Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Essence of Love

Thinking about the nature of love today. It's TheWife's birthday and I'm puzzling over how someone so strong, smart, gorgeous, and caring could end up in love with some awkward uber-geek with no fashion sense and a philosopher's salary.

There's no doubt that love is in part biological. Pheromones and neurological wiring are no doubt part of the story. When you first see your future beloved across the room, there is that rush, that "ooooh" moment. Surely, something anatomical is in play there, but that can't be all of it. Think about those people who have types that they find themselves attracted to. The explanation there is often biographical, psychological, or cultural. And then, on top of that, somehow so many of us end up with people who compliment our weaknesses, people who embody the virtues or abilities we miss in ourselves. Sometimes we can see this in the behaviors that lead us to attraction, but usually they are things you don't know until after you are intimately acquainted with the person. How is it that we tend to find ourselves attracted to people we later find out were right for us and whom we are right for? Some of it must be cognitive, there surely is some rational aspect to love, no matter how much we try to isolate the passions from reason. Sure, there's some hit or miss. Not all initial attractions end up being the real thing. But it does happen often enough to be odd. TheWife would probably use words like fate, but as an official member of the anti-metaphysical curmudgeons' league, I ain't buying it.

So, how much of love is pure animal biology, an accidental result of the need to procreate that has an accidental instantiation in our newly developed self-conscious brains? How much is psychological, a set of subconscious desires, fears, and insecurities we are trying to satisfy? How much is social construction, is the notion of romantic love a western construction designed to enforce gender roles or provide an unreasonable image to aspire to? How much is cognitive, is there good reason to to love and does good reason at all influence who and how deeply we love?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Growing Democracy

A couple of insightful quotations:

Helmut at phronesisaical quotes Habermas,

The universal validity claim which binds the West to its 'basic political values,' that is, to the procedure of democratic self-determination and the vocabulary of human rights, must not be confused with the imperialist claim that the political form of life and the culture of a particular democracy - even the oldest one - is exemplary for all societies...It was precisely American pragmatism that made insight into what is in each case equally good for all parties contingent on reciprocal perspective taking. The 'reason' of modern rational natural law is not instantiated by universal 'values' that one can own like goods, and distribute and export throughout the world. 'Values' - including those that can count on winning global recognition - do not float in mid-air, but acquire binding force only within the normative orders and practices of particular cultural forms of life.

and singpr at My Life and Times, V.S. Naipaul,
As democracy offers a promise of freedom and equality, in a society shackled in age-old unfair, discriminatory societal hierarchies, it consequently has the effect of creating a seemingly hostile, retributive environment. Grievances are voiced, discriminations challenged, and the status quo questioned by a 'million little mutinies.'

Both of these quotations point to the failure of the basis premise of neo-conservatism, Fukyama's idea that everyone else in the world has the all-consuming desire to be America to such a degree that if we simply removed the impediments from any country on Earth a liberal democracy with free market economy would spontaneously appear. It's as if Algeria were never there. If there is not the widespread commitment to democratic notions, of course, it will not take root.

Of course when you take the lid off, old unsettled animosities would run rampant trampling any seeds of democracy that might have been planted by well or not so well intentioned foreigners. Of course a working democracy requires a commitment to the democracy on all parts that is at least as great as commitment to one's own cause within the democracy. Why would you be willing to share power with those you disagree with when there is the chance that you could have all the power?

What, then, are the most important elements needed in setting the ideological table? What pieces of social and intellectual infrastructure are the most crucial in giving rise to a pluralistic democratic urge within a country? What needs to be in place to create a space where deep, divisive differences get worked out in non-violent political ways, through the heated exchange of arguments not the heated exchange of small arms fire? Free press? Vibrant universities and a well educated population? A fair distribution of wealth? Satisfaction of the basic needs of food, shelter, and security for all? Women's rights? Separation of church and state?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lindsay on Edwards on Bloggers on Politics on and on

Lindsay Beyerstein, of Majikthise, has an interesting article over at Salon (sure, an article at Salon is not quite as prestigious as Lindsay's invitation to deliver this year's Norman E. Richardson lecture at Gettysburg College, but we'll admit to being impressed). It is a good glimpse at the inside story behind the Edwards' campaign's initial steps towards bringing Amanda and Shakes aboard.

Her central insight, which I think is dead on, is that the idea of bringing sympathetic bloggers into the organization itself radically misunderstands the role and utility of sympathetic bloggers. the right has figured out that it is crucial to have polemicists who share your goals, but who are independent from the campaigns. These megaphones can be used to get out messages that the campaigns would like to have out there without having to have their fingerprints all over them. Additionally, the candidate does not inherit the baggage that comes with the mouth in question. No one will call on Bush to be responsible for anything Limbaugh, Coulter, or Malkin said. The left has no well funded noise machine like the right, but liberal bloggers have an isomorphic role.

Elizabeth Edwards has been well enmeshed in the lefty blogosphere and, combined with the "Two Americas" theme that plays extremely well to the good hearted on-line liberal community, put them in a good place to take the Edwards' campaign a long way towards becoming the darlings of the electronic Democratic set. Indeed, recounting the conversations in which Lindsay herself was being wooed by the campaign, there seemed to be a real sense of the rhetorical strength of the folks they were recruiting and the ability of campaign to bring in folks who considered policy options and issues that were generally outside the safe zone for a mainstream candidate.

All of this just makes it even more baffling how they could have been so utterly blindsided by Donohue's obvious swift boat attack. If they knew who they were getting and were out for bloggers known for their rhetorical and intellectual pop, how could they have not had counter-attack plans ready and waiting. they had set a trap that they knew the Republicans couldn't resist and they not only failed to capitalize, they let it sink them.

All of this leads me to Lindsay's own question -- how should Democratic politicians make maximally effective use of bloggers? Like the White House uses Tim Russert, knowing they'll get a friendly reception that will get their message out? Like Limbaugh, as attack dogs who will stir the pot until the mainstream media has no option but to pick up the story? As straight reporters? As cash cows? As consultants? Or should they bring them inside, but be prepared to fight back more vigorously?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Comedist Basics

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

I've had people asking me about Comedism this week, so I thought I'd describe the basis of our new religion.

It all started with a couple of experiences in the classroom. The first was when I was teaching a night class in ethics at a local community college. I was drawing the distinction between social mores and ethical precepts when a students raised his hand and asked, "Steve, what are mores?" I looked at him and responded, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's a more." At that moment, I realized that set ups that perfect don't just happen randomly, it had to be humorous divine intervention. I had been touched.

Then a few years later, I was teaching philosophy of religion at the United States Naval Academy when I had my second insight. If you want to go anywhere in the religion industry these days, you have to be either Mother Teresa or Pat Robertson -- and neither seemed attractive career paths. But when you look at a number of those who are most exalted, they fit neither model. Abraham pimps out his wife to the Egyptian army, the disciples quarrel and quibble about everything. How'd these guys end up on the fast track to sanctification? They figured out the trick...get in early. So I realized that my only option was to start own religion.

Pondering this, I was teaching the tradition Christian arguments for the existence of God and realized that if the All-Being was to be all perfect, the traditional criteria of all powerful, all loving, and all knowing were insufficient...there was a perfect left out...all funny. Would you prefer to be with someone who had a good sense of humor or no sense of humor? Surely a perfect being would be omnihumorous! Yet nowhere in the traditional scriptures of the major religions could you find any real zingers. Not even a "Knocketh, Knocketh" joke. And so Comedism was born, I realized it was my job to hear the calling and spread wide the funny news.

Metaphysical Beliefs
The basic beliefs of Comedism are not that different from other religions. Life is fleeting and a test for the hereafter. Like the Buddhists, we believe that on Earth you strive for a state of bodilessness. You can foresee this nirvana in the sort of full out belly laugh that you get from a really good joke. When you laugh so hard that your spirit is ultimately joyful, but your sides ache, you can't breathe, you roll around on the floor unable to stand, you realize that it is the humorous soul and not the things of the body that are important.

When you die, like Christians, we believe your soul goes up and there before the pearly gates stands Saint Shecky with his big book. Each of us is given a number of set ups during our life times and for all those, like "that's a more," that you convert into jokes, you get one mark in the good column. But then there are those you miss. Years ago, I was walking and a couple looked at me strangely. Before they passed the man said to me, "Didn't we just see you with a dog?" I simply reply, "I'm sorry, you must have me confused with someone else." But as they were walking away, I realized the correct response was to retort indignantly, "Excuse me, that was my wife." I had blown a set up. It was one in the bad column. When you are judged, if there are more in the good column than in the bad column, you go to Comedy heaven and sit at Groucho's right hand. If there are more in the missed than made column, you go to comedy hell where it is always hot, water is only in dribble glasses, all the chairs have whoopee cushions, and you have to watch reruns of Three's Company over and over again for all of eternity.

We believe that the key to acting well is understanding the nature of the joke. Jokes have two parts, a set up in which a normal situation you think you understand is sketched (a chicken crosses a street or the pope, a rabbi, and a Viagra salesman walk into a bar) and then the punchline that forces you radically rethink how you understood the world of the set up (to get to the other side or at least the beer isn't flat anymore). The humor exists in that moment when your brain is split, trying unsuccessfully to resolve the tension between the two incompatible interpretations. The very possibility of a joke presupposes that reality may always be looked at in more than one way. We must see life as a great joke -- there are always perspectives other than our own and we must strive to get the joke by adopting other people's perspectives. As such, it is impossible for there to be Comedist fundamentalists -- a fundamentalist is someone who takes a literal interpretation of scripture, someone who denies that there can be multiple legitimate interpretations, but this is impossible for a Comedist who believes from the start that there are ALWAYS multiple interpretations of everything or else it wouldn't be funny.

We believe in spreading joy. We believe in overcoming pride through self-deprecation. We believe through the symbol of the banana peel that nature provides and must be protected. We believe in gay marriage because "take my civilly united domestic partner" really screws up the timing. We believe that April 1st is the holiest day of the year. And we believe that Cosmic Comedist has revealed the universal joke in our Holy Skripture, the Comedist Manifesto (well, at least that he will since I haven't gotten around to writing most of it anyway).

All you have to do to join is to sing the chorus the next time it comes around...with feelin'. Comedism is a simple religion to convert to, just say you are in and you are. And remember, if you get in early, fast-track to sainthood...

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ross, Kuhn, and Sokal

A couple very nice discussions going over at Adventures in Ethics and Science about Marcus Ross, the young earth creationist who has written what his advisor termed an impeccable doctoral dissertation about the population dynamics of a marine reptile that went extinct about 65 million years ago even though he thinks the Earth is only 10,000 years old. Here is someone who wrote a dissertation by learning to play the game well without actually believing in the soundness of the game he was playing. Indeed, it is perfectly clear that he learned to play the game in order to gain the credential so that he could then be cited as an expert who opposes the very science he is now accredited as an expert in. Dr. Freeride has very nice discussions about whether it is intellectually dishonest to do science you don't believe in and whether good science requires belief.

My thoughts are in a somewhat different direction. It is very interesting that he uses the language of Thomas Kuhn saying that paleontology is one paradigm for understanding the past and that scripture is another paradigm. For Kuhn, a paradigm is the basic intellectual structure that sits under the possibility of doing science. the paradigm defines the meanings of the scientific terms, contains the basic necessary presuppositions about the ways the world is ordered, determines what are acceptable questions to ask, what are the acceptable means of answering questions, and what counts as a legitimate answer. The paradigm is the lens through which the world is scientifically constructed. In order to have a meaningful picture of the world, you need to start from some paradigm and all discussion of the world can only occur in the vocabulary of a given paradigm. As such, cross-paradigmatic conversation is impossible since the concepts and terms are paradigm specific. Since we can't talk across paradigms, we also can't compare -- there's no extra-paradigmatic standpoint, Kuhn argues, and so no way to comparison shop. When a scientists gives up on one paradigm and moves to another, Kuhn argues, the basis cannot be rational since reason only exists within paradigms and therefore is akin to a religious conversion. By taking science to be one Kuhnian paradigm and scripture to be another, Ross is putting science and religion on an even par AS RELIGIONS.

This move is firmly entrenched in the new creationist strategy of portraying science and religion as coequal explanations of origins, but is clearly disingenuous in that Ross is in fact advocating, or at least allowing himself to be used by those advocating, for one over the other. The two are not really being set out as incomparable and Ross is contending that there can be good reason to prefer one over the other.

The move strikes me as more reminiscent of the Sokal affair. In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist who thought that contemporary trends in the humanities were intellectually vacuous, published a piece in the journal Social Text (a leading journal of the sort that Sokal disliked) that purported to be a post-modern critique of science from the inside. The article, however, was designed to be complete nonsense with a left-leaning political bias. The idea being that if the editors of one of the most prestigious journals of post-modernism couldn't tell legitimate deconstructive analysis from made up, meaningless drivel, then there really is no difference and all of it is garbage. Sokal, like Ross, studied enough to come across as playing the game in hopes of playing well enough to be able to be held as a legitimate player so that in the end the game itself could be discredited. In both cases, we have someone trying to play the intellectual equivalent of an undercover cop. In mathematics and logic, we employ a strategy we call reductio ad absurdum, to show something is false, we assume it is true and derive a contradiction. Isn't this just what Sokal and even more so Ross are doing? How can it be intellectually dishonest if we do something similar? Is it just that we are open about it from the start?

The obvious difference here is that while Sokal's piece IS nonsense, Ross' work isn't. Sokal merely intended his piece to resemble a bit of deconstruction where Ross intended for his to BE paleontology. Neither believe that their contributions are meaningful and both saw their moves as contributing to correcting runaway academic endeavors, but it does seem that Ross' work could remain within the corpus of legitimate work in the discipline. Both were trying to construct Trojan horses, but Sokal's version was a poseur, he never had nor deserved legitimate status in the club. Ross, on the other hand, does. He didn't merely learn to imitate the talk, he really learned to talk the talk -- he just thinks the talk is false. Does this give Ross more credibility or is it a case like that of Alice telling the Mad Hatter that you can't have more if you didn't have any to start with?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Moral Arc of the Universe

I was sitting in with a student on Aspazia's history of 19th century philosophy class yesterday because an independent study project led us to Hegel and no one does Hegel like she does. During the discussion, when we were trying to set out the merits of the Hegelian position, I offered that there did seem to be something to his notion of history progressing, at least locally, through stages. Students poo-poo'ed the claim arguing that there was no progress to be seen in the world, politcally, morally, or economically.

I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked. It took me back to my days as an adjunct teaching at Towson State University. I was holding office hours in a little cubicle that I shared when I heard a passionate argument going on in the cubicle across the way. After a male African-American student left, the instructor looked at me and shook her head. She said that it amazed her how students today argue that there has been no progress in social justice. Her husband, another member of the English department was African-American and she said that there is no way these kids can have any clue what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the 50s and 60s.

So why is there the perception that there has been no progress? Is it merely a lack of sense of history not taught in high school? Is it that when their bubble has been burst and they have been exposed to real injustice in the world, the thought is that this is so bad there's no way it could have been worse? Is it like Dick Butkis who used to have to pretend he was being taunted by the opposing team to get himself psyched up to play -- they can't see progress or else it takes away some sense of the urgency needed to pursue social justice?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Grateful Dead Caucus 2007

A wonderful conference last week in Albuquerque, the 10th annual gathering of the Grateful Dead Caucus as a part of the annual meeting of the Southwest/Texas Association of Popular and American Culture. Reflections from my first time as a part of the caucus:

Covering four days -- from 8 am to 8 pm on Thursday and Friday -- there seems to be no lack of interest in taking the Dead phenomenon seriously by academics. Covering a very wide range of methodologies in the humanities and social sciences, the papers were universally of a very high quality. Papers generally grouped themselves around a couple of general themes:

A wonderful series of papers discussing historical aspects of the Dead, the Haight, and the movement. Starting off was co-chair Gary Burnett's examination of the complete run of the neighborhood newspaper the Oracle and its relation to and mentions of the Dead showing at first a bi-polar stance both embracing and deprecating hippie music showing a tension between the beat and hippie factions of the early counter-culture. Rick Dodgson read "From Soquel to San Jose: The First Acid Tests"

Grateful Dead and Spirituality
Several papers discussing the spiritual nature of the Dead experience. Thursday's panel featured Mary Goodenough's "In and Out of the Garden: Sacred and Profane in Deaddom," Paul Gass' "Buddhism Through the Eyes of the Dead," and Dave Bryan's "Grateful Dead Theology," while Saturday brought Kent Elliot's "The Lie Breathed Through Silver." All began from the fact of broad spiritual experience amongst Deadheads at shows and then tried to make sense of this phenomenological data. By examining the relation between lyrics and religious traditions or looking at the experience itself, the hope was to make the "it" that so many point to more clear. Discussion around this topic was spirited, if not spiritual.

Deadhead Culture
Sociologists Rebbecca Adams and Alan Lehman gave fascinating discussions of Deadhead demographics, the former from data gathered at the 1998 Further festivals and the latter at 1991 shows at RFK and Giants Stadium. Nicholas Merriwether gave an incredibly well documented discussion of Deadhead pipecraft, locating it in the historical tradition of pipecraft through the centuries. Elizabeth Carroll gave a fascinating approach to interpreting the scene as a whole (both good and bad) viewing through the Greek notion of a pharmakon -- the word for both remedy and poison -- in her paper "Is Destruction Loving's Twin?: The Grateful Dead Pharmakon." The continental philosophical duo of Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector read their papers "All Ears, All Body: The Strange Attraction in Nonlinear Musical Embodiment" and "And The Music Played the Band: The X Factor, Merleau-Ponty, and the Chiasm" that sought to understand the phenominological embodiment of the process of Being when engaged in what the Germans call Mithoeren (hint: if you don't understand continental philosophy, just say something in Greek, German, or French). My own contribution looked at the nature of the economy in the parking lot.

Comparative Musicology
There were a number of papers that sought to reconcile the music of the Dead with the larger body of American popular music. Eric Levy and Jay Williams both compared the Dead to representatives of the experimental and avant-garde movements, Eric focusing on John Cage and Jay upon Frank Zappa, while Matt Armstrong looked at the Dead's influence in the work of Ryan Adams. Chris Norden compared the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter in terms of their use of weather metaphors. Christian Crumlish examined the unmentioned influence of the Dead on artists through the decades in his "Please Forget You Knew My Name: Secretly Influenced by the Dead." Pam Hunt, Liz Yeager, and Jake Cohen gave contrasting views of the political presuppositions in post-Dead, contemporary jamband culture with their papers "Are You Kind?: The Relationship between Behavior, Meanings, and Levels of Involvement and Ideological Embeddedness in the Jamband Subculture," "My Band is Better Than Your Band: Inside America's Jamband Scene," and "Jamband's and Sonata Form." Barry Smolin focused on freak folk, contemporary psychedelic music that eschews improvisation and David Gans in "Anti-Dead and Meta-Dead" looked at music about the band both laudatory and negative.

Papers that defy categorization included Mark Mattson's magnificent cataloging of every performed error in the playing of "Here Comes Sunshine" and Mel Belleville's fictional expansion of the storylines of "Jack Straw," "Loser," and "Friend of the Devil."

We were treated to several wonderful performances. Wednesday night was a triple bill at the District Bar and Grill of Dave Bryan's Chickenstand Throw-DownBand, David Gans, and Liquid Gypsy. David Gans played a second set at Friday night's house party and if he wasn't completely pleased with the performance, his opinion was far in the minority.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the appearance of John Perry Barlow as the conference's keynote speaker. Mesmerizing the crowd with wit, intelligence, and his abilities as a storyteller, Barlow was simply amazing. Generous with his time as well, he hung out and shot the breeze with us at the infamous Hotel Blue on Thursday night and at the airports in Albuquerque and Houston on Saturday.

An incredibly successful conference by any measure. I want to personally thank everyone there for being so incredibly welcoming of the new folks like myself and especially to the session chairs, Nick and Gary, I just have to say thank you for a real good time.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

I feel sorry for the Chinese Jenny Craig. Here it is New Year's, their busiest season of the year, but in the year of the pig, who wouldn't use it as an excuse to find a different resolution?

I feel sorry for Pamela Anderson. Anna Nicole has now set the bar far too high for what a large breasted blond needs to do to get press attention.

I feel sorry for the father of our country. Having W give a Presidents' Day speech on Washington is like getting Baron von Hindenburg to give a dissertation on the Wright brothers.

Who do you feel sorry for?

Monday, February 19, 2007

World War II and Pacifism

Guest post today from Hanno. It would have gone up on Friday, but someone had to go to Mardi Gras and complained that he wouldn't have been able to respond to comments...

In response to some of the discussion on this blog, I have been thinking about war and its justification. In particular, how does the pacifist respond to the moral argument for war when war is used to defeat monstrous evil? If the pacifist grants that war can be justified under certain circumstances, then it seems the pacifist isn't really a pacifist at all, but only in relation to some wars.

Of course, the main example used in all these occasions is World War II or the American Civil War. On both occasions, violence seems required to end monstrous evil. I am very sympathetic to these examples. It was a good thing for the Allies to fight Nazi Germany independent of the holocaust. With the holocaust, it is an even greater good.

One response for the pacifist is to say that these wars are necessary evils. Still bad, but it had to be done. It may be bad (few thinking killing millions of people, many innocent, is a good thing), but it cannot be evil. If it is evil, it is morally wrong. If it is morally wrong, it cannot be a good thing for the allies to fight the war, and hence the good path would not only leave the brutal, aggressive war machine in a position to continue their evil ways, but also to expand them.

This gives rise to a dynamic that pm points out: as the universally recognized counter example to pacifism, there is a great propensity on the view of the proponents for any war to use WWII as the prism though which we understand some particular conflict. Hussein becomes Hitler, Kuwait becomes Czechoslovakia, gassing his own people becomes Nazi internal repression. Or the USSR is Nazi Germany, Vietnam is Czechoslovakia , etc. Or North Korea is Nazi Germany... etc. Or 9/11 was our Pearl Harbor... etc. The argument works by tying the pacifist to the only conflict she recognizes as just, and denying her the option of total pacifism. And the result is all these wars are justified, all are good, and it is not fighting them that is evil.

It seems that any pacifist must argue with this move head on. I remember Michael Kinsley arguing long ago about some legal point, and he said that in law school, he was taught that exceptions make lousy law. What he meant was that when you use the exceptional as the basis for a legal distinction, you end up with a bad general rule. The right way to approach the law is to make a good general rule, and recognize exceptions. That is what I propose in this case. We recognize WWII as the aberration, not as the standard. We make the obviously better general rule: war is wrong, and we do not let the exception frame the debate.

The exception is not the rule, and we should not allow anyone to make it so.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Comedic Trojan Horse

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

As you know, there is a war on comedy. The forces of unfunny are gathering. And now, this...

Their latest tactic is a ploy from ancient times, the comedic version of the Trojan horse. It is called "The 1/2 Hour News Hour" and is billed as a conservative version of the Daily Show from the creator of 24 and showing tonight on Fox News. It is being sold as comedy, but do not be fooled. A clip is here.

It is indeed a clever tactic, but they have been sloppy. As the good brother Scott points out they left out one small element of a comedy program...jokes. They promise funny, draw you in, and then...BAM...anti-comedy. When I think of punchlines, after all, the first person I think of is Ann Coulter. She shows her true identity here, she is the anti-Lenny Bruce. Long have we prophesied of her coming. Long have there been rumors of her arrival.

Do not be drawn in my friends. The forces of comedy are light. We are clever. They may have filled their whoopee cushion with this drivel, but we declare righteously that we will not sit upon it! Instead we give our own pppppffffffftttttt!

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 16, 2007

Local Rock Stars

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at a wonderful conference – the annual meeting of Texas/Southwest Popular and American Culture Association – that for the last ten years has had a running session on academic interests around the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead caucus is a wonderful collection of very smart, very kind, very dedicated historians, sociologists, philosophers, literary critics, musicians, musicologists, and theologians who share their research and their passion for all things Dead.

At breakfast yesterday, David Gans, Bay area music fixture, author, and voice of the Grateful Dead Hour, was talking about the great passion (sometimes uncomfortably misplaced) of the dedicated fan. It reminded me of a story that Confused, Maybe Not told me before coming out about attending a philosophy conference, and spotting Cornel West across the room, commented on being in the same room with such a rock star to a friend. The friend, an analytic philosopher, indignantly pointed to Jerry Fodor in the room and said, “Now THAT’S a rock star.” Fame and adoration comes from a community and we have such a multitude of communities that there are many local rock stars, people held up and adored by these communities, adoration often not shared or understood by those outside the community.

To mark their 10th anniversary of coming together, the Grateful Dead Caucus pulled off a complete coup and arranged for John Perry Barlow, one of the Dead’s lyricists to speak. Having been a major part of the creative process since the band’s beginning, this man is both literally and figuratively a rock star in this community that seriously discusses, amongst many topics, issues of the sacred and profane in his writings and those of Robert Hunter, the band’s other primary lyricist. Not only was he kind enough to speak as the keynote of the entire conference, but he came to hang out in the hotel with the collected group of Dead scholars informally. There are two groups of people: those who at this point are thinking, “YOU got to hang out with BARLOW?!” and those who would say, “You hung out with who?” (There is a third group who would say “You hung out with whom?” but that includes my 9th grade grammar teacher Mrs. Frankel and so will remain undiscussed).

Who are some of the “local rock stars” you’ve had a chance to meet, but could never get the majority of those around you to show the proper degree of incredulity at your good fortune? Surely there are great figures in history, but why does each corner of a part of a piece of a sub-commuity create its own pantheon? Do we need celebrity? Is it an accidental function of the way we seem to always groups ourselves around some commonality for which there will usually be those who either exemplify a shared virtue to an unusually high degree or who figure prominently in the history of the social glue that binds the community together? Ever been the local celebrity, gotten your fifteen minutes?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Other Job of Children

The question yesterday: Was the purpose of childhood other than being an apprentice to adults? I promised a discussion of Montessori’s own answer and, as I figured, there are bits and pieces of it in so many of yesterday’s comments.

Montessori was more than keen to distance herself from what she saw as mere philosophical speculation about education and grounding the approach in empirical science – something she succeeded in to some extent, but not completely. She takes a complete stock of the biology of the times and insists that education not treat children as dumb little adults, but needs to be molded to the physiological and psychological stages that children go through. This may seem trivially obvious today, but at the time she needed to draw on the successes of embryology and argue by analogy in order to ground her thesis. Just as the human fetus goes through stages in utero, so the born child also progresses through a prescribed set of developmental stages.

This is the point where she appeals to evolution. The stages of development are genetically built into us and immutable. However, satisfying the need of the developmental stage is not merely a matter of growth in the body triggered by genes and accomplished by internal means. Rather, we are predisposed to acquire certain capacities because of the way our brains are formed, but we can only actually develop them if we experience certain stimuli in the environment at the proper time. We are not just bodies, we are environmental beings connected to our surroundings who develop in harmony with the world around us. Children are plastic – put them in a different environment and you get different adults.

This fact, she thought, undermined the institutional biases she saw around her based on race, class, and gender. The first Montessori school was for underprivileged children and its success she thought would liberate them from the class structure and allow the mothers to work, liberating them from the rigid sexist constraints of family life as it was then constructed (Montessori was the first woman in Italy to attend medical school and only through intervention of the Pope himself was she allowed to enroll). It was the unequal environment that harmed children and repressed their abilities, not some genetic predisposition to be inferior.

So while she took Darwin’s theory to be absolutely true, it does not lead to social Darwinism. Instead, she has a fascinating Lamarckian twist to it. Georges Lamarcke was a naturalist of the generation before Darwin and had a theory of evolution based on acquired mutations. If you keep cutting the tails off of lizards, the thought, eventually you would get tailless lizards. It was interaction with the environment that caused species to change over time. Montessori’s argument is a fascinating synthesis of Darwin’s account of our genetic make-up coupled with Lamarck’s. We are evolutionarily predisposed to develop a certain way, but how that is manifested depends on our environment.

But the human environment is always changing. She points to economic development. We went from economies based on slaves to servants to craftsman. In each new advancement, the children raised would be different, capable of living naturally in the new society and changing it for the better in a way that their forbearers couldn’t because they had developed in a way that was maximally conducive to their environment.

As such, children are the agents of change. They must be allowed to mold themselves to the brave new world we have created in order to go on and change it for the better when they become “rational” adults, only to have their children acclimate themselves to it so to change it again. The moral arc of the universe is long and it does bend towards justice, Montessori argued, but the bending comes from the spirit of the children and progress in society, she thought, could only continue if we helped the kids to BE kids when they are kids because it is only through the soaking in like sponges and the adaptation to their environment that they can be different from us – we who gave them their genes. We gave them bodies, now we must nurture their spirits so that they may advance social justice. Children, in a very real sense, Maria Montessori argued, are the future of humanity – all children without regard to race, gender, class, or any other factor.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Purposes of Childhood

Interesting passage from Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind.

“You will be asking already,” What, then, is the real purpose of childhood?” And we can hardly proceed with confidence in scientific education without first trying to answer this question. For the child has a double duty. And if we consider one side of it only, the duty of growing up, there is a danger of suppressing his best energies.”

Children have two jobs and only one of them is to be an adult in training. What’s the other one?

I’ll talk about Montessori’s own answer tomorrow, but the question itself is so rich, I wanted to throw it out to be played with first. Ground rule: you cannot answer “Just being a kid,” you need to fill in what that means.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Shades of Racism

An interesting shift in the conversation around Barack Obama’s presidential bid. At first, we saw a lot of this – “Is the country ready for a black President?” Ready? What does that mean? I know when I ask the kids if they are ready, it means do you have you shoes and jackets on so we can go. What would it mean to be ready for a black President?

Of course, it’s really a dodge. What those who ask the question really mean is “Are there enough bigots in this country who would vote against someone who has dark skin that he has no chance of winning?” It’s a classic move right out of the Reagan book of veiled racism. When Reagan used to talk about “welfare queens” everyone in America knew what color those folks were supposed to be (even if the overwhelming majority of folks on public assistance happened to be white). The idea was that overt racism was no longer acceptable, so we needed coded ways to be racist so that we could claim to not really be racist.

Why were they asking whether the country was ready? The idea was to say “I don’t want a black President” without saying it because I’m not saying I’m not ready, I’m simply asking if those other bigots are. What’s the issue with a seemingly fair question?

Think back one presidential cycle. What was the central topic of debate? Is Howard Dean electable? The worst thing you can say about a Democrat is not that he isn’t prepared for the job, not that he doesn’t have the brains or experience, not that he’s (gasp) a liberal. No, it’s that he isn’t electable.

[Aside: They always throw a gratuitous McGovern reference in there claiming that he lost 49 states because he was an anti-war liberal. Strange how everyone conveniently forgets that part of the reason he lost was a campaign of Republican dirty tricks so heinous that it got the President removed from office. But, of course, using the intelligence apparatus of the US government to undermine the Democrats is mere triviality.]

The “Is the country ready for a black President?” line is a simple tactic to put the same albatross around the neck of a promising rising star that they used to clobber the last one.

But then the strangest thing happened. It wasn’t working. Surmise unsupported by any data – the show 24 has completely mainstreamed the idea of a smart, strong, black President. Fox, of all networks, may have been Senator Obama’s campaign’s best friend here. Whatever the reason, the “He can’t win, he’s balck” scare tactic didn’t have legs.

So, if you can’t beat him in one direction, go the other way. If his being black isn’t going to hurt him, try to smack him with not being black enough. This was a desperation tactic thrown out at the end of the Senate campaign where Obama wiped the floor with wacko Alan Keyes. Here you had one black candidate getting routed by another, so what is the obvious slam – he’s not really black. Well, he apparently is a pretty good basketball player, so we can’t use that stereotype. Hmmm. His father is African, not African-American. There it is. He isn’t a descendent of slaves, so that means he’s not a real black man. AND his mother is white and god knows no one in the black community has ancestors who are white. So there it is. If his blackness won’t destroy his candidacy, we’ll see if his lack of blackness will.

Man, these people are pathetic.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Unfinished Work: Lincoln's To Do List

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said,

"The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
So for those who fought at Gettysburg, in Iraq and Afghanistan, for those who fought for human rights, for those who fought for social justice, what today should we count as that "unfinished work"?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Passing the Plate: Darwin Edition

Brothers, sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It's that time again. Time to dig deep and be generous. When other religions ask for donations it is always money, but us Comedists ask that you tithe jokes. In honor of the anniversary of Darwin's birth on Monday, this go 'round is "What do you get when you cross..." jokes:

What do you get when you cross a Jehova's Witness with an atheist?
Someone who knocks on your door, but has nothing to say.

What do you get when you cross a chicken with a duck?
A bird that lays down.

What do you get when you cross a turtle with a snail?
norm(turtle) norm(snail) sin theta. (That's a Cartesian product joke for the non-math geeks out there)

What do you get when you cross a sheep with a cicada?
Baa Humbug!

Lastly, my personal favorite:

What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?

Contributions out there fellow Comedists?

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Cliques and Cracks

Indulging in a little speculative sociology of the worst sort today. The spark came from a conversation, the philosophy department sponsors occasional open discussions around a wide variety of topics, and this one was about sexual ethics (Aspazia has a discussion of it here). The students painted a stunningly sad picture of repression, anxiety, and guilt, leading to multiple joyless hook-ups; complete alienation from themselves as sexual beings.

Aspazia, Kerry, Confused, Maybe Not and I kept trying to steer the discussion to what might be the underlying causes of this ingrained and unhealthy approach to sexuality and one honest young man admitted that concern about image was so primary in earning social capital on campus that it ran roughshod over all else, sexuality included. The gender issues were made plain, the class issues were there for all to see.

The next day though, when I was thinking out loud with Confused, Maybe Not, I was pushing the class line thinking that it was the crucial link here, but he responded that the culture at this college was significantly different from other liberal arts campuses that had students of similar socio-economic background so surely class wasn't as an key element as I was considering.

Then it struck me, he was right that class underdetermined it. The difference between ours and the schools he was pointing to that had a less poisonous sexual atmosphere was not homogeneity of socio-economic status, but homogeneity of clique within the socio-economic status. The social power on our campus is largely held by those who had it in high school. We have a critical mass of Heathers (some of which I'm convinced have Abercrombie and Fitch tattoos so that even naked they are still wearing a label), whereas the campuses that C,MN was referring to tended to have campus cultures dominated by other groups easily recognized by anyone who went to a middle or upper-class high school. You know the sort of kids who went to the local state university, you know the type who went to Swarthmore or Williams, you know the sort of kids who went to Bard or Reed or Evergreen. The power structure in high school was image driven and so those folks continue to employ exactly the same enforcement mechanisms. Those who were oppressed in high school by those enforcement mechanisms tend to choose campuses that favor their brand of quirkiness.

So the campus culture of colleges perpetuate the high school clique structure, but it then gets passed to the larger world in that certain campuses tend to funnel their students into different parts of American social life. We have an absurd number of students majoring in business management. I have a dear, dear friend who just left the financial field because, in part, he could not stand the fact that it was not just an old boys network, but an old frat boys network. The claim is often heard that academia is packed with bleeding heart liberals. Well, it is certainly true that there is a correlation between amount of education and party affiliation, but I'm not sure that being well-educated or well-informed is necessarily the most operative factor here -- those who are most educated were generally also the most oppressed by the high school social structure and therefore would be naturally inclined to take seriously the sociological factors working in various social problems, something explicitly and intentionally discouraged by the conservative "individual responsibility" frame.

So perhaps, high school cliques are like the crack in the windshield or run in the pantyhose: once it starts it only gets larger. Perhaps in addition to gender studies and ethnic studies, we need to consider clique studies. Is this sort of division inevitable? Is this just a modern day translation of Plato's myth of the metals from the Republic? Sociologist Ferdinand Toennies argued that all societies -- groups notable for heterogeneity -- break up into communities -- groups notable for homogeneity. We are able to draw us/them lines in any group, so that's just the way it is. Or is this under our control? Maybe the society as a whole would be healthier if we tried to stop it at its source and had smaller high schools where cliques would be harder to form for lack of critical mass. Or is it so entrenched in the larger society that the schools are a reflection and not a source? Maybe this is a bad question to ask here, since, let's face it, by in large, the people who choose to read this blog are self-selected folks who are a lot like each other...people I either was or would have been hanging out with in high school...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Edwards is DOA

John Edward's presidential campaign has shown in the last week that they simply are not ready for prime time, especially with such a strong field this year.

I like Edwards. His "Two Americas" stump speech last go 'round was, without a doubt, the most moving, well-argued oratory of the entire campaign. I have no doubt he earnestly believes it and I'm thrilled that a major American statesman is finally confronting the structural issues we face head on.

But seeing two things last week made me sure that his people simply can't do the job.

First was his mealy-mouth response to he question of gay marriage on Meet the Press.

RUSSERT: ...On gay marriage. You said this: " It is [a hard issue] ... because I'm 53 years old. I grew up in a small town in the rural south. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and so I have a belief system that arises from that. It's part of who I am. I can't make it disappear. ... I personally feel great conflict about that. I don't know the answer. I wish I did. I think from my perspective it's very easy for me to say, gay civil unions, yes, partnership benefits, yes, but it is something that I struggle with. Do I believe they should have the right to marry? I'm just not there yet." Why not?

SEN. EDWARDS: I think it's from my own personal culture and faith belief. And I think, if you had gone on in that same quote, that I, I have-I, I struggle myself with imposing my faiths-my faith belief. I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, I was baptized in the Southern Baptist church, my dad was a deacon. In fact, I was there just a couple weeks ago to see my father get an award. It's, it's just part of who I am. And the question is whether I, as president of the United States, should impose on the United States of America my views on gay marriage because I know where it comes from. I'm aware of why I believe what I believe. And I think there is consensus around this idea of no discrimination, partnership benefits, civil unions. I think that, that certainly a president who's willing to lead could lead the country in the right direction on that.

Any Democratic presidential hopefully who cannot immediately give a clear, unequivocal, full-throated defense of equality under the law for ALL Americans is not acceptable. But more importantly, what is important is it shows a lack of sophistication with respect to framing. Instead of pointing out the trap and showing how immoral those who set it are, he is willing to walk right into the trap and hope that by not moving much in any direction, he won't spring the trigger and get caught. We have seen in the last two presidential elections that if you let the GOP set the frame of the debate, you lose. Period.

The second is the "blogger flap." The Edwards campaign selected Amanda Marcotte from Pandagon and Melissa McEwan from Shakespeare's Sister to be their blog outreach folks. They are two of my regular reads. They both have everything you want in a good blogger -- big hearts, big brains, big mouths. When it comes to full contact blogging, they are old hands. Now, William Donohue, a conservative activist whose job is to go on media outlets and feign outrage at liberal's anti-Catholic-bigotry that he manufactures, did his job. He picked through posts until he found one's arguing that the Pope's policies are harmful to women. He found the angriest language in those posts and cried wolf. "Oh, look at the liberal hate speech. How could John Edwards allow such a thing?"

The Edwards campaign's response? [crickets]

Yes, it is two-faced for conservatives to complain about vulgar-language. No, Amanda and Melissa are not spewing hate speech. Yes, they are fully within the bounds of decorum in their linguistic community. But none of this is the point.

This was a simple Swift Boat attack. You take an advantage the other side has, manufacture a false accusation against them. If they fight you on your terms, you muddy the waters and neutralize their advantage. Worse yet, if they don't immediately come out fighting, you tag them with the label and they lose their advantage altogether. This, of course, is how Kerry lost the election.

When I was playing division I lacrosse, preparing for a game worked this way:

Step 1 -- watch films of your coming opponent's last game and see what they did that worked for them

Step 2 -- figure out not only how you were going to stop it, but turn it to your advantage

The fact that the Edwards campaign -- the EDWARDS FRICKIN' CAMPAIGN -- was not ready for a Swift Boat attack and showed such incompetence in handling it is stunning. Not only are these guys not ready to hit a big league curve ball, they couldn't touch a fastball over the heart of the plate. They should have come out and gone meta on Donohue's backside, turn the issue to Republican dirty tricks and spin-doctoring. It could have immunized the entire Democratic field by beginning a Democratic talking point about how slimy Republicans are. Don't fight the fight they set up, point out the move, point out the trick and turn THAT into the moral discussion. Don't walk into the trap, point out the trap and criticize those who would set such traps. But what did Edwards do? The same thing Kerry did. And if the Edwards people aren't ready for the most obvious trick, they aren't ready, period. Edwards is DOA.


Edwards is keeping Amanda and Melissa and issued the following statement:
The tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte's and Melissa McEwan's posts personally offended me. It's not how I talk to people, and it's not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor, or anything else. But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake. I've talked to Amanda and Melissa; they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone's faith, and I take them at their word. We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in.
To call this "underwhelming support" is an understatement. You don't take it to the rightwing noise machine with "You know, you're right, but..." I don't think Edwards has the teeth for this fight.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What Makes a Great Teacher?

When I'm on a plane chatting and the person next to me finds out that I teach philosophy, the reaction is either, "I took that in college and hated it" or "I took that in college and had the strangest teacher." When I get the second one, inevitably the rest of the flight is a good conversation. AIt makes you realize how much the instructor has to do with someone's attitude towards their own education. A bad teacher can destroy the love of learning and a good one can change lives.

I came across this passage in Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method which turns 100 this year:

Now one who has learned to spell mechanically all the words in his spelling book would be able to read in the same mechanical way the words in one of Shakespeare's plays, provided the print were sufficiently clear...[but] we must instead make [students] worshippers of nature. They must be like him who, having learned to spell, finds himself, one day, able to read behind the written symbols the thought of Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Dante...
How do we get students to take that additional step from facts to insight?

The quotation reminded me of a dinner I had one evening with James Trefil, a physicist at George Mason, popular science writer, and one of the movers and shakers in the science literacy movement. He was involved with writing the science standards for No Child Left Behind and was an advocate for testing. I had him to a class I was team-teaching with an astronomer to talk about science pedagogy and scientific literacy. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the need to do something about science literacy in the country, but on the other, it seems the testing approach is exactly part of the problem. We need to inspire love and wonder. We need, in Montessori's Hegelian terms, to nurture the spirit of the student if we are going to lead them to be the sort of interesting insightful minds she describes.

But how do you do that? We've all had THAT teacher, the one who really reached us, who really inspired us to go from test taker to student in the deeper sense. Whenever I have a freshman in my office express the intention to major in math or a natural science, I always ask who was the high school teacher who sparked it and without fail there is a story about a great teacher who was so different than all the others. What did that teacher do that the rest didn't? What makes a great teacher?

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Problem of Altruism

A perennial question that appears to throw up a roadblock to the possibility of ethics is a view we call psychological egoism, that is, the claim that all human actions are motivated solely from self-interest. The idea is that we can only act in such a way as to satisfy our own desires and so morality is therefore impossible.

The standard move is to point to one person doing one nice thing for someone else, say, helping the old lady across the street with her groceries, and say, “see, people are capable of acting from a rational motive other than self interest, so ethical questions are meaningful.” The psychological egoist will make the first standard move and respond that this supposedly nice act – and indeed, all supposedly nice acts – are actually self-interested in the end. They will posit something like “It makes you feel good to help someone.” Or “you were hoping she would give you some money for helping.” Or “you just wants to create a world where it is more likely that when you get old someone will help you.” By showing that any act that is supposedly done to help another also has some actual or possible benefit for the agent, the claim is that the act could not have been altruistic and so was actually motivated by self-interest.

The usual reply to this first standard move is to come up with some situation, actual or hypothetical, in which the agent truly loathes the action and/or suffers greatly as a result of it, but undertakes it out of a sense of duty. Now the old lady is known to be an aging Nazi sympathizer who spits at you the whole way across the street and accuses you of squishing her tomatoes and demands you reimburse her for them. When you refuse, because you didn’t squish her tomatoes, it only reinforces her idea that Jews are incapable, dishonorable, and cheap. Not only that, but by helping her, you missed your bus and now will be late for dinner…no fruit cup for you buddy. You knew it was the right thing to do, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t pissed about it. There was absolutely no self-interest here. You don’t feel good about having done it. You knew you were going to get nothing but grief for it and that any lasting effects would be negative reinforcement of false stereotypes.

Here we get the standard second move of the psychological egoist. “You may not think you, get a sense of satisfaction from doing the right thing, but deep down, subconsciously, you really do.” By making this clever move to the subconscious, the egoist has cut you off at the pass. You can’t wiggle out. So, is ethics dead?

Of course not. Both of the standard moves are deeply flawed. Let’s take them in the opposite order. The second move suffers from the classic problem that afflicts many universal claims about human motivation, it is unfalsifiable. For a claim about the way the world works to be meaningful, it must be possible for it to be false.

Why? Suppose you turn on your tv to catch the weather and there is staff meteorologist Steve Gimbel who claims that his forecasts are always 100% accurate. “Tomorrow,” he says, “it will rain or it won’t. Back to you Bob.” Is this report 100% accurate? Well,…yeah. It is true that it will either rain or it won’t. One of the two has to be true. But does this actually tell you anything about the weather? Do you now have any reason to believe anything about whether to bring your umbrella? No. The forecast seemed to be about the weather because it used weather words, but because it is true no matter what, it actually says nothing about the world. To make a meaningful scientific claim is to possibly be wrong.

But the second standard move makes sure that nothing you say would make the claim about acting from self-interest false. It is tucked away safe and sound where actual facts about the world can’t touch it. The contents of your supposed subconscious are constructed by the egoist in such a way that he has to be right, no matter how the world is…but that just means he isn’t really describing the world.

There is also a problem with the first standard move. The idea is to create a false dichotomy between acts that are completely self-interested and those that are completely altruistic. For virtually any nice thing you may do, it is fairly easy to construct some small advantage conveyed to the agent. Does this mean people don’t act from pure motives sometimes?

Of course, not. Just because there is some fringe benefit from an action does not mean that the acquiring of that benefit is the actual motivation for the act. This is the same move that is made in bad evolutionary arguments. Just because some feature of an organism conveys a certain advantage, either in terms of survival or attracting a mate, does not mean that the mentioned advantage is the reason it was evolutionarily selected for. Traits are often the results of complex genetic interaction and any given trait may have been the accidental result of two or more other traits that were the ones actually selected for. Just because there is an advantage you can point to, doesn’t mean that I must be the cause.

People do sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason and it may be impossible in any given case to know exactly why someone did the right thing, but this does not in any way mean that there aren’t some cases where we do the right thing for the right reason. You may be aware of the reward for doing the right thing, but would have done anyway. You may be very glad to have the tax write-off, but the real reason you donated to that charity is that you authentically wanted to help.

Are there any purely altruistic actions, actions with absolutely no benefits to the agent? Dunno, and to be honest, don’t really care because philosophically the answer to that question is not important. It does not hold the possibility of ethics hostage in the way the psychological egoist thinks.

What Makes Sports Fans So Nuts?

I love football. Have since I was a kid. But I made a point of not watching the Superbowl last night. I couldn’t bear to watch it.

I grew up in Baltimore, a Colt fan, the child and grandchild of Colt fans. When I was two, I carried Earl Morrall’s playbook at training camp. Growing up, I asked that my room be painted blue and white. I was at half of the home games in ’84 and still can’t figure out why Marchibroda didn’t have them run the ball right against the Giants to put them on the grass to kick what should have been an easy winning field goal. To this day, I can still see the image of those Mayflower moving vans against the snow in the dark, illuminated by the artificial camera lights as clear as if I were in my parents’ living room in my pj’s looking at the tv at this very moment.

That was 23 years ago and I’m now an adult with a wife and kids, a career, and a country mired down in an ill-conceived, incompetently executed war. Yet, the thought of the god-damned Colts, the Indianapolis Colts taken by Robert Irsay (may he rot in hell), winning the Superbowl still makes my stomach churn. On the one hand, it is absolutely absurd. On the other, it is soul-wrenching. The only comparison I can draw is that I am very happily married to someone I adore with every ounce of my being, but if my ex-girlfriend who cheated on me and broke my heart were having her wedding televised, I would rather stick an ice pick in my eye than watch it. It’s not that I would wish that were me there with her, I’m glad it’s not – my life is much better without that relationship. It’s not that I wouldn’t get some perverse joy if she had been left at the alter. I probably would have. I’m perfectly happy with my life, I just don’t care to have to watch her happy and I would spit nails if I had to see Payton Manning holding up the Lombardi trophy with the stupid Superbowl champion ball cap and the confetti falling all around.

What is it about sports that could make an otherwise rational, sensitive, empathetic person feel this way? I was less affected by the games I actually played as an athlete. (I did have a bit of a temper if I, personally, played badly, but if I played well and we got shellacked it would roll off my back.) What is it about being a fan? What leads to soccer hooliganism and the riots that often follow championship victories? Is it the marriage of hope combined with the lack of control? Is it the sense of a need for identity, but a sense that the meaningfulness of that identity is in the hands of someone else? Why do we invest so much in meaningless games and why are those games so emotionally powerful?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

RIP Molly Ivins

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Yes, as most of you know we lost another giant this week. Molly Ivins was the queen of the political zinger. An amazing sense of when to be outraged, when to be tender, and when to pull one out of left field, she could be funny as could be but never let it get in the way of message. A big brain, a big heart, and a big funny bone. Molly, you will be dearly missed.

Here are few of my faves:

"Many people did not care for Pat Buchanan's speech; it probably sounded better in the original German."

"I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."

"The first rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging."

"You can't ignore politics, no matter how much you'd like to."

"It's hard to argue against cynics -- they always sound smarter than optimists because they have so much evidence on their side."

"It's like, duh. Just when you thought there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Republicans go and prove you're wrong."

"you could have knocked me over with Michael Huffington's brain."

"I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle."

"If ignorance ever goes to $40 a barrel, I want drillin' rights on that man's head."

"There is one area in which I think Paglia and I would agree that politically correct feminism has produced a noticeable inequity. Nowadays, when a woman behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, 'Poor dear, it's probably PMS.' Whereas, if a man behaves in a hysterical and disagreeable fashion, we say, 'What an asshole.' Let me leap to correct this unfairness by saying of Paglia, 'Sheesh, what an asshole.'"

"Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention."

At least she's with Will Rogers trading barbs, now. But down here we miss you lots.

Live, love, and laugh.

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 02, 2007

Iran, Israel, and Apocalyptic Questions

Guest post from Confused, Maybe Not:

Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B Oren recently wrote an article for the New Republic, “Israel’s worst nightmare. Contra Iran.” Basically, the two Israeli senior fellows from the Shalem center in Jerusalem explain the following.

As we debate Iraq, Iran is moving quickly towards developing nuclear weapons, which is causing panic in Sunni, Arab states, not to mention Israel. Imagine a nuclear Iran setting the price of oil through nuclear blackmail, controlling, again through blackmail, the holy sites in Saudi Arabia. A nuclear Iran will be able to conduct its militias, such as Hezbollah, with impunity. (Remember when the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed by Hezbollah in the early 1990’s? And the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed? How would one respond to such conduct if Iran had nuclear weapons?) It could bring more havoc to Lebanon, terrorize secularists in Palestine, and fund extremist groups in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq. In fact, Iran is already doing this in a limited fashion. A nuclear Iran takes away “the limited,” so to speak.

Meanwhile, the Baker-Hamilton report calls for negotiating with Iran. What is to be negotiated? How does one negotiate with apocalyptic thinkers? This is not asked rhetorically, but in all seriousness. On another note, to make the point through an analogy, many of us in this country have been and still are scared of the religious far, right. We should be. Imagine Dr. Dobson or Pat Robertson President of the United States. (Bush is scary enough.) The idea of being led by apocalyptic thinkers should make us all tremble with fear. As said, much of the Iranian leadership works from an apocalyptic theology. Their current President has prophesized that the hidden Imam will reveal himself in 2009, and fighting evil, which includes many of the values we hold dearly, will hasten the Imam’s arrival.

Whether Israel makes peace with the Palestinians is secondary to Iran’s goals. Liberating all of Israel from the Jews will hasten the Imam’s return. This is believed by Iran’s President and by many around him. In fact, Ahmadinejad told “outgoing UN-Secretary General Kofi Annan… while the United States and Great Britain won the last world war, Iran will win the next one. And, two weeks ago, an Iranian government website declared that the Hidden Imam would defeat his archenemy in Jerusalem.” Do we believe such statements or not? What does history tell us? Again, these are not rhetorical, but serious questions.

Assuming the sanctions against Iran do not work (because of China and Russia), here’s the prediction as to what will happen. Although, the leadership in Iran often seems to be on tenuous grounds due to rising unemployment, etc.., we will not see a major change (meaning revolution) in the regime before going nuclear. Thus, within the next eighteen months, Israel will target Iran’s main nuclear sites, not with a goal of completely destroying them, but of setting Iran’s nuclear goals back many years. By the time Iran rebounds, the hope is that there will be a different regime in Iran. (When one reads the Israeli press, it’s quite clear from the left to the right that a nuclear Iran is perceived as an existential threat to Israel’s existence. This type of uniform consensus regarding an external threat has not existed since 1967, which is one reason why over ninety percent of Israel’s Jewish population not only agreed with Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah, but felt Israel ought to have responded more aggressively. Hezbollah, Iran’s militia in Lebanon is already rearming. Such a force on Israel’s northern border is in part, from Iran’s government’s interest, meant to distract Israel from Iran’s domestic nuclear program.)

Israeli military and intelligence analysts do not believe the nuclear sites in Iran are as hidden or as impenetrable as many in the West think, otherwise why is Iran surrounding the sites with anti-aircraft missiles? Most analysts do not think Israel will bomb the site with limited nuclear weapons, but comparable conventional weapons. If U.S. forces are still in Iraq (if and) when Israel strikes, it will get far uglier than we can imagine.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Biden's First Words

So Joe Biden's latest presidential bid is off to a rousing start. The first press coverage that the Senator from the great state of Bank of America has gotten concerns his comments about fellow Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama,

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man."

The real shame is that little attention was paid to his speech announcing his intention to form an exploratory committee, the first step in launching a campaign. Fine political oratory. To correct this wrong, find below, Joe Biden's announcement that he taking the first steps towards seeking the Presidency:

Twenty score and eleven years ago our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in liberty. I am now announcing my intention of forming an exploratory committee to investigate the possibility of my assuming the office of President of this great nation. To run or not to run, that is the question. Whether `tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous questions from reporters or to rise up against a sea of troubles.

I know that some see nothing but troubles in this world, especially in Iraq with the war I voted for and supported, some think it is over for us there. Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it is with help from nations like Germany that we will move forward. We need to repair our standing in the world beginning with our allies in Europe. And I am the man to do it, for ich bin ein Berliner!

Some say we ought to live in fear of these terrorists and surrender our civil liberties. But he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Others say that modern elections are really about money and there are others who have announced their intentions earlier who may have connections to money, but this is not an insurmountable obstacle for me. Money won't buy everything, it's true. But what it don't get I can't use. My friends in the financial industry said "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what I can do for your country. And so I say to all you, it's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses. God bless America.