczynski as President and Prime Minister from the "Law and Justice" party which is a hard right-wing political organization. They may not be as far right as, say, France's National Front, Holland's List Pim Fortuyn, or Austria's Freedom Party. But that's not saying a lot, especially when they partnered with the "League of Polish Families" party which can be comfortably placed amongst this company. The LPF have recently restarted the nationalist children's organization "All-Polish Youth."
The pull of these groups has led even Solidarity to fall in line and the legendary founder of the organization, Lech Walesa recently turned in his union card and resigned because of it.
Mr Walesa said he did not like the policies of the Kaczynski brothers and would boycott Solidarity's anniversary celebrations so he would not have to appear with them, the BBC's Adam Easton reports from Warsaw. Mr Walesa once fired the twins when they worked as his advisers while he was president in the 1990s. "His approach is to first destroy and then think about what to build," Mr Walesa said last month of the country's current president, Lech Kaczynski.I don't know if this is localized (things seem to be worrisome in neighboring Lithuania, as well) or a normal part the nationalizing process (once the honeymoon of liberation wears off and many problems still remain, scapegoating is to be expected to some degree). But I'd be interested in hearing thoughts. Helmeut? Ducksters?
Monday, August 28, 2006
I've been reading more and more from folks who hold the "Hillary is unbeatable for the Dem nomination in 2008" hypothesis to be strongly supported bordering on the fatalistic. The primary, they argue, is a fait accompli. I don't get it.
I'll grant that she has unparalleled access to BOPOMs (big ol' pots of money) , but I guess I just don't see -- outside of Barbara Streisand and a handful of Manhattan billionaires -- who her natural constituency is. I would love to have it explained to me because it seems like I'm missing something obvious here.
Progressives aren't fond of her because she has run away from virtually every truly progressive stance, including but not limited to her finger in the wind support for the invasion of Iraq, for what appears to be the sole cynical purpose of positioning herself as a "moderate" before her run for the presidency. Mainstream Democrats don't like her describing her with derogatory terms that are nothing short of stunning. In representing everything the entrenched party machine stands for, the on-line Democratic "take back our party" netroots certainly aren't in her corner. While her stances and voting records mirror Lieberman's, the chances of seeing the same sort of sympathetic GOP rally 'round the fake moderate movement that we're seeing for Joementum is about as likely as seeing Billy Barty in the pro basketball hall of fame. Purely conjecture here, but the swing voters (should they still exist) seem like the ones who would be most affected by the perception that her desire to achieve power is really all about her. So is it the working moms who are supposed to identify with her? Who is her natural base? Where would her hard core, unshakable support come from? I mean one does still need votes to win an election*, no?
(*May not apply in Florida and Ohio)
I understand that the current resident of the White House was put there by conservatives who felt that having a president named "George Bush" would be a symbolic repudiation of Clinton's defeat of H. W. Bush in the first place and make it seem that the country had rejected all things Clintonian. I also understand that some think of Hillary's election as the mirror image of this. Bill and Hillary will be swept back into the White House, the Democratic party insiders hope, by a groundswell of Democrats and independents yearning for those simpler times when the worst problems we had in the country had to do with consentual sex between adults and which telephone Al Gore was using. To elect Hillary would be tantamount to a nationwide "oops, I don't know what we were thinking letting him sit in the driver's seat, we should have stayed with the Clinton program" sort of thing. But I don't think that equation works. Bush was widely, albeit naively, seen in the run-up to 2000 as harmless. He was just an affable goofball and the government had a life and inertia of its own and things would run as they always did, so it really wasn't a big deal who was president.
But two things have changed. First, after the twin debacles of Iraq and Katrina, there is now no doubt in anyone's mind that it does matter who sits in the Oval Office, making symbolism far too petty to be taken seriously anymore. Secondly, with Hillary, you get Hillary. She isn't the blank page that Bush was thought to be. Rightly or wrongly, every move she has made in the last six years has been attributed to presidential aspirations -- and, to be honest, it does seem like an inference to the best explanation. The undeniable aura around her is one of a cynical, calculating politician in the most pejorative sense of that term and as a result, I don't think name recognition or nostalgia for the pre-recession dot-com boom era will garner many votes. To the contrary, name recognition is most likely her biggest problem. Even if Bravo came out with a new series entitled "Queer Eye for the Self-Interested, Nakedly Ambitious Presidential Candidate" starring Carson Cressley and Naomi Wolf and Hillary was chosen as their first project, any attempt to change her image would be doomed. Not only is that image so deeply entrenched, but any move to change or soften her in order to get more votes would be widely criticized as just another move to change or soften her in order to get more votes. Al Gore was trashed for "reinventing himself" whenever he was actually being Al Gore, can you imagine the media frenzy if Hillary actually did try to reinvent herself?
In the last go 'round all we heard from the Hillary-wing of the party was that Democrats need to ignore their best judgment about which candidate actually shared their values, was willing to fight for them, and had the authenticity to be a good president in order to look at nothing other than electability. Electability, we were told, was all that mattered and whatever "electability" meant, part of it was immunization from attack by the Republican slime machine. "Vote for a decorated Vietnam vet," we were told by them, "There's no way they could impugn the patriotism of someone like that. If our guy is a war hero, it will mean that they can't say that our candidate doesn't strongly support the troops." Sigh. Now those same masters of prognostication and political insight are arguing that Hillary, without serious opposition, will and ought to be the Democratic candidate? Yeah, those mean old Republicans would never ever say anything bad about Hillary Clinton, after all, she's electable...I just can't figure out by whom.
As the old drumbeat starts in the direction of Iran, I've been thinking about the reasoning used by those in power and the reasoning they project onto those not in power. While the usual goal of diplomacy is negotiating ways to live together; really, underlying it all is the attempt to get people to do what you want them to do or at least to get them to stop doing what you don't want them to do.
This is especially true with the neo-conservative foreign policy of our current administration. The idea is that America, as the strongest and most prosperous corporate democracy, has reached the end goal of socio-politico-economic development and therefore has the right and obligation to bring along the rest of the world and align them with our national/corporate interests for their own good. Foreign policy is really a matter of bending others to our will.
Now, this requires getting inside the heads of those with whom you are negotiating and figuring out what would motivate or discourage them from acting. This requires understanding the rational processes of the other. Very often we hear that enemies of the US, be it Kim Jong Il in North Korea or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, are "crazy" or "irrational." Maybe they are, maybe they aren't; but in cases of asymmetric power, I'm wondering if we aren't seeing here a misunderstanding of rationality, a projection of rationality from the position onto a place where it does not belong.
You see it over and over again: the way the US deals with North Korea and Cuba, the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians,... The approach is based on the old Pavlovian notion of positive and negative reinforcement. If you push the left pedal, we give you a painful shock; if you press the right peddle, we give you a food pellet. Thereby we train you to push the pedal we want you to push. Indeed, the more you push the wrong pedal, the more painful the shocks will become. The more and the longer you act in a way that we do not approve of, the more difficult we make life for you -- all the time showing you that we will stop the pain if only you do what we want. Of course, the rational person prefers the absence or the eleviation of pain to the experiencing of pain, and so not allowing your will to be bent to ours under these circumstances is irrational because in acting in that way you are freely chossing pain where you do not need to be experiencing it. What kind of idiot prefers the stick to the carrot?
This is the reasoning of people who have something to lose and the foundational standard of rationality that they apply to everyone, regardless of their relative wealth, power, or circumstances.
But, of course, that sort of cost/benefit analysis is not the one made by those with less power. First, what is on the line is not just pain or no pain, but one's dignity and existence as a person or nation in and for itself. The surrendering of autonomy is a major cost that is not included in the calculation by the powerful. It may be the case that no carrot is worth suffering the stick that takes away one's soul and going along is to give in and give up more than merely spiteful resistance. Those who are in control think only on the operative level because they are never faced, muchless are not virtually always faced with questions on the existential level -- they know their basic status as a free agent is safe and only have to decide what to do as a free agent. Not so on the other end of diplomatic shotgun. It is not childish intransigence, as it may appear from the perspective of the powerful, but the fight to maintain one's self as an autonomous being, to preserve one's very humanity.
But further, there is something else in play here that makes such cost/benefit analyses seem problematic in the first place. The rationality of an act is context dependent -- the rationality of this bet is not just based upon an examination of this bet, but also other bets you have made. There are what we call "Dutch book" bets (apologies to Hanno) in which you have a series of bets, each one being rational by itself, but when taken together guarantee that the bettor will lose money. It is always irrational to take such bets.
But there is a similar, but subtly different case -- what SteveD long ago termed "Vegas book" bets -- which turn not on other bets, but other environmental factors. These bets are irrational all other things being equal, but may be rational when all other things aren't equal. Take the lottery -- what a bumper sticker I saw once referred to as a tax on those who can't do math. The lottery is usually a bad bet because the payoff is less than the odds of winning. The reward needs to be at least as great as the risk. If you are flipping a coin for money and not getting paid 2:1 for winning, you will lose money over the long run regardless. To play such games for purposes of winning money is therefore irrational. But suppose you need $100,000 quickly or a mobster will break your kneecaps and you only have a dollar in your pocket. The odds of winning that $100,000 on the lottery is less than 100,000:1, but what other choice do you have? You would be an idiot to not take the bet, even though it is a bad bet. If someone with a lot of chips raises in poker, it must be seen differently than if someone with fewer chips raises. What is rational when you are in control is different from how you ought to play when you are not.
The powers seem to be looking at those without much in the global political capital and assuming that they are going to play like those who have all the chips. When you have both little and everything to lose, you play differently. Seemingly bizarre actions become perfectly rational and the old equation of "they'll come around if we just make life difficult enough" fails to work. The true believers will hew and cry that we just haven't been tough enough on them. "We will break you." And the more they resist and fight back against those with much more power, the worse it becomes for them, the slimmer the odds and the more rational we make seeming irrationality.
If we want to have any hopes of being diplomatically successful and (if our intentions are actually noble) making this a better world, then, given that we hold most of the chips, it seems like those who make policy need a deeper understanding of the rationality of the powerless.
So I'm writing a biography of Descartes for the high school reader. I love the idea of exposing kids who generally don't see it to philosophy, the history of science, and the history of math. But I'm starting to wonder if the themed narrative biography is really the way to go. Kids today are "visual learners" and I'm thinking that it should be screenplay.
With the Philosophers' Drinking Song and "G'day Bruce," Monty Python (holy be thy name) has the nerd comedy angle covered and the little known Stealing Heaven which depicts the story of Abelard and Heloise covers the cheesy, romantic, chick-flick genre. What we still need is something for the adrenaline-soaked, testosterone-laden, 14-year-old boy thriller niche. We need someone to do for philosophy what Indiana Jones did for archaeology. That's why I am suggesting -- Rene Descartes: Action Adventure Hero.
Stay with me here. Descartes contracted tuberculosis as a newborn from his mother and was pale and sickly throughout his childhood. But as a young adult he found himself in robust health and compensating for his early years, he studied fencing, becoming quite good with a sword, and became a mercenary, learning the military arts from Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, a famed tactical genius. The Catholic Descartes lived in Holland and served under the Protestant Maurice as he was engaged in battle against the Spanish-Austrian monarchy, a mutual enemy of Holland and France. But once the war enlarged and became sectarian, Descartes fought for the Catholic Bavarian army of Maximilian I against Maurice and his former comrades.
Historians disagree over whether Descartes saw combat with either force, but they do agree on one episode... After leaving Maximilian's army, Descartes returned home to France following a leisurely, circuitous route seeing much of central Europe on the way. Taking a boat to Holland, Descartes traveled with only his manservant. At the time, wealthy men were often accompanied by large entourages, including bodyguards. Seeing that Descartes had no such protection, hearing him speak well-heeled French to his servant, and seeing him dressed in taffeta with an ostrich-feather plumed hat, the rough-necked crew took Descartes to be a wealthy French merchant, and a bit of a pufter at that. Thinking he could not understand Dutch, they openly plotted to rob and murder Descartes, feeding his corpse to the fishes. Of course, having lived in holland, Descartes understood every word and realizing he was outnumbered, saw the element of surprise as his best tool. Waiting for just the right moment, in one smooth motion, Descartes drew his sword and pounced on one of the sailors, knocking him against the side of the boat putting the tip of his sword to the man's throat. In a calm, clear voice, Descartes explained in Dutch that he understood every word said. He was tired from the war, he declared, but no so tired that he would not happily kill each and every one of them himself. Seeing his desired destination from the ship, he then politely asked if one of the crew would mind rowing him and his manservant ashore. The suddenly genial sailors thought this was a smashing idea and Descartes was taken to land where he went on to discover analytic geometry, modern philosophy, a version of Copernican cosmology based on an early form of the principle of relativity, and the strange idea that dogs are just hairy little robots (can't win 'em all, I guess).
This is exciting stuff, but for Hollywood it would still need some puffing up. So I'm thinking that in the movie version, Descartes rows himself and his manservant (the bumbling sidekick used for comic relief) ashore. But when they get halfway there, Descartes turns to the camera and says, "Cogito ergo BOOM." Camera cuts to the ship which is torn apart in a fiery explosion with flaming bodies flung in all directions. Quick cut back to a close up to Descartes who winks and says, "I think, therefore they are not."
So the only thing I can't figure out is who plays Descartes. I'm thinking it should be someone British because there is nothing that says continental Europe in American cinema like a British accent. But I'm also open to other possibilities. Suggestions?
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,
This weekend's sermon is about sacrificing for Comic righteousness. Yes, doing the funny thing is not always easy, as we discussed a few weeks ago, and sometimes doing the funny thing is not always cheap. But, as good Comedists, we must put the punchline before the bottom line; to truly serve the will of the Cosmic Comic, we must value a great joke more than gold.
And no one teaches us this lesson better than Gerald Ratner. Mr. Ratner was the son of the founder of Ratner's, British jewelry retailer, and eventually became the company's chief executive where his business savvy built the company up into an extremely large and successful chain. As chief executive, it was his job to address the company's Institute of Directors. In April 1991, the gathering was held at the Royal Albert Hall and the good Mr. Ratner took the stage.
A joke, at such occasions, often loosens up the crowd. So Mr. Ratner uncorked a classic.
We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, 'How can you sell this for such a low price?' I say, 'because it's total crap.'"The joke went over extremely well...at first. It brought the house down...and then it brought the company down.
Reporting of the joke caused the brand to itself become a joke and sales plummeted. On the brink of financial implosion, Mr. Ratner was fired as chief executive, removed from the board of company, and in the end his total monetary losses totaled half a billion pounds...that's ONE BILLION US DOLLARS, uh huh, Gerald Ratner is the man who told a $1,000,000,000.00 joke.
Mr. Ratner, Comedists everywhere stand in awe of your righteousness (except those who are physically challenged, of course, but they are damn impressed too.) May we all learn to live by your example. You may have become the butt of many a joke, but we consider you a holy man. Please always know we are there to laugh with you in addition to at you.
But if I may be so brazen as to dare to make a suggestion to you Mr. Ratner, a wise guy so great, might I humbly raise the possibility that on the homepage of your new on-line jewelry retail outlet, Gerald Online, you begin to include a "joke of the day."
So the moral to take away from this week's Comedist meditation is that laughs are worth more than silver or gold...but, of course, if you can get an agent with William Morris because of your stand-up act, you should probably still do it.
Live, love, and laugh.
Friday, August 25, 2006
A few posts back there was an interesting discussion about the utilitarian concerns about Democracy that go all the way back to Plato -- if you leave the power to make decisions in the hands of the people, how do you know they won't completely screw it up? Is Democracy a desirable end in itself or is it claimed to be the best means for some other desirable end, say maximizing freedom or standard of living or some other measure of the good life? If it is claimed to be the best means to human flourishing, on what grounds should we accept this claim?
The always insightful I, put it this way:
Hanno--By "faith in democracy" I mean believing in the process, that it works for the good of the people, that it is a better system than any given alternative, that it truly has the power to produce enlightened decisions instead of mob mentalities, that it isn't just the least bad of the political options available. Unless you have a deductive argument proving with certainty that democracy provides this, I'd say there's an element of faith involved when we engage in the democratic process. Geez, these days voting alone is an act of faith that one's vote will even be counted.
Hanno, not one to let things lay -- especially a challenge like that -- replies this way:
On the contrary, there is no reason at all to think that the majority will make decisions for the good of the people or even of the majority.Giving you the freedom to make choices certainly does not in any way assure that you will make the right choices, however one wishes to define 'right." Were it otherwise, there would be no smokers, no drug addicts, no people flunking out of college, etc. The assumptions underlying your faith are that always that individual not only know what is right for them, but also that they will choose to do what they know is right. For societies and individuals, these assumptions seem flatly false. Even the educated minority does not understand economics, diplomacy, science, so how can we expect them to make knowledgeable choices? If they are right, but the answers require sacrifice and pain, the majority is more likely to turn away from right, as we do as individuals when our doctor, for example, tells us we really need to lose 15 lbs.
It is not surprising, then, that as democracies, we can make really bad choices. We can democratically give power to a power hungry mad man (Hitler, for example), democratically support the deaths of millions (Native Americans), wars of aggression (perhaps in the name of peace and defense, but sometimes in the name of God's will, or manifest destiny). There is absolutely nothing about democracy which even suggests that good choices will be made. But even if the majority knows something is wrong, just like the individual, the will to do the right thing can also be undone.
For this reason, we even protect major decisions from democracy (the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are two examples that jump to mind, where we know democracy will screw things up.) If there is a virtue to democracy, it must be found somewhere else.
First, we might note, when things go wrong in a non-democratic society, violence is almost always a part of the reaction. Democracies allow for change without violence, as long as everyone sticks to the "gentleman’s agreement" to abide by the rules, even when those rules are suspiciously enforced. It was this abiding that made Nixon surrender the tapes when the Supreme Court ordered him to, and this abiding when Democrats lived by the Supreme Court decision giving W. the Presidency. Second, and perhaps more importantly (though do not undersell the importance of the
first!) the power to make your own decisions is important even when you make the wrong decision.
It is almost an existential virtue. You fucked up, but it was your choice. No one forced it on you. It is the virtue of autonomy. So to, in a society, there is a virtue in making our own decisions. But this is not quite equivalent, because in society, autonomy is impossible, unless you autonomously agree to live by the will of the democracy. We make our own choices, but we must live by the acceptance that the vote may not (and in my case, almost never) goes the way I want. I could say a lot more about this, but this is already too long.
When Hanno says he could say a lot more, trust me, he means it.
So, is he right that the primary virtue (and vice) of Democracy the fact that it treats us as adults when many of us tend to act like children?
We lost another great one yesterday, jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson passed away at 78. A big man, Maynard had the ability to hit notes that a trumpet was not made to hit. During his solos, he would work up a scale and just when you thought there was no possible way for someone to hit a note that high, he took it up two more steps, the trumpet screaming. It was not uncommon during his concerts, for dogs in a three mile radius to suddenly look up and say, "
What the heck was that?"
His album "MF Horn" was a big part of the soundtrack of my childhood, especially his cover of "MacArthur Park" and the album cover is one of those images I can instantly summon up. My first MF show was a few weeks before my zeroith birthday. My mother was 8 1/2 months pregnant and he was playing a show for the local musicians' union. Everyone was petrified that he might reach for a note and the vibrations could induce labor. The last time I saw MF was just two years ago, a fantastic show with my grandfather, my dad and his brothers. One of those evenings I will never forget.
The thing that was always wonderful about seeing Maynard live was not just the music -- his shows always swung and he made sure to surround himself with incredible young players, helping them launch their careers -- but the chance to be with MF himself. You felt like you had just had a beer with him. He always seemed loose and funny and kind and personable and everything you would hear would only further that impression. in a world full of jerks and mediocrity, Maynard Ferguson was a great talent who was also a wonderful, sweet person.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
A couple of ideas for today:
We randomly select twelve gardeners who are to plant nothing but zucchini and forbid anyone else from planting it. The output from those dozen plots will satisfy the actual demand for the squash across the country for the year.
Steve D suggested years ago that for states that enact smoking bans in bars, someone ought to brew beer with nicotine in it. Put it in bottles with a black label and simply call it "death" with the bottles' warning labels double the usual size.
A colleague once told me that to write a bestseller, put one of the following words in the title: "diet," "sex," or "Einstein." The next book I am considering writing...Einstein's Sex Diet: Lose Weight the Smart and Fun Way.
Any good ideas today?
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Schadenfreude -- enjoying the suffering of others...
Freudenschade -- suffering in the delight of others...
Freudundschatze -- A famous psychologist and his sweetie...
Freudenschadenfreude -- suffering at others enjoying the suffering of others...
Last week, Aspazia wrote a series of posts, entitled "Missives from Grove," about her trip to Grove, Oklahoma to talk with people who remembered Dr. William Jennings Bryan Henrie, a country doctor who was arrested in 1962 for performing abortions. It is an incredibly touching discussion of the complexities of abortion in the Bible Belt before the topic's complete politicization. Please read them if you have not, yet had a chance. If that series is not nominated for a Koufax award, there is no justice in the blogosphere.
Aspazia was accompanied on the interviews by a conservative local reporter who was trying her best to shoehorn the views of the older generation into the contemporary intellectual trenches, but despite the efforts, continued to fail. The discussion then was not the discussion now. Back then abortion was not ABORTION. In the discussion attached to these reflections, a conversation began about why that transition occurred. Here are some additional thoughts on that topic.
Aristotle teaches us that there are always different ways to answer why questions. One is to cite what he calls "the efficient cause" -- that is, explain how it came to be. This is what we usually mean by cause -- what was the domino that knocked into this one, tipping it over? In this case, what historical factors led to the elevation of abortion to the exclusion of virtually all else in contemporary moral discourse? Another is the "final cause," that is, what end is being served by something, finding that for the sake of which it was done. It is looking not at what knocked over the domino, but why the dominoes were tipped in the first place. For what purpose was abortion elevated? The third aspect we'll discuss is the formal cause, what is the structure that makes the thing what it is. What are the rhetorical moves that allowed abortion to dwarf the rest of the pressing issues that we need to take seriously as a society?
The Efficient Cause
As there have been a number of very good expositions on the use of abortion in the rise of the religious right, let me merely point you to two wonderful sources. Thomas Frank has an excellent chapter in What's The Matter With Kansas where he traces back to 1991 and the "Mercy Summer" in Wichita when the football stadium was packed to the rafters with anti-abortion activists. The hyper-enthusiasm surrounding the issue, seeing that many people with that much passion for the cause in one place, he argues, caused a gestalt switch in the minds of abortion foes and turned abortion into ABORTION. Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism traces the movement and the use of abortion back farther in an integrated history of the rise of Christian evangelical political power. The stories they tell are compelling from a number of angles and well worth the read.
The Final Cause
What turned abortion into ABORTION is the fact that on both sides of the argument ABORTION is not about abortion, it is about larger political aspirations and ramifications. This is not to say that pro-choice advocates do not truly want abortion to be safe and legal, nor is it to say that pro-life advocates do not want abortion to become illegal and to cease. Both do; BUT, while they have views on abortion, ABORTION means something much larger -- it has become a symbolic place in the political landscape that, like Jerusalem, holds radically different, but equally sacred meaning for both camps.
To the pro-life camp, ABORTION is the central battleground in the fight to Christianize American law, culture, and politics. It is not the morality of abortion which is important, it is the symbolism. There are lots of things that are seen by the religious right as immoral but legal, but none of these have the effect of abortion, none of these give rise to mass and often violent protest, and none of these are giving rise to back door attempts to plant legislative time bombs, like double homicide charges for murdering pregnant women or outlawing embryonic stem-cell research, that would serve to establish legal foundations for later abortion rulings in the courts. Abortion became ABORTION because it relates to contemporary secular approaches to sex and feminism, what the movement sees as two major hurdles to becoming a Christian nation. It is here that sex outside of wedlock and the promotion of women's rights can be tied to the death of innocents, the most horrific of wrongs. So if the Christianization cannot triumph here, it is doomed. But if it succeeds here, it will give rise to momentum that will break the backs of the secular opponents and the tide will roll Christianity to its rightful place as the foundation for this nation. ABORTION is seen as the leading edge of the front line in the war for the soul of the nation.
To the pro-choice camp, ABORTION is representative of every advance that women have made in their work to become full citizens and autonomous humans. The major successes of the movement to include women in the social contract as equal partners are at most only a couple of generations old. It is not even 100 years since women have been guaranteed the right to vote in the US. It is only since 1964, a scant 42 years since civil rights for women were guaranteed by law. And workplace rules and wages continue to be live issues that require continuing the fight. The hard-won advances are still green and not so entrenched that there is not fear of losing the them...Especially when there are social forces conspiring against them. ABORTION is not about abortion, it is about women having the right to control their bodies, it is about the right to be fully human and not mere vessels for fertilization. If women lose the right to abortion on demand, the fear is that women will lose the autonomy, the humanity, that they have finally gained and that the tide will have changed and other advances will be under attack. The slippery slope back to the days of immoral dehumanization will have begun.
For both sides, the question really has little to do with the morality or legality of abortion. The larger question of what it symbolizes and the momentum of who wins the battle is what turned abortion into ABORTION.
The Formal Cause
But there is another way of looking at what turned abortion into ABORTION and that is the form of the rhetoric, the ways of arguing that we see in the contemporary discussion. Because of linguist George Lakoff's work, much has been made of what he calls "framing" and there is no doubt that this is happening in this discussion. But there is another rhetorical trick that was crucial in the transformation of abortion into ABORTION.
Framing is the act of setting the parameters for discussion by choosing the language of the debate. What Lakoff shows is that words are not just "Hello, my name is" stickers that we put on things, they come with ways of seeing the world packed into them. Selecting certain words instead of others limits the discussion by putting certain topics on the table and others off the table. Both sides have done this in their choice of designators. "Pro-choice" frames the issue in terms of liberty and who wants to oppose freedoms to choose? "Pro-life" frames the issue in terms of the life or death of a fetus and who wants to be pro-death? The selection of the name is designed not only to designate which side one is on, but also to elevate (in a fallacious question-begging fashion) one part of the complex inter-related moral issues that are operative in this incredibly difficult ethical question.
But what we see is more than framing. We see another trick which I will term "caging". The idea behind caging is to take a series of related issues that you do not want acted upon and selecting a small single issue to pull attention way from all the rest. Like magicians who will do something flamboyant and fascinating with their left hand to keep you from seeing what they are doing with their right hand, the idea is to make one insignificant issue the focus of all attention in order to make sure that all other related issues are ignored. As long as there is a raucous passionate debate around that issue and it is made to seem of paramount importance, then the assumption by most listeners is that a fair and open debate on all issues is taking place and no one will notice what you are doing with regard to the other issues.
In this way, women's rights have been caged by ABORTION. All the time, effort, and money that could be going into furthering women's rights on a number of fronts are sucked into the ABORTION fight. Not only that, but how to cage the issue is determined by what issue is easiest to frame when let out of the cage. If conservatives chose to openly fight against voting rights or equal pay for equal work legislation, it would put them clearly on the side of immoral support of injustice and they would lose quickly and decisively. But by caging women's rights and only letting ABORTION out of the cage, any possible advances on the women's rights front are stopped in their tracks and pro-lifers can portray themselves as the defenders of families and innocent life, not the opponents of women's rights.
In the same way, civil rights issues have been caged with only affirmative action set outside the cage. We can bring the civil rights charge to a halt by focusing all attention only on hiring in a small set of cases. Again, this is made more effective when the caging is combined with framing -- affirmative action is only to be addressed in terms of quotas. In this way, the advancement of civil rights legislation not only stops, but those stopping it do so by portraying themselves as opposing discrimination.
The framing and caging of environmental issues have not worked in concert and has been less successful. The framing is in terms of jobs vs. spotted owls. The caging has been around national parks. Pay attention, virtually the only time you will hear discussion from the administration about environmental issues is in terms of protecting or using the national parks and national forests. These are important places, but far from the most important environmental issues facing us today. But by caging the other issues, snowmobiles in Yellowstone will take up the resources to fight the real problems.
Gay rights? Cage questions about hate crimes, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination,... only let out marriage. Then frame it in terms of "protecting the family." Cage and frame.
Abortion, thus, became ABORTION for several reasons. (1) It is an issue that historically took on a life of its own and became a rallying point, (2) it is deeply symbolic in struggles on both sides of the political spectrum that makes it ground zero in the culture war, and (3) it is an effective way to cage off other issues that those with certain agendas want off the table.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
I know, I know, after your summer beach reading, you're up to here with Hans Reichenbach's early writings on the theory of relativity... but for that hard to buy for philosophy of science geek on your Chirstams list...
Hans Reichenbach was one of eight students in Albert Einstein's first seminar on the general theory of relativity at the University of Berlin in 1919. He was amongst the first philosophers to understand the theory in all of its mathematical detail and became Einstein's self-appointed bulldog in the popular media. Einstein's theory was attacked from all sides, physicists challenged its empirical claims, philosophers tried to argue that its foundations were self-refuting, cranks of all stripes came up with bizarre "disproofs." Reichenbach took them all on in physics journals, philosophical journals, and popular science magazines.
He saw Einstein's work not only as a radical strike in physics, but as a template for restructuring philosophy. He set about to clearly lay out what in the theory was philosophy and what was science, what in the theory was arbitrary linguistic convention and what was a matter of fact in the world, what in the theory was supported by observation and what still needed confirmation. Once this was done, he set out to pinpoint the errors in understanding of the opponents of relativity. And he took on all comers with intelligence, wit, and an ease of style that makes his writings a joy to read.
Get it quickly, sales have been brisk...it is ranked amongst the top sellers on Amazon (if the "top sellers list" is extended to include include almost 1,000,000 titles).
Friday, August 18, 2006
There is a special level of Comedy Heaven for straightmen and Bruno Kirby is there. He was a fine actor, appearing, notably in The Godfather (I and II), but he was a magnificent comic foil playing playing opposite some of the funniest comedic actors where he could deliver a dry, self-deprecating line with the best of them.
He was a master at playing the schlamazel, portraying characters you would laugh at instead of with, but could still feel for. As Lt. Hauk in Good Morning, Vietnam, you couldn't help but feel bad and annoyed at the same time for a guy who tried so hard to be funny and knew, and resented, that he was outclassed.
I understand you're pretty funny as a dj, and, well, comedy is kind of a hobby of mine. Well, actually, it's a little more than just a hobby, Reader's Digest is considering publishing two of my jokes.He was amazing as Harry's best friend Jess in When Harry Met Sally,
You made a woman meow?and as Ed in City Slickers,
Shut up! Just shut up! He doesn't get it! He'll never get it! It's been 4 hours! The cows can tape something by now! Forget about it please!But the classic was the cameo as the limo driver in This Is Spinal Tap,
You know, it's just that people like this...you know... they get all they want so they don't really understand, you know...about a life like Frank's, I mean, you know when you've loved and lost the way Frank has, then you, uh ...you know what life's about.He was a man with integrity. After City Slickers, Billy Crystal declared that there would be no sequel -- of course, there wouldn't. A good movie, not a cinematic classic by any stretch, but a solid comedy, it wrapped up neatly and sequels for such movies are craven, financially motivated, not artistic, undertakings. And then City Slickers II was proposed. Kirby could have cashed in, it was a guaranteed seat filler for a couple of weekends until the fact that the film was sure to be crap killed it. But he said no and held the line. This was a man who turned down sure cash to not be a part of bad comedy.
Bruno, thank you.
Suppose you are house sitting for a friend and something important comes in the mail that needs to be taken care of immediately, something that requires a signature. You call your vacationing friend and explain the situation and the friend says that it can't wait until she gets home, please sign her name and send it out asap. Is this forgery? If so, is it morally wrong?
Signing your name is what Austin would call a performative use of language -- you are doing something with words rather than saying something with words. By signing a document, you may be displaying agreement or support of a statement (signing a petition), accepting the terms of a covenant (signing a contract), or accepting responsibility for something (signing for a package). Your friend in the example gave a clear indication that she was willing to accept what came with the signature, but the acceptance could only be verbal and not written. In asking you to sign for her, you were deputized, given the authority to speak on her behalf and it was done in a way that she not only approves of but directly requested. The needed signature was a mark of acceptance and that acceptance was given, you are just playing the role of messenger.
But the notion of a signature is starting to become obsolete. The functions of the signature are being taken over by "lock and key" information. Whether it is digital encoding, knowledge of a social security number, pin, or password, or possession of answers to questions like "What is your mother's maiden name?", "What was your first car?", "What is the first vowel in the name of your favorite Beatle?" (include Stuart Sutcliff and you get all the vowels), the idea is that there is only person whose informative key fits in the lock and that by providing the information, it is the same as a signature. It is this move towards non-signature signatures that has made identity theft something prevalent. Before the internet, the only place you'd ever see identity theft was in Shakespearean comedies -- and even then, you never could completely believe that they could really pull it off.
The move to "digital signatures" is strange because it removes one of the key elements of the signature, presence. Jacques Derrida wrote an interesting piece on exactly this question ("Signature, Event, Context" -- Aspazia made it part of a class we team-taught a couple years ago on the analytic-continental divide) and he points out that what is expressed by a signature is not merely assent or acceptance of what is signed, but a lasting artifact of your presence. Think about why people ask celebrities for autographs. An autograph says I really saw Brooks Robinson or Amy Tan or the guy who played the best friend of the boyfriend of the daughter on "Who's the Boss?" Part of the point of the signature is not just to say that I agree to what is signed, but that I was there. One of the most famous signature in history, of course, is John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence and the idea was not just that his name is there and that he agrees with the sentiments expressed, but that it not be at all ambiguous to King George that John Hancock was there, was part of the action. Think of graffiti or "Kilroy was here" -- the act of putting your name on something is to make it undeniable that you were present at some place. The concept of a signature comes from the signet rings of kings and high officials where if a latter was sealed with a certain insignia, you knew the hand of the King had been on that letter. Authentication in some way is connected with proof of presence.
This is what makes the signature question about the vacationing friend tricky. The needed signature is not only a sign of acceptance, but a sign of acceptance at that place by your friend. Set aside the possibility that your friend would later change her mind and say "I never signed that" -- the lack of her real signature displays a lack of actual presence and that is what was requested by the person who sent the letter. You are bound by your signature because you were there and you read it and you did physically receive this and not only have signaled your agreement, but have physically instantiated that acceptance. There is a thing -- your signature -- that exists as an independently verifiable fact of the world. But that fact is now a sham. Signing for your friend could therefore be seen as a form of lying, as you, trying to say that your linguistic act is really the act of someone else. Like Cyrano to Roxane, the sentiment may be authentic, but the act is a deception...albeit a harmless sort of deception that makes no real difference.
So, is it the spirit or the letter, in this case quite literally, the letter -- that is important?
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I'd been considering an occasional series about fascinating characters from intellectual history that are largely absent from the collective mind and with all of the fuss over the confirmation of the solution of Poincare's conjecture (for a nice discussion of the conjecture, see Good Math/Bad Math), it seemed to perfect not to start with Henri Poincare.
Jules Henri Poincare was born in 1854 in Nancy, into a prominent family -- his father was on the medical faculty at the University in Nancy and his cousin would become prime minister and President of the Republic. Where the word genius has become largely meaningless, Poincare fits the most rigorous of usages. He was a mathematical physicist, philosopher, and one of the greatest mathematicians in history. He made major and lasting contributions to many fields in mathematics -- indeed he is considered the last of the generalists, the last mathematician to be a force across the mathematical spectrum.
Indeed, it was this breadth of interest that led to one of his most famous contributions. He had been working on extending the result of his dissertation which dealt with differential equations, when he decided to go on a geological field trip for a diversion. The moment his foot hit the step to get on the bus, a thought shot through his mind, completely out of nowhere -- the equations he was playing with in order to solve a problem in algebra were actually identical in form to those which characterize the non-Euclidean geometry of Lobachevski. It was not a problem he had been working on. It was not a hunch that might be worth checking out. It was a sudden realization that arrived fully formed...and it was a biggie.
Euclidean geometry was the very epitome of what a mathematical system should be. It started with obvious undeniable truths (Euclid's five postulates) and through deductive logic derived with absolute certainty a wide range of stunningly intricate results. Philosophers for hundreds of years thought that it was the model that all other studies should follow. So when a new geometry was proposed by N. I. Lobachevski with a slightly different set of axioms and bizarre results that seemed like they couldn't be right, intellectuals across the academy treated it with open hostility. If it could be shown to be self-contradictory, then it would move from the annals of history to the anals of history. So a fullcourt press was on to find contradictory results derived from Lobachevski's postulates.
What Poincare's epiphany did was to create what is called a "relative consistency proof," that is he figured out a way of mapping the new axioms into the old system. The key is to understand that contradictions are a matter of the form of a sentence. "I have a bloog and I don't have a bloog" is a contradiction no matter what a bloog happens to be. Lobachevski's postulates are or are not self-contradictory because of how they relate their terms to each other, not because of what the terms mean. So Poincare figured out a way of giving the basic terms in Lobachevskian geometry new meanings derived from Euclidean geometry, but he did it in such a way that what Lobachevski's postulates said not only made sense in Euclid's system, but were true in Euclid's system. So since self-contradictoriness is a matter of form and sentences of the form of Lobachevski's postulates could be derived from Euclid's, the only way the new, hated non-Euclidean geometry could be self-contradictory is if Euclid was also self-contradictory...and no one would ever say that. So all of the hopes of saving the classical image of the construction of knowledge were vaporized the moment Poincare's foot hit the bus.
But Poincare was not only a mathematician, he also fancied himself a philosopher and thought about what his result meant. He realized that just as he could translate Lobachevskian into Euclidean geometry, so he could translate Euclidean into Lobachevskian. Any geometric fact could be moved back and forth between the systems, just as you could move distances between feet and meters, just as you could translate French sentences into German. The relative consistency proof gave Poincare a new picture for what mathematics was, the language for science. Choosing between mathematical systems is just choosing between languages, languages are not true or false they are what you use to express sentences which are true or false. As such, mathematical truths are mere grammatical conventions, free choices that have no deep meaning. Mathematical truths turn out not to be truths in any deep sense. So, not only had Poincare overturned the hopes of saving the classical approach to finding truth, but he had also radically undermined the classical notion of truth itself.
[This work was read by and highly influential on a certain Swiss patent clerk. Indeed, the claim has been made that if Einstein hadn't have and Poincare had lived longer, Poincare would have discovered the theory of relativity. We have no way of knowing whether such claims are true, indeed (contrary to what Hanno might say) such claims are likely not meaningful. But there it is.]
Poincare's work on the translation of geometry was based on his idea which he shared with/got from Felix Klein, that geometry is really a part of what mathematicians call group theory. A group is a set and an operation such that if you start with any member of the set and use operation, you get a member of the set. Take the even numbers and adding two -- add two to any even number and you still get an even number. Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries just used different basic groups and it is a free choice which group you want to provide the language you use to describe reality. But Poincare realized that not all geometries could be put into the group mold. In an early piece, he derides these as not "real" geometries and mere oddities that are interesting to play with, but not meaningful. A few years later, suddenly they are real geometries...What happened?
What happened was that Poincare had virtually begun the study of topology, or analysis situs, as he called it. Topology is the study of what lies beneath geometry. Very roughly, think of geometry as the study of figures in space where topology studies the properties of the space itself. How many dimensions does space have? Is space infinite? Is it closed? These are all topological questions. Things like distances and angles that can be measured and have geometrical meaning are not worried about in topology. As long as you aren't ripping or connecting, you are dealing with topology. Squishing, stretching, twisting -- no problem.
It was in thinking about these topological relations that Poincare formulated his conjecture. Conjectures are guesses, but they are more like the stray dogs of the mathematical world. Conjectures may be true, they may be false, you just don't know. Some are mangy and ignored, but others are incredibly cute and you want to adopt them -- but you never know whether the dog belongs to someone and you never know whether someone is going to show up and take it away. Poincare's conjecture was like finding Lassie in a parking lot and what Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman just did was to let the mathematics community adopt her.
I feel sorry for Tony Blair. It's got to be tough to be Bush's lapdog. I mean, after that Barney incident, you know the whole world is watching just to see how hard he drops you on your head.
I feel sorry for CNN anchor Chuck Roberts who was dogged into apologizing for referring to Ned Lamont, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Connecticut, as "the al-Qaeda candidate." Sure, repeating such a horribly ignorant and unfounded Republican smear is cheap and extremely unprofessional, but in a profession peopled by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Don Imus (who is not only not smart or funny, but has threatened to blackball from his sorry excuse for a show any Democrat who endorses Lamont -- you know, the actual democratically elected candidate), Roberts must feel like the guy who gets pulled over in the middle lane doing 70 while being passed by a car doing 95 with a broken tail-light and a driver with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other.
I feel sorry for those of us blog readers who have dial-up connections and who have found that many of the blogs that we used to enjoy reading for their fine writing and insightful commentary now seemingly post nothing but you-tube links instead of, well, actual content. You kids with your you-tube. Why back in my days in the blogosphere, people used to read and write. But now all you do is sit in front of that damn tube with your crazy hair and rock music. If you tried to pretend you had content with such nonsense back then, you would get flamed...and you were glad to be flamed, we appreciated the value of a good flaming back then. Builds character, it does. Not like you kids today where "Hey it's an old Souxsie and the Banshees clip" passes for a deep post.
I feel sorry for everyone who isn't Brock at Battle Panda and didn't write the sentence,
"I've long said that it's a good thing that Richard Reid wasn't the ass-bomber, or we'd all be dropping trou for the TSA."Yeah, we're all glad he chose the shoe. The airport security folks are bad enough the way they use that wand now. Then again, the explosive materials detection device works by blowing a puff of air...it would be kind of cool to see what it must be like to be the president.
So...who do you feel sorry for today?
Labels: pity party
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
I've always thought that it would be cool to be amongst the initial set of "they," as in "they say..." A while back, when I brought up this quest to be at the baptism of a new entry into the colloquial repertoire, Hanno suggested a real winner that I've been looking for an excuse to slip in..."Shooting an elephant." The conversations about the DLC and their support for the war in Iraq has provided such an opening.
The phrase comes from a short story by George Orwell, called "Shooting an Elephant." The narrator of the story is a British police officer in Burma who is receiving little respect from the locals. Then things changed when,
One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out.The elephant was not wild, but a tame, working elephant that had broken loose of its chains and destroyed some bamboo huts, stalls at the market, and stepped on a man killing him. He had a trainer, or mahout, who could handle him and calm him down in such situations, but when the mahout heard of the escape, he immediately set out to look for the elephant, but went in the wrong direction -- it would take hours for him to return.
When locals told the officer that the animal was right around the corner, he sent for his elephant gun. His first thought was that he might need it for protection against the rampaging beast. But when he found the formerly petulant pachyderm, it was in a field, completely calm. No longer a threat to anyone, the elephant could simply wait there for his mahout to return and all would be well -- especially with the owner of the elephant, since they are major investments.
That, however, was not to be.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd– seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.And so, he shot the elephant.
The phrase "shooting the elephant" therefore should be taken to mean doing something you know is wrong in order to maintain a facade.
What brought this to mind was Jacob Weisberg's recent essay in Slate, We know this because we have been here before.
The Lamont-Lieberman battle was filled with echoes and parallels from the Vietnam era. Democratic reformers and anti-establishment insurgents weren't wrong about that conflict, either. Vietnam was a terrible mistake for the United States. But like Iraq, Vietnam was a badly chosen battlefield in a larger conflict with totalitarianism that America had no choice but to pursue. In turning viciously on stalwarts of the Cold War era like Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, anti-war insurgents called into question the Democratic Party's underlying commitment to challenging Communist expansion. The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security and defense—and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism—helped push a lot of Americans who didn't much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard Nixon. Democrats knew that Vietnam and Iraq were not good foreign policy or moral decisions, but they were wrong to oppose them.By not going along with the war, the Democratic party lost the "one long struggle not to be laughed at." The DLC-ist argument put forward by Weisberg is that Democrats are fools and that they just need to swallow hard and "shoot the elephant."
Monday, August 14, 2006
David Sirota has yet another must read, this one detailing the ways and standard operating procedures of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), home of the so-called "moderate" or "centrist" Democrats. Bill Clinton is their patron saint and with the defeat of Joe Lieberman, their posterchild, in last week's primary, they've been going a bit off their collective nut.
Sirota does a fantastic job setting out very clearly the degree to which the DLC -- and the major players in the Democratic party who are part of the movement -- have prostituted themselves and the party at large to the interests of big business.
As the American Prospect detailed a few years ago, the DLC is funded by huge contributions by some of the largest and most powerful multinational corporations in the world - companies like Chevron, DuPont, Enron, IBM, Merck and Company, Microsoft, Philip Morris, Texaco, and Verizon Communications who eagerly forked over the $25,000 entry fee to be on the DLC's "executive council." As the Prospect noted, the DLC's "revenues climbed steadily upward, reaching $5 million in 1996 and, according to its most recent available tax returns, $6.3 million for 1999." Said the organization's executive director: "Our revenues for 2000 will probably end up around $7.2 million."This money has led to Democrats like Lieberman and Biden in the Senate, to support corporate-friendly/people-unfriendly legislation like the bankruptcy bill and oppose people-friendly/corporate-unfriendly moves concerning reforms in health care.
Sirota then works out three central tenets of "DLC-ism,"
DLC-ism's fundamental tenets preach that Democrats should 1) never frontally challenge moneyed power; 2) unquestioningly embrace Washington's distorted definition of national security "strength" as being a politician willing to indiscriminately bomb/invade foreign lands regardless of how that weakens U.S. security; and 3) deliberately distort the concept of "centrism" to make it mean "well outside the mainstream of American public opinion."Now, there is no doubt that large segments of the party are cult-like followers of these axioms and that this wing has been in control of the party and overseen the loss of control of all three federal insitutions and many, many governorships across the country.
So, is DLC-ism a political theory or a political theology? DLC folks themselves will claim that it is not only a theory, but a well-confirmed theory at that. The DLC folks do believe -- despite every indication to the contrary from recent political history -- that they hold the keys to Democratic reascendance. The central piece of evidence they will point to is the way that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton won their presidential elections. Both, they argue, captured a large bloc --the same bloc, they claim -- of centrist voters.
Let me be a philosopher here. What analytic philosophers are trained to do is approach any set of propositions and tease out the underlying pre-suppositions in order to see whether they are likely to be true. And, indeed, lying beneath Sirota's three tenets is what is believed by DLC-ers to be an inviolable, a priori truth which is a pre-condition to the possibility of DLC-ism: There are three groups of voters in American politics: activists on the left and activists on the right who are not going anywhere politically and a large group of voters between them who often vote as a bloc and determine the outcome of elections. They are comprised of working and middle class white suburbanites (the so-called soccer moms and NASCAR dads).
This underlying presupposition has actually been bought into by both the DLC and the more liberal wings of the Democratic party. The liberals believe that these voters, amply informed, will vote according to what is in their best interest and if Democrats would only get behind policy benefitives that benifit the large majority of Americans, then people over profit politics would carry the day. DLC-ers, on the other hand, are deeply convinced that these voters will vote according to their beliefs and that their Donnie and Marie approach to politics (I'm a little bit Democrat, I'm a little bit Republican) is actually perfectly in line with the beliefs of this group. After all, that is why they overwhelmingly supported both Reagan and Clinton -- they are a little bit Democratic and a little bit Republican. The trick is not to oppose the Republicans, but to triangulate and appropriate Republican views and give them a happy face, to be the real compassionate conservatives. By not offering an alternative, but a variant, they contend, will put voters in a place where they see their own views reflected and this will lead to victory.
In addition, by appropriating Republican stances, they make themselves more attractive to Republican moneymen. The one advantage the GOP has had is in cash and they have been able to clobber Dems by outspending them. If Democrats were to champion the pro-corporate agenda as well, they could get part of that take and neutralize the advantage. This is exactly what we have seen happen and why the Democratic party has become willingly and increasingly tied to corporate paymasters. The corporations, of course, love it -- now, if the Democrats win, they win, if the Republicans win, boy-oh-boy do they win.
Further, it is believed that this move comes without a price tag. Adopting the pro-corporate agenda which opposes the interests of voters does not cost votes in the end because (a) these voters vote according to their beliefs not their interests, and being pro-corporate is being pro-American since these corporate logos are the stuff of daily American life, and (b) their interests are better served indirectly, anyway, by having more profitable corporations and getting the trickle down benefits of lower prices.
These two together, the usurping of Republican positions and the need to court corporate cash, are at the heart of the DLC belief that liberals (who oppose both) are the death of the Democratic party. I believe that it is a sincere belief, not some sort of cynical power game where they put these claims up as a smoke screen. I think they really do believe these foundational propositions and, based on them, adhere to Sirota's tenets.
But these presuppositional propositions are problematic on a number of counts. First, as Sirota points out, empirical data repeatedly shows that the DLC-backed positions are neither moderate, nor popular. On many, many counts, they do not reflect the actual views of the majority of voters or of the supposed swing voters.
Second, even if there were a vast number of Republican-lite voters up for grabs each go-round, I contend that these voters do not vote based on the relative similarity between their own views and the positions put forward by a candidate. Let's play that old game from Sesame Street..."One of these things is not like the other, two of these things are kind of the same..." Ok, which of these names doesn't belong...Ronald "morning in America" Reagan, Bill "a place called Hope" Clinton, and Joe Lieberman. Hmmmm. Two are politicians who were incredible speakers, extremely charismatic, unbelievably telegenic, and the third looks like Droopy Dawg, comes across as a nasty, petty little man, and has a voice that makes you want to shove something sharp deep in your ear canal to make it stop. Maybe, just perhaps, it isn't a matter of policy at all that motivates these folks at the polls, but that voters who are not strongly party identified tend to vote for personable politicians who know how to tell them what they want to hear. Maybe, just maybe, Bill Clinton is incredibly successful because he was Bill Clinton and not because of his DLC-friendly politics.
This proposition seems like it should be open to an empirical test. If we could find someone who holds the same DLC-approved positions as Bill Clinton, but without his personal charm and then put this person in the national spotlight, say in the Senate or in the position as presumptive favorite before the Democratic presidential primary, we could see whether he or she would be equally popular. It would have to be someone immediately connected with Clinton, someone who has the same positions and maybe even have the same name in order to hold an independent variable constant, but someone not as warm, someone who you don't think feels your pain. Hmmm. Where would we find such a person? This is why experiments in political science are so hard to come by.
This claim that the DLC position is in line with swing voters is also belied by many corporately funded advocacy ads on tv for policy initiatives. Average voters don't know what they believe about complex issues related to health care, telecom, or financial issues. These things are complicated and unless you have the education, the inclination, and the time to really sit down and read, you won't be able to figure out which side is on your side. The corporations know this. The ads they run are not meant to convince anyone -- all they want is to muddy the waters. As long as the normal person who is stressed out by work and family sees the whole thing as a food fight, they'll remain cynical and throw their hands up, ignoring the whole thing because "both sides are nothing but spin." Under this fog, they are free to do as they please because most voters will not have any position at all.
But thirdly, even if both of the points above are wrong, the very existence of these voters is not at all clear. Sure, they existed back in Reagan and Clinton's times, but I forget who said, "the times they are a-changing." The Republicans were perfectly aware of what happened in the defeat of Bush I and the lesson they took away from the Reagan to Clinton move was not that the swing voter needed to be won, but that the swing voter needed to be eliminated. GOP strategists made the calculation that if this group were split and the swing group eliminated, leaving a completely polarized electorate, that they could win the turn-out battle using legitimate, gray, and illicit means. Eliminate the uncertainty, the swinging of the pendulum, and make it all a matter of get out the vote and they believe that the Republicans have the advantage. So they have been working for the last decade at polarizing us, at eliminating the very swing voters that the DLC has predicated its entire strategy upon.
So the foundational claims of DLC-ism are not quite as they would have you believe. Add in the major losses that the Dems have suffered while the DLC has called the shots largely unimpeded and the success of non-DLC Dems in places like Montana that are supposedly unfriendly to anything capable of being branded as liberal, and DLC-ism turns out not to be the rational, empirically it is marketed as being. Despite the appeal to the Reagan/Clinton phenomenon, reality worked against them...repeatedly. Yet, no amount of empirical discomformation will ever serve to shake this belief. It turns out that DLC-ism is not science, but theology. Indeed, the move they make is one reminiscent of Creationism.
If a DLC-affiliated candidate wins a position, say, Stephanie Herseth in South Dakota, then it was DLC-ism that deserves the credit. If a DLC-affiliated candidate loses, then it was the lack of support or the undermining of the liberals that is to blame. If a liberal candidate loses, it is because of the lack of adherence to DLC-ism and if a liberal candidate wins, then it is only a matter of time until there is any set back to the Democrats and that can be blamed of the victory of someone who does not buy into DLC-ism. Since there will always be liberals in the Democratic party, they can always shift the blame. All DLC victories and DLC losses are explainable in terms that support DLC-ism. It becomes unfalsifiable and this makes it worse than false. This makes it meaningless.
Consider the sentence "I have a brother or I don't have a brother." It is true if I do have a brother and it is true if I don't have a brother. Since I have to either have or not have a male sibling, it is always true. But, despite its truth, it tells you nothing about my family -- indeed, it turns out that it is always true precisely because it tells you nothing about my family. It is always true because it says nothing despite its appearance to be a meaningful statement about my family.
In the same way, DLC-ism is vacuous. It says nothing about the world, but is a set of tenets that only serve to justify themselves by seeming to say something about American politics. Like it's cousin neo-conservatism, we can consider DLC-ism to be empirical, in which case it has been undermined by reality, or we can consider it to be non-empirical, in which case it is vacuous. So, like the DLC's friends at FOX news say, "we report, you decide."
Friday, August 11, 2006
This week's Comedist meditation is on the universality of humor. There is no doubt that some jokes are contextual and that there are some things that some people find very funny, but others do not. Yet, surely there are some things that are at least nearly universally held to be funny. Say, something like this.
What is it about passing gas that is funny? When I was a lacrosse player, we would have to travel hours on a bus to get to games and this topic alone kept many of the other guys amused for much of that time. Is it the sound? It is cacophonous and punctuated. Such sounds do tend to be funny -- for a classic example, Spike Jones' Cocktails for Two (pay special attention to 1:48-2:08). Is it the smell? Is it that it is socially impolite and thereby embarassing? Are we laughing at the deviation from enforced norms? Or is it the combination of the two that makes the whoopie cushion one of the greatest human inventions of all times?
Even the ways we refer to it tend to be funny: farting, passing gas, breaking wind, floating an air biscuit, playing the gluteal tuba, cutting the cheese, the one gun salute, trouser coughs. Any others?
It certainly is a normal part of all human life -- on average people pass gas about 14 times each day. It even plays vital roles in nature -- researchers have discovered that herring farts have a language all of their own. Herring pass gas in order to communicate, but do so at a frequency that their preditors cannot hear -- making such fish farts silent, but not deadly.
To show you how deep the Comedist connection to farting runs, consider "The Creation of Adam" from the Sistine Chapel. Now, if you look very closely at the upper righthand side, you will find that Michelangelo has included the phrase "pulleth my finger" in Latin.
We leave you this weekend, with this classic:
An elderly lady complains to her doctor that she has been passing gas much more frequently than she usually does. "It's not a real problem," she says, "More of a nuisance because they are silent and don't smell at all." The doctor gives her a prescription and tells her to come back in a week.
A week later, she returns and says to the doctor, "I don't know what it was you gave me, doc, but I still pass gas all the time. It is still silent, but now it smells terribly!"
The doctor replies, "Now that we've cleared up your sinuses, let's see what we can do for your hearing."
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Jacob Weisberg's article, "Dead With Ned: Why Lamont's Victory Spells Democratic Disaster" in Slate has been attracting a lot of attention. The gist is that just as in 1972, those darn anti-war Democrats are going to scare voters away.
The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security and defense -- and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism -- helped push a lot of Americans who didn't much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard Nixon.The protesters might have been right about both Viet Nam and Iraq, Weisberg argues, but opposing what they knew to be immoral debacles, then and now, is political suicide.
In 1972, the Democrats repudiated their flawed Cold Warriors and chose as their standard-bearer a naive and honorable anti-war idealist. It was not George McGovern's opposition to Vietnam but his larger tendency toward isolationism and his ambivalence about the use of American power in general that helped him lose 49 states to Richard Nixon. In a similar way, the 2006 Connecticut primary points to the growing influence within the party of leftists unmoved by the fight against global jihad. Nixon had the gift of hippie demonstrators and fellow-traveling bluebloods like Ned's great uncle Corliss Lamont as antagonists. Today's Republicans face an anti-war movement with a different tone and style, including an electronic counterculture of enraged bloggers and callow entrepreneurs like Ned himself. Yet the underlying political dynamic is not altogether different.We're e-hippies! Groovy! [Disclaimer: I have a volume entitled The Grateful Dead and Philosophy coming out in the spring with Open Court publishers, so I may not exactly be the best person to stand as a representative if one is looking to undermine Weisberg's characterization here.]
You know, I think Weisberg is on something... er, uh, I mean, onto something. He just missed by two years. What you are seeing today is not 1972, it's 1974.
If you want a replay of 1972, it happened already. Look back to 2002-2004 when the Dems got trounced in both the midterm and Presidential year elections. True, Kerry didn't lose 49 states, but the Dems as a group lost control of the whole shooting match and by many measures Kerry did worse than Gore -- and this was once Bush was already a known quantity and Gore had run the worst campaign in the history of humanity. Even the majority leader was defeated, a stinging embarrassment. Weisberg worrying about a collapse in the Democratic party in 2006 is like fretting about how hard the ground was under the Hindenburg.
The biggest difference between 1972 and 2002 is that in 2002, the role of the anti-war protesters driving folks away from the Democratic party on election day was not played by anti-war protestors driving folks away from the Democratic party on election day, but rather by the anti-opposition Democrats who, on the floor of the House and Senate, gave their rowdy united chant, "Hey hey, ho ho, standing up for what we believe in has got to go." The radical policy nihilism of the spineless "leaders" made the party invisible and the results were not pretty.
But two years after the real 1972 came 1974 (I'm a philosopher, I say deep things). That was the year when Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford uncovered "a whole rats' nest of illegal shit" and Watergate became Nixon's Watergate. And like picking at the wrong thread on your sweater, the whole thing unraveled. In 1974, the Democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, five in the Senate, and won the Presidency the next go-round.
For Bush, it will have been a number of things, but most of all Katrina. When the levees broke, the tide swept away Bush's facade. Bush's Watergate will have actually been a gate for water. When Nixon fell as a result of his being a whole lot like Dick Cheney, you got a new crop of Democrats who ran successfully as outside of the Beltwareformersrs who swept into power (some of whom are now the very fuddy-duddies scared to death by what happened to the posterboy for fuddy-duddism). What you see with Lamont is an outside the Beltway reformer about to be swept into power. The anti-incumbent sentimentnt is now so thick, I'm now using it instead of a futon. If Weisberg wants to look back to the 1970s to find a parallel for what we are about to see, he can do just that -- he just should have asked Mr. Peabody to set the wayback machine for two years later.
I was pondering Goldbricker's post from a couple of weekends ago in which she points to James Dobson's checkered past as he, himself, tells it in his book The New Strong Willed Child.
Dobson admits in one of his books that as a child he arranged a fight between two mismatched dogs. The battle involved a tenacious bulldog and a "sweet, passive Scottie named Baby," and Dobson provoked it by throwing a tennis ball toward Baby. He writes what happened next: "The bulldog went straight for Baby's throat and hung on. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running from everywhere as the Scottie screamed in terror. It took ten minutes and a garden hose for the adults to pry loose the bulldog's grip. By then Baby was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the animal hospital, and I spent two weeks in the doghouse. I was hated by the entire town."Does this matter? For the evangelical set, we see things like this, Bill Frist's getting cats from the SPCA under the auspices of adopting a pet and then taking them home to dissect, and George W. Bush's past "infelicities" all get wiped clean by being born again. But when we look at the ethics and not the theology of the question, it becomes should the character or moral history of the source of moral proclamations make a difference in how seriously we take the proclamation?
When the whole Clinton blue dress thing was going on, one of the refrains we heard was that he had now lost his moral authority to speak from the bully pulpit. This seems to be the heart of the matter. What is meant by the phrase "moral authority," how does one gain it and does one lose it by acting immorally?
It made me think back a few weeks when I was on the BART train from Berkeley to San Francisco when two guys got on in Oakland. The older, an African-American gentleman was preaching to the younger, an African-American teen. His words were ethical , not religious. He was preaching self-reliance. "The system is stacked against you," he told his young companion, "It's out to screw you and if you try to fight the system, it will only come down harder on you. You need to live right, get an education, and realize that you have to struggle harder. Is it unfair? Damn straight. but as a black man today, that is what you are stuck with." His advice was mingled with talk about the CIA unleashing crack on the black community and other conspiracy theories, and he was louder than one usually is on a subway and many around rolled their eyes at him. When the teen got off at his stop, the man continued talking to whoever would listen.
The man next to me was an older African-American gentleman, clearly a janitor or maintainance man on his way home. He was very attentive and vigorously shaking his head in agreement. At one piece of moral advice, he muttered to himself, but loud enough for me to hear, "That's right. but what do I know, I'm stupid." I said to him, "I don't believe that, but even if it is true, it is not a matter of being well-educated, it is a matter of being thoughtful about your experiences in life." He had ruled himself out as a moral authority, even for himself.
When the preacher said that you could never look to the city government to solve any problem because the government represented rich and poor, black and white and no two had the same problems and there were no one-size fits all solutions, I respectfully asked whether there weren't some problems that were common to all groups that could be addressed well by the government? The strangest thing happened at that point, the Asian, Latino, and well-off African-American passengers around me looked up and changed their expression with respect to the conversation. They now showed that they took it seriously, they allowed themselves to be engaged. Now, I look like a philosophy professor. I'm a white, clearly Jewish guy in my mid-30's with a beard and the receding hairline/ponytail thing happening. I also live 3000 miles away from this subway line, so no one knew me beyond what they inferred from visual first impressions. Yet, the way I looked and the way I asked my question instantly conferred moral authority upon my point. Should it have? We do take certain people's advice more seriously, and we should -- people we know and respect for their thoughtfulness, resourcefulness, their ability to be empathetic, their ability to be rational when passions could easily cloud judgment. But does that or should that make someone a moral authority?
I have to admit, the whole notion of moral authority seems odd to me. Arguing from authority on factual matters is a perfectly legitimate thing. No one knows everything and we have a division of intellectual labor. If you need to know something, ask an expert. Legitimate authorities should be taken seriously with regard to questions of fact. But there is a difference between factual matters accessible through study and moral matters. If I need to know the atomic weight of a particular isotope of calcium, a chemist's word should be sufficient. I can accept the answer and not have to think any more about it. But if I want to know what should I do in a complicated ethical matter, it seems like seeking a "moral authority" is problematic.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with asking advice on such matters from people you respect. In fact, it is quite a good idea. But simply accepting someone's authority and taking marching orders from them seems to be a serious dereliction of ethical duty. You need to think and make the decision, not the other person. There is responsibility for personal consideration in the ethical case that is not there in the factual case.
Further, the qualifications of an authority seem rather different. If someone plays the horses every day and never picks the winner, he might not be the best choice for tips on picking a pony at the track. On the other hand, if Keith Richards tells you to stay away from heroin, Michael Moore suggests a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, George W. Bush advises you to take your studies seriously, and Dick Cheney urges you not to drink and handle firearms, you should listen. Good advice is good advice because it is good advice no matter whose mouth it comes out of. Sometimes when people say "do as I say, not as I do" they are right.
In moral matters, we need to think hard and carefully about actions and consider arguments from all sides seriously. The notion of a moral authority bypasses this entire process of deliberation. Those who claim "moral authority" seem to be claiming a whole lot more, the ability to make decisions for you while you claim the moral responsibility for having done them. It's like when the little brother gets in trouble for doing something the older sister put him up to.
But this is exactly what people like Dobson are claiming. They contend that you need to listen to them and follow what they say or else. The question therefore is not whether they are qualified or not for the position because it is a position that should not exist.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
From Marty Peretz, Editor of The New Republic,
Worse can be said of Bill Clinton's stumping in Connecticut for Joe (and Hillary's endorsement, too.) When Clinton came into the state, Lieberman and Lamont were running dead even in the polls, more or less. Clinton's appearance began Lieberman decline.The Clinton visit happened first, Lieberman's defeat after, therefore the second HAD to be caused by the first. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. What Marty fails to realize is that on the morning of Clinton's visit, I made pancakes. THAT was the real cause...beware the flapjack. And Hillary, if you are even thinking of running in '08, I've got some batter left in freezer...
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
I'm thinking about virtues. Aristotle argues that they are the heart of ethics. All things have an end, a goal towards which they are striving which is always a part of them as their potential. Something is virtuous when it actualizes part of its potential.
In terms of human behavior, Aristotle argues, the virtues are the mean between extremes. Glutton and anorexic = bad, moderate eater = good. Drunkard and teetotaler = bad, occasional drinker = good. Buffoon and wet blanket = bad, witty = good. Big spender and cheap bastard = bad, generous = good. It works in many cases, especially when it is easy to apply the relevant vice or virtue unambiguously.
But what happens when virtues come into conflict? Let's think about graciousness and determination.
Certainly it is a virtue to be gracious in defeat, especially when one has been defeated in an endeavor that one is deeply committed to. Such graciousness not only exhibits a maturity of character, but also bolsters the institution in affirming a deep commitment to its functioning. It shows that you consider the process more important than winning. If the process is democratically held elections, then graciousness shows a true commitment to the principles underlying the governmental structure.
At the same time, determination is certainly virtuous. Someone who does not let setbacks keep them from striving for their desired goals is to be lauded. We hear cliched platitudes from coaches all the time... "No pain, no gain." "Nothing worth doing is easy." "Do it, you wussy. C'mon little baby...what are you chicken or something? Be a man, god damn it..."
[Sorry, had to step out for a brief bit of therapy...better now.]
But what do we say of someone who is not gracious in defeat for the sake of perseverance? Is such a person a sore loser or is he deeply committed? Is it a matter of context? Is it a matter of intention? How much of an insult to the process is it if one runs over it to pursue one's personal goals? Suppose one's goals are more than personal?
Monday, August 07, 2006
Daniel Levy has a fascinating editorial in Haaretz. His argument is that the escalation in Lebanon is a result of the American neo-conservatives failing to understand the role the US is supposed to play in the Middle East dance. (Good reason to take his analysis seriously: he was a top Israeli negotiator at Oslo.)
Levy argues that the job of the US is to be the good cop to Israel's bad cop. Israel rattles the saber and the US offers the peace deal which moves American and Israeli interests slightly forward while maintaining the delicate balance in the larger region. The possibility of ending hostilities while living to fight another day combined with pressure from the US closes the deal. At least that was the unspoken agreement before now.
But the neo-cons looked at Israel's tough guy routine and took it seriously. They didn't realize that it was part of a larger strategy that kept a lid on a boiling pot. Instead, they thought that the US script constrained Israeli forces that really wanted to keep going, so they decided to be bad asses too and not step in, thereby letting the IDF off the leash to "finish the job"... just like they did in Iraq...
There is no doubt that the PNAC group is filled with members enamored of Israeli tactics, but again we see the naivete of trying to divorce those tactics from the larger context. It still stuns me that there is not a greater degree of discussion about the nature and failings of neo-conservatism in America. Levy is dead on when he writes,
Disentangling Israeli interests from the rubble of neo-con "creative destruction" in the Middle East has become an urgent challenge for Israeli policy-makers. An America that seeks to reshape the region through an unsophisticated mixture of bombs and ballots, devoid of local contextual understanding, alliance-building or redressing of grievances, ultimately undermines both itself and Israel. The sight this week of Secretary of State Rice homeward bound, unable to touch down in any Arab capital, should have a sobering effect in Washington and Jerusalem.Yet, while there may be blame afforded to the Bush administration for bungling foreign policy, there is precious little analysis of how these failings are a direct result of the application of a well-formed political theory. There are central guiding principles here which are being empirically disconfirmed. It is not only in the world's interest to disentangle themselves from the purveyors of this theory, but also to make clear what the theory is and where and how it failed.
All the marks are here: We see explicit disdain for diplomacy -- talking is a sign of weakness, it is equivalent to coddling; action instills fear and fear destroys the will of the other forcing them to bend their will to your wishes. We see the idea that asymmetric warfare, given enough time, guarantees regime change. We see Fukuyama's neo-neo-Hegelianism in which there is a natural end -- liberal democracy -- towards which all governments naturally move if only freed from tyranny. Create a power vacuum and provide some purple finger ink, et voila, instant democracy.
While such discussions occur amongst policy experts, the fact that it is not a larger popular discussion is a bad thing. Mistakes were made, and continue to be made, and continue to be made, and it is imperative that those mistakes be clearly labeled lest they threaten to be repeated and repeated and repeated. A good start is provided by Glenn Greenwald who is guest blogging at Salon, but there is much more to do. Any public policy folks or political philosophers who are hanging around, please consider the project. I think it would be of the greatest value.