Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sex Segregation in Sport

Richard over at Philosophy, etc. has an interesting post questioning sex segregation in sports.

Is there a principled reason why men and women compete separately in sports? Presumably it allows women to compete who wouldn't stand a chance otherwise. But there are many groups of people who don't stand a chance against the world's top athletes. We don't have a separate Olympic division to accommodate non-African sprinters, for example, in addition to non-male ones. So why is sex the relevant way to categorize people here?
You do see some competitive activities where both sexes compete as equals, car racing, horse racing, and poker, for example.

Now, we do categorize according to other properties sometimes. In boxing and wrestling, there are weight classes, for example. The heavyweight champion would be a likely favorite over the welterweight champ, but the weight classes are necessarily viewed hierarchically in the same way that division I athletics is a stronger league than division III. The difference is more one of style, with the different weight classes, there are different aspects of the sport that get stressed.

I could see the argument being made that in some cases it is the same with sex. In figure skating or gymnastics, for example, body type gives rise to different sorts of athletes who do different sorts of routines. Comparing across types would generate an odd sort of incongruity, so it makes sense to keep them separate. In some cases, the separate communities have turned into different sports, like geographically isolated biological communities evolving into separate species. Men's and women's lacrosse, and baseball and softball are example.

This argument has been rejected in dog judging competitions where beagles compete against beagles, but somehow, they then determine whether the champion beagle is a better beagle than the champion Schnauzer is a better Schnauzer in order to be best in show. I've always thought such decisions bizarre in an apples and oranges sort of way, however.

You might also be able to make this sort of argument for sports like golf and basketball where the women's game uses a different tee box or a different sized ball. There, the games are similar, although the play does tend to focus more on finesse than strength where strength can be a significant advantage.

But then there are cases where the games are not different even though strength can be an advantage. In 1934, a woman named Jackie Mitchell pitched for a minor league team in Chattanooga, Tennessee and in an exhibition game with the Yankees, she struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The following year, a rule was put in place to keep women out of professional baseball. This is the sort of instance that seems problematic. Are women at a disadvantage in a game created by men that stresses advantages that come with a man's body? Yes. But why would that explicitly rule out their participation? It may be a hurdle to success, but why should that become legislated discrimination?

And then there are those cases, like billiards, where the difference seem to make little difference. In these cases, the separation seems utterly unsupportable. Why not allow cross-gender competition where it seems that the two are on a level playing field?

So, is there a good reason to keep the sexes separate in sport?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Not So Deep Tautologies

Hanno and I have written a couple of articles on how tautologies, sentences like "It's raining or it's not," can be used in conversation meaningfully. Since a tautology is always true, yes it is either raining or it isn't, it tells you nothing about weather, it is vacuous. But we use them all the time in ways in which they are not meaningless, for example, "Boys will be boys," "First thing first," or A: "Do you want this old machine or a brand new super fast one?" B: "For me, a computer is a computer." We took one category of what we termed "deep tautologies" and worked out the way conversational context gives the tautological utterance meaning. The key to the listener unraveling the speaker's intended meaning was that it was that it was obviously a tautology, obviously a sentence that has no meaning of its own and therefore, as the great philosopher of language H. P. Grice pointed out, it was a violation of the basic principles of conversational cooperation and thus a signal to the listener that the meaning requires an inference, what he called an implicature in order to understand why someone cooperating in the conversation would say something that appears unhelpful or meaningless.

But recently I've become fascinated by a group of expressions that are hidden tautologies, sentences that say nothing, but appear be actual meaningful contributions and I am wondering why we use them. Consider this exchange that I've heard more than once:

Waiter: "How spicy do you want it?"
Diner: "I don't like it too spicy."
Hairstylist: "How much should I take off?"
Customer": "I don't want it too short."
In both cases, the response seems meaningful, but it isn't. What does "too spicy" mean? It means "spicier than I like it." So, what the person really said is, "I don't like what I don't like," and has given the waiter absolutely no guidance in the level of spiciness desired.

I suppose it might be intended to rule out the extreme, but even here it gives no indication where the extreme is located which was the information requested by the asker.

Yet, you hear these disguised tautologies frequently. Why the linguistic evasiveness? Do they mean something that I'm just not picking up on and if so, what? Where deep tautologies are contributions to the conversation that are shaped like sentences that don't make a contribution, these seem like contributions, but really aren't. Is it a psychological/social thing where we don't want to seem unadventurous, so we hedge? Or is there an actual meaning that I'm missing here?

Monday, October 29, 2007

City Planning and Ethics

I have to give a talk today to the Pennsylvania Planners Association which is meeting in Gettysburg this year. They have an annual gathering, and there is a code of ethics that gets a panel discussion each session. They like to bring in a philosopher to these things and I got the invitation this time around.

So, it has had me thinking about the relation of our human designed spaces to human flourishing. I grew up in an apartment in the suburbs, but I now live on a farm. I grew up with the advantages of having kids everywhere, touch football games in the grassy area right out back, a playground that you could walk to. My kids, on the other hand, have the advantages of wide open space -- a treehouse was not an option for me. They can walk out their door and pick apples, see deer, herons, geese, fox, skunk, raccoon, animals I knew only from picture books. They have a lived connection with nature.

The area around us is being developed at a frightening pace, McMansions sprouting up like dandelions on a lawn that is not part of the chemically treated three square inches between McMansions. Not too far away we see some of the "town center" type development where homes are being built around fabricated shopping areas with restaurants that sport lots of cafe style outdoor seating. The notion of community being designed back into suburban living, albeit based on a model of community as consumers.

How does the area you live in resemble and differ from where you grew up and what are the advantages and disadvantages for living a good life?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Comedist Evangelism

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is time to put the word in the streets. Other religions may try to bring the good news, but we alone bring the funny pages. So, this weekend we are evangelizing, we are seeking converts, we are going to establish the Comedist brand in the marketplace of contemporary worship options.

Tired of your old religion? Your dogmatic beliefs getting gray and dingy? We put Comedism under one arm and another religion under the other, let's which one smells better. I can't believe I swallowed the whole swallowed it, Ralph. This couple at a fancy restaurant doesn't realize that we've switched their regular theistic faith for Comedism, let's see what they think. Come take the Comedist challenge. When you compare your old religion to Comedism, you'll see why so many of your friends and neighbors have already made the switch:

Mainline Christianity
In their services you get a cracker and a sip of wine, Comedist services come with mozzarella sticks and a two drink minimum.

Their sacred language: Latin. Our sacred language: Pig Latin.

Jehovah's Witness
When we go knock-knock and someone says "Who's there?" it's not always followed by (under breath) Shit. (with a fake, forced smile) No thank you. (slams door)

Radical Evangelical Christianity
Their picture of heaven includes Jerry Falwell preaching fire and brimstone sermons; ours does too, only with Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary from Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison.

Comedists – lots of mother-in-law jokes, Mormons – lots of mothers-in-law

We won't give you crap about dating a shiksa.

Mainline Islam
Since there can't be Comedist fundamentalists, you don't have to spend all your time explaining that those people don't really understand your religion.

Radical Islam
When we bomb, no one gets hurt; when we kill, the people we do it to are actually happier.

Buddhism: Life is suffering; Comedism: Carrot Top...o.k., six of one, half dozen of the other...

Unitarian Universalism
You can still believe whatever the hell you want, only we let you sleep in on Sundays, too.

On the bright side, you get to keep Carlin; on the brighter side, you get to give up Hitchens.

Our religion is about jokes instead of being one.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Straw Feminists Are Scary, Real Ones...Not So Much

Over at Sweating Through Fog, there's an interesting post that argues for a simple foundational flaw underlying feminism. He begins by responding to Peggy MacIntosh's widely read list of "Daily Effects of Male Privilege" with his own list of Female Privilege. Then, he argues that the exercise is silly because

"in some circles, the admission of privilege is an implicit acceptance of the validity of an ideological view of the world that slots people into categories. Whether it is the fight of feminism against patriarchy, the fight of marginalized peoples against western white oppression, or the latest addition, the fight of transgender people against - and I plead willful ignorance of some of these post-modern nuances - against social constructions of gender, heternormativity ... whatever.

All of these ideologies have one thing in common - they slot people into fixed categories of relative value, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing. People with privilege lineage are innately evil; people with victim lineage are innocent. The views of anyone with privilege lineage are deeply suspect, because they lack what is called "epistemic knowledge" - a valid standpoint from which to make any value judgments.

So yes I do have privilege - the privilege of rejecting all these confining, myopic ideologies that claim to tell me the right and proper view of every social exchange. Ideologies that sometimes lead to vicious fanaticism. I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theatre that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice."
This argument is worth responding to because it includes many widely held misperceptions about feminism that can be clearly spelled out in order to explain the mistakes. Once one understands what feminism is, these simple critiques can be seen to be obviously faulty.

Feminists themselves often hamper the effort to quell misunderstandings in responding to the question "What is feminism?" with the question, "Whose feminism?" On one hand, this answer is perfectly fair in that feminism is often wrongly thought to be a monolithic intellectual movement whereby it can be asserted that "All feminists think X" which for any non-trivial X is, of course, false. There are knock down drag outs in the feminist intellectual community, there are disagreements about methodology and foundational tenets, there is an evolving on-going conversation, not a static set of dogmatic postulates to which one must swear allegiance. But, at the same time, there certainly are a couple of distinctive aspects that locate arguments within the realm of contemporary feminist thought and to spell these out clearly would go a long way to countering some of the knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on misunderstanding.

Contrary to his later comment, the list of Female Privilege is an interesting list and there are surely other items that can be added. But the idea that one could compile such a list in no way threatens or undermines feminist claims, indeed, it supports them. One of the standard confusions is conflating political action undermining gender bias in our economic, social, and political institutions with feminist thought. These are two different things. Surely, part of the feminist intellectual project is to expose such injustices and explore their sources, ramifications, and possible means of rectification, and it is also true that once you bring an injustice to light there emerges a moral imperative to correct it, but the political acts of changing the system are different from the intellectual acts of finding and making sense of them. The claim that "people with privilege lineage are innately evil," according to academic feminist scholars is simply false. It is true that some like Andrea Dworkin argue that people with privilege will sometimes do evil things to protect it, but that's an empirical claim that seems pretty well substantiated and a far cry from the strawman offered.

The flip side of this is the caricature that feminism is mere belly-aching about how much women have it worse and by showing how they have it better in some cases is a direct assault on the project. But Sweating Through the Fog is not original in working out the ways in which the present system, despite the hurdles, also offers advantages to women. Indeed, there is a significant strand of third-wave feminism that does exactly that as well. Allowing that there are deep ways in which women are disadvantaged by how things are set up does not mean that there are not also ways that smart, enterprising people will find to turn the system to their advantage. Pointing these things out is very much in line with current feminist analysis, not antithetical to it. Of course, women are clever enough to often figure out how to make lemonade out of lemons, but any celebration of their ingenuity does not mean they weren't, in fact, lemons. Further, these scholars also point out ways in which women take advantage of patriarchy, ways in which illicit advantage can be secured. The claim that "people with victim lineage are innocent" is a widely shared view amongst feminist scholars is simply not the case. Have there been some who have tried to make that move? Sure. But like in any other intellectual community, if someone tries to oversimplify reality, there is a scholar just waiting to take him or her to task.

To be honest, I've always thought MacIntosh's framing of list a bit odd. Many of the items are not really privileges, but lacks of oppression. Much of what it points out are injustices that are not heaped upon men. In the same way, Sweating Through the Fog's list contains a number of items that really express ways that men are disadvantaged by the current social arrangement. Again, this does not undermine feminist arguments, but is very much in line with orthodox, mainstream work in the field starting with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 19th century and proceeding through contemporary writers, even male pro-feminist scholars like Alan Johnson and Michael Kimmel, who explore the ways in which power imbalance harms all involved. Maintaining an unfair system will taint everyone involved and it's no surprise to people who think deeply about it (i.e., feminists) that an unjust system brings about injustices even for those who tend to benefit more indeed they've spent centuries explaining how and why this is so.

But the argument for the rejection of the list brings about the big misunderstanding, "they slot people into fixed categories of relative value, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing." Three things here that need unpacking, (1) fixed categories, (2) relative value, (3) the supposed contradiction. Let's take them one at a time.

Do feminists slot people into fixed categories? Some do, some don't. In some of the writings of the 70s and 80s, you'll find folks like Carol Gilligan, Sarah Ruddick, and Nel Noddings do argue that there are natural properties that tend to be more associated with one sex. Other writers, like Catharine MacKinon and Luce Irigaray argue that the slots are socially constructed. Many, many others take issue with the existence of slots at all and seek to show that the notions of sex and gender are so complex that they resist any attempts at categorizing neatly. This is one of those fun places where smart people disagree and real work is done.

Are categories of people given relative values? This is a way of framing the old idea that feminism is about male bashing, man hating, or showing that women are better. Are there some feminists who hate men? Probably. Are there some feminists who hate calamari? Probably, but that doesn't make the intellectual project about squid bashing. That's just not what is done in the literature.

Next, we come to the purported hypocrisy of doing what they accuse others of doing. Feminism is not about replacing injustice with injustice. It is not about diminishing the humanity of anyone. It's about unearthing the ways our traditional understanding of gender has unknowingly shaped beliefs in places we may not have realized and figuring out what more apt understanding of gender ought to replace it. This hardly seems like hypocrisy.

But it's the conclusion that warrants the closest discussion. "I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theatre that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice." It's the old, I'll just treat people like people. Just like the "let's not quibble over how we got into this mess in Iraq, let's just focus on what to do from here" canard, the idea is that somehow the history, the context, and the failures and injustices of the past have nothing to tell us about the details of the situation that we need to know to move forward successfully.

Here is the one major point where Sweating Through Fog does radically disagree with the core of feminist thought and the one place where we really can explicitly set out that characteristic which is essential to feminist thought. Feminism begins with the acceptance of the existence of sociological facts involving sex and gender. They may disagree about what these facts are, how to determine them, where they come from, what they mean, and whether and/or how to change them. But the entire tradition is founded on the central claim that our concept of gender and our beliefs about it play a role in what else we believe, how we behave, and the how we design our social institutions, and what we see from Sweating Through the Fog is a denial of the existence of, or at least a sweeping under the rug of, sociological facts. It's the conservative/libertarian move I've called "limiting the scope of discussion." Sociological facts are ignored and the scope of discussion is limited strictly to the personal. It's the gender version of Stephen Colbert's "I don't see race." We deny that broader influences play any role in our understanding of the world by forcing the conversation to focus on "personal responsibility."

But, of course, these broader influences are real. Their content may be hard wired, it may be empirically-based, or it may be socially constructed. There are socially constructed facts. "A twenty-one year old in the US can legally drink alcohol," is a fact. There is nothing biological that happens on midnight of the 21st anniversary of one's birth, but according to an arbitrary statute a created status is conferred upon 21 year olds that is not afforded to 20 year olds. We created the status and the law that gives it to some and not others. We could change it if we choose. Some of these sociological facts are like this. Are all facts socially constructed? No. Do ones that we wouldn't suspect, have socially constructed presuppositions? Yes. Which ones? Good question.

But regardless of the answer to this question, there are ways in which we are deeply, but subtly influenced by our understanding of gender and this is not the result of ideology, but an empirical fact demonstrable in all sorts of ways by social scientists. Given this, the feminist project then becomes a search for these facts, the ramifications of them, and questions about how to alter our social institutions and social structures to correct for injustices that follow from them. When we see feminism for what it is and don't wall off real facts about the world, it turns out to be a whole lot less scary than the evil bogeyperson too often made of it.

A Health Care Question: Is the System Intentionally Set Up for Errors?

There are many things to complain about with our health care system, but there's one aspect that doesn't get as much discussion that I've been thinking about recently. Based on purely anecdotal evidence, it seems to me that an unexpectedly large number of claims are wrongly rejected because of problems with the paperwork, whether its a wrong code, the wrong person listed as the policy holder, a data entry error or any number of other missteps somewhere between the doctors office and the insurance company.

The rejections are often the result of a human error somewhere along the way and if one is diligent in working through the intimidating looking form full of seemingly meaningless numerical codes, the mistake can be found. Then, if you have the time, patience, and sheer force of will to negotiate the phone tree and call back a couple of times until you get someone at the insurance company who will work with you and not merely dismiss you, you can get it sorted out. TheWife has become an expert in negotiating these shark infested waters.

But, she is educated and detail oriented, has the ability to carve out a block of time to take care of it, is not insecure about asking questions and making the person on the other end explain exactly what is happening at each step in the process, and willing to call back to get another person if the one she is talking to seems to not fully understand what he or she is talking about or appears to be unhelpful for any reason. I find it incredible to think that we are that much of an anomaly in terms of number of errors and since the vast majority of people do not possess all of the necessary characteristics for successfully working through these matters, my guess is that there are a significant number of legitimate claims not paid by insurance companies because people who pay large premiums wrongly believe that their health care costs were rightly rejected. And, interestingly, he mistakes strangely always appear to benefit the insurer.

Things have only gotten worse now that a number of our health care providers have begun farming out their billing adding an extra middleman to the whole process. As one learns from the accountant's version of Ockham's razor, the more hands a bill goes through, the more likely it is to get kicked back.

So the question is whether this is intentional and if so, whether it is intentionally intentional. The complexity of our current system of private insurance has created a situation in which error is likely to occur which means there are four possibilities:

(1) The insurance companies are simply unaware that this system works to their undeserved advantage and being unaware do nothing about it.

(2) The insurance companies are aware of it, but are unable to do anything about it because it is necessarily complex for reasons particular to insurance and it just happens to be a lucky coincidence for them that it works out that way and, oh well, that's just how the S-CHIPs fell.

(3) The system arose out of a process of ad hoc modifications that have built up over the years and unintentionally turned the process into a Frankenstein, insurance companies are aware of the problem and could restructure the system if they really wanted, but that would cost them money and since the system as is adds to their bottom line, it is left in place out of benign (malicious) neglect because there is no incentive for them to change it.

(4) The system was intentionally designed so that there would be a number of wrongly rejected claims in order to slant the playing field to benefit the insurers. If the consumer takes "caveat emptor" seriously and catches the mistake then has the skill and patience to work through the labyrinth, the error will be corrected, but the barriers at each step guarantee that a certain additional percentage will get screened off. This process was designed by the insurance companies to benefit the insurance companies.

So, which is it?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blogs and Citations

So I get an e-mail the other day from someone asking very politely if he could have permission to translate one of my posts into French and put it on his blog. I responded as I usually do to such requests, saying no problem and feel free to reprint anything at any time from the Playground if you find it interesting.

It got me thinking about reprinting and blogs. To be honest, I would have had no problem if he had just done it without asking permission at all. Every once in a while things pop up elsewhere that someone thought relevant to some conversation they've been having at their place and I always find it amusing and intriguing to see what posts from the hundreds I've put up people pull out. Last week, it was the philosophers and fashion one that a few big ol' blogs connected to a recent article demanding law profs to dress better. It was a fun, silly piece and I didn't think anyone really read it, but next thing I know it's on Andrew Sullivan of all places.

Now, if it had been a professional paper of mine that he wanted to reprint, then not asking would have made me uncomfortable (even aside from the copyright issues with the journals). In my own mind, there is a difference between my research and my blog posts, even those that deal with similar topics. The question I've been wrestling with is what really is the difference.

It doesn't seem to be a plagiarism issue. I have no problem whatsoever if someone uses the idea of "cage and frame" without attribution. It would be one thing to claim to have come up with the idea himself and try to get credit for it, that steps over the line, but once the idea is out there, it's out there for anyone to do with what they will. A link would be nice, but I'm not sure if that is for intellectual honesty or the vanity of more traffic. Although, if someone puts up the full text of a post, that does seem to warrant a link.

I have two possible explanations: (1) The articles take much, much, much more effort and require a degree of carefulness that would destroy a good blog post where some slippery ambiguity leaves interesting openings for discussion. This is not necessarily universal. The citizen journalism pieces over at e Pluribus Media, for example, take a lot of investigative, writing, and editing time. As much as an article. So, perhaps they fall in a different category or undermine this point altogether. (2) A professional paper and a blog post seem to be different sorts of acts with different goals. A published article is an attempt to make progress on a philosophical issue of interest to an academic community. A blog post is an attempt to start a good conversation with whomever shows up. In a published piece of philosophy they are MY views and MY insights that I am making the case for and showing the ramifications of. In a blog post I'm often thinking through a position I'm half convinced of or toying with an idea I think nifty but not necessarily important or right and want to see what other playful minds would think of it.

So, should the same sort of citation ethic apply to both blog posts and published articles, are they different and if so, why?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bullshit or Not: Descartes 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." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an regular series of posts.

This week, it's the opening passage of Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method. It's one of my favorite Descartes quotations, in part because I've never been sure how seriously to take it.

The most widely shared thing in the world is good sense, for everyone thinks he is so well provided with it that even those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else do not usually desire to have more good sense than they have. In this matter it is not likely that everyone is wrong. But this is rather a testimony to the fact that the power of judging well and distinguishing what is true from what is false, which is really what we call good sense or reason, is naturally equal in all men, and thus the diversity of our opinions does not arise because some people are more reasonable than others, but only because we conduct our thoughts by different routes and do not consider the same things.
So, is this Enlightenment idea of humans as pretty much equally rational legit? Is the spread more significant than Descartes lets on? Descartes' thesis here is the antithesis of The Bell Curve; so if Descartes is handing us bullshit, is it a random distribution? Is it affected by sociological factors?

As usual, feel free to leave comments ranging from a single word to a dissertation. So...bullshit or not?

You Don't Know Jack...Kerouac, That Is

Guest post from Gary today:

Been reading a new book, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think), by John Leland. In it, he argues for a reading of On the Road as not only an adult coming-of-age novel, but as one which purposefully promotes a certain kind of maturity. This of course flies in the face of the book’s established status as a mid-century icon of American hedonism and resistance to authority. As Leland writes:

“’My writing is a teaching,’ Kerouac noted in his journal, and this was the point, even if readers didn’t get it at first. “One of the greatest incentives of the writer is the long business of getting his teachings out and accepted.” He was twenty-six when he started On the Road, shaking off a brief failed marriage and the death of his father, embarking on the next phase of his life. The new book would teach the way. To prepare, he wrote down eleven ‘true thoughts’ about himself, many of them vanities he hoped to overcome along his characters’ travels. ‘I’m ready to grow up if they’ll let me,’ he wrote. The product of his labors, he was sure, would be a ‘powerful and singularly gloomy book…but good.’ In due course the narrator learns and dispenses many lessons, often in the form of parables and revelations, providing a guide to alternative adulthood: What would Jack do? Contrary to its rebel rep, On the Road is not about being Peter Pan; it is about becoming an adult.”
“A guide to alternative adulthood”! I like this phrase, though I am tempted to think, with what I have read so far, that Leland wants to have his cake and eat it too, and might simplify too much. All great artists (and Kerouac was that), are a mass of tensions and contradictions, maturities and immaturities.

The book does amass one of the best collections of unusual (b-side, if you will) quotes, from Kerouac and friends. A sampling of the cornucopia of quotes:
The fact of the matter is, I’m not a bestseller because people aren’t educated enough yet: just wait and see what the Astronauts of the Year 2,000 B.C. [sic] will be reading on Venus and Mars (‘t’wont be James Michener). Letter to Stella Sampas, 1965

I don’t know how to drive, just typewrite. Letter to N. Cassady, 1953.

I’ll have seen 41 states in all. Is that enough for an American novelist? Letter to sister, 1947.

The things I write are what an editor usually throws away and what a psychiatrist finds most interesting. Remark to SF Examiner, 1957.

You fluctuate, and fluctuate beautifully—fluctuation is your virtue. Cassady to Kerouac.

On one occasion, when she [K’s mother] said in Ginsberg’s presence that Hitler should have finished the job, he [Ginsberg] recalled, “[Jack] said her, ‘You dirty cunt, why did you say that?’ and she said, ‘You fucking prick, you heard me say that before.’ And then began an argument of such violence and filth I had never heard in any household in my life. I was actually shocked.”
He never had a beard in his life, although I think he’d be better off myself if he had one. K’s mother to Al Aronowitz, 1959.
Whew! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The book is filled with such tidbits, and worth reading. It begs the question, though, of how could Kerouac and OTR have lasted this long without giving us more than pure hedonism. Those of us who obsessed about the man in our younger days—and also read him and all about him—have always been aware of his raw luck in tapping into the Zeitgeist and his combo of luck and talent in surrounding himself with characters whose lives could be told and triaged to fascinate us all. The power of this book is that it’s one of the quirkier, yet clear (and relatively short!) reads on Kerouac that’s ever been done. And check out Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris in the 10/26 issue. Harris laments the omnipresence of the “Peter Pan paradigm” in current popular culture, concluding that the lead character in AMC’s Mad Men, set in the 1960 world of NY advertising, is a “relic” and a “terrible role model. But in his struggle not to lose his soul, he is also, indisputably, a grown-up. No wonder he suddenly seems like the sexiest thing on television.” Kerouac would have been about the same age as that lead character in 1960. And he’s still influential and sexy (literally and figuratively) to each new generation, too. He didn’t hope he’d die before he got old, he just couldn’t help it. He fascinates us because his successes and failures were always wrapped together. He was indeed a boy-man (“Return to Neverland” is the title of Harris’ article), sometimes bumbling, sometimes barrel-chested.

Read Leland’s book; he generates new spokes in the Kerouacian wheel.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Funny Girl: Women and Comedy

Sisters, Brothers, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend's Comedist meditation focuses on women and comedy. Aspazia last week asked whether women have to not be women to be funny. She points to Kate Clinton who argues that there is deep seated sexism in the structure of professional comedy and a piece by Christopher Hitchens that considered gender expectations that lead to women having less latitude to be funny in social situations. She looks at Sarah Silverman's schtick and asks whether to get laughs, a woman has to become a man.

The question is complicated by the fact that there are at least three different issues here that need to be separated. (1) Is it harder for women to make a living at comedy and is this the result of sexism particular to the profession or just a manifestation of the sexism in the larger society, (2) Are professional female comedians generally considered less funny unless they perform men's routines, lose feminine characteristics, or cater their material to the sexist presuppositions in contemporary society?, and (3) for non-professionals, are women discouraged from being funny in normal social situations because of gendered social norms? These are three completely different questions and let's look at them one at a time.

Brick Wall/Glass Ceiling?

There is little doubt that male comedians greatly outnumber their female counterparts. Why is this the case? Is comedy a boys' club? No doubt. Is the path to success, a path that many start and few complete one that will seem less desirable for many women given the traditional gender notions we all are indoctrinated with because you have to do years in bars full of drunk men before you get a break and once you get on the circuit, you have to travel incessantly? Sure. The pressures that keep the percentages of women down in corporate positions and academia are there in spades in professional comedy, so it should be of little surprise that there are fewer female comedians. To get farther, they have to be funnier, want it more, and work harder. You will very rarely see more than one woman on an evening's bill at a comedy club unless it is designed to be a "women in comedy" night. The playing field is nowhere near level.

Can a Woman be a Funny Woman?

But while the profession clearly selects for male comedians over female in certain ways, I don't think that a female comedian can't be female or that she necessarily has to cater her material to the sexist undertow in contemporary society. One of the most viral videos right now is Anita Renfroe's version of the William Tell Overture sung with all the traditional mom-isms. Renfroe's routine is explicitly culturally conservative, yet it is widely linked to because it is just plain funny and speaks to the exasperation of middle class white women.

If you look not at stand-up, but at the other major comic vehicle of the day, sit-coms, Bill Maher is exactly right that the overwhelming majority look like Abbott and Costello with the woman as the smart, functional straight-woman and the man as a fat, bumbling idiot. The wives are modern women with careers who get punchlines that amount to "look how stupid you are, you typical contemporary white male."

Historically, there are some big, big women in comedy, Fanny Brice, Moms Mabley (hat tip to the righteous brother Helmut for the link), Gracie Allen, and Minnie Pearl in the first half of the 20th century, Phyllis Diller, Imogene Coca, and Anne Meara in the middle part of the century and in the troupe comedy of the 60s-80s, there were the likes of Joanne Worley, Lilly Tomlin, Gilda Radner, and Bonnie Hunt.

I think there is a point to be made that some of the big names of the last couple generations of female comedians played genderless -- Whoopie Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paula Poundstone, for example. But then, one could easily point to male counterparts who did similar sorts of routines and they were hardly "masculine" comedians. Funny comes in different types and the more cerebral, observational type humor tends to be less gendered.

There has been a wave of particularly female observation, story-telling, narrative based female comedians, especially those geared towards the experiences of working class women, e.g., Rosanne Barr and Brett Butler.

There is no doubt that there are well-worn slots that women comedians can easily fall into like the dizzy blonde like Gracie Allen or Goldie Hawn on Laugh In; or the heavy tell-it-like-it-is, in your face, loud-mouth like Shirley Hemphill or Rosie O'Donnell.

Sarah Silverman and others like Lisa Lampanelli, are doing the shock comedy bit where they take lines that no longer shock coming out the mouths of male comedians, but by playing on gender roles, still may have more pop coming out of the mouth of a female comedian.

Comedy is in part a matter of current social context and there will always be a residue of contemporary biases in what we find funny, but to say that a woman has to shed being a woman to be funny, strikes me as limiting given how many different sorts of female comedians there are and have been.

Can Women Be Funny?

This one's a sociological question and surely one that varies widely. I'm wondering if Hitchen's observations hold true for upper-class white society. I grew up around a bunch of smart, funny middle-class Jews where a zinger could come from any direction. But then there is a culture of having strong women who speak their minds. I wonder about contemporary African-American culture. Wouldn't surprise me if the norms relating to gender and comedy are different. This one, I'd love to hear anecdotal thoughts on.

Let's end with a couple great lines from women comedians:

Rita Rudner: I think men with earrings are particularly well suited to marriage, they've experienced pain and bought jewelry.

Ellen Degeneres: My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.

Rosanne Barr: Women complain about premenstrual syndrome, but I think of it as the only time of the month that I can be myself.
Your favorites?

Friday, October 19, 2007

When is Lying Lying?

A great post over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, in which Ed Brayton tells the following wonderful story:

About 10 or 12 years ago I was playing poker at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. At the table with me was an older gentleman from South Carolina and we got involved in a hand against one another. I check raised him on the river and he thought for several minutes before folding his cards. As I was stacking his chips he asked, "Did you have it?" I smiled and said, "Sorry, no. That was a bluff." He leaned back in his chair and in his deep southern drawl announced loudly, "Deceit has no place in the game of poker." The whole table cracked up.
(The rest of the post is worth a read, it's about religion and poker. Thou shalt knowest when to hold unto them and knoweth when to fold unto them.)

The question I want to pull out of this is one about lying. Lying is the act of trying to get someone else to believe something you believe to be false. In the game of poker, it is frequently the case that you want your opponent to be mistaken about the strength of your hand (or lack thereof) for your personal benefit.

But in the game of poker, misrepresenting your hand is part of playing the game. If you sit down with people looking to play and fail to do what you can to play well, you have violated the social contract and they will be right to be irritated that you are spoiling the game (although, in this case, if it means losing large sums of money to them, they may not mind quite so much). Because everyone is willingly and happily engaged in a game in which lying is accepted and expected, there is no moral problem. It is part of the game. That's why the old man's comment at the table was so funny. Of course, deceit has a place in the game of poker, indeed, it occupies the most central place.

But how far out does that go? When is deceit acceptable? There are, of course, many, many cases, but I want to see what examples fall in the poker category. When does the expectation of lying mitigate the moral problems with lying?

Consider the NPR game show "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me," which has a regular feature in which the three panelists tell outlandish stories, only one of which is true and the contestant has to guess which it is. Clearly, this falls in the poker category because by phoning in, the contestant agrees to the play the game and can't hold the two deceivers to have been doing anything wrong.

Is explicit consent the important thing? Suppose you haven't explicitly asked to be part of the game. Many of us have friends who are bullshitters. Like the panelists, they will construct false stories that sit right on the edge of credulity, bizarre, but just coherent enough that they might be true and are the sort of fun, interesting anecdotes one would tell at social occasions. the game is to see how far you will go before you call them on their bs. You never said, let's play "That's not true." "But I had you going." So we don't have the element of explicit agreement. Is this still in the poker category? It is still a game. By hanging out with your friend, whom you know does this sort of thing, is it an implicit agreement to play?

Now, suppose we go to a market in a part of the world where haggling is standard operating procedure. You know that the salesperson is going to be "playing the game," and anyone who doesn't haggle is a rube. The salesperson will claim that he couldn't possibly go lower on the price, that he has twelve children and a sick mother, he'll tell you he's giving you a steal that you couldn't get anywhere else. This is all part of the process. But it isn't a game. Is the expectation of deceit enough to mitigate the moral concerns? Does this fall in the poker category?

Suppose instead of a marketplace in a different country, it's a used car lot in the US. Still the same answer? Because our marketplace operates by different assumptions in which we do not accept deception as an acceptable part of the process, is there a cultural imperative that salespeople be honest even if we should know better than to trust a used car salesperson? You may be a rube to trust the used car salesman, but can we still hold the salesman morally culpable for what he tried to pull over on us? Is this case different because unlike the oranges you were buying in the above example, this is a lot of money and therefore a matter of degree that becomes a matter of kind? The marketplace, the friend, and the game show are all cases where nothing significant hangs on the deception. Do the consequences matter? Poker, on the other hand, can involve lots of money, so does that mean consequences are irrelevant? Or do consequences matter only when there is not an explicit acceptance of whatever consequences result?

How about in a court of law where a person who is guilty and knows he is guilty pleads innocent? Is that a lie? There is a difference between guilty as in "I did it" and guilty, the legal status. Due process has rules like a game and everyone, regardless of what you did or did not do, is entitled to a fair hearing. So, by pleading innocent to something you did, are you doing something morally wrong or is this another example in the poker category?

What is the operative factor that rules acts in or out of this category in which lying is ok?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Teaching and Teaching Research

A former colleague of mine, Dan Butin, has responded to a column written by Hugo Schwyzer (his blog is here) in Inside Higher Ed. In it, Schwyzer complains about having to sit through an "in-service education day," one of those meetings laced with buzzwords and catchphrases, where rah-rah cheerleading is used to tell faculty they need to change what they are doing and have always done. I am sympathetic to his concern. The presentations do often seem much like cheap sales pitches of whatever is fashionable, the sort of thing that management types with cheesy motivational posters would embrace.

At the same, time, however, Dan is dead on right. Amongst the faculty are scholars, good, rigorous researchers interested in absolutely every phenomenon under the sun, including how people learn. There are real scientists doing real science that has, like every other science, fascinating results that are counter-intuitive or challenge prevailing beliefs and practices. Few areas today are making the strides that we see in the study of the human brain. We are understanding how things work in ways we never did before and these new insights provide us with tools that would make us much more effective in creating students with knowledge, understanding, and insight.

But, we'll be damned, if we'll listen to them. We'll ridicule people for not buying into the science behind global warming or evolution, but advances in cognitive science that show us our own failings as teachers, fashionable nonsense, we declare without so much as a glance at the research results, methodologies, or ramifications.

College-level teachers are given not a single day's worth of training in how to teach. We're thrown out there into the classroom as grad students to be a teaching assistant for someone who also was never taught to teach, someone who is in his or her position because he or she is a great researcher and achieved high professional status regardless of the care, ability, or technique employed in the classroom. We receive little if any meaningful feedback about how we teach and have little incentive under the academic reward structure to improve. As a result, the success of instruction is surely less than desirable.

Yet, when confronted with empirically supported suggestions that would likely result in improvement, we act like a bunch of frat guys, saying, that's the way it was done when I was getting hazed, I mean taught, as an undergraduate, so that's the way I'm going to do it to them. Think about who the college profs of today are. They are the ones whose learning style was particularly well adapted to the ancient style of lecture, what (to steal a line from Arlo Guthrie) is what we call "The Boring Method." They got good grades because they (we) are wired for extracting things from lectures. Getting those good grades put them in grad school with others who were well-suited to that way of learning and then group think reinforces it, in addition to the only training you get from those who would never think of doing anything but lecturing lest it cut in on research time.

So, if the culture discourages looking into advances in pedagogical research, the reward structure discourages it, and it seems like "one more thing" in an already busy life, how do we get college profs to pay attention to the results of the science which would make them better teachers?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On Coulter, Malkin, Bullshit, and Ideologues

Ann Coulter's website got hacked on Monday. The perpetrators got in and put up a fake post in which she was supposed to have written,

Dear Readers,

I've been participating in a charade for nearly eleven years, now. Quite frankly, I'm sick of it. You have all been a part of a sick joke that I began considering shortly after first getting on the air. At first, it was quite interesting to see how people would react when I would use twisted logic and poorly masked bigotry.

But eleven years is a long time to be living a fake life, and I can no longer tolerate this falsity. Even someone as fake as I tires out eventually.

Here's the truth, I don't care what people believe. Jews don't need to be "made perfect" as I so arrogantly proclaimed to Editor & Publisher not a half week ago. I don't even care if people are Muslim. Granted, I don't know much about the religion or the people, but they are people. This is something that we cannot forget, they are in an abhorrent situation. These people are in need of education. Perhaps if we did not participate in causing them misery, they would not hate us so.

In fact, does it really matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, or even Pagan? We are one nation. One. We should not let petty differences separate us, we are all American, and should act in that manner.

And with that, my precious viewers, I bid you adieu. My career as a media figurehead is over.


Ann Coulter

P.S. - Oh, and Bill O'Reilly is also just acting.
A few days before, Publius, at Obsidian Wings, made a similar claim in comparing Coulter to Michelle Malkin,
I think Coulter is essentially an act. She’s extreme, sure. What she says is abhorrent, agreed. But I think she’s carved out a niche for herself where her interests aren’t necessarily aligned with the conservative movement. She’s a self-promoting outrage artist -- her goal is not to promote an agenda but to stoke the fires. For instance, I have no doubt she was nothing but ecstatic about the public reception to her Edwards comments.

The point is that when Coulter sits at home at night, I suspect she conceives of herself as an entertainer. A shock-artist, sure -- and someone who is deliberately offensive. But, an entertainer nonetheless. And more to the point, she knows what she’s doing. She’s fully in control...

She couldn’t care less about any pushback -- she wants the pushback.
In essence Publius and the hackers are arguing that Coulter is a bullshitter in Harry Frankfurt's sense of the term.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
But what is interesting about Publius' argument is that its conclusion is counter to Frankfurt's. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter is worse than the liar because the liar at least buys into the notion of truth, where the bullshitter sees truth as irrelevant.

Publius, on the other hand, sees the bullshitter in this case as less dangerous because it is just an act. Publius seems to argue (I think it is a fair reading) that the comparison here is not between the bullshitter and the liar, but between the bullshitter and the ideologue, a person who does care deeply about truth, but who is unwilling to let facts that force a reevaluation of one's position determine her beliefs. The bullshitter at least believes in rhetorical power, the ability of other's words to affect belief, but the ideologue has beliefs so set in stone that there is no process involved in determining truth. The truth-teller believes in rationality and attempts to use it. The liar, believes in rationality and attempts to side-step it. The bullshitter does not believe in rationality and attempts to subvert it, but does believe, like Protagoras, that something truth-like can be achieved through persuasive dialog. The ideologue, however, eschews both rationality and persuasion, coercion and bullying is the coin of the realm. Truth is equated with power, it is not that truth gives one power, but that one sees the ability to shape popular views as an instantiation of power. It is power that is paramount and truth is nothing more than the ability to bend the will of others in order to get them to assert to your position, even if it means attacking soldiers in the theater of battle or twelve year old children.

So, are the hackers right? Is Coulter's bit really just schtick? If so, does that make it more or less worrisome than the true believers? More dangerous because it gets more press, it's sexier, and plays a larger role shaping our discourse by determining what is acceptable to say, what we talk about, and whether rational fact-based discourse is the standard? Or less worrisome for the reasons Publius sets out? If it is not just schtick, how should we respond to claims like it would be preferable for women not to vote or that Jews are in need of perfecting? Does ignoring someone looking for attention make them go away or leave their false and harmful claims unchallenged to be accepted?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sex and the Left

Been thinking about sex lately. There were a load of "Summer of Love" retrospectives over the last few months because of the 40th anniversary and lots of talk about hippie lifestyles. What struck me as interesting was the number of ways that the counter-culture attitudes and ethos have become mainstreamed and still remain as part of the romanticized picture, if not actual the lived lives, of those of us who see ourselves as left of center. Some have been honed over time -- the back to the land ethic transformed into the environmental movement -- others, like the love of improvisational live music, the interest in non-Western religions and ways of thought, the search for alternative ways of living, continue largely unchanged. What struck me as interesting, though, was that one of the central elements has dissipated -- nudity and free love.

The rise of the counter-culture was a reaction to the straight jacket mores of the 50s. Everything that was taboo was to be brought out into the open and explored. Freedom and joy were to reign. And there was nothing that whitebread America was more uptight about than sexuality. As a result, it had to be rescued, liberated. It was a wonderful thing for any and all and we should be free to find partners as we choose. Loosen up. Enjoy yourself. Love the one you're with.

But what is interesting is what has happened since. It seems that among those who are now of the same age group as the counter-culture types, the places where free love still runs rampant aren't those of the neo-hippies. If college campuses are like they were back in my day (man, I feel old typing that), the one night stands were happening much more frequently, or at least much more celebrated and seen as a part of the lifestyle amongst the jock/fraternity/sorority types than among the social justice or hippie crowds. Not to say these others weren't having sex, but that it was happening in a different way. There were a lot of college marriages where you paired off and had a monogamous relationship that lasted, some longer than others, but that sexual relations were largely within a model of the more traditional sort. So how did the free love ethos get transferred and was it a good thing?

The answer may be in the left's embrace of liberation movements, which includes feminism. One of the on-going projects of feminists, back from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, through the second wavers like Catherine MacKinnon, or the third wave sex-positive crowd, has been to consider what makes for good sex, where the "good" refers not only to technical proficiency, but to morally and socially good sex. Feminists have spent a whole lot of time thinking very hard about what makes for good, healthy sex and what makes for the opposite. Under the influence of the work of these thinkers, free love has been seen to be much like free trade -- it doesn't help everyone equally if there is a power imbalance going in. The powerful economies make out much better under free trade agreements when less powerful countries open up their markets and likewise those with more social capital make out better when those with less open up something else. As a result, the young left has not eschewed the joys of a full sexual life the way those objecting to promiscuity from the right have, there is certainly not the abstinence worship you see from conservatives (in word but not in deed). Rather, they have pursued it in other ways that tend to ultimately result in better, more healthy, and apparently more frequent engagement.

In a recent study (hat tip to Jeff at Shakespeare's Sister),

feminism may actually improve the quality of heterosexual relationships, according to Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, from Rutgers University.
It seems that pro-feminist men and feminist women seem to be enjoying themselves a bit more than their more traditional counterparts and enjoying more stable relationships.
They found that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women. Men with feminist partners also reported both more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction. According to these results, feminism does not predict poor romantic relationships, in fact quite the opposite.
So the key was not free love, but love free of the old gender biases.

That's what I love so much about science. It takes bizarre, counter-intuitive results, that seem impossible and shows them to be true in the real world. I mean, who would have ever thought that women who reject artificial culturally constructed constraints, who have freed themselves from old hang-ups designed to make them loath themselves, and men who consider their female partners to be valuable, autonomous humans deserving of respect and care would have more healthy intimate relationships. Gosh, that's as weird as quantum mechanics.

The Teacher-Former Student Relationship

Having lunch today with some former students who were back for Homecoming Weekend. Good, smart, funny alums who always seem to need recommendations for amazing things they are going on to do.

The student-teacher relationship is itself a complex one. How much of a parent, how much of a friend, how much of an arm's length authority is the appropriate stance? Surely, it varies with the student, with the context, but it seems like it is a care-based sort of relationship. Your students are, in a sense, like your children and it is your responsibility to prepare them for the next step and to do what you can to help them get in and achieve in their life's goals, be it grad school, law school, or a job that they need a recommendation for. You can have an incredible effect on the paths of their lives, you are in a position of authority over them, and they are in pivotal places in their own personal development. All of this adds up to a pretty unique relationship, and makes advising (that thing we hate to think of as actually part of our jobs) a very important part of what we do.

But when they come back, when we get e-mails or phone calls, the relationship is different. They are now fellow adults. The power dynamic that used to be the foundation for the relationship is gone. Things are even less formal than they were. They are changing jobs, getting married, embarking on a new adventure. Yet, like a parent, there is a sense that you still have obligations to help them in any way you can. They picked you, you didn't pick them; but the students -- and the former students -- seem to come with responsibility because their lives (like everyone's) are still very much works in progress. You have hundreds of students per year, every year, but to a handful of these students, the relationship with you you will have been formative in important ways. What on-going responsibilities does that impart?

Those out there who are students, what do you expect from former profs? Those who are profs, what sense of obligation do you feel to former students?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Feast of Saint Lenny

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the birthday of Lenny Bruce, a man who truly made much of comedy what it is today. Comedy in the 1950's was cute, like Alan King, even insightful and clever like Mort Sahl, but Lenny Bruce was a completely different animal, he unloaded on it with both barrels.

Born Leonard Alfred Schneider, he changed his name when he got out of the Navy and started doing stand-up around New York. He had the energy, passion, and anger that was beginning to bubble up to the surface in the times. The cultural straight jacket of the post-war years needed not a gentle loosening, but an explosion to break through and that charge was Lenny Bruce. His discussions of sexuality were not subtle innuendo, cleverly veiled, it was in your face, oh my God, did he really just say that? And it wasn't just sex, any topic from politics to religion to relationships was fair game for his raving take no prisoners wit.

Of course, then he became the prisoner. He was arrested for his act in San Francisco in 1961 for using the word "cocksucker." Ultimately, he was acquitted, but he became a lightning rod attracting attention from the authorities wherever he went. He was arrested several times for obscenity and drug use.

The big trial was in 1964, when he and Howard Solomon, the owner of the Cafe-Au-Go-Go where he had been working, were tried for public obscenity. He was found guilty after a lengthy trial that was as much about the direction of the culture as it was about state statutes. He was released on bail as he awaited his appeal, but pulling the ultimate stunt, he got out of future prosecution by dying.

He was a master, a genius, a man with a pair the size of Manhattan:When you look at half the comedians today, what you see is Lenny Bruce as the Platonic form and these guys as imperfect representations of his bit.

I'd say rest in peace, man, but Lenny did nothing in peace.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, October 12, 2007

Updating the Seven Deadly Sins

So, Kerry's teaching a course looking philosophically at the seven deadly sins -- greed, lust, pride, happy, sleepy, dopey, and doc -- those ways of being that give one a propensity for acting in unacceptable ways. He asked a great question the other day, "Does the list need updating?" So, I want to throw it open.

I'd start by removing sloth, but I'm too lazy to come up with a good argument for it right now.

I would add dehumanization. It is so easy to take those who disagree with us politically, those who look different than we do, those who speak a different language, or who fall in love with people we would never fall in love with, and make them out to be less than fully human. This leads to a withholding of empathy and that is the opening of a Pandora's box morally, socially, and politically.

So, independent of theological concerns, just looking at the moral ramifications, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, pride, sloth, envy, any of these overblown and should be removed? Have any add-vice on what else might go on the list in terms of those proclivities that lead to less than desirable action?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An S-CHIP On His Shoulder

This weekend, Anonymous (and I don't think that's his real name) asked,

"Could you write a little something on Bush's recent veto of SCHIP, the health care program for poor kids? I have tried to find some reasoning behind his veto it just seems illogical and foolish. I was wondering if there was some, more rational, reason that I just can't grasp for saying poor kids shouldn't get to be healthy when all of the money for the program's increase is coming from smokers having to pay more."
With S-CHIP you have the model of a government program -- it's been incredibly effective at covering uninsured children who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, now reaching six million young people, and gives each state the flexibility to figure out what is the best way to address the specific needs of their particular population. It is having a marked effect on medical problems that tend to effect children. It is working and even the Republican governors of very conservative states want the program continued. If you want an example of an effective use of government resources to make a real difference in human lives, this is it. But, there are approximately another nine million children eligible, who are not enrolled.

Because of health care cost increases, maintaining the coverage of those currently enrolled would take an additional $12 billion. The President is proposing an increase of only $5 billion, and adding federal restrictions on income and who can be enrolled by the states in order to decrease those covered by S-CHIP. Democrats wanted to greatly expand the program to capitalize on its success, but a bipartisan compromise scaled it back and created a more modest expansion of the program. This bipartisan bill was passed, only to be vetoed by the President.

The question, then, is on what grounds could the veto be morally justified? In logic we have what is called the principle of charity which requires us to set up the strongest version of an argument before analyzing it, invoking this principle here, what is the strongest argument one could give for not expanding, but decreasing the size of an effective program that helps those who are needy, vulnerable, and helpless?

Some, like Dennis Kucinich, opposed the bill because he thought it was a bad compromise and didn't go far enough. A classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. But, of course, this is not the White House's argument.

Their arguments come in two flavors: an opposition to the tax increase needed and a fear that it would cause better off families to opt out of private coverage.

The first argument is that an expansion would require a tax increase, in this case, an increased tax on cigarettes. The opposition could be a simple ideological, all taxes are bad, argument, but there is a better basis on which to oppose the hike. There tends to be in the population that smokes a class disparity and raising the cigarette tax to pay for S-CHIP would be a regressive tax. In other words, the health care of children would be subsidized on the backs of those who can least afford it. If we are going to pay for the program, shouldn't we have a more fair way of spreading out the burden?

The second argument is one based on faith in the superiority of market solutions. The designed expansion moves the program from its target of the children of uninsured families below double the poverty line and moves the line up to those below triple the poverty line. The President and his people are worried that such a move would cause an avalanche of people who currently have their own coverage to drop it for S-CHIP and therefore the increase in taxes would not help additional children, but cause a decrease in those who shop in the marketplace and it is market pressures, he argues that bring about progress in health care. Take away the profits from the insurance companies and they won't have the incentive to do as good a job.

This line, of course, requires a sense that the marketplace -- which is very, very good at some things -- is the maximal institution for overseeing the delivery of all services. But if you look at countries that have universal government sponsored health care systems, like Sweden and Germany, you see better results, shorter waits, and less expensive care. It is not a matter of religious belief in the marketplace, but an empirical concern and the evidence does not seem to point in the President's direction.

I think one could easily build a strawman out of the Republican position here, and we need to avoid doing such a thing playing the rational game fairly -- even if those on the other side fail to behave as we expect from adults (it is to the point where even conservatives are embarrassed by the spectacle of attacking a twelve-year old boy who was in a terrible car accident because he wants the country to know that the program helped save his life).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is Being Kind Always Morally Good?

You see a speed trap set up for the folks in the other lane. Do you flash your lights and alert them? If so, was it a good act?

You get nothing from it. It was a purely other-directed action. The desire was to keep those folks on the other side from getting an expensive ticket, higher insurance, being late to where they are going, in any number of ways keeping their life from being more unhappy than it need be. It is a thoughtful, caring gesture to help out a stranger.

At the same time, you are helping out a stranger who is doing something wrong. Speeding makes the probability of an accident higher and in the case of the accident more dangerous. You are helping them, but that help is helping them get away with something.

So is this act, which clearly is one of random kindness, a morally good thing?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Is an Omniscient God Incompatible with the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics?

Yesterday was Neils Bohr's birthday. In addition to being one of the great minds in the history of physics, he also had a fascinating life, and bore an uncanny resemblance to the Chief in Get Smart.

He is one of the major figures in early quantum mechanics and a primary architect of the Copenhagen interpretation. In honor of the anniversary of his birth, I want to play with a question brought up by Elron over on View from the Edge last week. The question was whether quantum mechanics posed any issues for an omniscient God.

Quantum mechanics holds that physical systems are governed by a relation called the Schrodinger equation which traces the evolution of the variable which describes the state of the system. This variable, called the wave function, is a mathematical combination of all possible observable states of the system with a coefficient that ranges between zero and one attached to each possibility. At any given time the system will be in a given state which is the set of values for the coefficients and over time the state changes to new values for the coefficients in perfect accord with Schrodinger's equation. This is a completely deterministic development. No probability or uncertainty anywhere in the theory yet.

So, what does this mean the system looks like? This far, we just have mathematical equations, to give them meaning requires that we interpret the symbols. The most prominent interpretation of the formalism came out of the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and took on the name the "Copenhagen Interpretation." In it, the wave function is held to be the complete description of the system in the world, in other words, the system is simultaneously in a state comprised of every possible value that observable properties could have. If we express the wave function in terms of position, the particle described is in a superposed state of every possible location at once.

The problem is that we never ever see the world in this superposed state. The instant we look at it, the Schrodinger equation breaks down, the wave function collapses, and the particle ends up in exactly one of its property states, in this case, at one place in space.

Here's the weird part -- we can't know which place it's going to end up. That is a completely random occurrence. That randomness, however, is constrained by the array of coefficients determined by the Schrodinger equation. You see, it turns out that the coefficient squared gives the probability that the particle will end up in that position. Over the long run, if we performed many, many, many runs of the experiment, we know what the spread of the outcomes will look like, but we can have no clue whatsoever on the Copenhagen interpretation of the outcome of any given flip of the quantum coin.

The problem is not that we just don't know enough. That's what Einstein thought. He considered the theory good as far as it goes, but that it didn't go far enough. He thought there were other hidden variables and that once we figured out where to look for them, we'd be able to figure out with certainty what slot in the carton the quantum egg would occupy. Turns out that it can't be so. In technical philosophy jargon, the underdetermination is ontological not epistemological; in ordinary language, its not that we just don't know enough to know which way the coin will fall, its that there is no fact of the matter about which value the system will assume, that is, where the particle will land, until the moment of observation, until the wave function collapses.

And this is where the theological question considered by Elron gets fun. The notion of omniscience has a classical sense of determinism built in. God knows everything there is to know and, like Laplace's demon, if you know every fact, that gives you a complete knowledge of the entire history of the universe in the past and future going direction. Every fact is connected to every other fact and the set of all facts comprises all possible knowledge about the universe. God knows all there is to know and all the is to know is all there is.

But in the Copenhagen interpretation, there is no fact to be known about the value of the observed variable for a system that will be observed until it is observed. God can know the complete set of all facts and this would not include how a given quantum system will react to be observed because there simply is no such fact. So, does the Copenhagen interpretation mean that God could know everything there is to be known and yet still not know some things? Is this modified omniscience really omniscience? If God is given the classical sense of omniscience, does that mean there has to be hidden variables of the sort Einstein wanted (in seeming violation of the Bell and Kochen-Specker theorems)?

It's a Round, Round World

On Columbus Day, it is probably worth discussing the fact that contrary to the storybook version of history that is part of our contemporary mythology, it was well-known in classical times that the world was, in fact, round.

We should start with the fact that there was among Greek thinkers a non-evidentially based bias in favor of thinking of the world as spherical. Symmetry, in Greek thought, was a measure of perfection. An equilateral triangle is more perfect than a scalene triangle because of its symmetry. Similarly, a square is more perfect than a triangle, not because it has more sides, but because if you rotated it about its mid-point, there are four ways to bring it back to its original orientation, whereas, only three for an equilateral triangle. You need to turn the triangle through 120 degrees to get it back to its original orientation, whereas you only need to turn the square through 90 degrees. The circle, on the other hand, has an infinite number of symmetries. turn a circle any amount and you still have the circle. circularity is perfection in geometry and the sphere is a circle of circles. It was on these grounds that Pythagoras and the Pythagorean-influenced later Plato argued for the shape of the globe.

Of course, this did not come from nowhere. The phenomenon of a ship disappearing as it approached the horizon gave experimental reason to believe that the Earth was curved. On a flat surface, the ship would simply get smaller, but on a curved planet, the curvature would obscure from view parts of the ship as it went farther and farther around.

But it is with Aristotle's On the Heavens, though, we begin to see complex argumentation. Again, Aristotle had metaphysical reasons to prefer a roughly spherical Earth. Everything from the moon on out was made up of a perfect element aether and were shaped spherically and moved in circular orbits because that was the nature of aether being more perfect. The Earth sat at the center of it all and was imperfectly circular because the elements down here were not quite so perfect. But they were jockeying about to settle in their natural places which formed concentric rings.

Its shape must necessarily be spherical. For every portion of earth has weight until it reaches the centre, and the jostling of parts greater and smaller would bring about not a waved surface, but rather compression and convergence of part and part until the centre is reached. The process should be conceived by supposing the earth to come into being in the way that some of the natural philosophers describe. Only they attribute the downward movement to constraint, and it is better to keep to the truth and say that the reason of this motion is that a thing which possesses weight is naturally endowed with a centripetal movement. When the mixture, then, was merely potential, the things that were separated off moved similarly from every side towards the centre. Whether the parts which came together at the centre were distributed at the extremities evenly, or in some other way, makes no difference.

In addition to this cosmological picture, however, Aristotle did make several quite remarkably insightful arguments for the roundness of the world. First, he looks at the movement of heavenly bodies that trace out equal distances in rising and setting, not moving across the sky the way one would expect if the Earth was flat.
But the spherical shape, necessitated by this argument, follows also from the fact that the motions of heavy bodies always make equal angles, and are not parallel. This would be the natural form of movement towards what is naturally spherical.
Second, he argues that the shape of the Earth is given away by the shape of its shadow during an eclipse.
How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind straight, gibbous, and concave-but in eclipses the outline is always curved: and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth’s surface, which is therefore spherical.
Next, he argues that the stars seen in different places are different and this could only happen if the world was round.
Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon. There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighbourhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars, which in the north are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set. All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size: for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent. Hence one should not be too sure of the incredibility of the view of those who conceive that there is continuity between the parts about the pillars of Hercules and the parts about India, and that in this way the ocean is one.
So, Aristotle knew it was circular based on these arguments from observable evidence. Following him by a couple of generations was Eratosthenes, writing from Alexandra, a city of learning established in the memory of Aristotle's pupil Alexander. Eratosthenes found that at noon on the summer solstice, the sun would be directly overhead in the town of Syene by seeing it reflected from the water at the bottom of a very deep well. As a result, at that moment, a vertical object would have no shadow. If the Earth was flat, then the same ought to be true of a vertical object in Alexandria, north of Syene, when the sun reached its highest point in the sky there. Turns out, it doesn't. Objects in Syene have no shadow, but objects in Alexandria do. This means that the Earth must be round. Not only that, but by the length of the shadow, he was able to determine the circumference of Earth which he did with amazing accuracy.

So, now you know that it was false that to his contemporaries, Columbus' belief that the Earth was round sounded like Greek to them.

We going out on that joke? No, we do reprise of song, that help. But not much, no.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Passing the Plate: Freud Edition

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Comedism, like all other religions, requires donations to keep itself going. But where other churches ask for monetary donations, Comedist congregations request that you tithe jokes. The higher the quality the better.

Last week we missed the anniversary of Sigmund Freud's death, so the donations should be Freud or psychiatrist jokes of any shape.

My favorite Freud line comes from an old episode of Cheers where Coach asks Cliff Clavin what a Freudian slip is. His response, "It's where you mean to say one thing and end up saying a mother."

The Freud joke that I'm most proud of having written -- Why did Freud think the chicken crossed the road? It was envious of the cock.

As for shrink jokes, a couple of classic.

A guy walks into a podiatrist and says, "Doc, I think I'm a moth." The podiatrist looks up and says, "Excuse me?" Again he says, "I think I'm a moth." The podiatrist says, "It sounds like a mental problem. You need a psychiatrist. I'm a podiatrist." The man agrees. "So why did you come here, then?" the podiatrist asks. The man replies, "Your light was on."

For years, I thought I was a dog. I went to a psychiatrist, but it didn't help. He wouldn't let me up the couch.
A couple from Rodney,
I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous - everyone hasn't met me yet.

I told my wife the truth. I told her I was seeing a psychiatrist. Then she told me the truth: that she was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers, and a bartender.
So, my dear fellow Comedists, your favorites?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Is Water H20?

Hallq, over at Uncredible Hallq, is reading one of my favorite pieces by Hilary Putnam and failing to see what is so wonderful about it, so I thought I'd pipe in because it's a puzzle and an argument that I didn't get at first either, but have come to adore.

The whole thing starts when we ask, "What is water?" Seems an easy enough question, it's any substance made up of molecules that are a combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. That's just what water is. Water is defined that way and definitions can't be wrong.

As Humpty Dumpty says in Through the Looking Glass, words mean what I want them to mean, nothing more nothing less. If I take the string of letters "xix" and posit the definition purple navel fuzz that has been encased in Jello, then that is what "xix" means. Is my definition true? Of course, it's a definition, it has to be true.

This is important in the history of philosophy because philosophers of the generation before Putnam (like his adviser Hans Reichenbach and his wife's adviser Rudolf Carnap) worked hard to divide all sentences into two groups, those that are true of things in the world and whose truth was determinable by observation, and those whose truth is necessary. Sentences in this last group came in two flavors, they argued, those that are truths of logic and definitions.

And so they sought to understand the act of defining. Defining is a mental activity. When I know what a word means, I understand its definition, I grasp it intellectually. The definition is an idea, something in my head. When I use a word I understand its sense, its meaning, its conceptual definition.

So, now imagine if you will that there is a planet somewhere in space that we can call Twin Earth. On Twin Earth, everything is identical. Everyone has a Doppelganger, an exact twin, who right now is reading a post on my Doppelganger's blog which says exactly this. The only difference is that the substance on Twin Earth that rains from the sky, that they drink and brush their teeth with, that they refer to by the word "water" is a chemically different substance, call it XYZ. It turns out that XYZ has many superficial observable properties in common with H2O, it just has a radically different chemical make up. If we take Twin Earth water and Earth water the "same liquid" relation does not hold between them.

If we were to go to Twin Earth, we would report back that Twin Earth English is the same as Earth English, except that "water" means XYZ instead of H20. No problem, the word is ambiguous, they have a different meaning for the same signal. Nothing weird there. We'd get fooled at first, but eventually we'd figure out that Twin Earth water is not the same liquid as Earth water.

So, let's come back to Earth for a minute, only go back in time. When Archimedes used the Greek word for water, what did he mean what we mean by water? Well, there would be no cases in which a modern user who understands atomic theory and an ancient Greek would disagree. We would think that the "same liquid" relation held between all the same liquids.

Does that mean that Archimedes means what we mean by "water"? No, because if meaning is in the head, then we mean different things by water since his idea of what water is is different.

So, (here's the punchline) if we send Archimedes to Twin Earth and he sees Twin Earth water, will he think it is water? Yes. It fits his definition, the conception he has in his head. BUT it is not the same liquid. his definition, it turns out, is wrong.

His definition is wrong? How can a definition be wrong? It's a definition. It's something in your head that determines what a word means. It can't be wrong.

What Putnam is showing is that certain definitions, those connected with natural kind terms -- things of a kind that appear in nature from the same species -- are defeasible, that is, they can be wrong. This means that some definitions are not in the head, but in the world. It turns out that the way we've been thinking about definitions has been wrong.

So what? The reason we had been working on definitions was to be able to justify rational belief in science. Scientific results are based on empirical confirmation of propositions that get their meanings from theoretical definitions, definitions that we could depend on because they had to be right -- they are definitions, after all. These folks, the logical positivists, thought that we could take scientific theories and make axiomatic systems out of them, figure out what are the basic assumptions, what are the empirical claims and test to see if the theory is a good one. It required the common sense view of definitions that they are in the head.

What Putnam shows us is that the way we construct and justify rational belief has to be more complex than the nice neat rigid picture of Reichenbach and Carnap. We need to radically rethink why we should believe science. Turns out, Putnam contends, you might need something more naturalistic, something more like a web of beliefs, something more in line what the man with an office down the hallway in Emerson Hall with the name Quine on his door was saying...but that's a whole other post. When you see the argument in its context and why some unbelievably smart people thought the opposite, it turns out that it is not as trivial as it may seem in a vacuum.

Blackwater and Dark Days

The talk about ending the war in Iraq largely focuses on troop levels. Has the surge failed given that virtually none of the benchmarks for success originally set out have been met? How quickly is it logistically possible to draw down? Is it redeployment or withdrawal? Is it a failure to "support the troops" if one calls for their being brought home? Left and right speak about nothing but "the troops" when they talk about the war.

Sadly, this is yet another example of the "cage and frame" strategy that the left seems to fall for every single time. For those who are not regulars here, the idea behind cage and frame is to take a set of related issues that you don't want discussed and place them in a rhetorical cage, allowing only one -- the one that is most easily framed in your favor -- to be placed front and center in public discussion. Like a magician's misdirection in which he calls attention to his right hand with a flourish while sticking something in his pocket with his now unnoticed left hand, the passionate, divisive, and most of all LOUD debate that surrounds the issue allowed out of the cage will give the impression to the general public that free and open debate is occurring -- after all we see people yelling at each other over a controversial issue -- all the while the actual collective deliberations that are needed for a functioning democracy have been stifled.

The laser focus on "the troops" has shaped the structure of the debate. The left wants to "bring the troops home," the right wants to "support the troops" and "not let the troops' ultimate sacrifice have been in vain." But on the ground in the minds of Iraqis when you talk about Americans and the occupation, the troops are only a part of what worries them. The bigger threat to them is the troops who aren't troops, the "private security contractors" (nice linguistic frame job there, huh?), the mercenaries from companies like Blackwater.

The hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent on this war have gone somewhere. Yes, several billions just disappeared somehowand we haven't a clue where, but most of them have gone into the pockets of corporations that provide "ancillary services" for the military.

The image many have of those in uniform who aren't in combat is doing the menial work needed to keep things moving -- peeling potatoes on KP, digging latrines, the dirty grunt work. That has all been farmed out, private companies like KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton) are paid millions upon millions of tax dollars to perform those functions that the military used to do for itself. The line goes that it frees up personnel to focus on the core mission. But it also is part of the conservative notion that all things are better done in the private sector. The idea is to take away as many functions as possible from all government agencies and turn them over to for-profit companies who do them better and cheaper because of the invisible hand of the marketplace. Yes, that's an empirical claim that is false. It is something we knew from World War I when the Armour meat company took large contracts from the government and gave our troops tainted, maggot infested meat and it is just as true now with companies like Custer Battles.

I remember back in the 90s (when we had a Democratic President and Congress -- mere coincidence, I'm sure), there were nightly features on the network news programs about "the fleecing of America" documenting the wasting of tax dollars and whipping up outrage. Strange how a few millions have turned into hundreds of billions and yet that line has seemed to go dark now. We place all trust in a segment of our culture in which the values are monetary and not moral and the result is corruption, surely, a challenge to the "truism" that privatization is an inherently and universally good policy. Such a challenge would seem to undermine a central plank of contemporary conservative thought, yet we see little discussion of this point in our current media conversations.

But, of course, the real problems run much deeper. Corruption and the theft of billions of tax dollars is bad, but murder and torture surely are worse. Of all of these private contractors brought in to perform tasks in the war zone, the most worrisome are those brought in to perform actual military tasks. When the government of Iraq was overthrown and the American Iraqi Provisional Authority was set up, an interesting situation occurred. There was a country with no government, no government means no laws, no laws means that those not bound by the uniform code of military justice could do anything they wanted with complete impunity. You can't break the law if there is no law to break. When the Iraqi government was formed, it was insisted that these hired guns remain in legal limbo. the result is that they operate unchecked and uncontrolled.

It certainly is not a good thing to have a bunch of trained military types with advanced weapons utterly free of command. The bad apple cases surely will pop up. And so they have. Remember those four bodies charred and dragged through the streets of Fallujah a few years back. Private contractors from Blackwater, not troops. Why would they be the focus of such hatred? Who are they and what are they doing? From a post by Naomi Wolf,

“What is Blackwater?” According to reporter Jeremy Scahill, the firm has 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, and maintains a database of an additional 21,000 to call upon at any time. Blackwater has over “$500 million in government contracts — and that does not include its secret ‘black’ budget…” One congressman pointed out that in terms of its manpower, Blackwater can overthrow “many of the world’s governments.” Recruiters for the company seek out former military from countries that have horrific human rights abuses and use secret police and paramilitary forces to terrify their own populations: Chileans, Peruvians, Nigerians, and Salvadorans.
Having these folks run amok is a bit problematic, to say the least.

Indeed, after one of the latest incidents in which Blackwater employees fired into a crowd of civilians killing twenty people, the Iraqi interior ministry had had enough of their rampages and ordered them out of the country. In a move that shows how committed we are to Iraqi sovereignty, the US extended its middle finger by conducting an "investigation" that cleared them of wrong-doing and decided that Blackwater's activities would proceed as usual.

But this way of addressing the issue, however, is problematic because it paints these guys as a rogue army, loose cannons roaming the war zone. The problem is that's not quite true. These folks not only work in concert with the military, they have at times been given control over the military.
These companies claim to offer "private security," not soldiers of fortune. Allegedly, the difference between a mercenary and a private security contractor is that mercenaries engage in active combat. Blackwater has engaged in combat operations and even given orders to active-duty US troops in battle, according to Jermy Scahill's new book, Blackwater.
And the results are horrifying.

Clearly the emblem of excess in the Iraq war is what happened at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. We know that at least some of what happened there was committed, overseen, and ordered by private contractors,
"He tried to complain and that he was told by superior officers to follow instructions from civilians, contract workers interrogating the Iraqi prisoners. They said go back down there. Do what the civilian contractors tell you to do and don't interfere with them and loosen these soldiers up for interrogation."
These armed thugs are not merely a gang loosely affiliated with the US roaming the streets, they are a force that can be used by the government to do things they do not want the military associated with. The name for such a force, of course, is a paramilitary.

Naomi Wolf's canary in the coal mine of a book, The End of America, she lays out the ten steps that are generally followed in converting a Democracy to a fascist state. Number three? Yup, establishing a paramilitary.
Without a paramilitary force that is not answerable to the people’s representatives, democracy cannot be closed down; however, with such a force available to would-be despots, democracy can be drastically and quickly weakened.

Every effective despot — from Mussolini to Hitler, Stalin, the members of the Chinese Politburo, General Augusto Pinochet and the many Latin American dictators who learned from these models of controlling citizens — has used this essential means to pressure civilians and intimidate dissent. Mussolini was the innovator in the use of thugs to intimidate what was a democracy, if a fragile one, before he actually marched on Rome; he developed the strategic deployment of blackshirts to beat up communists and opposition leaders, trash newspapers and turn on civilians, forcing ordinary Italians, for instance, to ingest emetics. Hitler studied Mussolini; he deployed thugs — in the form of brownshirts — in similar ways before he came formally to power.
So, you've got a group for hire with right-wing sympathies being more and more used as a wing of the military that is unaccountable for its actions. Oh yeah, they were deployed in New Orleans.

The Bush administration learned two lessons from the last couple of Republican Presidencies. From Reagan, they learned that if you want to violate the law like they did in the Iran/Contra scandal, you don't want to run it out of the Pentagon. They learned from Nixon, the power of establishing a parallel government, having off-the-books versions of those organizations that do the government's work so that someone will be there to do the stuff you don't want tagged on the actual agencies. Make sure you have a parallel intelligence group to get the information you want cherry-picked. Make sure you establish fundamentalist church-based groups to do the social welfare work. Using phrases like "unvarnished advice," they protect the influence and secrecy of these invisible agencies. what we have with Blackwater, DynCorp, and others is the beginning of an off-the-books military. Indeed, there are deep, deep ties between Blackwater and the Bush administration and Blackwater employees have recently been accused of illegally trafficking weapons to a group on the official list of terrorist organizations and thereby a group to which weapons cannot be legally sold. Iran/Contra II anybody?

Ought we be worried about American democracy at this point? I don't think alarm bells are warranted. But, at the same time, this bit of advice seems prudent:
Blackwater’s actions in Iraq should be a wake-up call to us here at home — to restore the constitution and the rule of law before we are too intimidated to do so.
If we are going to wake up, we need to take this issue out of the cage and put it on the table where it belongs. The debate about the war is bigger than "the troops," it needs to shine a bright light on the question of private security contractors, mercenaries, and paramilitary organizations.