Saturday, December 30, 2006

Looking Back at the Year 0

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

So the year Comedism went worldwide is coming to a close. We will designate it year 0, the year between B.C. (before Comedism) and H. E. (humorous era). What were there funniest parts of 0? My nominations:

Funniest radio dedication: "Someone wanted to send this one out to Congressman Mark Foley, Bob Seger's 'Turn the Page.'"

Best bit of the year: Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Press Corp's Annual least up until the video bit.

Funniest hunting accident: No contest

Funniest version of Hava Nagila: The Freaking Brothers

Funniest Mug Shot: Tom Delay

Funniest Onion Headline: Critics Blast Bush For Not Praying Hard Enough

Other humorous highlights?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Watch Out! I'm Dangerous!

With so much competition these days, it’s hard to get any recognition for your efforts in corrupting the youth. But every once in a while...

One of the classes that I, Aspazia, and everyone else in our department teaches, a course that goes by the seemingly innocuous name, “Contemporary Moral Issues,” has been listed on the right-wing website Family Security Matters as one of ten of "America's Most Dangerous College Courses.” This is funny and disturbing on many, many levels.

First, our department at Gettysburg is extremely quirky. In the world of very staid, starched collared philosophy departments, we have an unusually large number of offerings that are not only creative and off the beaten path, but the sort of courses that right-wing nutjobs would get their panties twisted in a knot over. But Contemporary Moral Issues ain’t one of them. That class is everywhere. It’s standard fare. There are a huge number of textbooks on the market for these courses and pretty much all of them look the same which means that not only is it a course that is taught all over, but pretty much identically taught all over. If Mr. Rantz wants to list some of our courses as dangerous, a little research might prove useful. I, for instance, will be teaching a course next semester entitled, “Wrong Science, Bad Science, and Pseudo-science” that will examine issues including intelligent design and the false claims of there being a scientific controversy, the corporate influence on science, and the way partisan appointments affect what government scientists can tell the public. Let me invite others to nominate their "most dangerous" courses.

Second, I love the hypocrisy. We hear over and over and over again from the right how we need to teach morality, we need to teach values. Ok, what would such a class look like? I guess it would look at, oh, I don’t know,...contemporary moral issues and discuss them intelligently.

But I suppose the most worrisome part is the model of education that Mr. Rantz has in his head. There are two pictures that get presented by conservatives in their war on learning. One is to extrapolate from the high school classroom to the college classroom. Often in secondary education, the model is training rather than teaching. The teacher says something, you write it down, remember it, believe it is true, and write it on the exam. This is clearly the model behind the testing fetish of those who brought us “No Child Left Behind.” The world is comprised of facts, education’s task is to put those facts in kids’ heads, and we need to make sure they know all the important facts. Teaching, on this model, is just a form of indoctrination. This, of course, is NOT how the college classroom works. I am not out there creating “Gimbel Youth” when I teach any class, but least of all Contemporary Moral Issues. That class is about moral reasoning; it teaches how to think about hard ethical questions, not what to think. That distinction between process and result is the one that folks like Mr. Rantz need to understand. Everything deserves to be thought about careful, cleanly, and rigorously. That goes double for the hard ethical questions facing us today. Legitimate discourse is not comprised of O’Reilly-style rants where the goal is simply to shout louder than your opponent whom you are trying to dehumanize. We need to learn to take all positions seriously, subject them all to rigorous scrutiny, reject those that fail to meet muster, and rationally, but passionate discuss those conflicting views that are left. That is what Contemporary Moral Issues is all about and if that is dangerous, I plead guilty.

But then there’s the other conservative understanding of education that gets all of this and still objects. I had a rabid conservative Christian once tell me that my course “Critical Thinking” was incredibly dangerous and should not be taught because it trained people to doubt, to demand evidence, and to question their own faith. Yes it does. And it does more. It gives them the tools to see where they are being bullshitted, lied to, and tricked. And it gives them the tools to build arguments, good, solid, rational arguments for what they believe and enunciate it clearly and persuasively. This course does lead many students to re-evaluate positions they had accepted unquestioningly for their whole lives. Some change their views, others think hard, and realize that there is good reason to hold the beliefs they have. But that sort of process is healthy – especially for a society that claims to be a democracy.* A flourishing democracy requires rational, passionate discussion and anyone who seeks to undermine it is not only unamerican, but truly dangerous.

I wish I could flatter myself and think that I am one of those dangerous academics the right keeps screaming about. But, fact is, it’s just philosophy. It’s questioning presuppositions, building arguments for alternatives, and evaluating the relative strength of those arguments. If you find that worrisome or problematic and want to see something dangerous, may I suggest a mirror?

*Void where prohibited. May not apply in Florida and Ohio. Consult Diebold for details.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Old Friends

Aspazia wrote a touching post the other day on that feeling of never being able to outgrow one’s place in the family. Old discomforts and awkwardnesses persist regardless of how much you’ve changed or grown. But I’ve been thinking about the flip side of that sentiment.

In my circuitous journey through life thus far, I have met many, many people. Some unbelievably intelligent, others incredibly funny, still others caring and humane, but never have I found a cluster of people like the friends with whom I grew up. Yes, I know Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again,” and Heraclitus wrote “No man steps in the same river twice,” but they are both wrong.

The measure of a true friend is not whether he or she always remains a central player in your life. A better criteria is after getting separated in the daily hecticness, having pursued your projects and dreams, growing and changing, whether that old spark is still there, whether there is even a moment's hesitation before the old playfulness returns.

Stephen King ends “Stand By Me” with the line, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” I am incredibly blessed in true Comedist fashion to have those folks still with me. We can go decades between encounters, but put us in a room and there is the same pun-filled, movie quoting, old-joke making banter, the same affectionate ribbing, the same everything. It’s a different flavor from what you experience with your parents, children, or partner, but there is a kind of unconditional love from old friends that comes from a deep knowledge of who you are – they were there that night when you (fill in the blank) and that time when you (fill in the blank), and you never would have gotten through (fill in the blank) without them, so don’t even think of trying to put on airs. These are people you can’t bullshit. These are people with whom you are completely free to be who you are. And that sort of security lends itself to laughing, the sort of full body, soul-cleansing laughter that only comes from being in a place of love.

Gwydion is my oldest friend. He was the first person to ever say aloud my name spelled backwards. After leaving for college, we spoke on the phone occasionally and saw each other sporadically at best. Then he came to the graduate writing program at Hopkins where I was working on my doctorate one floor above. It was like we had never been separated. He introduced me to racquetball and it was like we were still eight – “O.k., this time you have to bounce it off one wall, over this line, hit it behind your back, turn around...” And now we have respectable careers, live-long loves, responsibilities we could never have imagined in Mrs. Tompakov’s first grade class, but to be in a room with him, and Egg, and You Know Who, and Mrs. You Know Who, and the rest of the gang is just like it was then. No one is as funny as old friends.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

More Bad Gifts

My discussion of bad gifts got picked up a couple of places, including the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Times (yes, that Washington Times).

Let me make one clarification. I am not saying that there are no cases in which gift cards make good gifts. My folks and TheWife's folks have given us gift certificates to some of our favorite restaurants with IOU's to babysit. In this case, the gift certificate was a wonderful gift, but its worth was not purely in the thing that it bought -- the food. Instead what it represented was a nice night out with a person I love, something difficult when you have youngins. Similarly, a gift certificate to, say, a spa could be a wonderfully caring gift for someone who deserves pampering, but who you know does not have the money for it or would never spend the money on herself. But in line with my thesis, it is the experience, the doing and not the having, that is important here. Yes, this is a long way of saying thanks Mom and Dad for the gift certificate to The Wife's favorite Persian restuarant (if you are in the Baltimore area and haven't gone to the Orchard Market Cafe -- boy oh boy are you missing a good one).

That being said, back to bad gifts...what's the worst gift you've gotten?

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown, RIP

The Godfather of soul, the hardest working man in show business, soul brother number 1, the one and only Jaaaaaaames Brown has left us.

In addition to his own magnificent works, he had a lasting effect on popular music. Brown's work putting the accent on "The One," the first beat of measure, gave a special funk to his music. It was well learned by his later bass player Bootsy Collins, who took it to his work with George Clinton who spread the funky gospel far and wide.

My favorite James Brown related story: I was playing summer ball one year and one day the coach showed up looking off. He explained that his wife was pissed at him because she found out why he wanted to get married on May 3rd. He wanted to make sure he never forgot his anniversary, so he picked a date he could remember...James Brown's birthday.

Sad news, indeed. Papa's in a brand new box. Thanks JB. Rest in peace.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Questions

A few things I've never understood about the whole Christmas thing:

How is it a silent night if you are all out in it singing "Silent Night"?

Who was Carol anyway?

If it is Jesus' birthday why do you get the presents?

If a child was an avid coal collector and wanted nothing other than more samples for Christmas, but was extremely naughty all year, what would Santa bring for him?

Since it's Christmas and anyone who could answer the questions is too busy to read blogs today, here's a quick one for Jewish readers:

Apple sauce or sour cream?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Chanukization of Judaism

In the space between Chanukah and Christmas, I had one of those realizations that on the one hand is trivial, but on the other makes you really think. We were saying the blessings before lighting the candles at my brother’s house on the third night and a discontinuity arose that I had known about since I was a kid. When we all said the words together, my father pronounced those that involve the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet in the Ashkenazi (European Jews) fashion, with an “s” sound. My brother and I use the Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jews) pronunciation, a “t” sound as we were taught in Hebrew school. We, and everyone at the school -- including the teachers, were of European origin; so why were we taught the Sephardic pronunciation? It was only this year that I figured it out.

Chanukah is a minor holiday that has been elevated to a major focus of contemporary Jewish life solely in order to provide a counter-point to Christmas. Unlike the other celebrations, the Talmud does not have a discussion of Chanukah. It is the only Jewish holiday dedicated to a military victory and that made the rabbis uneasy about it. Judaism is not a aggressive system of belief, it is not a theology of the conqueror, but a philosophical approach based upon being an outsider, considering how to treat the powerless. It wears its tribal, nomadic roots in the open. Unlike Christianity and Islam, it is a non-evangelical religion. If you weren’t born into the tribe, they don’t want you. If you demand to come in loud enough, they’ll let you, but don’t expect a free toaster for signing up. Chanukah celebrates not just the miracle of the oil, but control over land. The spirit is a commemoration of “this is ours, get the hell out,” and that is not the true tenor of Jewish thought.

But this accident the calendar mirrors a change in Judaism itself. In Hebrew school, they would spend a third of the time teaching the Hebrew language, a third of the time teaching Jewish history where you learned how every major civilization that came down the pike beat the living crap out of your ancestors, and the final third teaching theology where you learned that Jews are “G-d’s Chosen People” (tm). After a while you began to wish that He would choose someone else for a while to give those poor Jews a break.

Then came the horror of World War II. Suddenly technology had advanced to a point where true annihilation, something threatened from ancient times forward, actually became possible. Out of the realization of the very real chance that their deepest collective fear could be realized came the establishment of Israel.

The original spirit of Israel was one of the Kumbaya Yiddles, idealistic leftists seeking a social laboratory to create a caring communal corner of Creation. But, of course, the actual history ended up elevating the modern-day Maccabees. Judaism after WWII became Zionism and Zionism once it was on the ground required a much more aggressive stance. The generals were given the lion’s share of the social capital. All of a sudden, the spirit of the religion as practiced became one that more resembles Chanukah than Yom Kippur.

And that is precisely why we were taught to speak Hebrew with a Middle Eastern accent. We were being prepared to go to Israel. It was the first aggressive step in our indoctrination. We were being made into Chanukah Jews.

I don’t know why it took me a quarter of a century to connect the dots. But next year, if I light the candles, I will pronounce it with an “s” and make sure that my children hear it that way.

Bad Gifts

Those who say there are no bad gifts are like those who say there are no stupid questions...they are wrong. Sure, with respect to gifts, it's the thought that counts, but sometimes you are left wondering, "what were you thinking?"

In order to lift this plague of bad gifts, we have seen the rise of the gift card. A bit more stylish than its precursor, the awkwardly sized paper gift certificate, the new plastic version is gaining currency as an acceptable alternative to shopping. But does really avoid the problems of the poorly executed present? No.

Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift. Unfortunately, most of our holiday gift buying is socially coerced, we buy for those we have to buy for. The good gift demonstrates that you wanted to give, not that you felt compelled to.

This desire to give then triggers a second level of consideration – what to give? A good gift is something that the recipient will use and will make their life better. But usefulness is not enough. " for the electric nose hair trimmer."

A good gift is also something someone wants. There is no greater success than seeing wide eyes and hearing, "How did you know?" A great present is one that displays an unspoken intimacy, an understanding of who the person really is.

But, of course, this is where life gets tricky because even folks you know well are not always transparent in this way. Picking out a gift is making a statement about what you see as a person's projects and pleasures and this will reflect how you see and judge them. If the person is a music lover, you might think that buying them music would be a good idea. But, of course, this is a holiday mine field. You don't want to get them music they will dislike or music they already have. If there is a specific genre or artist they like, buying certain popular titles may accidentally indicate that you think they are not enough of a fan that they wouldn't already have this cd or that they are a johnny-come-lately.

This is where the gift card has found a home in the gift giving process. If you let them pick out their music, books, or games, they'll be guaranteed to get what they wanted and in an indirect way, you gave it to them. You will have made the people you were buying for happy and done it without all the tedious figuring out what to buy. What could be better?

But it is precisely this simplicity that impoverishes the giving of the gift card. Yes, you are guaranteed to not have given a bad gift, but at what expense? Now, gift giving has become about the gift itself, and not the giving. The sense of connection is gone. The gift card is about you, not about us. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you – even if the people close to you do not really know you. And isn't that the case for all of us? Aside from a significant other or a best friend, we all have parts that our loved ones don't quite understand. But when they give gifts that play to that side of us, the gift says, "I don't quite get it, but I know it's important to you and I want you to know I am happy to try to nurture that aspect of your life." In this way, a bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought that counts.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bush Another Lincoln?: You Decide

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott points out that right-wing pundit Hugh Hewitt is continuing to contend that a century from now historians will see George W. Bush as another Abraham Lincoln. He writes:

And that's why every president, whether you like him or not, deserves a Doris Kearns Goodwin, who will go back there -- and you don't get it for a hundred fifty years, unfortunately, because Lincoln was so reviled, oh, so hated. Bush has got nothing like the hatred that Lincoln had, but it is eerily, eerily familiar as you read through the political agony of Lincoln. You get a sense of what Bush has been enduring when you read through the revolt of the generals, when you see the political intrigues, the decisions to try and break away, the villainous and vicious press that makes the blogosphere look like kindergarten. That's why -- and I always get hate mail after I do this segment, when I say Bush is Lincoln. It's just a replay, and the Iraqis and the Afghanis are going to be as grateful to his memory as African-Americans are to Lincoln's. That's a lock, it's what they call in the gambling world a mortal lock, and it's not going to take a hundred and fifty years for that to be obvious. In fact, it's already obvious in many parts of both of those countries.
While the good folks at LGM are quick to dismiss this comparison, I'd like to think about it some more. You see, I teach in Gettysburg and everyday I drive past the place where Lincoln delivered his famed address at the cemetery for the war dead. The white alternating rows of headstones cannot but make you somber and reflective. Then, walking from the parking lot to my office, I spot the place where Bush gave a campaign speech last year. These gentlemen are never far from my mind, so I am inclined to think a little more deeply about the claim. Let's examine the similarities and differences.

The differences, to be honest, seem a bit nitpicky:

- One had a beard; the other is clean-shaven.

- One did everything he could to unite a country divided; the other did everything he could to divide a county united.

- One signed the Emancipation Proclamation granting rights to oppressed people; the other favors a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage denying rights to oppressed people.
Like I said, trivial.

But the similarities seem striking:
- One got his education writing on a shovel with coal, a substance high in coke; the other also got his education high on coke.

- One was born in a one-room log cabin; the other was born at a time when behind the main residence on the Kennebunkport estate, the pool house was a one-bedroom bungalow.

- One was a war President because he did not want the southern states to secede; the other was a war President because he did not want the UN weapons inspectors to succeed.

- One wrote his deepest thoughts about ending a war and respecting the war dead on the back of an envelope; the other could write all of his deepest thoughts about ending a war and respecting the war dead on the back of an envelope.
As a philosopher, I don't want to answer this question for you, but I don't think that Hewitt's contention is as far fetched as some might make it seem...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remembering Sagan

Joel over at Joel's Humanistic Blog has organized a blog-a-thon to honor the tenth anniversary of the passing of Carl Sagan and I wanted pay my respects to that wonderful advocate for science.

It is hard to believe that it is ten years. Like so many others of my generation, it was the combination of Cosmos and regular doses of Nova that first got me excited about science and changed the path of my life and shaped my intellectual interests. Sagan was an idol to so many of us who looked to him as the embodiment of our excited interest in the universe we inhabit. He was a real scientist who would talk with us, not talk down to us or over our head, but bring us into his world in which there was unending mystery, but also structure and reason. We could use our minds to understand the seemingly incomprehensible and emerge with images of beauty, inspiring awe.

Every time we understood something it opened up more questions that we could naively posit possible solutions to, solutions that would be undermined with more learning that opened up more questions. But from having understood the answers to the last questions, you knew that if you were smart enough, creative enough, and careful enough, you could answer them too, which would then give you another set of questions. The universe could be understood, it was orderly, but it was also vast ocean. Today, I teach a course entitled "Wrong Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience" in which I begin with Sagan's last book, The Demon Haunted World, in hopes of conveying those twin senses of wonder and structure in my students.

Then there was the time I almost got to meet him in person. I had an appointment. My name was on Carl Sagan's desk calendar for the last day of January, 1986. I was being recruited out of high school by the lacrosse coach at Cornell. He knew I intended to major in physics and he thought it would be a draw if I would meet with Carl Sagan in person. He was right. I couldn't believe I was actually going to be sitting in Carl Sagan's office and talking about science. I had seen him talk so many times before on the screen and seemed like he was talking just to me, but this time he really would be. He looked so tall, I wondered if he really was. Did he have a firm or a gentle handshake? I was a high school senior and could not admit to being giddy about meeting a geeky hero lest everyone know that I was such a geek (as if they didn't all know).

Then, two days before I was to go to Ithaca it happened. The Space Shuttle Challenger, on mission 51-L, exploded. It was a terrible tragedy. I remember walking past Mr. Blinke's history class, seeing the television on, and wondering what that forking trail in a clear blue sky was and then reading the caption. I will never forget that image.

While it can never compare to the loss of that terrible my visit was also a casualty. As I flew from Baltimore-Washington International airport to Ithaca, Carl Sagan flew from Ithaca to Washington to be part of the investigative panel. We probably passed in midair. I got to meet with some Nobel laureate whose name I don't even remember (but would probably be very impressed with if I knew it now). It snowed. They took me to some annoying frat party. I opted against Cornell. But I was this close to getting to meet him.

We miss you, Carl Sagan. We need a charismatic, but authoritative voice in the public discourse speaking enthusiastically about science, speaking up for baloney detection, a gentle, but smart presence to inspire the next generation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Returning Fire in the War on Christmas

So we got a War on Christmas e-mail today to which TheWife decided a response was required. Here's the original and then our response:

'Twas the month before Christmas when all through our land,
Not a Christian was praying nor taking a stand.
Why the PC Police had taken away,
The reason for Christmas - no one could say.
The children were told by their schools not to sing,
About Shepherds and Wise Men and Angels and things.
It might hurt people's feelings, the teachers would say
December 25th is just a "Holiday".
Yet the shoppers were ready with cash, checks and credit
Pushing folks down to the floor just to get it!
CDs from Madonna, an X BOX, an I-pod
Something was changing, something quite odd!
Retailers promoted Ramadan and Kwanzaa
In hopes to sell books by Franken & Fonda.
As Targets were hanging their trees upside down
At Lowe's the word Christmas - was no where to be found.
At K-Mart and Staples and Penny's and Sears
You won't hear the word Christmas; it won't touch your ears.
Inclusive, sensitive, Di-ver-si-ty
Are words that were used to intimidate me.
Now Daschle, Now Darden, Now Sharpton, Wolf Blitzen
On Boxer, on Rather, on Kerry, on Clinton!
At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter
To eliminate Jesus, in all public matter.
And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith
Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace.
The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded
The reason for the season, stopped before it started.
So as you celebrate "Winter Break" under your "Dream Tree"
Sipping your Starbucks, listen to me.
Choose your words carefully, choose what you say
Not Happy Holiday.............................

The reply:
'Twas the month before Christmas and all through the malls
everything was ‘bout Christmas, no escaping at all.
The songs all about yuletide, and then on FOX news,
all the nut-jobs pretending there ain’t any Jews.

This country we know it’s a really big stew
of Muslims, and pagans, and atheists too.
But O’Reilly and Rush, not to mention Sir Hannity
are all trying to deny these good folks their humanity.

If you eat latkes, and liver, and kosher dill gherkins,
You are second class citizens, not real “Amurkans.”
We’re told “shut your hole,” if your season’s not elfish,
as these kinds of “Christians” are really quite selfish.

Don’t say “Happy Holidays” if you work in a store,
it’s “Merry Christmas” alone or they’ll declare war.
“We’re under siege!” they cry through their crocodile tears
“They’re trying to outlaw our holiday cheer!”

You can spot real Christians from those in wolves’ clothing
They’re the ones preaching love, not hatred and loathing.
But the Pharisees think it's only they who should count,
Truth be told, they should read what was said on the mount.

So Buddhists and Hindus and Hopi and Sioux,
the message is clear that is sent unto you.
When the tips of the branches get covered in frost
This country is theirs, time for you to get lost.

Those who believe that to keep of our brother
means to actually love and respect one another.
So when you are asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Answer them, “Welcome ones different from you.”

In conclusion, oh gasp, we guess we should say,
that Comet and Cupid are openly gay.
In this season of peace with the ground covered white,
Happy Holidays to ALL and to ALL a good night.
You want a war? Don't mess with the Comedists.

Can There Be positive Uses For Stereotypes?

A former student Zac asked this one:

I usually think of racism, ethnocentrism, and bigotry in terms overly broad or incorrect generalizations, often applied to individuals or smaller subsets: "All white people are stupid. You are white. Thus you are stupid." But what happens when the generalization is a positive attribute. In the movie Syriana, I remember a character saying: "Arabs are very family-oriented. As a people. Is that racist?" Is it racist for me to say "Brazilian girls are beautiful." What about "Jews are very cheap" (I've heard that one used in many different ways). What if such a generalization is the result of a careful anthropological/sociological study, say, a National Geographic article? I guess I don't really have one question -- just confused.
So we've got two questions here: (1) If there are traits that tend to occur more frequently in a given group than the population at large, is there anything wrong with pointing that out? and (2) Is stereotyping inherently problematic or is it the oppressive use of stereotyping that is the problem. Would there be anything wrong with using the technique to advance social justice by associating a positive trait with an oppressed population?

(1) Surely, you will find traits, especially those that reflect community values, that will be found disproportionately amongst members of a given community than in the population generally. This is a fact of the world and there is nothing wrong with citing anthropological data, especially in an argument. But the question becomes moral when we ask what one is doing with the fact. If the fact is being used to justify malicious treatment, there's a problem but the problem is not with citing the fact. But these sorts of observations also let us see other ways of living and trying to determine how we can break out of our own socially enforced models to live better lives. I remember riding in a car with the head of technology for the school system on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and having this sort of conversation -- discussing what parts of Navajo culture would be good to incorporate into whitebread America and what parts of the usual American ethos would be a positive development if grafted onto rez life.

(2) But the problem is that groups occupy places in a social power structure and the question that we need to consider is whether, realistically, these facts are likely to be misused in justifying injustices that are a normal part of the distribution of social power. The desire to use it as a tool for social justice comes from a good place, but we need to consider what logicians call "special pleading." Any property that one tries to attach to a group and then spin as a virtue, can be used against the group when spun as a vice. They are an adventurous people -- no, they are foolhardy. They are a scholarly group -- no, they are nerdy bookworms. They are passionate -- no, they are irrational. They are enterprising -- no, they are crafty. The idea that we can fight negative stereotypes by replacing them with positive stereotypes is a nice one, but when those with the power get ahold of the work you do, they can easily turn the other blade of the double-edged sword against those you are trying to help. And because they start with the advantage, their characterization will most likely be the one to stick.

There is, of course, the further problem that very many people in the group will not the trait at all. By entrenching the stereotypes, even positive ones, these folks will be looked down upon even more for not only being a member of the oppressed group, but not even having "the redeeming quality" of "those people." And for those who do have the virtue, any successes, no matter how much of a challenge, that displays that virtue will be minimized because, "Well, you know they are just like that."

The idea that we could use a harmful tool for good is an admirable impulse, but my fear is that this case is going to be a loser, no matter how you slice it. But then, I'm just an out of touch philosopher up his ivory tower...

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bush Sending Serge to Iraq?

So of the options that a group of Pentagon strategists put forward, President Bush is now considering the "go big" option. The idea is to send a surge of troops in order to pacify Iraq, or at least the Baghdad region in hopes of changing the current dynamic.

There are two possibilities here. Either the hope is that the new troops will provide a shock to the system that will radically alter the situation on the ground or it will provide a short window of lessened violence which would cynically allow the President to have something to point to, declare victory, and start a draw down claiming to have won in Iraq.

The hope that a surge of troops will alter the situation is based upon the same basic strategy as putting a young child having a tantrum on a time out. The idea is that right now emotions are so stirred up and the child so out of control that it is impossible to reason with the child and the melt down is only spiraling down and down. There is nothing constructive that can be accomplished through engagement either by trying to speak calmly or threatening punishment. But after a cool down period, the child will listen and respond differently. At that point, the child will be rational and we'll have a teachable moment where we can talk about what precipitated the tantrum, how he or she reacted to it, what could have been done differently, and how the outcome would have been more positive if the other route had been chosen.

By putting a whole bunch more boots on the ground, the hope is to significantly decrease the sectarian violence and therefore diminish the reprisal attacks. The thought is that violence is fueling violence and if we can just get a temporary moratorium, we can stop the spiral. Once order is imposed, the vast majority of people will prefer the order and cooler, more moderate heads will prevail. Those who want to return to the previous state of violence will be marginalized and a state of normalcy will become normal.

If that's the plan, I hope it works. Don't think it will, but I hope it does. The reason I believe it will fail is that the time out metaphor fails on a number of fronts. First, we are not dealing with children here and the US is not the big Daddy. The factions in Iraq are organized with well armed militias. They have definite agendas that are worked out and supported by religious and cultural worldviews. Additionally, the US has lost any possible credibility or moral authority we might have had. We are not seen as an honest broker with the best interest of the Iraqi people at heart and therefore have no power, even if the violence is temporarily quelled.

Second, while there is no doubt that violence begets violence, the time out metaphor requires a peace as an equilibrium. Time out type strategies will be effective when you have a teetering cup of coffee with a flat bottom. On its edge, the cup is unstable, but return it to its normal orientation on a flat table and everything will relax. But that is not the case here. Everything that started the violence -- a bloody history of oppression, religious tensions, an uneven division of natural resources, desires for national independence -- is still there. The thorns will still be in the lion's paw after the Novocaine wears off. What we have is perhaps better modeled by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict where cease-fires do diminish the number of tit for tat killings for a while, but then the violence gets up a head of steam and everything is back to the horrible place it always seems to be.

Had this surge come at the beginning of the adventure as people like Eric Shinseki were advising, everything would have been different. The US could have claimed some sort of moral authority. There was a period when the Iraqis were suspicious, but optimistic or at least open to the possibility that the US would be able to bring order and a better life. If we had come in large instead of light and never let things get out of control in the first place, everything would be different. But the PNAC plan of protect the oil, give no bid contracts to Halliburton, Bechtel, and other major GOP contributors, and stay out the way so that liberal democracy would spontaneously appear was the preferred choice -- because after all, it worked so smashingly in Afghanistan (with the accent on "smash").

Coming in heavy now may succeed in overwhelming the insurgency and the warring factions. It may inflame things further, but hopefully the military folks are thinking things through and being allowed to do it right. There does seem to be some reason to believe it could provide some respite from the civil war. As with the Israel/Palestine case, putting a lid on the pot will hopefully give a short window of depressed violence, if enough troops are brought in (where they'll come from, I don't know). But I don't think anyone who looks at this situation where we have the current President protecting al-Sadr and his militia, Sunnis who are fighting back, possibly with Saudi support which could soon go open and provide them with much more power, and Kurds who are making Turkey nervous with their plans.

My guess is that we are looking at the cynical option. The Bush folks know that the situation is unwinnable, but could never admit an error. They need to not only save face, they need to be able to punch the Democrats in theirs, reality be damned. The Bush people are looking to make this the two minute warning, bring in troops to call halftime, and then be the entertainment where they can bring their dog and pony show on the field, say that if the Democrats had their way the game would still be ongoing, declare fake victory, and leave.

Afterwards, of course, the manager from Pottery Barn will not have his calls returned.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Funny Girl?

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Sister Nathifa alerted me to this article, "Why Women Aren't Funny" from Vanity Fair. In it, Christopher Hitchens, discusses a recent study from the Stanford University School of Medicine that contended that there are biological reasons why men are funnier than women.

While he thinks this biological argument is flawed, he buys the conclusion contending that women are, in general, much less funny than men. But the cause is not medical, rather it is social. It isn't that women can't be funny, but that the cultural reward structure discourages it:

In any case, my argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three. When Roseanne stands up and tells biker jokes and invites people who don't dig her shtick to suck her dick -- know what I am saying? And the Sapphic faction may have its own reasons for wanting what I want -- the sweet surrender of female laughter. While Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition.
Femininity, Hitchens contends, ain't funny. It's only when women are masculine or at least not attractive in the standard sense that we find them funny.
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit. (Men can tell jokes about what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, but they don't want women doing so.)
Reminds me of a couple jokes that some female friends used to tell:

What's that useless piece of skin on the end of a penis called? A man.

What's the hole in the penis for? Lets air to the brain.

Good stuff.

As a liberated Comedist, I love that TheWife is quite funny. I couldn't imagine a healthy relationship without regular laughter. Then again, one does get tired getting pantsed every time one has hands full of suds doing the dishes, but that's purely anecdotal.

Of course, there is a long tradition of female, funny and attractive he does not address -- the dizzy blonde, from Gracie Allen to Goldie Hawn to Suzanne Summers. Or sexually aggressive in the Mae West mold. Hitchens would be right to reply that this is hardly problematic for his case because we are laughing at rather than with. The women are being attractive and funny, but only because they are reinforcing the place of men in an unequal power arrangement. The social comic repression would once again be present.

Sure, we can list women who are neither butch nor blondie and still very funny -- going back to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett and forward to Bonnie Hunt to Tina Fey. But Hitchens point is not the naive universal that there are no funny liberated women. Rather it is a more interesting, subtle claim that may, in fact, be true. Does male insecurity keep women from being funny?

So I ask our good Comedist sisters out there? Do you feel comic oppression? Is The Man stepping on your punchlines? On the flip side, Comedist brothers, are you intimidated by a woman who is fast.Withth a joke. Do you find puns sexy? Is there a social barrier between female and funny?

Death and the Chilean Miracle

With a little time passed, it is probably worth thinking about the recent passings of Milton Friedman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Augusto Pinochet -- three figures who were part of shaping the legacy of Cold War era American conservativism. All three, of course, are bound by the sense that free market capitalism must be spread, defended, and enforced by any means possible.

Kirkpatrick, the American representative to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, famously argued that there ought to be a double standard in US tolerance of evil, murderous, torturing dictators. Right-wing dictators ought to be supported and a blind eye all but turned to their atrocities while left-wing dictators ought to be violently opposed using all available means because right-wing dictators leave intact a demand-based economy and therefore will most likely, eventually transform into free-market liberal democracies. Left-wing dictators, on the other hand, dismantle economies and thus hold little hope for democratization which, it was posited, requires capitalist infrastructure. And so it was that torture, rape, mass disappearances and killings, political repression of the most brutal and inhumane sort was not only tolerated by the Unites States' government, but the perpetrators and designers aided, trained, and supported with American tax dollars.

John Negroponte was the American ambassador to Honduras when it was ruled by one of these right-wing friends of the Reagan administration and under his watch, the Honduran army's infamous battalion 316, aided by US special forces, became a brutal death squad of tragically historic proportion. Declassified documents contain details about the training manuals used by the CIA to teach torture techniques to the Honduran unit. Similar tactics were used by Negroponte to try to ramp up the brutal capacities of the Contras in neighboring Nicaragua even after it became explicitly illegal. For his commitment to a Kirkpatrick-style foreign policy, he was named by George W. Bush to be our current Director of National Intelligence.

But the hallmark of support for evil right-wing dictators was Pinochet. After an American supported coup that overthrew popularly elected leader Salvador Allende because he was from the Socialist Party, Pinochet began his horrible regime. From a CIA report:

CIA actively supported the military Junta after the overthrow of Allende...Many of Pinochet's officers were involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses....Some of these were contacts or agents of the CIA or US military.
These systematic and widespread human rights abuses conducted with American approval and funding included "Operation Condor" in which 3,000 political opponents were murdered and 30,000 others tortured.

Lest we think that those with the loudest voices would be appropriately ashamed of this legacy and the Kirkpatrick doctrine that so clearly states it, we see this in the Washington Post's mortemmotum of the dictator,
It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired. It also has a vibrant democracy. Earlier this year it elected another socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who suffered persecution during the Pinochet years. Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle -- and that not even Allende's socialist successors have dared reverse. He also accepted a transition to democracy, stepping down peacefully in 1990 after losing a referendum.
Stepping down peacefully? Yeah, only after forcing the government to pack the legislature with pro-Pinochet allies to make sure he could never be held to account for the horrors he perpetrated on those who merely disagreed with his inhumane reign.

The Post's editorial here is not accidental. The "Chilean miracle" is one of those case studies that achieved mythic status with certain sets on the right. After Pinochet overthrew the government, the head of the junta was visited in 1975 by none other than economist Milton Friedman who was able to stock Pinochet's government with his "Chicago boys."

Friedman is well-known for his view that the only moral responsibility that corporations have is to their own bottom line. Corporations, he argued, are artificial entities created by and accountable only to the desires of shareholders. Any corporation that seeks to be a good citizen and thereby fails to maximize their profits has done wrong because those who bought the shares did so with the expectations of profit. The shareholders money is not the corporation's to use for "good works," to do so would amount to theft -- it would be like giving money to someone who promises to go to the store to buy you a gallon of milk and finding that the person instead gave it to a homeless person leaving you without milk.

Unregulated markets and privatization of all economically vital institutions, he argued, is essential for fiscal health and growth. Disparaties between rich and poor? Suffering among the needy? Ecological disasters? Too bad. Ultimately, the market will correct it. The gods of the laissez faire require some sacrifice in blood, but ultimately we must have faith that they will provide. It will all be better in the end. We saw in Friedman the same spirit we saw in Kirkpatrick, a sense that the suffering of the present was not be alleviated, but ignored in the name of ideological beliefs that declared a better world would be coming. If people like Pinochet needed to have their death squads trained and financed, so be it.

Pinochet had 3,000 people killed, but now we've seen the deaths of 3. With the passings of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Milton Friedman, and Augusto Pinochet, we may be closing the sad shameful chapter that was American involvement in the inhumanity perpetrated in the name of the Cold War. But with bridge figures like John Negroponte among the neo-conservatives, we cannot rest easy, thinking the story is over.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

RIP Peter Boyle

Fellow comedists, I speak to you in mourning today for we have lost a giant...a big, green giant and I'm not talking Hans Delbruck.

Peter Boyle was a fantastic actor. His work in Joe and The Candidate were magnificent. But today he sits with Saint Shecky. Not for his admirable work in The Dream Team, Where the Buffalo Roam, or Everyone Loves Raymond. No, he made it directly into Comedy Heaven for the role one need not even mention. He had few lines and was surrounded by an obscene amount of talent, yet he was able to shine. The look of exasperation in the scene with Gene Hackman is a clinic on how to act without words. Truly a master.

I will never forget my uncle's wedding, when, during the reception, the band made the mistake of playing Puttin' On The Ritz. They hit the chorus and the entire room simultaneously launched into its best Peter Boyle impersonation.

Thank you Peter Boyle. You will be missed. "A sophisticated man about town," indeed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is There Final Exam Week in the "Real World"?

As someone who has never left the cozy confines of academia since my days before Tom and Jerry nursery school (it was much better on the days you got to be Jerry), I am curious whether there is the equivalent to finals week out there. Every student you see this week is walking around exhausted, stressed out, pulling all-nighters because everything they've been working on (or, in some cases, not working on) for the last several months is on the line and it all comes down to their performance on a single assessment. Is there the same sort of culminating climax in other lines of work? Are there similar levels of stress? Did finals week prepare you well for it? Can you come to your big presentations unshowered and wearing pajamas?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Philosophy and War: Hanno Calls for Air Support

From Hanno:

Not to change the subject completely, but I am designing a new course, and I want some input. I want to make a multi-media course about philosophy and war. Themes include war and memory (War and Peace, Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory), war and ethics (from pacifism to militarism) Ethics in War (justifications of various limits on warfare, no only the Geneva conventions, but chivalry, and the code of the warrior), the inherent use of means to an end thinking (Omar Bradley, Gettysburg), to the glorification of war (50's war movies to Saving Private Ryan) and their effect on society, to the de-glorification of war (Platoon, All's Quiet on the Western Front, Gallipoli), attitudes towards killing in memoirs (Addie Murphy, Paul Fussell).

Suggests for further themes, or works at which I should look?

My two cents:

cent one:

There are a couple of pieces that were part of the required ethics course at the United States Naval Academy when I taught there that struck me as powerful. One is James Webb's article "The War on the Military Culture" which is perhaps the only piece to appear in The Weekly Standard by a sitting Democratic Senator (1/20/97). Webb confronts the question of women in combat in a careful, knowledgeable way. I don't agree with his conclusions necessarily, but it is a well-written, thoughtful argument that would begin a good classroom discussion.

The other is a case study developed by Jillian Dickert and Kenneth Winston at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government entitled, "A Policewoman's (Non-)Use of Deadly Force." It looks at the attitudes towards the use of force, especially deadly force, by police officers in situations that are not terribly different from warfare. The cavalier celebration of brutality on the part of many of the male officers is contrasted with a police woman's choice to not use deadly force in a situation of grave bodily danger. It is a very powerful piece that keeps the cheap and easy 24-type, "they had no choice but to be brutal" move from being quite so cheap or easy.

cent two:

A drum I keep banging...I would love to see someone smart (like Hanno) start to critically assess the failure of neo-conservatism. If you want to talk about war and morality, enlarge the scope and look at the use of war as just another, or worse a preferred, tool for enacting foreign policy. Look at Fukuyama's The End of History as an intellectual blueprint for the debacle in Iraq. Compare the Project for the New American Century doctrine to the Weinberger doctrine. Look not only at the ethics in war, but the ethics of going to war.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Why I Don't Want My Kids To Be Stoics

The key to good parenting is consistency, not sending mixed messages and being able to explain foundational moral notions in a clear, unambiguous, and intuitively graspable fashion. One of the things that is most important to us to convey to our short people is the need to avoid wanton materialism. In a society in which consumption is a national pastime and kids are the targets of sophisticated marketing campaigns, it is difficult enough to get them to understand the difference between "want" and "need," but then to explain that they need not want everything they see or everything their friends have is a full-time job.

But there's an additional wrinkle that seemed to express itself in an unlikely place. One of our students was defending his senior thesis on the usefulness of Stoicism as a guide to daily life and he quoted Epictetus,

"When anything from the least thing upwards is attractive, servicable or an object of affection, remember always to say to yourself, ' What is its nature?' Only then, if you are fond of a jug will you not be disturbed if it is broken. If you kiss your child or your wife say to yourself that you are kissing a human being, for then if death strikes, you will not be disturbed."
Sure, the idea that you should think of your spouse or kids as mere things is problematic, but put that aside. What struck me was the jug part. The idea being that since things are unimportant, if your favorite jug shatters, you should not be disturbed because, after all, it was a mere material object and material objects are unimportant. If material things don't matter, then one should not worry about whether they are functional or ruined.

Here is an example of a non-materialistic worldview, and this detachment from material things does seem to follow from their unimportance; yet, it is entirely contrary to what I want to teach my kids. If they break one of their toys because they are playing with it in an inappropriate way, I don't want them to just shrug it off and say "oh well." I want them to learn that you don't treat your things like that. You need to respect the things you have and treat them properly. But why would you respect something that that is unimportant?

Similarly, we encourage creative play. For this reason, I have no problem if they have more than one little doll. There are all kinds of scenarios and creative possibilities that open up when there are enough polly pockets to interact in complex ways. Having four does open up the ability to play school in a way that one or two does not and that extra degree of freedom is desirable. But if four is better than two, why not fourteen? I know why not, but how can it be put clearly and strongly enough for a four year old to understand?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Feast of Saint Woody

It is a season of holiness, my Comedist brothers and sisters. Not only did we just see the birthday of Steven Wright (wrighteously celebrated by good brother Phil at Philosophical Bits), but we have also just seen the passing of the anniversary of the birth of his holiness, Woody Allen.

I was in high school, when the Charles theater in Baltimore had a Saturday night Woody Allen triple feature. A temptation one dare not waste, I invited a young woman to the showing, a beautiful, tall, blonde shiksa upon whom I had the sort of soul-rendering crush reserved for only those who would have no clue what to do if the object of their affection returned the gaze. She said "yes," but would have to meet me at the theater. We agreed on a time and I nervously drove down the winding roads of Mount Washington, through Roland Park, around Hopkins, and down Saint Paul.

There are three types of waiting. There is anticipatory waiting where you are hyper-alert to all faces and motion within one's range of vision. You worry about the sweat you feel welling beneath your arms as you scan every direction thinking that the split second you checked to your right, she may have been approaching from left. Then there is contingent waiting where you are not sure that the act of waiting itself is sufficient to guarantee that it is merely a matter of time until you are rewarded. You wait, just in case, concerned, thinking about the multi-faceted nature of reality and how many things could have happened while you've been waiting, knowing that it is impossible to know which -- if any -- are the real reason you are still waiting. Then there is the sort of waiting reserved for the guy at the top of the mountain who can only put his rock down on top of the boulder that Sisyphus is trying to rest at the top of the hill. You wait against hope, your only power residing in your ability to refuse to resign yourself to reason.

And so there I was, a geeky little Jewish kid with glasses sitting in the back row accompanied only by my raisinets. I watched Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Stardust Memories. It was, perhaps, my first religious experience.

I close with the line most befitting a Comedist sermon comes from Stardust Memories,

Sandy Bates: But shouldn't I stop making movies and do something that counts, like-like helping blind people or becoming a missionary or something?

Martian: Let me tell you, you're not the missionary type. You'd never last. And-and
incidentally, you're also not Superman; you're a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.

What are your favorite Woody Allen lines? Some of mine:

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.

"The last time I was inside of a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

"To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition."

"I'd call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse."

"So now you're picking on my hobbies."

"Nietzsche says that we will live the same life, over and over again. God - I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

Happy birthday, Woody Allen.

Cowboy Neal Was At The Wheel

In The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, one of my favorite chapters is from philosopher Gary Ciocco and deals with the relation between the rise of the Beats in the 50s and the hippie culture surrounding the Grateful Dead in the 60s. Gary argues that the progression from the Beats to the scene around the Dead come directly out of the broader trends in American thought, particularly the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the pragmatism of William James.

While I'll leave the philosophy to Gary in the book, there was certainly more than a tenuous intellectual-heritage based link between the Beats and Dead; there was, in fact, deep personal contact. Many of the Beats were living in San Francisco and figures like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were not strangers to those there at the start of the hippie movement. Indeed, they had a direct causal influence on the band. "I" and I were lucky enough to talk with both Bob Weir and Dennis McNally (Grateful Dead publicist, biographer of Jack Kerouac and Jerry Garcia, and a Ph.D. in history) about this connection.

In Dennis' words,

The essential fact biographically and historically is that Jerry Garcia at the age of 15 started attending Saturday classes at the San Francisco Art Institute which brought him into North Beach. This was 1957, which is to say the year when On The Road was on the best sellers list. Now, his teacher was a man named Wally Heider who was by any measure a bohemian/Beatnik, who said to himself and to them -- them being Jerry and a friend of his -- "You know, you're more Beat than I am. You ought to go down to City Lights bookstore and read this book On the Road and check out things." He was the role model that Jerry Garcia, who was this fatherless young man, was looking for, whether he was conscious of it or not and an architect that he embraced for the rest of his life.

The reason he selected me as his biographer is that he liked my approach to Kerouac. He was very conscious of the historical progression. You have this group of disaffected artists in the 50s, the so-called Beats, and he's part of the next wave in the 60s. He was always more of a Beatnik than a hippie in a lot of ways, despite people thinking of him as the ultimate hippie.

The most obvious distinction between the groups is that the people in the Beatnik scene were more literary. There are a few books that can be associated with hippies, but by in large, it is not a literary culture, it is a visual and electronic culture. It was more literary and more small group oriented. So much of what happened in the hippie scene was associated with large groups, particularly concerts. The Beat scene was geared to jazz and only later rock and roll.
But the strongest link between the two groups was Neal Cassady, the man who was Kerouac's model for Dean Moriarity in On the Road appearing also in Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. The man who served as the muse for the Beats, went on to join Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters which is where he became a close friend and intellectual inspiration for the next generation of young rebelliousus artists thinking about loosing the strict bonds of puritanical American culture. Where many at the time were metaphorically "on the bus," it was Neal Cassady who quite literally drove the bus.

Again, Dennis McNally,
What made the Grateful Dead unique, always, and oddly enough this folds back on Neal, too, was that they brought the improvisational sensibility of jazz to rock and roll which had always been three minutes, theatrical entertainment music. They stretched it out and added a level of intellectualism in terms of playing in the same way that Dylan intellectualized lyric writing.

It is said of Neal that he could hold separate and on-going conversations with a whole circle of people, seven or eight people, almost like spinning the dial on a television set. He would literally talk his way around the circle and in some case resume conversations that he had been having with them a year before, never missing a beat.

His consciousness was a most unusual and peculiar thing. To many people, he was a madman. You needed to get where he was to appreciate it.

His great practice, in the sense of a Zen of a practice, a spiritual practice, was driving a car. Phil Lesh swears that one time they were driving from Palo Alto to San Francisco just as a ballgame was getting let out at Candlestick Park which is about not about halfway, but right on the highway. And when the game lets out, traffic is gridlocked around the Park. Neil somehow drove through the gridlock, simply morphed the cars around him. These things all sound slightly mad and yet they were so.

Neal was an example of how far you could take it. If you see consciousness as an on and off thing, Neal's schtick was to take consciousness to a point where it was on all the time, to understand that there are multiple layers to reality and to engage in all of them. Not only as a driver, he was Jack's example of someone who had taken the energy of the American west, the essential energy of America and taken it all the way.
When asked about his remembrances of "Cowboy Neal," Bob Weir put it this way,
Neal was easily the most amazing human being I've ever met. But it goes well beyond that. Neal taught me to drive, for instance.

Neal could drive 60 miles per hour through rush hour traffic in San Francisco, never stopping for a stop sign or red light. He was on the wrong side of the road a lot, but he could see around corners. Or, at least he knew what was happening around those corners and it was no problem for him. At the same time he had one hand on the wheel, one hand in his girlfriend's pants, and one hand playing with the buttons on the radio...and having a dialogue with whatever you were thinking. I've never met anyone else who could do that.

It made you ready for about anything; which was Neal's deal, he was ready for anything. That did rub off. The Grateful Dead took up and carried that banner.

I'm not sure that Neal was typical of all Beats, for that matter. He was completely singular. He hung with a lot of Beats because they could hear the music there, but really, he was one of a kind. I met a lot of Beats, Allen Ginsberg, for instance, but I don't know if they were typical of the Beats either because they were guys who got conscripted by the psychedelic movement and that was different. They came from the Beat background and they spoke the language. We all learned the language and learned the approach -- the open minded approach -- but, then the psychedelic movement came by and it was open minded squared or cubed.
Taught to drive by Neal Cassady? Remind me not to put Bob Weir behind the wheel...probably safest if one were "lost now on the country miles," I suppose.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Today I'm Proud to Be a Jew

So the central body of Conservative Judaism has moved to allow for gay rabbis and same-sex commitment ceremonies. Sure, reform and reconstructionist congregations have been on the morally right side of the line for years, but this bold move by the middle is a major development because it shows that the mainstream of the Jewish community is there too.

After the debacle with the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, it is times like this that make me very proud to be a Jew.

Funniest lines of the day: In the story about this in the New York Times, Rabbi Jerome Epstein is quoted as saying, "Most of our congregations will not be of one mind." A large group of Jews not of one mind, who could ever imagine such a thing? And Rabbi Kassel Abelson said, "We recognized from the very beginnings of the movement that no single position could speak for all members." Reb Abelson, my friend, these are JEWS, no single position could speak for any single member.

The next step is to get the commitment ceremonies recognized as legitimate marriages so that Jewish lesbian comedians don't have to say, "Take my rabbinically recognized same-sex partner...please." Ruins the timing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Now What?

In the Iraq Study Group report coming out, they argue that in terms of strategy from here, we have a choice between "going big," "going long," and "going home" (boy, sometimes the jokes just write themselves don't they... "This report sponsored by Pfizer, makers of Viagra"; or, "hey, who let Clarence Thomas on the committee?"). I have no idea which would most likely lead to the best overall outcome (an empirical question, after all), but we can at least look at the presuppositions underlying each.

Going Big

This is the line advocated by John McCain. The idea is that we need a massive influx of troops to completely occupy the area. This will lead to pacification and we can then begin to draw down forces. The assumption underlying this is that the sort of violence we see right now in Iraq is occurring because we're seeing this sort of violence right now in Iraq. Iraq is like a tipping glass, it is stable in its normal position, but in danger when knocked over. On this view, the war as we've mismanaged it has caused the glass to tip out of its normal position and it takes a large force to stabilize the situation returning it to its normal peaceful equilibrium. Once there is an absence of violence, the line goes, the large majority of people will decide it is better like this and the whole scene will cool down.

In its favor, one should never underestimate people's desire for a stable world in which to live their lives and raise their kids. Perhaps there is a stable normal state that just needs re-establishing. But on the other hand, the fact that works against this basic presupposition that stopping the violence will stop the violence is that you have a country in which you have long-standing animosity and an unequal distribution of a very valuable viscous natural resource. There does seem to be reason to be worried that, contrary to the central assumption, anytime one takes the lid off the pot it will begin to boil over again.

Going Long

This is the Bush administration's line. It is akin to Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. We're tough enough to take the best they can hit us with and after a while we will simply wear them down and be able to take them out. Like the tortoise in the story, victory lies at the end of a long, long road, we just need to stay on it as long as it takes. Victory is assured if just stay the course (and no longer use phrases like "stay the course").

On the one hand, it certainly is true that not sticking around in the 1980s was part of the reason Afghanistan took the turn it did and led in part to 9/11 which led to the drumbeat for wider war. The Pottery Barn rule -- if you break it, you bought it -- does seem to be in effect and to have made a mess and left seems wrong on a whole host of levels. But in the other direction, the current strategy has been a miserable failure, like the person with a dead battery who keeps turning the key hoping this time the car will start, to keep doing what you know doesn't work and clapping louder does not seem the most rational choice.

Going Home

The idea behind either phased or rapid redeployment of American troops is that a significant part of the reason for the violence is our presence in Iraq -- we're not just fighting the insurgency, we're actually causing it and doing so at a rate greater than we can suppress it. If you want to put out the fire, step one, stop pouring gasoline on it, you moron. The idea is that having conducted this operation so badly, we have squandered any good will we may have had with the Iraqi people and as long as we continue to occupy their land, we will continue to fan the flames. Without the US presence, there will be a brief flare up leading to more violence, but a long cooling down period moving slowly towards long-term stability in a way that could never happen with American troops remaining in the country.

In its favor, we can look at a poker metaphor: When a player bets big, it is either because he has a great hand and wants to try to either force everyone else out of the game and take the chips on the table, is bluffing and trying to make everyone think he has a great hand and then takes the chips on the table, or he wants someone else to go in big and take a lot of chips. For this to work, there has to be good reason to believe he has a powerful hand. When a player quietly keeps feeding the pot, it means he either has a sure winner and is trying not to scare people off or he has a hand that very well may win, but he needs to see more cards to determine whether it is worth playing for big money. The problem is that if other people on the table have good reason to think they have you beat with, your strategy choices become less and less effective. With each new card that shows up on the table, you lose the ability to maneuver and the good player knows when to fold 'em. A good lay down is crucial to playing poker in the long run. The longer we are in Iraq, the weaker our hand is looking and it seems like we are just throwing away money and lives.

On the other hand, if we leave all hell could break loose. If Iraq partitions, you could have long-term instability, an invasion of the north by Turkey, another Iran in the south, and a central region without resources, with a chip on its shoulder, and the ability to continue wreaking havoc. And, yeah, that's just what we need in a Middle East that is already in shambles and geo-politically crucial to world stability.

So which presupposition, if any, is right? If I knew, I'd probably have more than a blog...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Germ Peacefare: Could Civil Disobedience Be Infectious?

From the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" file:

So a couple weeks back, Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers declared an end to the ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government. Violence had been flaring there recently and this move opened the door to more innocent bloodshed by both the Tigers and the majority Sinhalese army. As if that wasn't bad enough, the island now been struck by a mosquito-carried disease, chikungunya, that leaves people with terrible flu-like symptoms and lays them up for about two weeks. Turns out that this public health crisis has struck the fighters leading to a marked decrease in the public health nightmare that is the war.

So, could infectious disease be used intentionally as a means of civil disobedience? Trade sit-ins for sick-ins? Cough for peace. Flu is not as unhealthy for children and other living things. Hey, hey, ho, ho, my nose, my nose, I've got to blow. Make chicken soup, not war.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Demarcation, Falsification, and Intelligent Design

Janet, over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, has a nice discussion going about intelligent design, the line between science and pseudoscience, and Karl Popper's criterion of falsificationism. According to Popper, a theory is scientific if and only if one can show what possible observations would render the theory false. Science is not the seeking of confirmation for one's beliefs, but the robust search for counter-evidence that would undermine them. Doc Free-ride takes the standard line that a theory is scientific just in case it is falsifiable, creationism and intelligent design are unfalsifiable, therefore they are pseudoscientific.

I've long thought that Popper was exactly the wrong line to take in considering intelligent design. On the one hand, banking on the impossibility of falsifiable propositions from intelligent design is put one's eggs in a poorly made basket. There are some very smart (albeit misguided) folks on the ID-team working very hard with things like information theory to show how one could have derivable results that are potentially falsifiable. Suppose they succeed? No reason to think that it is impossible. To be honest, I don't think it should make much difference. There is so much in terms of biological, geological, and archaeological evidence that is so nicely and cleanly subsumed under the evolutionary explanations that is not accounted for by the creationist approach that hinging everything on the falsifiability of intelligent design seems to be misplacing the concern.

On the other hand, there are certainly aspects to every theory that would be called scientific with no objection, including evolutionary theory, which are placed beyond falsification. Consider a famous episode in the history of biology. Two biologists, Cain and Shepard, tried to explain the distribution of snails with markings on their shells in terms of natural selection, they argued that certain banding patterns made some snails easier to see in the woods by birds who fed on them. A competitor, Lamott argued that their work was faulty, but in doing so, he didn't contend that their central axioms were false, only misapplied. Falsification, should Lamott have been correct, would not have been taken as grounds upon which to reject the basic notions of evolution theory. We have real science going on here, but falsification was nowhere to be found. As Pierre Duhem pointed out long ago, it is always possible to save any given part of a theory if you are willing to pfutz with the rest of it and we do take central axioms and put them out of bounds.

All of this was pointed out by Popper's student Imre Lakatos who presents what I would contend is a much better way of looking at the evolution/ID debate. He argues that all scientific theories have an unfalsifiable hard core and a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses. On this view, both evolutionary biology and ID would be scientific -- BUT, theories can be judged relative to one another on the way they have developed historically and whether they account for a broad spectrum of phenomena with little significant alteration (he deems there progressive research programmes) or whether they need major renovations and ad hoc patches to account for things as they pop up (he terms these degenerating research programmes). If a theory can remain little changed with a sleek, streamlined structure while accounting for more and phenomena -- especially phenomena that the theory wasn't initially conceived of in order to explain -- then you have a good theory. If you have a theory that gets more and more clunky just to hold on to the few things it thought it could already explain, then you've got a dog of a theory.

I have no problem saying that there may be formulations of creationism or intelligent design theory which may be scientific (of course, there are versions which are pseudoscientific by any measure, but to avoid building a strawman, I have no problem allowing that some may not be). But the problem with intelligent design is not that it is unscientific, the problem is that it is a degenerating research programme for a set of phenomena for which we have an incredibly successful alternative that is amongst the most progressive research programmes going. I see little problem in letting ID into the ring, when there is no way it wins a fair fight.

Allowing that it may be possible to formulate creationism or intelligent design in a way that crosses the line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience does not mean that it should be allowed into the science classroom any more than we should "teach the controversy" between phlogiston theory and the statistical mechanics, or between Aristotle's physics and relativity theory. There is no controversy there, but that is better accounted for by leaning on Lakatos, the student, rather than Popper, the teacher.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Comedist Views on the Separation of Church and State

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

This week, brother pm inquired about Comedist beliefs regarding the separation of church and state. Let me say unequivocally that Comedism does not seek to base man's law, civil law, or coleslaw in any way upon Comedist theology. We firmly believe "render unto Sid Caesar that which belongs to Sid Caeser, and render unto the Lord that which belongs to the Lord." You will never see Comedists demanding monuments of Flip Wilson with "Here comes da' judge!" in the nation's courthouses.

That is not to say there is no humor to be found in politics -- one will never remove that. And we are never saying that laws should not be written from one's person comic values, but that we support pluralism. Just as we believe in the existence of good jokes about every possible group, so we believe these groups should participate equally in the political process. Religion in politics is only meant to silence certain voices and that should never happen...with the notable exception of Harpo Marx, of course.

But there are, of course, gray areas. In general, Comedists are appalled by religious discrimination in hiring. One's faith is one's personal business and should it not impact the ability to perform one's chosen occupation, it ought to play no part in the hiring process. But...

So "I" and I (starting to sound like a reggae tune here) were on the phone the other day talking to Bob Weir, guitarist for the Grateful Dead, interviewing him for the upcoming book The Grateful Dead and Philosophy. A couple of pieces in the book look at the Dead as a larger organizational entity. Incredibly, such a complex organization was run by consensus. If anyone -- and I mean anyone -- had reservations about something, then it was off. The band had considered a tour of Europe in the early 90's, but the road crew decided they didn't like the idea and so it was scrapped. So I asked Bobby, if so much trust was given to folks who worked for the band, how did they hire? His answer..."We only hired people who made us laugh." So...the Grateful Dead, Comedists? Associated with the Merry Pranksters, after all...

Friday, December 01, 2006

He Who Laughs Last, Votes Best (part 2 of 2)

For the first part of the essay, see yesterday's post or for the full essay, beautifully layed out, see e Pluribus Media.

The War on Humor
“9/11 changed everything,” we were told. Of course, it is not clear exactly what it changed since any change could only be interpreted as a victory for the terrorists. But there was one thing – Letterman was off the air and it was widely declared that “the age of irony was over.” Nihilism had lost its place. We were hated and hunted. Real concerns now replaced self-indulgence.

But irony’s eulogy was also an unapologetically political shot across the bow of the good ship Liberal. By declaring snark to be passé, it clearly argued that this was not a time to embody any progressive traits: cleverness, nuance, or empathy. This was a time to be clear, tough, and burn with anger for revenge. Careful consideration and concern for innocent lives are exactly the sort of namby-pamby softness the terrorists relied on. They hate us for our freedoms and if you dare to use those freedoms, they will hate us even more and kill your children.

The near unanimous passage of the USA Patriot Act signaled a crack down upon political speech of all sorts. Brett Bursey was arrested in Columbia, South Carolina for holding a protest sign where the President might see it. Others were led away in handcuffs for wearing unfriendly t-shirts at campaign events.

For comedy, too, there was a clear program pogrom. Ruing the decline of Saturday Night Live has become an entitlement for every post-boomer, but the undisputed low point was surely the comic version of Triumph of the Will that was SNL following 9/11. You could sense the apprehension of writers reduced to showing Martha Stewart holding up doilies with “Suck It, Osama.” Weekend Update, long the smartest and sharpest part of the show, had its edge noticeably dulled. But perhaps the lowest point was the sketch, “War Party.” Music played, revelers danced as occasional interruptions of news announced American military successes. The dancing would then continue with revelers singing “We got Kandahar,” then “We got Jalalabad” to the tune of the radio. There was something strangely missing from the sketch – jokes. It wreaked of the desperation of writers not permitted to comment on anything more relevant than farting babies.

But the Tet offensive in the war on comedy was the take down of Bill Maher. One of the final loci of humorous dissent, Politically Incorrect, prominently featured Maher’s libertarian pox-wishes upon both the multi-culti lefty variety of political correctness and the puritanical correctness of the right. Maher took issue with the White House’s talking point in which the 9/11 perpetrators were labeled “cowards.” He argued that while they are evil, it was nonsense to say that people willing to give their own lives for a cause were not brave – especially when that very virtue was being lavished upon American airmen bombing Afghanistan well above the range of anti-aircraft artillery. The point was no different from Immanuel Kant's objection to Aristotle – one may be virtuous in acting, but if your intentions are evil, so is the act.
But 9/11 changed everything. Maher’s advertisers complained vociferously. The White House condemned him. Soon thereafter, Politically Incorrect was off the air. The “War on Comedy” had a fatality.

In the midterm elections that followed, turnout as a percentage of voting age population is lower in 2002 than in 1988. Bucking a long-standing historical trend, Republicans, the party in control of the White House, gained several seats in Congress, a result not from a groundswell of support for the conservative agenda, but from a proportionately strong turn-out among Republican voters who cited terrorism as a major concern. The irony was dead and gone, but the apathy remained.

Katrina Opens the Floodgates
Slowly we turned. Step by step. Inch by inch. The war moved from Afghanistan to Iraq and lingered. As the administration continued to call for people to clap louder and this time really believe that things were going well, opinion polls drooped. We were staying a course that did not serve the administration’s political goals as it once had.

Then Katrina and FEMA showed themselves to be horrific disasters. Juxtaposing “heckova job Brownie” with the omnipresent images undermined any remaining bit of credibility the President had. When the levees broke, the patina washed clean off the administration. Bush’s Watergate was an actual gate for water.

But before the deluge, Bush tried to get out in front of the incoming comic wave. At the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2004, he had a routine in which he showed slides of himself, backside in the air, looking under the Oval Office furniture, quipping, “Those weapons of Mass Destruction have got to be somewhere.” The reporters and pundits sensed the old twinkle in his eye and loved it. He was bringing them back in on the joke. But outside, the joke about the President’s butt would soon be turned so that the President would be the butt of the joke.

The horrible deaths of innocents, government spying and indignant recriminations against anyone pointing it out, mainstream media seriously discussing whether there are any legitimate grounds on which to object to torture…it all seemed surreal, but eventually the seriousness of the times and the incontrovertible incompetence of the masters finally combined to give rise to countermovement, a reaction that would have a satirical edge. Much of the comic infrastructure had been neutralized, but from an upstart cable channel, came a new voice.

It was not exactly new. The Daily Show had been around. Its election coverage in 2000 was firmly entrenched in the old nihilist camp. No bit better illustrates this than Steve Carell’s interview with John McCain on the “Straight-Talk Express.” Carell began by asking about the Senator's favorite movie and book, only to zing him with the sort of question Tim Russert saves for Democrats. Citing several rapid-fire examples of seeming corporate conflicts of interest, he asked how McCain could be running along the high road when his past was so checkered. McCain squirmed for about a second and a half until Carell broke back into his characteristic goofiness saying he didn’t understand what any of that actually meant. Hilarity ensued and McCain was let off the hook. Care was taken so that no actual politicians were harmed in the filming of these segments.

But the tone began to change. “The Most Trusted Name in Fake News” began to take the news more seriously and the show got edgier. Clips of the Vice President speaking to reporters followed by clips that put the lie to what he had just said were shown. Presidential press appearances brutally mocked. The sharper the elbows, the better the ratings got. Young people turned to the show not just for nightly entertainment, but as a primary news source. Legitimate studies showed the program contained the same amount of substantive information as standard newscasts and that its audience was as well, if not better informed, than those whose news sources were more traditional.

But as hot as the Daily Show was, satirical critical mass only came with the spin-off of Stephen Colbert. So well-modeled are his rhetorical tricks that it is difficult to differentiate between the faux reality of Colbert Report and the Fox reality of O'Reilly and Hannity. At the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006, sitting only steps from the man himself, Colbert mercilessly pummeled the President. It became clear at that moment that one could now not only say that the emperor had no clothes, but now you could say it in front of the emperor.

The irony of Colbert and Stewart is a completely different flavor from that of Jerry Seinfeld. All are pregnant with political presupposition. Seinfeld’s New York Jews are easily recognizable as liberal and their concerns and cultural baggage specific to the well-educated, well-off class of convenience. But gone in Stewart and Colbert is the sense that these folks could take for granted the comfortable world around them and their status in it. That unease was found in the electorate at large. The Daily Show’s irony is laced with the sense that Stewart gave in his Crossfire appearance when he said with a sense more pleading than indignant, “I will not be your monkey.” Dysfunctional democracy had become a very live possibility in part because the press had turned away, they thought it all a joke.

Urgency appeared not only in the humor of the times, but was embodied in the electorate. The midterm elections in 2006 saw significantly increased turnout, especially among the Daily Show’s prime demographic, youth voters. To not attribute some degree of causation to this correlation is to miss a crucial factor – a factor not lost on FOX News who now plans a conservative version of the Daily Show – something as likely to succeed as liberal squawk radio. Did Stewart and Colbert feed or feed off of the anxiety? Both, of course, and it was this symbiosis that climaxed in the results of the midterm elections.

"Heh, did you hear that Butthead? He said 'climax.'"