Thursday, May 31, 2007

Glowing Embers

In response to the discussion a few days ago about how to avoid the fate of so many good-hearted people who get beaten down by years of fighting the good fight for peace, justice, and equality, Ron Zucker wrote some wonderful words and he's graciously allowed me to post them.

I am a political activist for a living. I work and live for change. Yet, I still laugh and love. I have not grown bitter. I've learned two explanations for the difference between those of us who can do it and those who can't.

the first comes from my best boss and mentor ever, Amy Isaacs of Americans for Democratic Action. Amy used to tell me that what makes us able to survive is the difference between fire and embers. If we see injustice and things wrong and it lights a fire in us, we are the sorts who might be great at changing things, but we'll burn out. (Ms. Sheehan comes immediately to mind.) We will work and fight. But losing takes too great a toll. We can't keep on going.

On the other hand, those of us who can keep it as embers, burning always, are able to stoke up a flame when we need to. But the rest of the time, we can see the joy and the humor in life.

That was her theory, and it worked to predict who would stay in political organizing and who would leave.

My own idea comes from a different source. The Ethics of the Fathers is the Jewish book of ancient wisdom of a certain sort. And in it, it says, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work. But nor are you free to absolve yourself of responsibility for the work."

I do what I do not because I want to. I do it because I have a responsibility to use my talents and my interests in a constructive way. For some, those talents and interests intersect in being a professor. Or a programmer, or any other job. My interest in political organizing meets my talent for writing and arguing in being an organizer and lobbyist for a living.

And sometimes, sir, I get as tired as can be of doing it. I have no doubt that there are days you wake up and just don't feel like teaching, too. But it's what I do. It's what I'm good at, and it's something I long ago decided I'd rather do than anything else I might be good at.

Those are the hard days, the bitter days. Those are the days I call friends who are staffers on the Hill and bitch out their bosses for voting wrong. Or I write particularly nasty organizing pieces to my members. And I might or might not send that piece, but I do need to write it.

Even the best of us can't help but have days that we are overwhelmed. It's been 4 years, and we're still at war in Iraq. I've been working for universal health care for 25 years, and yet my friends still don't have insurance. On those days, I am bitter and angry. At myself for not finding a way to win, at the politicians for not voting right, at my fellow Americans for not voting right or expressing themselves correctly or (worst of all) for not agreeing with my obviously correct beliefs and policy preferences.

And then I remind myself. It's not incumbent on me to finish the work. And I do today's work. I let tomorrow's work go. I know it will take care of itself. And I make it a point, on those days more than others, to find something in politics and international issues that makes me laugh, or that makes me proud. I need to remind myself.

It's not always easy. But I'm old now (42, which is VERY old for DC) and still trudging along. I make what change I can. I fight for what I believe is right. And I love what I do.

If I can't do all of those things, I need to quit, to leave this career choice. I haven't yet. I still know that I should do better. But I also know that I will. That we will do better.

After all, none of us are free to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the work. Eventually, we'll get the work done. Or, at least, get closer.

Thank you, Ron. Your sentiment reminds me of my favorite quotation from Arlo Guthrie,
It's important for a young person to realize that he or she is not the beginning or end of a thing, but somewhere in the middle of a long chain of people working to make this world a better place.
Again, thank you Ron for your words and your work.

Pardon My Cynicism

Mad Cow disease is one of TheWife's soapbox issues, so this wasn't news to me, but it is absolutely stunning. A small cattle ranch, Creek Stone Farms, wants to test all of its cows for Mad Cow disease and is being prevented by the government. Be clear, the government is not only against mandatory testing of all cows for a disease that causes the equivalent of early on-set Alzheimer's, but it's opposing a farm that wants to voluntarily do it on their own. The USDA is telling them that they may not test their cows to see if they are safe before sending them to market. Cold Creek sued and won, but the government has made clear their intention to tie the case up in the courts as long as possible in order to keep Cold Creek from trying to protect the health of Americans.

Why is this happening? Part of it is the USDA's mixed mission which in which it is simultaneously a regulatory body charged with overseeing the quality and safety of agricultural products and also set up as an advocate for American agricultural producers. It is supposed to regulate the people it is supposed to promote. Part of it is the influence of the beef industry. They are fighting every step tooth and nail and have lots of money and friends in powerful places. And part of it is this administration that cares more about corporate profits than it does about protecting the well-being of American citizens.

Over at DailyKos, KargoX has it right that part of the motivation to fight it is that if one farm tests, then market forces will demand that everyone test. If you are going to the store to pick up ground beef and one is a mere three cents a pound more expensive (the cost of universal testing) but guaranteed not to kill your family with a terrible brain wasting disease, most people would gladly pay the extra three quarters of one penny for each quarter pound hamburger. Allowing one farm to voluntarily do the right thing would create a de facto regulation of universal testing because that is what consumers would demand. But, as Kargo X points out, it is quite fascinating to see these right wing champions of lassez faire free market capitalism suddenly opposing what the market wants, trying to governmentally dictate what goes on in the marketplace. The Bush folks seem perfectly happy with socialism when it means higher corporate profits.

But the question is, what's the real worry? Noises are made about feasibility. But Japan and Europe already do it, so that excuse is a substance that cattle farmers are used to shoveling. It could be the sort of knee-jerk reaction corporate industries always seem to have when it comes to common sense measures that concern the health of their customers. Car companies fought against seat belts, against reconfiguring door latches so they wouldn't pop open in an accident, and many other small features that they knew would only save innocent lives. Why? Look at the oil industry, the tobacco industry, the health care industry, you see time and time again these powerhouses doing everything they can to make sure they don't have to do the morally and pragmatically right thing. But there's more to it here, it seems to me.

They say that they are worried about false positives. Here it is. No test is perfect, it will always miss some cases and wrongly point to problems with others where no problem exists. This is the important point, although it isn't false positives they are really concerned with. False positives are easy to cull. Every positive gets re-tested and re-re-tested. The chances of a false positive coming up wrongly positive in retests is incredibly minuscule.

My cynical hypothesis is that they are really worried about real positives. If every cow is tested cases may pop up and if more than case is reported to have been found, the media coverage would cause the bottom would drop out of the beef market altogether. It is already hurting because of concerns about cholesterol and heart disease; this would be disastrous. So, rather than do what they need to do to make sure there is absolutely no chance that this disease could be there, instead they want to make sure we don't have the facts about the beef that they are serving to our loved ones. The disease, BSE, is slow to develop and looks a whole lot like Alzheimer's and so would be completely misdiagnosed in most cases and even when correctly assessed, would not be traceable back to its source. It is a crime which likely would not be discovered and for which they could not be fingered, even if you had the body of the victim. So they are not worried about mad cow, they are just worried about us worrying about mad cow. You could eliminate the worry by eliminating the chance that it is out there or you could do what they and the Bush administration prefer, try to eliminate the worry by sweeping it under the rug. Cold Creek is that annoying little kid who insists on reminding the teacher that she forgot to give us homework, the Republicans here are the bullies who rough the kid up on the playground after class for it. Shame on them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fact-Value Voters

I have always despised the term "values voters" to describe social conservatives. The purpose of the term is to contrast it with those who care about the needy, think that discrimination against minorities is a bad thing, and want to end needless killing -- you know, those who don't vote on the basis of moral values. Note to the media -- hating gay people does not make you virtuous. I teach ethics, you can ask me about it.

But philosophers often refer to what we call the fact/value distinction. The claim is that there is a difference between those propositions that describe how the world is and those that prescribe how the world ought to be. Not many folks buy into the idea of a strict fact/value distinction anymore, but it does furnish a handy new label that could be attached to a new way of framing issues in the upcoming election. Progressives should deem ourselves the "fact-value voters."

Our positions are certainly based on the values like compassion and fairness, but at the same time the application of these values requires acceptance of facts about the world around us. There are many kinds of facts and we take them all seriously. There are medical facts of the sort that Republicans were more than happy to ignore in the case of Terri Schaivo. There are meteorological facts like warnings from the hurricane center that the administration failed to heed. There are geophysical facts like those concerning global warming. Biological facts about speciation and evolution that some want to pretend aren't really there in terms of public school curricula. Sociological facts about the lack of success of abstinence only sex ed. Facts about the likelihood of an insurgency not treating us like liberators if we go in with too small of a force into a war that was started because of claims about weapons of mass destruction that weren't, wait for it, facts.

The nice thing about facts is that you can't argue with them...they're facts. In case after case, the Republicans have buried themselves because they refused to face facts. We can reasonably disagree about what ends we ought to pursue and what means would be the most efficient ways of getting to those aims. But you can't argue with least, not without looking like an idiot.

And that, my friends is why we need to be the fact-value voters. Because we care about facts, and if you are not a fact-value voter you're an idiot.

But caring about facts does not mean you are Mr. Spock on steroids. No, one can be a fact voter and still be a values voter. We take our values very seriously, we just realize that we need to be realistic about the world we live in when trying to act according to those values. It's pragmatism, people, a good ol' American value. This appeals to the supposedly vast middle (should it still exist) that wants things done and don't want to be confused with those global-warming deniers at their creationist museum. Those are wacko fringe characters and need to be shown to be such. Oh yeah, they are also the power base of the Republican party.

So, I hereby declare myself a fact-value voter. Anyone with me?

Drinking Age

I've been reading and hearing an unusual number of people discussing the drinking age lately, so I thought I'd throw it out there. It's been twenty-three years since the national age was raised, so I'm not sure why this is suddenly an interesting topic, or whether it has just been an unusual streak where I'm coming in contact with more libertarian types, but it seems like an interesting topic for a warm day in the Mid-Atlantic, the sort of day to kick back with a nice cold beer.

The question is one that pits rights against utility. On the one hand, we are taking individuals who are given adult responsibilities in a large number of other ways (being drafted into the military during wartime is usually the example employed) and limiting their rights to engage in an activity otherwise legal and socially acceptable.

The argument on the other side is that those below the age of twenty-one tend to have mental faculties that are still forming and who tend not to make the best decisions. Young people tend to underestimate dangerous situations and have a sense of invulnerability. They also have drivers licenses. So, innocent lives will be protected if we limit access to alcohol until they mature a bit more.

The counter-argument here often invokes Europe where drinking age is much lower and where they do not have the alcohol problems we have here. Would lowering the drinking age in this culture lead to similar effects or are the two cultures different enough that we would just be pouring gasoline on the fire?

Is the fact that those under the legal drinking age have fairly ready access if they are clever enough relevant at all? Surely, making it more difficult even if it is not impossible is helpful.

So, should the drinking age be lowered? Abolished? Maintained?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial for Pop Pop and Other Victims of War That Lingers After the War

Memorial Day always makes me think of my grandfather who was a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne during WWII. This is a post that I wrote in the first few weeks of this blog, but I'm not sure I can say it any other way, so for those who have read these words, I apologize, but it is something I still think is worth saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Feast of Saint Nora

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of one of the great wits of our day, Nora Ephron. Author of Crazy Salad, Wallflower at the Orgy, and I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, she has also written the screen plays for When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle, My Blue Heaven, and You've Got Mail. She regularly blogs over at Huffington Post and is one of the most insightful social critics we have. A few of my favorites:

So many of the conscious and unconscious ways men and women treat each other have to do with romantic and sexual fantasies that are deeply ingrained, not just in society but in literature. The women's movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don't know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds.

As far as the men who are running for president are concerned, they aren't even people I would date.

Beware of men who cry. It's true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.

I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.

In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind.

Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.

My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.

Summer bachelors, like summer breezes, are never as cool as they pretend to be.

There are plenty of men who philander during the summer, to be sure, but they are usually the same lot who philander during the winter-albeit with less convenience.

The Wonderbra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women.
Happy birthday Nora Ephron.

Tomatoes: Is Variety Really the Spice of Life or Is It Basil?

The end of the semester means time to get back into the garden. This year, I had decided that I was only going to put Brandywines in the tomato bed. Best tomato on the planet, Brandywine. Certainly not the prettiest, but the size and flavor, not to mention that it's all flesh and little seed makes it our favorite. It's the sort of tomato you don't slice, you cut thick steaks out of. It's not an accent tomato that you put on a something else sandwich -- it is a sandwich.

But then, there I was at the nursery (this year, I didn't grow from seed) and I'm faced with all the varieties and suddenly I feel like I'm in the video store and picking up my Brandywine plants is kind of like choosing the chick flick of the tom section. After all, there are more manly westerns to choose from like "mule train," "Arkansas traveler," and "cherokee purple." Educational tomatoes like "Abraham Lincoln" and "Paul Robeson." "Mr. Stripey" always sounded to me like a Frank Capra kind of crop, while "bloody butcher" is the Wes Craven version. Then, of course, there are the Suze Orman financial self-help series "mortgage lifter" and "money maker." All of this is not to mention those other tomatoes, the adult plants they keep behind the little partition, you know, "big boy," "early girl," "beefmaster," "black seaman," and "wild cherry." Planting some of them, you'd not only get dirty, you'd feel dirty.

Have a nice holiday weekend everyone, whether you're in the garden or not.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Police and Bitter Old Liberals

Since their re-union tour is connected with the Virgin festival which is coming to Baltimore, local stations have been playing a lot of Police. Tunes I haven't heard in years. That was some good stuff. It's made me think...

Sting has done fine work since the band broke up. Good albums, smart lyrics. But none of it, none at all, is anywhere near as fun. The joy, the playfulness of the Police is in none of his solo work.

This touches on one of my deepest fears. Many good people I know, smart folks with big, big hearts, who have been fighting the fight for decades, have ended up emotionally broken, become bitter old liberals in their later years. I know that the suffering in the world will never end despite all efforts, there will always be injustices to stand up against and better access to more of the world will likely bring more death and despair to our attention. How one can see what is happening in Darfur or the Middle East right now and not be deeply saddened is something I simply do not understand.

Yet, one can, and I would argue must, do what one can while still attempting to live a joyful life. The world can be a magical place full of delight. Appreciating it with a light spirit is a gift beyond measure. Yet, I see so many who worked so hard end up weighed down by it all.

It would be one thing if this were fated for all who care. If it were inevitable, I would understand that the joy is fleeting and leave it at that. But I have seen some -- my friends Pat and Lou, for example -- who are still fighting and who still float slightly above the ground the rest of us walk on. It is possible.

BUT. What is it that is the key to keeping from being broken? What is it that will allow one to stay playful without refusing to see all -- both the wondrous and the horrible? Surely, it's not as simple as "When the world is running down, make the best of what's still around."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Whining, Bitching, Kvetching, and Complaining

TheWife and I had a conversation the other day about complaining and the various shades of it. We all know people who live to kvetch. They aren't happy unless they are unhappy. But there did seem to us certain distinct categories of activity here. All are verbal activities designed to call attention to something the speaker dislikes, but there are subtle differences between them.

All of these are to be distinguished from an act that I do not have a good term for -- it is bringing up something that needs to be changed in order to announce the intention of taking charge of changing it. Complaining, bitching, and whining are all much more passive in nature. They do not include the active intent to pursue a correction by one's own personal intervention.

Complaining is the act where you call someone else's attention to the fault with the desire to have that person do something to rectify the situation. If there is something wrong with your meal, you complain to the waiter, assuming he will correct the problem. If there is something wrong with your hotel room, you complain to the front desk assuming the woman working there will send the appropriate person to take care of the leaky faucet or the noisy neighbors. Complaining is not only voicing dissatisfaction, but in doing so, putting the ball in someone else's court to fix it.

Bitching is airing grievances, not with the intent of having them addressed, but in order to have blame assessed to someone for causing the grief. If you are in a bad relationship, you bitch to your friends to have them believe what an unbelievable piece of work your hopefully soon to be ex-partner is. You bitch to your spouse about that person in the office so that s/he will express disbelief that someone could be so stupid/nasty/incompetant/hard headed/...

Whining is similar to bitching in that it is an expression of deep dissatisfaction with one's current lot, but not in order to evoke emotions from someone else. But where bitching is designed to have someone else's character condemned, whining is designed to elicit pity for you. One whines in order to have their own self-pity vindicated. It is an appeal for attention for me, me, me. don't you understand it is all about me?

Kvetching, on the other hand, is purely for yourself, but in a different way. Kvetching is a form of therapy, a means of getting something off your chest, lightening your load by vocalizing your dissatisfaction. We all need to blow steam sometimes and it can be cathartic to say aloud what you've been thinking inside. The key here is make sure you have you kvetch-fest with people who will not take what you are kvetching about personally.

So, open season; what do you have to complain, bitch, whine, or kvetch about today?


So last week, just as Aspazia and I had finished a brief conversation about blog-ads, I see Media Czech, while subbing over at LGM, put up a lament about Elvis Costello selling out to Lexus. The synchronicity has had me thinking about the uneasy relationship between liberals and money.

Aspazia has signed up for a service that will put advertising on your blog and pay you for the use of the space if there is an advertiser who thinks it desirable. I've flirted with the idea, but never seriously because I have a strange reaction to the thought, a sense that there is just something not necessarily immoral, but still worrisome about it. Spaz, on the other hand, argues quite cogently that if someone wants to give her free money for doing something she was going to do anyway, she'd be a damn fool to say "no, thank you."

So what accounts for the distaste? Is it rational?

Money as a corrupting influence

The first argument is that when you introduce monetary gain into the formula, questions about authenticity arise. When it was discovered that conservative columnists like Armstrong Williams were receiving payments for writing editorials in favor of specific Bush policy initiatives, it was quite reasonable to stop taking those columns and others written by the columnists as seriously. There seems to be good reason to suspect that what they say may not be the result of their best critical faculties, but mere rhetoric produced to please their employer. The more porous boundary between news desks and commercial interests in corporations that control the mainstream media has had an undeniably deleterious effect on reporting.

Argument by authority is a fine means of argument as long as the cited authority (1) exists, (2) is someone with the required expertise, and (3) is not an interested party who would personally benefit from having you believe one way or the other. By adding money into the mix, the third criteria begins to become strained.

At the same time, however, one always has past performance. It has never crossed my mind that Aspazia or the other blogs I read regularly are the slightest bit influenced by a transitory ad on their site. I also know that I too would not be influenced and have little doubt that what I write here would be seen at all differently by those of you good folks who come here to play. So that couldn't be it.

Dancing with the devil

The second argument against making money in this way has to do with the source. The advertising money comes from corporations that are direct contributors to social ills and by taking their cash and helping promote them, you are being co opted by the machine instead of fighting against it. This is what Media Czech found so disturbing. It is one thing for a whore to act like a whore, for someone who is just in it for the cash to take it and not worry about where it comes from or what it is for, but this was Elvis Costello, someone who seemed to be on the right side of the fight, someone who built a career in part by asking what is so funny about peace, love and understanding.

Something similar happened when Atrios' blog-ads suddenly started to feature some of the right-wing cable programs. No one had any doubt that he was in any way personally advocating watching these programs, but there seemed to be something uncomfortable in having his liberal gathering place infiltrated by those folks. For those of us who witnessed it, there was a huge battle when a somewhat suggestive photo of two women having a pie fight appeared on the Daily Kos.

Again, it would not matter one whit to me what ads started popping up on Mad Melancholic Feminista, my perception of Spaz or her work would not change at all. So that is not it.

A safe haven

Maybe it has to do with the ubiquity of marketing in our culture. It seems that every last inch of the places we go have been appropriated by advertising. There is nothing you can do, nowhere you can go in order to escape being marketed to. Kids programming on PBS now is preceded by fast food commercials. Elevators have screens playing nothing but commercials. Doctors' office waiting rooms and children's homerooms in school have been taken over. In the grocery store different products are placed at different eye levels so that you cannot even protect your kids from it when getting food. Can I please be a human and not a consumer somewhere?

My blog is my blog. It is not theirs. Maybe the revulsion I feel at the thought of putting up ads is surrendering one place where I am not commercialized.

On the other hand

Part of it may be a very harmful example of false alternatives. Very often, those who care about peace, social justice, equality, the environment, and concern for the more vulnerable are fighting against moneyed interests. Extremely wealthy corporations and certain individuals have fought tooth and nail against inexpensive, common sense measures that would have immediate and positive impact on society and the world at large. This has created something of an us vs. them mentality in parts of the left that see wealth and comfort as indicative of a lack of commitment. When we give money to groups on our side, we want to make sure the overwhelming majority of money goes directly to the rain forest or helping the homeless. We don't want to be subsidizing large salaries or lunches for Congressmen. We want to be making a real difference. We look askance at anyone in the advocacy business who is receiving a large salary because if you were truly committed, you'd do it for nothing or next to nothing. It you really cared about what you claim to care about, you'd want the resources to go there and not to you.

But, of course, there are serious problems with this attitude. First of all, things cost money. If we want tings to happen, there is overhead that needs to be paid for. After Woodstock, Ken Walker and Thor Eaton thought it would be a great idea to take the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Band, and a bunch of other bands, put them on a train and hold festivals at stops across Canada. The problem was that people were demanding that the festivals be free. The commodification of culture was exactly what the movement whose music it was fought against. Of course, the technicians, the musicians, the transportation, food for all these people, had to be paid for and if it didn't come from the gate, where would it come from?

It is the same sort of thing for folks like Lindsay at Majikthise, who do blog reporting. These folks need the income to be able to provide the space, time, and bandwidth to do what they do for us. I have no problem whatsoever with full time bloggers supporting themselves as far as possible from their blogs.

Moreover, if these folks are not paid well, both in the blog and advocacy worlds, who will you get to do the job? Young people just out of college with good hearts, Eventually the thrill of eating ramen noodles fades, they get married and have families, or want more than a half a studio apartment, and realizing that their skills can land them better paying gigs elsewhere, will cause most to be lured away. We do lose many good people with good experience that way. And the other side does not have the same sort of wealth guilt. They are more than happy to pay their folks well, meaning that they constantly have an experienced, well-trained army close to hand to fight their media and lobbying battles. they are the red coats, well trained well-equipped troops. We are convinced that our guerrilla tactics will work against them, but often they do not.

There is a knee-jerk instinct away from that which gives monetary reward on the left and in some contexts it is harmful. But is this context like that? I put in more hours than I care to admit on this blog. But I do it because it's a hobby, not for the cash. At the same time, if someone wanted to pay me for what I would be doing anyway, would it change it? Would it bother you to see ads here? Am I being hypersensitive and irrational?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Saying Goodbye

Today was commencement, a bittersweet day always. It is a celebration of those wonderful students you were thrilled to spend four years with and equally a celebration of the fact that the ones you didn't think would make it through four years, somehow did. You look at familiar faces knowing it may be the last time you see them for a good long while, perhaps ever. People who were a regular part of your life will be no longer be there.

So it also is in the blogosphere. Today, we lost a great blog, Kerry's Subversive Christianity. Kerry went in with a finite period in mind and now that the time is here, it is a voice that will be missed greatly. Kerry's intelligence, patience, passion, and care for all were the hallmark of his writing. Too often blogs focused on religious or atheistic matters devolve into preachiness or confrontation. But Subversive Christianity was a place where those who had strong views could think (and disagree) deeply and smartly without ever fearing a lapse into ad hominem, sarcasm, or being patronized.

While our philosophical approaches and interests differ greatly, Kerry is more than a friend, he has been my mentor -- both officially in the college and informally. In years, past, he has done amazing work rethinking the pedagogical approach to teaching critical thinking and written wonderful books for non-academics. It was his example that led me to embark on similar sorts of projects. For this reason, it tickled me that he would follow Aspazia and me into the on-line world. That I could in any way serve as a model for him is humbling.

Of course, several of us are fortunate enough to still have regular access to the off-line Kerry and I do hope very much that he will continue his e-presence at here and at Mad Melancholic Feminista.

Fact is, for Kerry, a blog post a day was slacking. He is, shall we say, prolific. When Kerry joined the book of the month club, he didn't read the application closely and thought he had to write a book a month. Word on the street is that he is now hard at work on two new book projects. One is a non-fiction version of the Warren report and the other a book on non-materialistic investment strategies to be called How Jesus Helped Me Turn a Million in Real Estate Into $25 in Cash.

My friend, thank you for these months. Your blog will be missed.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hey Dummie: The Feast of Saint Rickles

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Hockeypucks Everywhere,

Just to show the power of the Cosmic Comic, no sooner had I suggested Don Rickles' birthday as a holiday last week, did I realize that it was, in fact, Don Rickles' birthday. Timing is everything.

Rickles, the merchant of venom, is one of the gret insult comics. He started with a standard routine, working like so many others, strip clubs between regular gigs. Being a short Jewish guy with his clothes on, he would get heckled mercillously by the patrons who come to see something wholly other, and Don gave it right back. When the barbs were getting bigger laughs than the jokes, the path was obvious. His big break came when Sinatra saw his act. Spotting him in the audience, Rickles greeted him from the stage saying, "Make yourself at home Frank, hit someone." Sinatra loved it and the rest was history. Rickles always adored Sinatra and once said of him,

"When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I wouldn't mind so much, but he keeps it in his back pocket."
Much of Rickles stuff could be seen as racist, playing on negative stereotypes. But, in a sense, Rickles was extendeing Jewish humor. Traditional eastern European Jewish humor plays on the notion of archetypes. Instead of having a unitary view of human nature, there is held to be a number of well-defined human natures, each with well-known sets of properties. Jokes then feature these archetypes. Businessmen are coniving, clever theives or gonifs, butchers are strong, but not smart, housewives are gossipping yentas, scholars are smart, but lacking common-sense twist simple things into logical pretzels, mothers-in-law, well, they were mothers-in-law... No matter who you are, you end up on the back end of a joke. Rickles did with racial stereotypes, what Eastern European Jews did with archetypes. Everyone gets it.

So great is Rickles that this is what Triumph the Comic Wonder Dog had to say in that holy on-line publication Shecky!
"Rickles is the king. I worship the ground Rickles poops on."

So, free shots today. What are your favorite put downs. If there's anyone you want to insult, let it fly. Happy birthaday Don Rickles.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bullshit Or Not: JS Mill Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, In Search Of... called, Bullshit or Not? with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for an occasional series of posts.

This is a classic quotation from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism:

Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness—that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior—confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
So are the pleasures of the mind really superior to those of the body? Would you rather be a dissatisfied Socrates or a happy pig? Feel free to leave one word comments, "bullshit" or "not" or to explain your position in as much depth as you'd like, but I'd love to hear which way most of you are leaning.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Taste and Class

I had a student write a fascinating thesis this semester on taste. On the one hand, taste is a direct sensory experience, on the other hand it is mediated by a huge number of environmental and biographical factors, some of which are class related. Think of the words we use to describe food such as rich and decadent. Food is certainly a class indicator: think iceberg lettuce vs. radicchio, white bread vs. whole grain, local organic vs. canned vegetables.

But while what we eat is in part defined by socio-economic status, there's an odd thing about food. Where you see class aspiration attached to other class indicators, it's not so with food. You see many working and middle class folks trying to acquire the clothing, cars, jewelry and other trappings of wealth; yet when you mention the "fancy food" to these same folks there is absolute revulsion.

Is there something different about food?

The Religious Right vs. The Prophetic Minority: Falwell is Dead, Studs Still Alive

So Jerry Falwell was "called home" while Studs Terkel celebrates his 95th birthday. A true study in contrast that we were left with by the America of the 20th century.


But these things speak evil of those things, verse 10 [reading from Jude] which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves. Look at the Metropolitan Community Church today, the gay church, almost accepted into the World Council of Churches. Almost, the vote was against them. But they will try again and again until they get in, and the tragedy is that they would get one vote. Because they are spoken of here in Jude as being brute beasts, that is going to the baser lust of the flesh to live immorally, and so Jude describes this as apostasy. But thank God this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven.

I think it's realistic to have hope. One can be a perverse idealist and say the easiest thing: 'I despair. The world's no good.' That's a perverse idealist. It's practical to hope, because the hope is for us to survive as a human species. That's very realistic.

AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.

I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence - providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.

If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being.

Nonetheless, do I have respect for people who believe in the hereafter? Of course I do. I might add, perhaps even a touch of envy too, because of the solace.

President Bush declared war in Iraq to defend innocent people. This is a worthy pursuit. In fact, Proverbs 21:15 tells us: "It is joy to the just to do judgment: but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity." One of the primary purposes of the church is to stop the spread of evil, even at the cost of human lives. If we do not stop the spread of evil, many innocent lives will be lost and the kingdom of God suffers.

She wanted people in the passing cars to see the sign: 'Beat your swords into plowshares and study war no more,' from Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet.

The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible,without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.

That's what we're missing. We're missing argument. We're missing debate. We're missing colloquy. We're missing all sorts of things. Instead, we're accepting.

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.

The September 11 assault was horrendous. But there's another assault that's taking place. It's an assault upon our intelligence. It's an assault upon our sense of decency as well as upon our faiths too, I believe.

If we are going to save America and evangelize the world, we cannot accommodate secular philosophies that are diametrically opposed to Christian truth.

We are the most powerful nation in the world, but we're not the only nation in the world. We are not the only people in the world. We are an important people, the wealthiest, the most powerful and, to a great extent, generous. But we are part of the world.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Name That Holiday

Contrary to SteveD's contention, I was in no way fishing for my own holiday with yesterday's post. He does, however, raise a darn good question: What holidays are missing from the calendar? What new holidays should be created?

My suggestions:

Don Rickles' birthday would be National Insult Day where for one day a year you can say anything to anyone and not have it taken personally. (The greeting cards for this one would be magnificent -- "red is for roses, green is for grass, that dress makes you look like you have a fat ass," "violets are purple, roses are red, your comb over looks like there's a dead squirrel on your head"-- feel free to compose your own in the comments.)

Mentor's Day in which we set aside to time to thank that person who took the time to help us get where we are today.

Cesar Chavez' birthday as a day of recognition of all those who work on behalf of justice.
Others? Who should be recognized, but isn't now?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

In Praise of Hallmark Holidays

Coming off of Mothers' Day when thoughts were with Mom, it is worth thinking about the day. I have heard many folks argue that Mothers' Day, Valentines Day, and the like are artificial creations of the greeting card industry. This may or may not be true, but I think they are valuable nonetheless.

It is true that I love my mother everyday, but the fact is many days are so damn busy that I don't get the chance to say it. I think it is important, especially nowadays, to have time that is especially set aside for those people who are important to us.

Is there someone in the corporate offices dreaming up things like "office assistants' day" so that they can make more sales? Probably, but the fact is that without Carol, I and my colleagues would be lost -- literally. Hopefully she knows how much we appreciate her, but having a time where we make that clear is a good thing since we all get a bit distracted having locked our keys in our offices...yet again.

So, I think that Hallmark holidays are good things. We have 365 or 6 days per year, I don't care if they get clogged up with artificially declared celebrations. These days, we are all often too busy to stop and express certain things that need to be out there. I think these days are valuable...especially if they come with cake.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Passing the Plate: Mothers' Day Edition

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is that time again. Time to ask for donations and pass the donation plate. While most congregation ask for money, Comedists ask for something much more precious -- jokes. Lest you are worried that the jokes will be used inappropriately and you'll see your good Irreverend Steve driving around in a long Cadillac with a rubber chicken on the hood, you can be rest assured that we only use the jokes we need to keep the new religion growing and that we are quite generous in sending the rest to humor challenged areas around the world.

In honor of Mothers' Day, today's theme will be "yo mama" jokes. Here are a few of my favorites:

Yo mama's so short she models for trophies.

Yo mama's so ugly that when she tried to enter an ugly contest, they told her "no professionals."

Yo mama so skinny she has to wear a belt with spandex.

Yo mama's so old that when she went to school, there was no history class.

Yo mama's so dumb it took her six hours to put a bag of M&Ms in alphabetical order.
So, what are your favorites?

To my mom, whom I love very dearly and who always made sure that I didn't take myself too seriously -- especially after a certain haircut (think Princess Leia)-- and to all of those mothers out there...and to all of you who are just called mothers...thank you for all the love, all the care, and for putting up with our nonsense for all these years.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, May 11, 2007

My Students Think I'm a Teacher...the Fools

Driving in yesterday, I was flipping around the radio dial and came across a couple of morning drive-time dj's ribbing a station administration type about how much he was paying to send his kids to college. The claim they were making is that college is nothing but a four year drunken orgy that is not worth the time or money in any pragmatic sense. Most people learn nothing of value, they contended, and a smart kid will learn everything he needs on the job, so college is an unnecessary waste.

Then I come in to see that Aspazia put up a post on teaching commenting on this New York Times article on the efforts of Harvard to begin to take teaching seriously.

Sitting here at the end of finals week, it seems a good time to reflect on whether this whole industry really is the scam that the dj argued it is and if so, whether Harvard is just making noises about fixing it.

Every once in a while, when someone asks what I do for a living, I say "philosopher." I think the looks I get are pretty funny. But often, TheWife will shoot in, "He's a college professor" (partly to bring the person's understanding in line with reality and partly because I'm kind of embarrassing in public sometimes). Most people don't realize that my job is actually two jobs; I teach philosophy and I write philosophy. These are two radically different undertakings that only occasionally, with really good students and just the right question, overlap. The assumption from those outside the academy is that I am like a high school teacher whose full-time job is teaching, only I teach at a higher level. And since I am teaching at a higher level, surely it's the case that I not only received the sort of educational background in how to teach that a high school teacher gets, but even more rigorous and robust instruction on how to maximize instructional efficiency, how to fine tune my teaching to correspond with learning styles and the most recent understandings from neuro-science about how we take in and assimilate information.

This is so wrong it makes you want to laugh and cry. College professors receive no training whatsoever in teaching. We are given no idea at all about the interior workings of our students minds and what would be the best way to present material. We are given poverty wages in graduate school and assigned as teaching assistants to professors who also have no background in teaching. In that capacity, you do the grunt work, not as an apprentice learning the trade from a master, but as a domestic servant freeing up time for your employer to do other things than worry about trivialities like grading, meeting with students, and writing assignments and exams.

But the kick in the groin is that these profs you are working under serve as the model that you dream of becoming. They are the big names, the most successful, recognized, and rewarded members of the community you are working your butt off to join as a journeyman. They are famous not for being teachers, but for being scholars. They are famous for their "real work" and the classroom is a bother, a distraction that keeps them from doing their "real work."

These university professors have three jobs: research, teaching, and training graduate students, the next generation of scholars. In training upcoming technicians in their field, they stress that which made them successful...hint, it isn't teaching. Newly minted Ph.D.'s are sent out into academic world with explicit instructions to pay as little attention to teaching as they can get away with in order to be able to focus on their research, their "real work." If they are lucky enough to get jobs, they have to labor for the next seven years with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head; if they are denied tenure, they lose their job. Imagine that you've just put in five to ten grueling years working your tail off in grad school, have miraculously achieved your dream of finding a job at a college or university, and have a family to feed. Tenure decisions are largely based upon publication, scholarly research, and networking with the powerful in your scholarly community so you can get good "external evaluations." When your department chair warns you about spending too much time trying to help your students, what do you think these folks are going to do?

The entire reward structure in colleges and universities is centered around research. How many publications? Were they in elite journals? How much grant money did you bring in? How many times was your work cited by other scholars? Important ones? This is what makes your reputation. This is what lets you keep your job and earns you raises. This is what you are "supposed to be doing." It's funny that even our own students don't realize this. They think we're here for them simply because they are putting themselves in debt for life to take our classes. I even had a student, one of my best, ask me honestly, "What is this research you say you're doing?"

There is also a vague sense that teaching matters; more in some places, less in others. True, if you are incredibly awful as an instructor, you could be let go before you are given tenure, but I remember in grad school, a member of the department won the university-wide award for teacher of the year and was denied tenure and fired the next. Indeed, we don't have good vehicle for even measuring good teaching. Student evaluations are well known to be flawed. Male instructors get higher marks than female, good looking people better than less so, funny teachers higher than serious ones (all this, of course, explains why my evals are sterling...that and the fact that I fill them out myself...) Colleagues sit in on classes, but we have no training in effective teaching and classes inevitably react in funny ways to the presence of a senior colleague suddenly showing up in the classroom.

But as Aspazia points out,

there are faculty around doing the kind of work--i.e. innovative course design, service learning courses, team taught courses, courses with travel/field research built in, doing active research with students, etc.--that epitomize what many of the administrators would like Gettysburg to look like (at least according to the Strategic Planning documents). So, it seems that one way to drive change here would be to reward, and really reward, faculty who are doing what we think best embodies the mission of of this college. As it stands now--like at many colleges--there are not a lot of incentives for creative and innovative teaching (outside of intrinsic desire) and there are NO DISINCENTIVES for bad behavior.
There is little appreciation for work in the classroom and few penalties for being a lousy teacher who phones it in in the classroom.

This is not a local, institutional concern, but something much more global, infecting higher ed as a whole (community colleges excepted). Gettysburg College, I would argue, is better than most. Everyone here has been very supportive of my ventures and I've had administrators bend over backwards to help me figure out ways to find the resources I've needed to do creative things. Aspazia is incredibly creative pedagogically and much more experimental than I am, something that she has been not only free to pursue, but encouraged in within our department. But we do this because of our culture. We are peculiar in that when we hire, we first look for outstanding teachers and then among them, who would do interesting work. But it is something you do out of the goodness of your heart. I taught three independent study courses this semester with five students. That's three extra classes (doubling my teaching load) and I got not a penny for it, in fact, to do it, I sacrificed time that could have been dedicated to my research which would most likely make me more eligible for a merit raise. I'm not looking for pity, admiration, or more money here (any Gettysburg administrators who are reading, please ignore this sentence), I am simply trying to illustrate the fact that Aspazia makes that going the extra mile in teaching is not built into the reward structure of higher education and that not doing for our students is not discouraged.

And it's magnified beyond belief at places like Harvard. Those institutions are able to attract all the big names in every field exactly because they go there to research and not to teach. They have a two-tiered system. Junior faculty are the rising stars coming out of the best graduate programs. They are given "tenure-track" positions where they will work for six years and then find a real tenure-track position at a very good institution just before getting denied tenure. Places like Harvard are good places to be from. They then spend the middle of their career at the new place, or a series of new places, to establish themselves and climb the ladder in hope to get back to a joint like Harvard in the end. You see, when the big boys want a tenured professor, an established star, they just go out and buy one. These prima donnas move into the prestigious universities with contractual terms that allow them to do minimal teaching, often none at the undergrad level. If Harvard is indeed committed to becoming a top flight teaching institution, I wish them luck, but I wouldn't bet my money on it. There is an institutional culture and a long history in the other direction that has to be overcome. And even the teaching institutions don't do such a great job at it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fairie Reflections

We took the kids last weekend to the May Day Fairie Festival at Spoutwood Farms in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania last weekend. It an annual event for them...and for us. If you've never been exposed to the fairie subculture, it is really something, especially when considered from a pop culture perspective.

On the one hand, it is an autonomous, self-contained subculture unto itself. They have their own magazines, as well as fashion, behavioral, and linguistic conventions. "Kubiando" the fairie folk's version of "shalom," a word used as a greeting, a farewell, an affirmation, an exclamation, and a secret handshake all in one. Wings, decorated translucent fabric on wire frames, are in the fairie community what hats are to church-going African-American women. Some are elegant in their bright pastels, while others are flashy and ostentatious.

But while it is its own community, it is also a fascinating synthesis of a number of quite disparate subcultural and mainstream elements. The first thing it always reminds me of is the parking lot or campgrounds at a Dead show. Lots of tie-dye and it is thoroughly infused with a real hippie, back-to-the-land, peace and love ethos with vegan and organic food vendors and lots of beaded jewelry.

The music takes the short step from Deadheads to folkies with a heavy emphasis on Celtic music with guitar, fiddle, flute, and bagpipes, but many of the performances infused with the inclusive sensibility of the contemporary world music scene. Ever-present drum circles combine African djembes, Irish bodhrans, Indian tablas, and Australian didgeridoos.

While it is very hippie-ish, for every "steal your face" or dancing bear t-shirt you see, you'll come across another for Slayer or Metallica. The dark and heavy sense of the metal crowd is also very much prevalent. Of course, it is not odd that the two would intersect here as contemporary heavy metal music derives from the British hippie scene which very much embraced the pagan, druid, pre-Christian symbols and mythos. Black Sabbath's "Fairies Wear Boots," and Led Zeppelin's Lord of the Ring references are indicators of the common origins of these subcultures.

These two also combined in giving rise to the Renaissance Fair movement from which the fairie subculture, no doubt, directly derives. Many of the fairie vendors are the same folks you see at the big Ren Fests. Both share the same sort of sort of romantic reconstruction of Medieval times.

But what is the most interesting thing to me is that where all of these other subcultures tend to be male dominated (Sociologist Rebbecca Adams, for example, says that in her samples, groups of Deadheads tend to run 60/40 male to female -- it would shock me if these other groups deviated from that significantly), the fairie subculture is female-centered. While there are plenty of men and boys participating, the majority of folks and those with the greatest standing are women and girls. The central focus on magic is very much removed from the sort of aggressive dungeons and dragons picture and much more nature and cooperatively focused. While the sort of 70s gender dichotomy talk has fallen out of favor with feminist theorists who worry deeply about essentialism (branding all women with certain properties that surely all women do not share and which are understood in terms of the categories and values enforced by the dominant social power of men), the fact is that this community's focus on a mythological women's world is in deep ways very different from its male-centered brother movements.

But, of course, it is not only responding to, but is deeply influenced by the mainstream culture. Here's where it gets even more interesting. The Disney Corporation, with its traditional Mickey Mouse centered approach failing to inspire brand loyalty developed a new marketing strategy that is gender specific. To boys, they have the action adventure figures of Woody the cowboy and Buzz the astronaut. For girls, they have two levels of marketing that is age-dependent. For the 8-12 market, they have princesses, bringing together an all-star team of uber-feminine Disney firepower with the veterans like Snow White and Cinderella and the outstanding rookies from their newer animated features. (This also allows them to avoid charges of Euro-centrism featuring Asian and Middle-Eastern versions of American princesses). But for those who are not yet of the princess age, they have fairies. Usurping Tinkerbell, they created a new set of fairie friends around her opening up a whole new niche for marketed clothing, books, games, and anything else that can be sold to kids.

Because you have the edges of the fairie subculture softened by its female focus, it will be less threatening to those in the mainstream. Combine this with the hard-core marketing of The Mouse to girls, it will be interesting to see how long this refuge remains autonomous, how long it remains unexploited and funky.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Elevator Ethics

The old joke is, "A salesman tells an American that he has a new invention that will do half his work for him. The American replies, 'Great. Give me two.'" This sentiment comes to mind when I watch people and elevators.

Elevators are wonderful things. As a kid, they are incredible, magical little rooms where you get to push a button that lights up and without moving end up somewhere completely different. While there is surely nothing inherently wrong with taking the elevator, I've always been fascinated by people who will wait for long periods of time for the elevator to arrive in order to go one floor -- especially down. Limiting the discussion to able-bodied adults not carrying anything heavy, is there something morally problematic in relying on the elevator for short trips that you could perfectly easily do yourself? If so, on what grounds?

I suppose that you could argue it from a virtue ethics approach that this sort of sloth seems to be a vice. Maybe it is just residue from the Protestant work ethic, but the unwillingness to accept the slight discomfort from doing this minimal amount of work does appear to display a weakness of character.

From a deontological or duty-based view, there certainly is no absolute moral prohibition against elevators, but we would have a duty to promote our bodily health. Refusing to walk up or down a single flight of stairs is indicative of the ethical problems of the unhealthy American lifestyle that puts convenience before vigor.

A utilitarian could argue that while there is a slight gain in pleasure from not having to take the steps, ultimately the lack of health and the pollution from the energy needed for the unnecessary trip are harms that outweigh any benefits. When you look at the world that would be left when taking the stairs as opposed to the elevator, the better world lies in the stairwell. For this reason, we should walk rather than ride.

Another option is that taking the elevator is not morally problematic at all, but those who do take the stairs should be lauded for going above and beyond their duty for their willingness to do the little things.

Or maybe this is not a moral issue at all. There's nothing wrong with being lazy. We've got the capabilities, why not use them? so, today's questions are:

1) Is an ethical concern at all in unnecessary elevator use?
2) On what grounds?
3) If so, how many floors get you off the hook? Surely, we can't expect people to have to walk ten flights. How few floors up and how few floors down makes the elevator unnecessary from a moral point of view?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Happy Grateful Dead Day!

It is officially Grateful Dead day! At least it is in Ithaca, New York. Of the more than 3,000 shows the band played, the widely acknowledged best of them, the night the X factor went exponential was May 8, 1977 in a show at Cornell's Barton Hall in Ithaca. In honor of that anniversary, the mayor of Ithaca issued an official proclamation"

Whereas, the Grateful Dead have been recognized by many highly credible organizations, individuals and entities including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as significantly important and integral to the musical and social fabric of our contemporary culture, and

Whereas, on May 8th, 1977 the Grateful Dead performed in Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University in the city of Ithaca New York, a concert that is widely acknowledged and regarded as a defining and transcendent occasion and example of the art of contemporary musical improvisation, collaboration, musicianship, and performance, and

Whereas, many tens of thousands of individuals who were not in attendance that night in Barton Hall, have become knowledgeable & familiar with the extraordinary nature of the performance on May 8th 1977 through the trading and sharing of recordings of the show, and

Whereas, the cultural identity and perceptions of Ithaca as a community, have been informed and bolstered by the widespread acknowledgement of the magic of May 8th, 1977, and

Whereas, it has been said many times by many people that, “there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert”,

Now therefore, be it resolved that as Mayor of the City of Ithaca, and in heartfelt recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of the May 8th 1977 concert performance, I declare May 8th 2007 as Grateful Dead Day in the City of Ithaca.

If you want to give a listen to the show, it can be found here.

I've got to admit, I still feel guilty listening to It's an utter embarrassment of riches. Time was, you had to trip across new bootlegs and hope the person with a copy was kind enough to share or that you had something he didn't have. Cornell 5/8/77 was the sort of thing that you were never sure really existed. It was something that someone you knew had an older brother who knew someone who supposedly had a copy. But now, they are all just out there. Makes you feel like a glutton sorting through and casually waving your hand at Shoreline, Alpine, or Greek Theater shows that would have been absolute treasures back then. But lest I get to high-minded here, I wouldn't trade for anything not needing to trade for anything.

Anyway, happy Grateful Dead day everyone. The time is right for dancin' in the streets.

Monday, May 07, 2007

From the "Dumbest Ideas Ever" File

Fred Thompson, tv actor, former Senator, and likely Republican candidate for President, argues that it was the lack of guns at Virginia Tech that we should look to when we want to explain how the tragedy occurred.

there are a lot of people who are just offended by the notion that people can carry guns around. They view everybody, or at least many of us, as potential murderers prevented only by the lack of a convenient weapon. Virginia Tech administrators overrode Virginia state law and threatened to expel or fire anybody who brings a weapon onto campus.

In recent years, however, armed Americans -- not on-duty police officers -- have successfully prevented a number of attempted mass murders. Evidence from Israel, where many teachers have weapons and have stopped serious terror attacks, has been documented. Supporting, though contrary, evidence from Great Britain, where strict gun controls have led to violent crime rates far higher than ours, is also common knowledge.

So Virginians asked their legislators to change the university's "concealed carry" policy to exempt people 21 years of age or older who have passed background checks and taken training classes. The university, however, lobbied against that bill, and a top administrator subsequently praised the legislature for blocking the measure.

The logic behind this attitude baffles me, but I suspect it has to do with a basic difference in worldviews. Some people think that power should exist only at the top, and everybody else should rely on "the authorities" for protection.
So, students would be safer if more of them had weapons.

Mr. Thompson, two words..."final exams." Yes, it is that time of year when we create an artificial environment of extreme stress. We take ordinary people and convince them that all of the money they and/or their parents have worked for or borrowed will have been well-spent or wasted based upon how they do on our exams. But it's not only the money, we are judging them -- have they been the sort of up-standing, hard working students who will gain our stamp of approval upon their transcript and soul or will we use our red pens and spreadsheets to condemn their minds and characters as unfit, unlearned, and undeserving. While this language is intentionally exaggerated, in the mind of college students, it rings true. The state of anxiety I see in students is unbelievable. The tears that college profs see this time of year is incredible. From the outside, it is simple to say, it's just some exams. Study and you'll do fine. But from the inside it is a completely different ballgame. Between the stress, caffeine, and sleep deprivation, kids who are normally quite well-balanced are on the verge of snapping. Yeah, I think the only thing missing from this equation are lethal weapons. That's a great idea, Mr. Thompson.

Of course, it is not only finals week. These are students who are on their own for the first time in their lives, trying to figure out who they are, feeling alone and insecure, worried about disappointing their parents, confused about their sexuality, anxious about the direction of their futures. These are folks who are finding their first serious relationships and feeling their first heartbreak at the loss of that first serous relationship. And then there's that little thing about binge drinking. There's no chance at all that jello shots would be followed by gun shots is there?

And then there are those mental health issues. Few people on college campuses work harder, these days, than the psychological councillors. Depression and anxiety disorders are widespread. And don't forget that this is the prime age for the onset of schizophrenia. And if there is anything that mentally ill teens need, it's free access to firearms.

Let's think about this a little deeper. Where would students keep their guns? I suppose if we really wanted to prevent future rampages, they'd have to be kept in the dorm rooms. Now, there's a secure place. I mean, no one has had a roommate they couldn't completely trust, right? There are never parties in dorm rooms with large number of people who you know, but don't know that well, are there? Students these days aren't carrying a very high debt load and so in need of money, so as a result,we wouldn't see any of these guns ending up on the black market where they would quickly find their way into the hands of criminals.

We have students who feel powerless and stressed. Some cope with the stress in good ways, many others cope through the use of alcohol or other substances, some don't cope at all. We have kids turning into young adults, a transformation that itself is fraught with insecurity, fear,and emotional turmoil. We have a population that is at significant risk for mental health concerns, you know, the sort of thing that was a crucial factor in the tragedy in Blacksburg. It is through the lens of someone inside of college campuses that I read Fred Thompson's argument,
Many other universities have been swayed by an anti-gun, anti-self defense ideology. I respect their right to hold those views, but I challenge their decision to deny Americans the right to protect themselves on their campuses -- and then proudly advertise that fact to any and all.

Whenever I've seen one of those "Gun-free Zone" signs, especially outside of a school filled with our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, I've always wondered exactly who these signs are directed at. Obviously, they don't mean much to the sort of man who murdered 32 people just a few days ago.
I have no choice but to shake my head at the ideologically blinded naivete of this position.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Congrats Hanno and the Feast of Saint Michael

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

We must begin this weekend with a heartfelt congratulations to our Playground playfriend Hanno for becoming a father again. The little guy is very lucky to have the parents he has, but luckier still to have as his patron Comedic saint, Michael Palin.

Add on top of this wonderful news, the fact that Hanno just received tenure and you've got one heck of a week. While much of Hanno's work is in the philosophy of language, he also works in social political philosophy, examining the nature of revolution which makes all the more appropriate the fact that the newest addition to his and A's family was born within a day of the birthdays of Karl Marx and Lenin.

Micheal Palin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin...that could only mean one thing... World Forum.

Or, for two out of three, there is always International Philosophy...

What are your favorite Michael Palin moments? Or for that matter, your favorite Marx, Lenin, or Hanno moments?

Have a great week everyone, but don't hold your breath for one quite THAT good.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Time and Back to the Future

You Know Who asks,

In Back To The Future (the first movie), Marty McFly (for sake of this question, Marty I) goes back in time to 1955, spends a week there, alters the past, and returns to 1985 just in time to save his friend, the inventor Doc Brown. When he returns to 1985, Marty I gets there just in time to see himself (let's say Marty II) driving the time machine around go back in time to 1955 after escaping from the Libyans. Now Marty II grew up in the altered universe created by the changes that Marty I made in 1955 -- when Marty I goes home, his family is well off, his father is a successful author, he's got a big new truck, etc., all the fine trappings that Marty II grew up with.

So what happened to Marty II? He went back to 1955, but when did he return? Is he still in 1955? Did Marty I replace Marty II? Was that fair, moral, and just? Marty II, having had a different childhood than Marty I, would not necessarily know to do the things that Marty I (perhaps) already did in 1955 to alter history and get his parents to meet since he was never aware they had any problems to begin with. Does he go and watch Marty I do them himself? Does he encounter Marty I when he returns to the same place and time as he did (presuming the flux capacitor is set to the same date/time?)

In the Second Movie, Marty I goes back to 1955 again and watches himself at some distance do the things he did in the first movie - where's Marty II? The guy he's watching doing these things is clearly Marty I from the first movie, and not well-adjusted Marty II. Marty II has not somehow rejoined his own life, since it is clear that it is Marty I who is now enjoying Marty II's sportin' lifestyle at the start of the Second Movie.
Very interesting question.

First, let's talk a little bit about time. Think about the sort of trail that a moving object leaves in a time-lapse photograph tracing out its trajectory. We could extend that notion to an object in real life leaving a trail behind it as it moves (I'll assume this concept is not foreign to you). If we view all of space and time as one big spacetime, then a person's path through spacetime is a person-shaped tube. We call that the person's worldline. When you bump into someone, your worldlines intersected.

The length along your worldline is the time you experience. Say you are playing hockey and someone bumps into you sending you into the boards. The distance measured along your worldline between the points where your worldline intersected your opponent and the point where your worldline intersected the wall is the time it took between the two events. That time is absolute and we call it the observer's "proper time".

Now we can talk about the time between two events. It turns out that we can only say in an absolute sense that one is later than the other if it is possible to send a light signal from one to the other; if not, then different observers will place them in different time orders. Those that have an absolute time order are called causally related because what happens at one can cause something at the other.

The universe is the set of all events, that is, places at a time. Our worldine is comprised of al the places at a time that we have been. What is interesting about time travel scenarios, like we see in Back to the Future, is two things:

First, that you have a person whose worldline touches two events E1 and E2 which have an absolute time order such that E2 is objectively later than E1, but which are experienced by the person in the opposite order. For example, Marty sees his parents meet after he was born, but of course, the birth had to have come first. This means that Marty's worldline not only curves in a way it shouldn't, but also that it is experienced as smooth, but has a discontinuity in it. His worldline stops and then starts up somewhere else, but his sense of proper time is undisturbed.

Second, those two events are causally related, meaning that what happens at one can effect what happens at the other. As a result, and this is where all the paradoxes are generated, what the person does at E1 could cause events at E2 to be radically different or not to have happened at all.

Marty's brain has the state it does, he remembers what he does because of his interactions with the universe. Each of us is in some sense a partial record of what has happened to us. What is peculiar in the film is that when things conspire to create a quite different future in the single existing universe, he loses material aspects (photos begin to fade, muscle control fails), but his memory, which is also a physical manifestation of his personal past which is the supposedly soon to be different future does not.

Since the universe is the set of all events, by changing events Marty could be seen as having created a different universe. Marty I at the time he wakes up in his clothes is in one universe whereas Marty II when he wakes up in his clothes on a parallel day at a parallel time is occupying a different universe, yet he is in the new universe with a brain that bears the marks of experience from either a universe which doesn't exist (which is problematic as something that does not exist cannot have physical ramifications) or a different universe. If we demand consistency and say it is a different universe, then we have a sense of time, Marty's proper time, that exists outside of spacetime, but time is supposed to be something which is an aspect of spacetime. Therein lays one aspect of the weirdness.

John Doe and the Language of Film

71 asks,

From where do the pseudonyms John Doe and Jane Doe originate?
They seem to come from the need to make legal records public while still allowing for anonymity or the inability to name a legally relevant person (or body thereof). The Oxford English Dictionary has references to "John Doe" and "Richard Roe" going back as far as Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1768, although even the reference there makes it seem as if the names were widely used in legal circles.

What is interesting here for philosophy of language geeks is that "John Doe" is one name that actually is synonymous with a definite description. John Doe is the person whose body was found floating in the river.

Jeff Maynes asks,
Is film a language? I just saw a fascinating talk on this yesterday at a grad conference by a student at UMD, arguing that film had a syntax (and suggesting a semantics). I'm skeptical about the semantic bit, but it seemed like a real question with potential.
there are a number of people doing good work here and I am inclined to say yes. Not only do we interpret cinematographic sequences in the same sort of way that we interpret well formed formulas in a spoken language, but we can run into the same formalist issues. We can, for example, generate something akin to Epimenides' liar paradox. Consider the end of Blazing Saddles, in which the fight between the horde of bad guys and all the town folks spills off the set and into LA proper. The bad guy, Hedey Lamar (that's Hedley), Hedley, tells a taxi driver to drive him off the film. He goes to Grauman's Chinese theater to watch the very film he's in, so that he is now in a film in which he is not in watching the film he's currently both in and not in. But then he comes to see that good sheriff Bart is outside the theater, meaning that statements about the film he wasn't in were true of the frame of the film he was in. We now have "talk" in the film that about the film he wasn't supposed to be in. this is exactly the sort of violation that Russell's theory of types was designed to stop in talking about meta-mathematics. Mel Brooks, Kurt Godel, pretty much the same thing. Since the issues that Russell are concerned with are explicitly linguistic and we have problems of the same form in film, it seems reasonable to argue that film is a language.

Coming attractions: tomorrow, Back to the Future, time, and possible universes. When will then be now?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What is Sex?

Let's try "Things I Unsuccessfully Sought in College" for $400, Alex.

StudentA, on behalf of Aspazia's Philosophy of Mind class asks,

"What is the definition of sex?/What is sex?"
In deference to my dear blog friends pm and R. Porter, I believe that this was not a request for pointers, although I suppose there is space provided for comments with these posts for a reason...

The Naive View

When we ask for a definition of anything, we are asking for a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. A is a necessary condition for B if B requires A -- that is, no A, no B. A is sufficient for B if A, by itself, is enough to bring about B -- that is, A, then necessarily B. If A is necessary and sufficient for B then whenever you have A, you have B and whenever you don't have A, you don't have B. This is what we want in defining characteristics. So the question is "what would be a necessary and sufficient condition for sex?"

As I understand it, someone in the class posited what we will call the received or naive view that the definition of sex is penetration of a penis into a vagina. A fine starting point (for the discussion, that is, in other cases foreplay would be needed). The question now is whether this is either a necessary or sufficient condition. Let's start with necessity.

If this is necessary, then an interesting thing happens -- questions about the morality of gay sex are rendered moot because now gay sex becomes impossible. This is not a definitive counter-example, that is, it does not rule out the naive view as failing to be a necessary condition, but it should give us the intuition that something here is problematic. Let's see if we can flesh out this intuition by asking whether you can have sex without intercourse.

We do refer to genital stimulation by mouth as "oral sex" and rectal penetration as "anal sex." It does seem odd to say that acts that are standardly referred to using the term "sex" are not sex, but one could argue that the use of the term is metaphorical, not literal. We could call this defense of the naive view, the "Newt Gingrich defense" because in the 1995 Vanity Fair article "The Inner Quest of Newt Gingrich," Anne Manning, a former mistress of the former House majority leader said,
"We had oral sex," Manning revealed. "He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.'"
We can reasonably take the phrase "slept with her" to be synonymous with "had sex with her," so the claim is that oral sex is not real sex.

Every single one of my critical thinking students ought to see the word "real" in that sentence and immediately think of the fallacy (although in this context, I suppose it could also be labelled a "phallusy") question-begging definition. This reasoning error consists in taking a term as it is commonly used and redefining it in such a way that a seemingly empirical claim becomes true by definition. Is that the case here? Is Gingrich's definition intentionally non-standard or is the term ambiguous in this way.

There is no doubt that vaginal sex is linguistically privileged. There certainly are contexts in which "sex" refers only to heterosexual intercourse, something inherent in, if not causally traceable back to, the commodification and fetishization of female virginity. A woman is seen in some social contexts as more desirable or valuable as a potential wife if she is a virgin, in other words, has not had sex, and it is not an absurdly idiosyncratic use to limit this to exclusively vaginal intercourse. In other words, one could argue that the crude utterance, "Sure she's given a few blowjobs, but she is still a virgin" is not self-inconsistent, it is not a contradiction in the way, "Sure he's had a few affairs, but he's not an adulterer" is.

So while there is reason to take the naive view as explicating one common usage, the term "sex" is clearly ambiguous. Indeed, the reason Gingrich wanted to have only oral sex was so that he could utter "I didn't have sex with that woman" and have it both be true in some sense of the sentence and yet give rise to a belief in his listeners different from that which renders the sentence true. Gingrich was guilty of equivocation as well as adultery.

So, in the most standard usage of the term "sex," penis/vagina penetration is not necessary, it is too narrow a condition because it excludes acts that ought to fall within the extension of the term. We need to have a condition that captures everything that is to be included in the extension -- yes, for analytic philosophers, size matters.

But while a condition can be too narrow, it can also be too broad. Is this the case with the naive view? This brings us to the question of the sufficiency of the naive view. Heterosexual intercourse may not be necessary for sex, but is it sufficient? In other words, is it possible that one could have penis/vagina penetration and not have sex?

There are meaningful utterances like, "We didn't have sex, we made love." But here, it seems that the initial clause is best understood not as a denial of having had sex, but as a denial of merely having had sex, that the act was not only physical penetration, but an emotional or spiritual connection as well. So this doesn't undermine the sufficiency claim.

We would need to consider limiting cases. One possible line of attack on the sufficiency of the naive view could be the necessity of intent. Could it be said that two people did not have sex if the penetration was accidental? To posit a hypothetical case, suppose two people of different sexes were sleepwalking nude while having arousing dreams and simultaneously tripped over unseen objects on the floor causing them to fall against each other thereby resulting in the slightest bit of penetration. If the fall suddenly awoke both parties and they saw what accidentally ended up where, would they have to say that they had had sex? I don't know. What do you think?

Alternate conditions

So, if the naive view is not necessary, and possibly not sufficient, what takes it place? The obvious suggestion is genital stimulation. Is this necessary and sufficient?

It seems necessary. It successfully differentiates sex from other intimate personal behaviors such as passionate kissing, heavy petting, hickey-creation, stimulation of generally inaccessible regions like breasts, thighs, and wings.

But sufficiency fails quickly. Masturbation, for example, would then fall in the category and while it is an act sexual in nature, it doesn't seem to be something we want to include. If one were to claim to have had sex every night and yet had been alone all of those evenings, surely one would not, and should not, receive the expected lauding of his prowess.

We need to broaden the condition, perhaps to mutual genital stimulation. Here, there are necessity concerns. For example, in the case of oral or anal sex, one partner may not have his or her nether regions stimulated (although it is standardly considered polite), yet we want to say there is sex. So the definition needs to be broader still.

Let's try, genital stimulation of one person by another. But now we run into sufficiency problems, we're overly broad now because of cases of accidental stimulation.

So, let's include intent. Sex is intentional stimulation of someone's genitalia by another. Again, this seems too broad because we could imagine intentional genital stimulation for non-sexual reasons such as medical diagnosis, for example.

We need to make the intent more direct, say, intentional genital stimulation for the purpose of gratification. This would require a definition then be given for the vague term "gratification." But there are cases in which there is sex, but the intent is not gratification. Anyone who has had a hard time conceiving will know that scenario well. Sex for impregnation is not necessarily sex for gratification, but yet, it is to be considered sex.

To be honest, not sure exactly where to take it from there. Analytic philosophy gets fun when it gets tricky like this. Maybe we're beating around the wrong bush here and there is no necessary and sufficient condition. Might we be looking at something that is more a term whose meaning comes from what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance"? Is "sex" like "game" in that there is not a single necessary and sufficient condition for everything that falls under it, but that there is a set of conditions and you can have some, but not all and still be in the extension? Dunno, but I think we'll leave off at this point having made it abundantly clear why philosophy courses don't have lab sections. And also having made it abundantly clear why Continental philosophers got more dates... sigh.