Thursday, January 31, 2008

Neo-Partisanship and Post-Partisanship

The steady-state of American politics since the 1990s has been hyper-partisanship. Conventional wisdom at the time had been that the US electorate was comprised of three main factions, activists on the left and activists on the right whose votes were unalterably Democratic and Republican and would in the end cancel each other out, and uncommitted voters in the middle who swing back and forth and decide elections. the Republican strategy was to redraw the lines, so that the swing voters were eliminated, forced into a clearly and radically divided electorate. By splitting the country in half, the idea was that an aggressive, well-funded church-based effort would get an increasing number of the conservative half out to vote, while classic suppression tactics, especially towards minorities, would diminish percentage of the Democrats half that came out to vote, thereby securing a permanent Republican majority.

The liberal and conservative worldviews differ in their basic presuppositions and the central question asked. The liberal stance towards governance is informed by the core beliefs that (a) humans are basically equal with differences being trivial, (b) power and resources are unevenly and unfairly distributed because of political, sociological, and historical reasons, and (c) a significant role of government is to help provide a world conducive to human flourishing for as many as possible. From these presuppositions the central question to be answered in approaching how to govern is "Given that the situation in the world is unjust, how can we help to correct it?"

The conservative stance towards governance, on the other hand, derives from different axioms, namely (a) humans are not necessarily equal, there are significant differences in terms of ability, effort, and commitment to traditional values, and these differences make a person more or less valuable, (b) power and resources are unequally distributed, but this inequity is fair and a result of the innate and chosen differences in ability, effort, and commitment to traditional values, indeed, the forces of the free market will always force these inequities to be where they belong, and (c) the role of the government is only to enforce contracts
and secure order, all else interferes with the natural mechanisms of the market that bring about the unequal, but fair distribution of power and resources. From these points, the conservative question to be answered by those who govern is, "Given that the situation in the world will natural tend towards justice if left alone, how can we make sure we do not hinder it?"

These differences feed into the resulting hyper-partisanship which can be characterized by two properties: (1) framing issues so that the presuppositions of the other side are implicitly deemed false making competing positions seem absurd, and (2) vilifying opponents so that policy differences are seen as character flaws, treasonous, or insane. By dehumanizing the other side, by failing to even consider the meaningfulness of their point of view and creating strawman arguments out of their every proposal, we come to what we know as politics as unusual.

There have been two movements arising to counter this:


There is a group of politicians, some from each party, whose approach has been largely dubbed in the media "bi-partisan" or occasionally "non-partisan." This group including Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appear at first glance to cross the partisan divide and therefore stand in stark opposition to the harmful hyper-partisanship of the current political context.

This is, however, false. Because we have a winner take all, rather than a parliamentary, system, we are forced to have two strong parties and this gives us a reflexive binary understanding of politics where we wrongly think of polarization into two points of view as natural and necessary. A third view point would have to be non-partisan since partisan has to be either right or left and this is neither. In a parliamentary system where you have a large number of parties, each with different, but strident positions, this knee-jerk duality does not occur.

What we see from this group is not bi-partisan or non-partisan at all, but an approach that is every bit as hyper-partisan; I therefore propose we call it neo-partisanship. Their presuppositions are (a) the majority is almost always right and the majority of people are neither liberal nor conservative, but agree with virtually all of the policy positions they advocate, (b) liberals and conservatives are always wrong by virtue of being liberals and conservatives, the best policy positions are always those that lie at the mean between the liberal and conservative extremes, (c) rancorous, passionate debate is a bad thing that only inflames and empowers the liberals and conservatives and therefore should be quelled by the consensus of the majority. Their central question in governing is "How do we marginalize those who would raise the traditional policy debates, so that the mean between the extremes proceeds unhindered?"

In pursuit of their goals, they are every bit as hyper-partisan in that they also frame the debates so that liberal and conservative viewpoints are immediately treated as nonsensical and they vilify and attempt to marginalize those whom they see as extremists on both sides. This is not a step away from partisan rancor, but a new partisan movement trying to quash the other two.


The term "post-partisan" has been thrown around recently without much thought as to what it actually means. Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are often pointed to as examples of this post-partisan trend. The records and the campaigns of these people are clearly partisan, so what makes their approach appear post-partisan? (I will not assert that either is, in fact, post-partisan, but set it up as a open question worth considering.)

Post-partisanship is not a rejection of partisanship per se, but rather the explicit rejection of hyper-partisanship. A new frame is placed on issues that is based on presuppositions accounting for the intuitions of both liberals and conservatives: (a) humans are basically equal with differences being trivial, (b) power and resources are unevenly and unfairly distributed because of political, sociological, and historical reasons, although within this context people generally work hard and deserve the fruits of their labor, and (c) the role of government is to find the balance between the need to help those who are vulnerable and granting maximal freedom to those who are less so. On this approach, the question of governance is "How much and how best do we help?" From the liberal worldview we have the central notion that government is there to help create the preconditions for widespread human flourishing, from the conservative side we have the question about the limit of the government in executing that role.

Unlike neo-partisanship, this is not connected with a single set of narrowly tailored policy positions. One can advocate a strongly liberal post-partisan position or a strongly conservative post-partisan position; but in doing so, one is implicitly acknowledging the validity of the concerns of the other side and setting out in good faith an answer to their central question. This humanizes the opponent and takes their views seriously while still allowing for the passionate debate needed in a functioning democracy. A post-partisan politic is still very much a partisan affair, but one that allows for a broad range of viewpoints and one that does not suffer from the ills of hyper-partisanship.

The answers to our woes is not to emulate Solomon and advocate cutting the political baby in half. The answer here is every bit as bad as the answer there. We do not need to get rid of partisan bickering, we just need to reform it so that it is effective and performs the role we demand of it, to force all sides to sharpen their views, to have their excesses and flaws exposed and corrected, and to give rise to new, innovative ways to make the country and the world the best place for all. It will be vibrant, it will be messy, it will be uncomfortable. We do not pull punches in a post-partisan world, we just stop all the hitting below the belt. We need not fear a fair fight, indeed, we need to begin to create it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why I Teach

I generally don't respond to memes, but (1) I was tagged on this one by someone whose blog I love, Dr. Free Ride of Adventures in Ethics and Science and (2) it's an interesting question: "Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?"

Why do I teach? Four reasons. My dad always told me growing up that it was important for me to find a job that I love, that I do well, and that pays the bills. I always thought that "and that makes a difference" needed to be added to the list. Teaching does all four for me.

I love teaching. I love the things I get to talk about. i love interacting with minds that are just awakening to the problems that have been wrestled with for centuries. I love being able to stretch my own mind and make connections that I never would have outside of the classroom. I love the energy and the laughter and the spontaneity of conversations that you think you've had a hundred times, but always take a slightly different path. One reason I teach is for the sheer joy of it.

I teach, in part, because I'm allowed to. There is a sense of achievement and I think I'm pretty good at it, at least good enough to make it worth doing.

I also teach because it pays the bills. It is a job and one that, while the pay isn't anywhere near what some of my contemporaries make, still allows me to live comfortably with my family.

Finally, I do think that I make a difference by teaching. In the world's most powerful democracy, I teach critical thinking and ethics. Seems a bit relevant. I reach hundreds of minds and think that at least some of them may be a bit more thoughtful and deliberative as a result of what I do.

As for academic freedom, it is more relevant to how I teach than what I teach. As regular readers know, I invite students to ask any question at the beginning of each class. Literally any question, no topic is off limit. And no matter what the topic, I am honest in discussing my thoughts about it. I do so in a way that clearly sets out the arguments on both sides and why I find one side more convincing. I try to model the deliberative process and this means not pulling punches, not trying to be falsely neutral, being honest, even when it means clearly stating my views on a controversial issue. It is the process and not the conclusion that is essential to convey and nothing is more appropriate than showing how the process works in the hardest, most contentious of cases. The job of educators is to create citizens with open, but rigorous minds who have the fortitude to apply them to tough cases and if we are afraid to do it in the classroom, they too will take the easy path. Academic freedom mean that I actually can do what a teacher is meant to do.

So, I hate this part especially, but let me tag Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista, Lumpenprof at Lumpenprofessoriat, Aaron at One Flew East, and Sage at Persephone's Box. But I'd be very interested in the thoughts of those playground playfriends who don't blog themselves (anymore, in some cases), who teach at any level. Why do you do it and how are you affected by academic freedom?

Monday, January 28, 2008

On Weakman Arguments

Great article over at Scientific American Mind by Yvonne Raley and Bob Talisse called "Getting Duped." In it they play with a question I've broached here in slightly different terms in the past. They look at a variant of the strawman fallacy wherein you actually can find an opponent pushing a weak view.

A strawman argument reconstructs the opponent's view to be weaker than it is. In logic, we have what we call the principle of charity, wherein one must argue against the strongest interpretation of your opponent's argument. But suppose you have many opponents, and you don't misconstrue anyone's argument, they just give a weaker version.

In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.
You may not be picking on the scarecrow, but you are the logical equivalent of the cowardly lion. It may be true that you've avoided the strawman charge by giving a faithful representation to your opponent's reasoning, but in taking an opponent who is not at the top of the intellectual weight class, by cherry picking the low hanging fruit (is it a mixed metaphor if both metaphors make the same reference?), is it still a violation of the principle of charity? You are not being uncharitable to the opponent you've selected to respond to.

The obvious line is that while you may not be uncharitable to the one opponent, you are being uncharitable to the whole of the other side by elevating that clearly flawed view above the other stronger arguments and therefore wrongly denigrating the position as a whole. Well done, Yvonne and Bob.

But there's another question that seem to come out of it and I'm not sure what I think about it. What do you think: Can your opponent be proud and refuse your argumentative charity and if so, are you then committing a strawman or weakman fallacy by taking them at their flawed word?

When Is Philosophy Appropriate?

There was an interesting discussion over at The Nonsequitur, one of my favorite blogs out there, a couple weeks ago about teaching philosophy before college. Certainly, it is not a good thing that we wait until university-level education to begin people -- those few who elect to take it --thinking about foundational questions. If we want a more reflective, thoughtful culture, surely it is a good idea to incorporate philosophy into regular curricula so that students get both exposure and training in deep thought.

I think two of the reasons it is not taught earlier is that we see secondary education, especially in this test-crazy era, as vo-tech training for middle management jobs. We are preparing students for the work force, not creating interesting, interested citizens with round and lively minds. Second, schooling is as much about keeping order as it is educating and arming students with the ability to challenge their teachers, parents, and what's being taught by both is threatening.

Of course, these are actually reasons why philosophy should be taught, but the question is at what age? When should children ideally begin their philosophical education. Plato, of course, argued that children shouldn't be educated in this way, that we need to wait for a mature brain. Developmental psychology paints a picture of a brain that develops in stages, starting more concrete and advancing towards abstract concepts. To make this anecdotal, when did you start being philosophical? When in your own development would it have been effective to introduce you to the world of philosophy?

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Feast of Saint W.C.

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week would see the 127th birthday of W.C. Fields, the famed alcoholic misanthrope. He had the rare ability to play a completely detestable character that you could not help but love. He is the ultimate in the role played so wonderfully these days by Bill Murray and Steve Carrell.

He left home and began performing at 18 taking a juggling act to Vaudeville. And quite the juggler he was.

But it was his appearances in film and on radio that created the character we came to love so much. The down on his luck drunk who hates kids and dogs, love wine, women, and song, well, at least wine and women. A guy who admits no flaws even when you can't help but stare right at them. A con man with a tongue as sharp as his patience is short who is always scamming for something.

It was a character that in parts resembled his real self. While he never drank in his younger days to keep his juggling abilities sharp, in his later years he did turn to the bottle enthusiastically and in the end it claimed his life. He also harbored deep bigotries, a misogynist and racist who in his will left a sum of money to start an orphanage that would be restricted to white children. A master at his craft, but a truly flawed character.

He suffered as an adult from rosacea, an illness which gave him the characteristic flush cheeks and bulbous nose that made him so recognizable.

We leave you today with some famous lines from W. C. Fields:

"How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon--and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter."

"I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally."

"The movie people would have nothing to do with me until they heard me speak in a Broadway play, then they all wanted to sign me for the silent movies."

"Business is an establishment that gives you the legal, even though unethical, right to screw the naive--right, left, and in the middle."

"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain unless you've used up all the other four-letter words."

"During one of my treks through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We were compelled to live on food and water for several days."

"Marriage is better than leprosy because it's easier to get rid of."

"Start every day off with a smile and get it over with."

"It's hard to tell where Hollywood ends and the D.T.'s begin."

"Say anything that you like about me except that I drink water."
Have a great weekend everyone.
Live, love and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Do You Have To Do Something To Do Something Good?

Whenever I teach ethics, one point in Kant's discussion that always gives rise to an interesting conversation is his claim that for an act to be of moral worth, it cannot serve any positive purpose for the person who does it. Even if it just makes you feel good, that's enough to to say that the act is selfish and not of moral worth.

"Suppose then the mind of this friend of mankind to be clouded over with his own sorrow so that all sympathy with the lot of others is extinguished, and suppose him still to have the power to benefit others in distress, even though he is not touched by their trouble because he is sufficiently absorbed with his own; and now suppose that, even though no inclination moves him,any longer, he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty -- then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth."
Moral worth, to Kant, requires your being pathologically unable to experience empathy and yet have an anal retentive attachment to duty. O.k., sure, a bit over the top.

But we could more charitably interpret the point (and, of course, there is reason in the text to do so) such that if there is possible gain, we may be glad the person does it and we may encourage them to do it, but it is only when there is sacrifice that we truly know the person deserves praise for doing something morally good.

So, this brings up a question I was asked by a student yesterday. Suppose we think not of acts that bring some benefit to the person who does them, but also acts that require no sacrifice. For example, my long distance service, Working Assets, donates a portion of their proceeds to good causes. I make no more long distance phone calls than I would have, I do nothing I wasn't going to do anyway. But I am in some way benefiting the world. It is a desirable act, it is an act worth encouraging, but is it a good act?

Similarly with recycling. We still consume the same amount. We still throw it into a can. We just throw it into the blue can on the left. We've done nothing different, yet we made a small difference. Is that act, therefore, deserving of moral praise? Do you have to do some thing to have done something morally good?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

We haven't had a pity party here in a while, so we're overdue.

This week I feel sorry for the makers of roller coasters. Thanks to the stock market, they have joined the first baker who sliced bread, the ship-builders who gave us the Titanic, and the engineers who designed the Hindenburg as creators of the world's most worn-out metaphors.

I feel sorry for George W. Bush's speech writers. They've got his last State of Union address to write, a historical document that will be analyzed for generations and for it they are restricted to only using variants of the word "quack."

Finally, I feel sorry for Fred Thompson. He was hailed as the savior of the GOP when he was considering a run and now he leaves having attracted very little voter support. What does it say about our country when a aged, white, conservative actor who speaks of the Soviet Union can no longer be made President of the United States of America?

So, who do you feel sorry for this week?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Is/Ought To Be the Purpose of Science Education?

I've been reading classic texts in alchemy the last few days. Interesting stuff. It's for the textbook in the history and philosophy of science that I am working on and the central idea is to have students pick the science of their interest and look at its historical development through the lens of classic readings in the history of the philosophy of science. That way one can see whether it is the scientific method itself that has evolved, our understanding of it, or both.

What really strikes me in doing this project is how little connected science teaching is with the history of science. We don't teach in science classes so much as we train in science classes. As such, the historical narrative is eliminated. I think that this is unfortunate because it would allow students to see science more as a process than as a monolithic set of facts and connecting bridge theories to remember. It would also humanize the field, showing how scientific beliefs do not arise out of nothing, but from social and historical influences that would truly show science as embedded within culture and therefore demonstrate why it is crucial to understand.

Why this disconnect of science education and the history of science? One answer is socio-political. Our contemporary means of educating science students comes from the Cold War with its push to develop as many young scientists and engineers as possible. You train rather than teach to fill a cultural imperative. We needed technical professionals at a high rate to keep from being overrun by the Soviet menace and so the history was seen as something we couldn't afford. Crank out those scientists.

Another take comes from philosophers like Paul Feyerabend and sociologists like Steve Fuller who argue that the dissociation of science from its history is intentional. the purpose is to hide the embarrassing elements and construct an artificial sense that science is perfectly rational and therefore is superior to all other social institutions. Scientists, therefore, place themselves in a star chamber, where they and they alone are the holders of Truth.

Is there a good reason to teach history of science? Should we change the way we teach science that is less geared towards training? The how follows from the why. If we want to rethink science education, we first need to determine the purpose that education is designed to achieve. So why should we teach science?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Is Getting Your Mind Blown a Religious Experience?

Thinking back over the UMass conference a few months back, Unbroken Chain, one moment still stands out. It was during the first day's panel on the Grateful Dead and religious experience. During the q&a, someone told the story of going to a festival with dear friends and their son who was a heavy metal fan, always making fun of his hippie parents and their friends.

During Buddy Guy's performance, the kid wanders down by the stage and hangs out watching. After Buddy's set, the kid comes back with his eyebrows raised and his eye wide open, clearly confused. He looks at the family friend and says, "I don't know how to explain what just happened to me." Grinning, the friend responds, "We have words for that. We say, 'Man, that was heavy. It just blew my mind.'" The kid shook his head yes and said, "You guys always sounded so stupid saying that."

We've all had that experience, having something blow our minds...some of us while having the great pleasure of listening to Buddy Guy. Kant draws a distinction between those things that are merely beautiful and those that are sublime. The beautiful pleases us, while the sublime overwhelms us. This seems to be the sort of thing we are talking about here. (I dare you to find someone else who puts Kant and Buddy Guy in the same paragraph.)

Is getting your mind blown akin to or the same as a religious experience? Many things in nature can lead to such experiences, for example, a stunning sunset, a amazing natural setting like the Grand Canyon, a close encounter with certain animals, but they can also be created in human environments, especially when encountering art. Is music specially well-suited to do it more so than other art forms? Are there certain types of music, say, improvisational music, like jazz, blues, or rock jam music, which offer a more direct connection to the psyche of the creating artists and therefore make it more likely to have your mind blown when you submerge yourself fully in the music?

Monday, January 21, 2008

On Clintocracy

kpbuck99 asked yesterday,

Just what is it that you have against Clinton? I keep following your blog and I don't believe you have clearly mentioned why you dislike her, unless I missed something.
Fair enough. Here's why I think the the country will be in deep doo-doo if Clinton gets the nomination.

The first thing to realize is that the President is not a person. We have this leftover monarchic picture of the lone ruler sitting in a throne in the Oval Office dictating the way the country runs. The fact is the President is a team, a group of individuals performing a number of roles all needed to keep a very large government operating. This team is made up of close friends and trusted advisers of the team captain whose name appears on the ballot, but by pulling that lever, pushing that electronic touch-screen button, or hanging that chad, what you are really voting for is the team as a whole.

When you understand it that way, Obama's skin color, Hillary's ovaries, McCain's time as a POW, Edward's father's occupation, Romney's Mormonism, and the rest of the nonsense we are given to concentrate on is nothing but a distraction. The real question is what is the team, as a team, going to do for the country. In the case of the Clintons, we've already seen who the team is, how they work, and what happens when you let that team do what they do...and the results are not pretty.

Let me take you to a time far away. It was called the 90s. The Clinton team came into office and for the first part of their first year in office, they were Democrats. They did things like try to challenge institutions with histories of bigotry, like the military's explicit ban on gay and lesbian members. This was one of the last places where something like Jim Crow still existed, actual written rules designed to clearly and openly discriminate. They tried to tackle a health care system that was (and remains broken). And they got their heads handed to them.

As a result, they turned from Democrats into Clintoncrats. They decided that the key to all future action would be whatever served the interests of their team, not the interests of the Democratic party and not what served the interest of the American people.

The Republican Party, since the 80s, has been a coalition of three interest groups: (a) the corporate/limited government wing advocates for whatever is perceived by leaders of major industries to be in the best interest of their bottom line including, but not limited to, minimizing regulation, even when it saves innocent lives, limiting taxes, especially on the wealthiest, eliminating any government program that helps the environment or those who need help, (b) the militaristic wing has stood for a "muscular" or "Reaganesque" foreign policy" that considers the use of military force a tool to be used whenever convenient to coerce or change the governments in other countries in order to assure they act in accord with what they perceive as American interests (often those determined by the corporate wing), and (c) the religious conservative wing that demands policies dictated by a particular brand of Christian literalism which is infused with a deep jingoistic nationalism making flag burning and preventing gay marriage equally religiously and politically imperative. The Democrats, on the other hand, were supposed to be the ones who fought against corporate interests for the interests of the working people and consumers, the ones who fought for a foreign policy where war was a last option which could be avoided by fostering a world where justice, opportunity, and hope led people to be less militant, a country where pluralism and respect for difference allowed us to be our best selves integrated with those whose worldviews differ from our own. Reagan had made these virtues seem like vices, convinced Americans that government was always the problem and never part of the solution, made racism, classism, and homophobia fashionable, and we were in desperate need of someone who would stand up for the real virtues again.

Instead, the Clintons brought onto the team a Republican strategist named Dick Morris whose notion of triangulation would reign supreme. Triangulation meant taking those points where the Republicans were the strongest, adopting their rhetoric and half of their policy, pointing to Democrats who cared about the issue and making them out to be out of touch idealists who should be mocked, and in the end standing for absolutely nothing so that the majority of American people who have a knee-jerk "they're both wrong" reaction would identify with you. Underneath it all is the belief that the American population is made up of three parts: one part will vote Democratic no matter what, one part will vote Republican come hell or high water (although they believe they will be raptured away moments before either or both), and the third will swing back and forth. Whoever captures them, they argue, wins. So the key, they thought, was to only care about this vast "middle" and pretend these are the independent moderates -- actually they are people who don't really think very much about politics at all and are influenced by spectacle. but spectacle requires money and by triangulating, the effect is that Clintoncrats could now push corporate interests and help themselves to half of the money that had been flowing generously into Republican coffers for decades. So, they could be pro-corporate while pretending to be "moderate" thereby gaining the votes of those they were harming.

This is what gave us things like the telecom bill. There is a stunning advantage to those in power, so the central idea behind Clintocracy was to take their power and use it to erase the differences between the two parties.

And thus, to gain a second term in the White House, Clintocrats displaced the Democrats. The effect was an interesting one. Short term it worked perfectly. Clinton got his second term even with the whole Lewinski debacle spurted daily across the newspapers and tv screens of every American. The Clintons sold the Democratic party to corporate interests and political consultants for re-election.

But it was the political equivalent of New Coke, which for our younger readers, was rolled out when Pepsi was taking over an increasing market share from Coke which had long dominated the cola market. The New Coke tasted exactly like Pepsi, but was labeled as Coke, the idea being that it would then attract everyone. It flopped like no one's business. The Democrats were swept out of Congress in the midterm elections of 1994. In the 2000 Presidential election, a large number of Democrats fed up with not having a Democratic party fled to Ralph Nader's campaign that was based on everything the Democratic party used to stand for, and those independent moderates voted based upon who they would rather have a beer with since, after all, such a criterion makes perfect sense when there is no difference between the parties as Clintocracy was so intent on showing. When the election was handed to Bush, the Clintoncrats still occupied their places in Congress where people like Joe Lieberman, Tom Daschle, and Hillary made sure that they would guarantee to lead the Democrats to defeat after defeat and give Bush everything he wanted.

They may not have been in the majority, but they were now firmly entrenched in the Establishment and that guaranteed them power, fame, and money, and given that Clintocracy gave up policy desires, that really was all they wanted and even in the minority they had it. Non-elected members of the team like Joe Klein, Paul Begala, James Carville, George Stephanopolous, and Lawrence Summers all found themselves in grand shape with the Democrats being a non-party. They didn't care that the Democrats would lose and lose and lose, they still won no matter what. All they had to do was to keep the great unwashed, the Democrats out of the Clintoncrat party structure which replaced it.

But then in 2004, something happened. Democrats got pissed. They'd had enough and they mounted a brief insurrection against Clintocracy. A rebel-rouser named Howard Dean, a medical doctor turned Governor from the land of Ben and Jerry (hallowed be thy names) told the people of the Democratic party that they had the power, he stood up and demanded accountability bellowing
What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President's unilateral intervention in Iraq?

What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts, which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?

What I want to know is why the Congress is fighting over the Patient's Bill of Rights? The Patient's Bill of Rights is a good bill, but not one more person gets health insurance and it's not 5 cents cheaper.

What I want to know is why the Democrats in Congress aren't standing up for us, joining every other industrialized country on the face of the Earth in providing health insurance for every man, woman and child in America.

What I want to know is why so many folks in Congress are voting for the President's Education Bill-- "The No School Board Left Standing Bill"-- the largest unfunded mandate in the history of our educational system!
And he was therefore eliminated by the Clintocrats and the media and replaced by a sleeping aid you usually can only get by prescription who in classic Clintoncrat style parroted Republican talking points at Dean in the debates and on the stump.

Then two things happened. First, the facade that Bush had perpetuated was washed away with the flood waters of Katrina. When the levees broke, so did Bush's hold on power. Bush's Watergate was literally a gate for water. Republicans had control of all of the government and every bit of it has been a disaster. Modern American conservatism has shown itself to be a complete failure in every realm. An American city has been practically wiped off the map. Our international standing is in the toilet. The economy is teetering precariously on the verge of something very, very scary. Jobs are gone. It is not a good time to be a Republican.

Second, Howard Dean, who lost in his bid for the Presidential nomination was made head of the Democratic party committee, replacing Clintoncrat Terry McAuliffe. Under McAuliffe, the Democratic party sought money and thereby gave influence to a small number of big money donors, funneled that money up to the Clintoncrat faithful in the consulting world, focused only on seventeen states while ignoring the rest of the country (remember that map showing a stripe of blue in the northeast, another along the west coast, and a couple dots in the north), and repeatedly got trounced in election after election after election at all levels, blaming the defeats on the Democrats who refused to be Clintoncrats. Dean changed that and commenced his 50-state strategy which built up the party infrastructure everywhere, which sought Democrats to run for everything from dog catcher and school board to Congress, even in the most heavily Republican districts. He brought the people back into the party and spread the wealth around to places that had never seen it under McAuliffe. It was ridiculed mercillously by the Clintoncrats...and it worked. That is the reason we were able to capitalize and now have majorities in both Houses.

Dean's tagline was "I want my party back." And it turns out that when he and the rest of us got it back, we have been able to take a couple of steps in the right direction. We are in a place where the utter disgrace that has been Bush conservatism could allow us to once again have a Democratic party that could begin to make the country and world a place in which people flourish, a place of justice and respect, and equality. We are finally out of the shadow of Reagan and at a juncture where a reformed progressive party could make a difference. The possibility of handing that moment back over to the Clintoncrats makes me want to cry.

I oppose Hillary Clinton for two reasons: first, under her, government will once again stand for nothing except protecting the interests of the Clintoncrats. Consumers will see more work like the telecom bill. Gays, lesbians, and other oppressed members of our society will see more work like the Defence of Marriage Act. The world and the people in it will suffer for restoring this team to power. Second, the take-away message to the DC insiders will be that you can still win elections by running against those Democrats who care about the environment, helping the vulnerable, the right to choose, fairness and equality, everything that is good and right. Once again, the Democratic party will become Clintoncrat and become invisible, poll-driven, and meaningless. We will abandon the political discourse to the greedy, bigoted, and nationalistic, and the Democratic party will again lose power. My prediction is that if Clinton wins the Presidency, the Dems will lose half their advantage in Congress in the first mid-term election and control of at least one chamber in the following Presidential race.

We've seen it before. We know what they do. We know how they are. We know what will happen. We've seen it before. Any Democrat who supports the Clinton team and doesn't expect to be stabbed in the back, kicked in the teeth, and thrown under the bus is a damned fool. The best analogy I can give you is Carrie Fisher's character in The Blues Brothers. She's been jilted, left at the alter. She finally is about to get her long-sought after revenge, but Jake takes off his sunglasses and once again she is smitten, giving herself over to him...and what happens? She's used and rejected, carelessly dropped in a sewer. If you really think that the Clinton team won't do it to us again, I've got some real estate in Florida for you...boy, oh, boy do I have real estate in Florida for you.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Humor of Laughing

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we talk about humor and laughing. Not unusual topics for a Comedist homily, but this weekend we put the comedic cart before the horse. Usually the laughing comes as a result of the humor, but what if the laughing IS the humor.

We tend to laugh when we hear laughter. This is one of the reasons why laugh tracks are used to prop up poorly written mass produced sit-coms, those heretical impostors for true comedy. Laugh tracks are to Comedism what indulgences were to Catholicisms, false attempts to circumvent authentic paths to righteousness.

But they work. Laughter is itself funny. Some particular laughs are funny. My old friend Reed had the most contagious high pitched cackle. When Reed laughed, everyone laughed. But while some laughs are funnier than others, perhaps the funniest is the uncontrollable belly laugh. Even though that baby is laughing in German, people who don't speak a single word of the language surely find that funny.

Second only to the uncontrollable belly laugh, however, is the stifled laugh. Laughs that are allowed to come out because of the context. The harder someone tries not to laugh, the funnier it is. Think of the classic "Bigus Dickus" scene from Life of Brian or Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke trying not to laugh at Tim Comway's Siamese elephant story.

We laugh for many different reasons. Sometimes it's an odd juxtaposition -- the male chihuahua trying to mount the female great dane. Sometimes it's because we have certain expectations and we are shocked when something different comes about -- this was pretty much every single gag in Benny Hill. Sometimes it's because our brains are caught between competing interpretations and trying unsuccessfully to rectify them -- traditional set up/punchline style jokes. But here, it is the laughing itself that brings about the laughing. It is humor without a focus, it is the funny without the object of funny. It is the essence of pure humor, a step towards Comedic enlightenment, a perfect state of hilarity in which one is in touch with the unmediated funny-in-itself, "der Witz an sich" as Schopenhauer once put it after putting a whoopie cushion on Hegel's chair in a faculty meeting. The laugh that is both subject and object. The disembodied guffaw. The belly laugh without a belly. It is truly the chuckle of God.

We can laugh so hard we lose our bodily functions -- think milk through the nose. This is the first step to true Comedist holiness where you laugh so hard that you lose your body itself. Be the laugh, my dear friends, be the laugh.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Bullshit or Not?: Benjamin Franklin 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 irregular series of posts.

Let's continue with the Ben Franklin theme. Here's a sentiment from Franklin,

It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.
Protestant work ethic glamorizing twaddle or Marxist/Hegelian insight?

Bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a one word response or a dissertation.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Benjamin Franklin on the Passing of Gas

Today is Benjamin Franklin's birthday. One of the first great American intellectuals, it would be untoward to let this day pass without considering some of his deeper thoughts. So, for your edification, I bring you Franklin's essay, "To the Royal Academy of *****" written in 1781 on the topic of the passing of gas. Yes, these are the actual words of one of this nation's founding farters, I mean, founding fathers.


I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. "Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande d’y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee". I was glad to find by these following Words, "l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE", that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater_Utility.

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.

Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.

That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Smell. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed. But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contain’d in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Smell, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produc’d in and issuing from our Bowels? This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water?

For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick’d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels! The Knowledge of Newton’s mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack’d by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction. The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing one’s Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight & die for. -- In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers above-mentioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your "Figure quelconque" and the Figures inscrib’d in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a


Happy birthday, Ben, the first American comedian.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why Lieberman Will Be the GOP VP Nominee

I was a little surprised at the reaction Monday to my prediction that Joe Lieberman would be McCain's selection for VP. Let me explain why I think it is pretty much a done deal.

(1) Politically simpatico

Their positions on most issues, especially foreign policy, are very much in line. Often a VP has to spend time explaining how he now supports someone who differs from his own stated positions on x, y, and z, but in this case the two are very much in agreement on most issues.

Additionally, having left the Democratic party (when he lost the primary last time around, he formed his own party, Independent Democrats for Lieberman), he fancies himself the same sort of maverick fighting against the excesses of his party as McCain gets built up by the press.

(2) McCain's Problem

McCain has a problem in that a large segment of the base, the Christian Evangelical social conservative wing and the movement does not like him. He ran as a centrist in 2000 against Bush and made a lot of enemies among the party faithful. His "I'm a maverick" schtick, false as it is, has been clearly a case of running against social conservatives and these are true believers who see the world as black and white, us and them, good and evil, and McCain has been clear in saying I am them.

He needs to bring them in because of their numbers and get out the vote machinery, but he can't pander in the usual ways, such as choosing Huckabee as his running mate, because his entire appeal is based on being the great hero of the moderates who stands up against right wing with "straight talk" and that would fly in the face of the entire strategy.

McCain, like Lieberman, is convinced of the universal truth of the Clinton/Dick Morris model -- there is a third of the population who will vote Democratic no matter what, a third that will vote Republican come hell or high water (although many expect to be raptured away before the high water arrives), and a third who vote one way or the other. This group in the middle is crucial because whoever captures them wins. Never mind that this picture is false, but it is what guides their thinking.

McCain needs to win over this fictional third without alienating the sure GOP third. Lieberman is the key. Social conservatives LOVE him because he is an orthodox Jew who takes half their Bible as seriously as they do and he is a hawk on Israel. You cannot underestimate the power of the apocalyptic narrative that guides Christian conservatives in this country. Their Dominionist beliefs require a country called Israel to exist in order for Jesus to return and as such they have a virulently anti-Semitic, but unbelievably powerful Zionism woven into their theology. Politically conservative Israeli politicians spend more time with these folks than they do with American Jews who tend to be more liberal, because the right wingers give more money and support for military action. The idea of having Lieberman as veep is akin to having born again Bush a seat above. It solves McCain's religious conservative problem without alienating the centrists.

(3) The Power of a FoxNews Democrat

At a time when Republicans are weak because of the incompetence of Bush, McCain is going to have to attack Democratic proposals. At a time when voters really want change, how do you make them afraid of change? Having a FoxNews Democrat like Lieberman is the key. He can say, I was one of them until wackos like this with their far out ineffective policy proposals drove me out of the party. The voters will think, "Hey if a Democrat says that the Democrats plans won't work, he must be telling the truth." And there is nothing that Joe Lieberman loves to do more than bash Democrats. He would make the perfect hatchet man.

(4) The Making History Response

Whether it is Obama or (please, no) Clinton, McCain would be fighting the "a vote for the Democrats is a vote to change history" story line. By picking someone who is/was a Democrat would itself be making history with a supposed unity government in our winner take all system. The GOP could therefore counter-balance the narrative that they are opposing the forward tide of history.

(5) The Mainstream Media Would Fall Over Themselves

The mainstream media has a collective crush on John McCain. He can do no wrong, even when he does wrong. They love him almost as much as the love the imaginary "moderate" position they've created (which is really mainstream conservatism). Reporters have nothing but disdain for what they see as hayseeds on the right and those obnoxious do-gooders on the left. The David Broders of the world would do nothing but trumpet the glory of the NEW AMERICAN POLITIC here (never mind, again, that is is nothing but mainstream conservatism) and the death of progressivism. And if we've learned nothing else about how politics work, we have seen that Washington insiders live and die by the meaningless opinions of the tiny village of DC-based, cocktail party circuit, pundits. They would go bananas, and that would be a major factor.

So there's the case. Where am I wrong?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Going Meta

I try not to write too much about the activity of blogging itself, but yesterday we passed a milestone here. The 100,000th person came to the playground. That really is a pretty amazing thing, something that probably merits some self-reflection...well, that and the fact that I'm a philosopher in the business of self-reflection.

Sure, many found it accidentally, others to defend Ayn Rand or laboratory classes, but regardless of how they may have stumbled their way here, they were hundred thousand of them. I have professional articles that probably have only been read by me and the journal's referees, but a few jokes and some off-beat questions and a tenth of a million hits. Pretty bizarre.

It seems to say something about the democratic nature of the blogosphere that some shmoe off the street can put up some ideas and have them so widely accessed without the explicit approval of some gatekeeper. Of course, that's an over simplification. The traffic has been affected by links from folks like Peter Daou, Helmut, Dr. Free Ride, and especially Aspazia, who are older, better established and wider read. But one could argue that this is more of a pecking order than a formal structure where well defined power relations determine one's status and thereby the size of one's e-megaphone.

Or, one could argue the other direction. Chris Bowers has an interesting piece arguing that among progressive political blogs, there is an emerging hierarchy with a short head of a few very powerful, very well read blogs and a long tail of small hobby blogs like this one. The few elite blogs are forming a sort of establishment unto themselves such that

"roughly 1% of progressive, political blogs that receive over 95% of all progressive blogosphere traffic, and the 99% of progressive political blogs that receive less than 5% of all progressive, political blogosphere traffic."
No doubt, this is also true in other segments of the blog world. This de-democratization seems akin to the new wave of large corporate organic farms in that the movement in that both cases what made them attractive was not only the product they offered, but the escape from traditional sources and means of production. You were not only getting interesting opinions or pesticide-free food, but you were supporting the little guy who had been shut out previously, folks that you want to support and keep on the scene.

But while the share of those of us in the long tail may be small, it is hardly insignificant. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the number 100,000. The question then can be reframed in terms of intellectual insularity. Are these the same people with the same ideas, beliefs, and preconceptions just lining to and reading others who agree with them? There is some evidence to suggest that this sort of thing is the norm.

But, for some reason, I have the sense that this is not the case here. I have a policy of reciprocal blogrolling -- if you blogroll me, I'll blogroll you. As a result, I have some sense (not the best sample, admittedly) of who is reading, at least among those who also have their own blogs. I like to browse the blogs on the blogroll and you learn a lot about folks from what they write, and many are unlike me in a number of ways. There are openly atheist, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, and Buddhist bloggers on the list. Conservative, liberal, libertarian, and moderate blogs. White, Asian-American, African-American, and Caribbean bloggers there of a wide range of ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds. And this is just what I've been able to pick up from occasionally reading the folks who link here. I did not set out to achieve this, like I say, it came to me by finding out who enjoys playing on the playground enough to link here.

I've never hidden my own views, but the same time I've always tried to make this blog about the questions, rather than about my view, leaving space for conversation and welcome anyone of any viewpoint as long as you are willing to play nicely and have your own view subjected to the critical scrutiny of all the other play friends here. What I find the most rewarding is not the being read, but the resulting conversation -- something I often stay out of. I don't want it to be about me and I don't want to seem heavy handed, after all, I just had my say up top. I've truly loved the fact that friends, family, colleagues, and folks I've never met mingle, joke, engage in passionate discussions here. It really is like the best dinner I've ever thrown with no dishes to clean up.

So, let me end, as usual, with a question. When do the posts lead you to comment or not? For those who are regulars, is there one sort of post that makes you leap right to the keyboard? For those who are once in a while commenters, what is it for you? For the lurkers, and I lurk on many blogs that I read daily and never comment upon myself, is there something keeping you from feeling comfortable enough to type what you are thinking?

Thanks everyone for making this so much fun every day.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Name That Ticket

O.k. prognosticators, time to pull out the crystal ball. Who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees for President and Vice President (that is, President in charge of vice), who will win, and, as a tie-breaker, what percentage of the popular vote will they garner? The person who comes closest will receive one year's free subscription to Philosophers' Playground and the honor of a free guest post following the election.*

My guess is Obama/Webb over McCain/Lieberman with 52% of the popular vote. What say you, my friends?

*Void where prohibited. No purchase necessary. One entry per person. Anyone can put up a guest post anytime, just send it to me.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Feast of Saint Mack

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the birthday of Mack Sennett who would be one hundred and twenty three. He is most famously the brain behind the Keystone Kops which introduced the comic car chase and pie fight into our comedic vocabulary.

In his honor, this weekend let us offer up some policeman jokes:

1st Officer: "Guess who I pulled over in a traffic stop the other day?"
2nd Officer: "Who?"
1st Officer: "Janet Jackson!"
2nd Officer: "Speeding?"
1st Officer: "Nah, she had one headlight out."

How many cops does it take to throw a man down the stairs?
None. He fell.

Finally, my favorite:
At the end of a two week trip to the US by the Pope, His Holiness is given a day off and is asked what he would like to do. "You know," he says, "it may sound strange, but I'd really like to drive for a while. I'm always getting driven everywhere, I'd like to get back behind the wheel." So, the Pope and the driver of his limo and takes off. Used to driving in Germany with no speed limit on the Autobahn, he gets pulled over. The officer approaches the driver's side window and the Pope rolls it down apologizing for any traffic infraction.

The cop goes back to his car and picks up the radio, asking to talk to the chief. "Chief," he says, "I've got a problem. I pulled over someone really important and I don't know what to do."

"Is it the governor?" asks the Chief.

"More important," says the cop.

"Senator Wellby again?" asks the Chief.

"More important," says the cop.

"Who is it?" asks the Chief.

"I have no idea," says the cop, "but it's got to be someone BIG...the Pope is his chauffeur."
Your favorites police jokes?

Have a great week everyone...and, hey, let's be careful out there.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Wharf Rat and the Constitution

Bogus asks,

And, like, what are the metaphysical implications of Wharf Rat.
One of my favorite Dead songs and one of my favorite essays in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, a piece by Stephen Stern, is dedicated to exploring it. The interests there are more ethical than metaphysical, but the narrator of the song tells of meeting a man named August West who is homeless, blind, and an alcoholic who spent many years in jail for a crime he did not commit. Now reduced to pan handling, the man asks for dime for a cup of coffee. The narrator, down on his luck himself, does not have the dime, but has "enough time to hear his story."

In listening and offering hope and encouragement that his beloved has been true to him, we see that the narrator has not given August West what he asked for, but rather he did give him what he needed and that was to be treated with compassion as a fellow human. In the paper I presented at the Unbroken Chain conference in Amherst a couple months ago, I argued that this is a theme that runs throughout the Dead's originals and many of their selected cover songs (if anyone wants a copy of the paper -- a work in progress -- just drop me an e-mail). They sing about those among us who are marginalized -- criminals in prison or on the lam, laborers in unsafe jobs working long hours for little pay, the homeless and addicted -- but do so in a way that they give voice to their stories.

Often the root of moral activity is empathy. Too often we are very quick to marginalize the least among us in order to erect a wall around us, an ethical buffer to keep us from the responsibilities we have as moral beings. The moral lesson we can find in Wharf Rat and many other Dead tunes is that we need to understand that we need to understand people's stories and when we do, they look much different to us and that difference is connected to our moral understanding of the world.

Claude asks,
What is so great about the United States' constitution? I understand that the government should obey the constitution and that rule of law must be followed. But hearing people like Ron Paul and his supporters, you would think that the constitution is some perfect document that should be followed by the letter and never changed. Doesn't it have many flaws, the 2nd amendment to name one?
There seems to be two questions here, one about the virtues of the Constitution as written and one about originalism, that the Constitution is to be interpreted in terms of writers' intent.

Is the Constitution perfect? No. I personally think its greatest flaw is the winner take all, non-parliamentary system it sets up. Parliamentary systems are explicitly party-based and the idea was that if you vote for the person and not the party, it would mean a wider variety of viewpoints represented in the legislature which, according to the Enlightenment era "marketplace of ideas" ideal that our founders were coming out of, would provide us with a more effective means of finding the best policies. Unfortunately, it has had the exact opposite effect. A winner takes all system forces there to be two and only two parties and eliminates the range of voices in our politics. Good intentions, poor execution.

Is it a good document? Absolutely. It was thoughtfully constructed in a way that consciously avoids many of the problems of European governments at the time that were insightfully considered. Separation of church and state, balance of power -- including war powers, independent judiciary, there are many, many very smart ideas in our Constitution, including especially a process to amend it.

As for originalism, that's a major issue that would take a long post in and of itself, but let me give a sketch of what I would argue and that is that the Constitution must be seen as a living document because its job is to provide a governmental structure capable of creating the conditions of human flourishing in the world we live in. Of course, we have a radically different -- and in some ways much more enlightened -- understanding of the world than these 18th century thinkers and for that reason, of course we will understand the meanings of words differently. Consider notions like "human," "citizen," "church," "arms," whose meanings are very much different now than they were then because of technological advance and intellectual progress in uncovering presuppositions that were false. Contemporary contexts provide us with questions and challenges that could not have been foreseen even by the wisest minds of the late 1700s. If the Constitution is to be applicable to the world we live in then the terms must refer to the world we live in. How it so refers is tricky business, but that is precisely why we have courts and why judges are important players in our culture conversations.

My take is that originalists understand this and what they are really seeking to preserve are exactly the original biases and bigotries of those times. Racial and gender equality, for exmaple, were not meaningful concepts in the 1700s and by seeking to enforce laws written with these inequalities implicit within them, it
reinforces them in support of an agenda opposed to equal rights. In the case of Ron Paul, explicitly racist themes appeared in his news letters and I think there is little doubt that the unfairness of contemporary society is striving to be maintained in the libertarian movement. I argued a similar line in my discussion of Ayn Rand a while back and think something similar is going on here.

As usual, thanks for the great questions again folks!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thesim, Atheism, and Rationality

A few questions related to religious belief this time around, so let's have at 'em:

Enigman asks:

What precisely is it, about the world (and/or oneself), that inclines reasonable people towards (i) atheism, or (ii) theism, so that they regard those otherwise inclined as unreasonable; or, are all reasonable people agnostics?
This is the psychological version of the question asked by Bogus:
What would suffice as a refutation of theism? -----or atheism.
Which is the logical side of the issue. The first question deals with what factors lead to actual belief or disbelief, while the second asks what factors should lead to belief or disbelief. These are two different questions, but are clearly related.

The first question has the presupposition that agnosticism is rational. The idea -- and I will put words in Enigman's mouth here, so if this is not what you intended, please correct me -- is that the existence or non-existence of a supernatural deity is not something that is determinable to be true or false with absolute certainty, the rational stance towards a proposition whose truth or falsity is uncertain is to withhold judgement, therefore the only rational position here is agnosticism. This is not terribly different from what is argued by W. K. Clifford in his famous essay "The Ethics of Belief."

Of course, in the simpler form in which we have the question, it needs to be pointed out that rational belief does not require certainty. Virtually everything any of us rationally believe is uncertain to some degree, with the exception of a few mathematical results, but this does not mean that we are irrational for believing it. For example, I believe that sticking this fork in this electric socket would lead to unhappy consequences. Is it possible that it wouldn't? Sure. Maybe a freak power outage would happen at just the right minute to spare me the shocking effects of the action. Or maybe, unbeknownst to me, someone substituted cleverly disguised plastic forks for my usual metal flatware. Any number of strange situation could be the case and the existence of these means that electrocution is not certain. But anyone who then refused to believe that sticking the fork in the electric socket is a bad idea because they were amped up because of the logical resistance provided by these current possibilities is surely being irrational. It is rational to believe that which is probably true, even if it is not capable of being shown with absolute certainty.

This is where Bogus' question comes in. Is it possible to refute or, on the flip side, prove the existence of God. Some, like Anselm have tried to argue for God's necessary existence. Others like Aquinas have argued that God's existence is a necessary consequence of certain observable facts, like motion. none of these arguments have succeeded. On the other side, one can argue that certain combinations of properties cannot all belong to a single being if they are logically inconsistent, that is lead to contradictions. This is what the arguments concerning omnipotence -- the "can God create a rock too heavy for God to lift" arguments -- demonstrate; not that God can't exist, but that if a god exists it could not be the sort sketched out in certain theologies. So, there is nothing that would refute or prove the existence of God, but that doesn't really get at our question of rational belief since there is nothing that could prove or refute the belief that whenever I drop my pen it will always fall.

So, the question is how people do and should make up their minds concerning belief in a deity. Most people, I would contend, use a combination of argument from tradition and an appeal to authority -- we've always believed it and I was told it was so by a highly respected member of the community, so I believe it. To put a positive spin on it, being a part of the religion gives them a meaningful sense of connection to their past and a vibrant community in the present. In this way, religiousness makes you a apart of something more than you are.

Others rely on a felt, experienced sense of the Divine. It is not an abstract propositional concern, but a feeling of connectedness to everything that is a part of their basic stance towards life. In this way, it is more an orientation than a belief.

Still others look around for observable evidence. On the atheistic side, they see system after system that can be explained, predicted, and manipulated according to scientific theories to an unbelievable degree. Given that systems we thought were irreconcilably beyond our comprehension have become perfectly well understood, it seems reasonable to believe that all such systems will be. Thus the move from agnosticism to atheism. On the other side, there are those who see the meticulous order and structure, complexity that seems to them to be impossible to have arisen from purely physical causes and this is taken as observational evidence of intelligent creation. Hence, you have the argument for theism.

For yet others it has nothing to do with the world, but issues of power. For some, having a Heavenly Father who will send you to hell with no desert if you are bad and a pat on the head if you've been good is a comforting way to avoid the sort of anxiety over full responsibility for self that Sartre and the existentialists discussed. At the same time, others disregard a Divine being because it intrudes on their autonomy. I am me in the world, I will reject that which holds me back. In my personal case, it was a question of ethics. I remember sitting by myself when I was ten years old and still being sent to Hebrew school when an amazing sentence popped into my head -- "I could just be good." Those five words made me an atheist. I realized that one of the sources of my moral education was not actual part of the rational justification for ethical claims and that if one employed Occam's razor, my whole ontology could become more streamlined. Not that I used those words at ten, but that was the idea.

The psychology of faith is an interesting question, perhaps more interesting than the logic of it...but maybe that's because the latter has been beaten for centuries and the former has scientific, social, political, and biographical aspects.

So, what was it in your own case that made you a theist or an atheist?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Scientific Realism and Science Fiction

C. Ewing asks a series of three interrelated questions,

Does science make statements about "the world", or is its role merely to give us the best dice roll possible? That is, when we're dealing with scientific laws and theories, are we expected to see it merely as a predictive tool or is it saying something more broad and significant, a statement of how reality is or at least seems to be?

This is perhaps related to the next:

When discussing other possible worlds and possibilities therein, ought one take science (as we have it in this world, obviously) into consideration? When our science tells us that an object cannot be accelerated to, much less beyond the speed of light, it is descriptive of this world's scientific observations, and what seems consistent within that paradigm.

However, seeing as how science is by its very nature empirical, and therefore descriptive not prescriptive (and also limited by the experimentation and data) how does is it even sensible to take it into account when discussing other worlds, save in the instances in which the thought experiment of said other world is assuming it to have a form much akin (if not in all scientifically important ways) to our own?

This is tied intimately to the third and final question:

In a given fictional realm, where it is given that a spaceship does indeed travel faster than the speed of light, and you (we'll call this person Y for sake of argument) say that this is not possible: is person Y actually saying anything reasonable/consistent? Sure, it may be reasonable to say it's not possible here, but there it seems quite evident that it is possible, so isn't claim of person Y, in fact, demonstrably false? In an otherworldly sense of the term demonstrable, obviously.
Let's take them in order.

The first question deals with what we call the realism/instrumentalism debate. Science is useful, there's little controversy there, but does that usefulness imply the literal truth of tools used to successfully predict?

The place to start is with what is called the semantic view of theories in which we think of scientific theories as sets of models. Models represent, depict, or stand for the system we are curious about. Consider Bill Cosby's classic routine on street football where the quarterback gets down on one knee to design the play by drawing it in the dirt, "Shorty, you're the piece of glass." "I don't wanna be the piece of glass." "What do you want to be?" "I want to be the Coke bottle top." "O.k., you're the Coke bottle top." Now, Shorty doesn't really look like the Coke bottle top, but in the model, certain aspects are meant to describe the real world, in this case, the lines in the dirt are meant to resemble the trajectories of the receivers running out for the pass. So models have some parts that are meant to be representative and others that are not. A model is neither true nor false, but better or worse. A good model represents the system we are interested in in such a way that we can form a mental picture of how it might work and derive results that can be reinterpreted in terms of the real system, results that can be tested. A good model's predictions come true, at least in a prescribed region and the bigger that region the better the model.

But better and worse doesn't mean real. We can have better and worse models of the space shuttle Columbia and better and worse models of the starship Enterprise, the difference, of course, is that the first one is modeling something that actually exists and the second one isn't. Which are scientific theories more like?

Instrumentalists say the Enterprise. Maybe there is something out there to be modeled, maybe there isn't, all we know is whether our models let us do the things we need them to do. Science is a toolbox, not a metaphysical microscope giving us access to some hidden underlying structure of ultimate reality. These are scientific agnostics. Bas van Fraassen, aside from being one of the best writers and having one of the coolest names in all of contemporary philosophy, is one of this view's strongest and smartest advocates.

Realists say the Columbia. The argument is that usefulness is an indicator of something. How could it be so useful if it weren't actually right, if it weren't really mirroring some aspect of the real underlying structure? It would be a miracle if it had nothing to do with reality, but just somehow happened to always get the right answer.

Now, we know that no scientific theory is finished deal. Every theory is born refuted and will be replaced at some point by a better one. But for really good theories, the replacements tend to be sharpenings, not radical overturnings. As such, we may not be wise in contending that the details must be true of the world, but don't we have reason to think at least the outlines are the likely the case? To think so is to be a realist. I tend to be more of a realist myself, I'll admit. One has to temper how much one is willing to posit of the system itself from the model, but some models are so accurate in their predictions and provide novel predictions in areas that were not even considered when the theory was formulated and in those cases, it seems that the model must be modeling something to be doing it so well.

This leads into the second question. We can talk about other possible worlds that differ from ours but follow the same laws and theories, but are different models of those theories. theories are sets of models and some of those models are parts of the world we live in and some aren't. For example, Kurt Godel showed that in Einstein's general theory of relativity, there are models with closed temporal loops, that is cases in which a fast moving electron could travel in spacetime and bounce off itself. This will not happen in our universe because it would take a very peculiar arrangement of matter and energy, but it is one of the models of the theory and we can talk about a possible world in which it is true.

Which brings us to question three. Fictional worlds could be of two kinds, (1) those that have laws like ours, but initial conditions that are different, and (2) those that follow different laws. Laws of science, even on a strictly realist understanding are not necessary truths, they describe how the world happens to be not how the world has to be. The world could have been Aristotelian, it could have been Newtonian, it just isn't. One does not risk immediate and necessary contradiction by creating a universe that runs on principles different from those that govern ours.

At the same time, it is interesting and often difficult to see where different laws clash if you want to set up a set that includes some of our laws. Trying to answer this question was a project undertaken in great detail by early analytic philosophers like Hans Reichenbach who wanted to see where Kant's version of Newton clashed with Einstein's new understanding of the universe...but that's a long and different post...actually, that's my dissertation.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ghosts and Privacy

JMH asked,

Do you believe in ghosts?
A touchy subject in Gettysburg, my friend, where even the urinals in the men's rooms are supposed to be haunted. Do I believe that the non-material spirits of those who have passed are still walking among us? No. Do I believe that these essences somehow are able to affect material objects making clanks and bonks in the night? No, those mysterious screams that are heard around midnight are the remaining echoes of the cries of Hanno's logic students. Are there so many similar accounts of experiences that some explanation needs to be given? Sure, but I wouldn't count on the spooky to be real.

In a sense that is slightly stronger than metaphorical, however, I do believe in ghosts. The ramifications of lives lived will ripple in odd and unusual ways, surfacing and changing the path of events even after our deaths. Just as we find ourselves later in life saying things without thinking that our parents said, so too, many effects are transmitted through the living and parts of us carry on beyond our own demise. For those of us who teach, how many examples have we borrowed from our own teachers? How many mannerisms have we unconsciously acquired? Academia is a small world, and we can all play the academic version of the Kevin Bacon game pretty easily, for example, my teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher was Albert Einstein. Is something in what I don't realize I'm doing in the classroom an odd tic picked up from Einstein? If so, wouldn't that mean that the ghost of Uncle Albert is in some sense alive in the room?

Which of those parts of us will be transmitted beyond our material incarnation? We don't know, and they may or may not be the ones we would hope. That, I suppose, is part of what makes life so interesting.

And it leads to our next question, a really good one from Effie Jones,
If a person leaves no specific instructions in a will, is it still wrong to read their private correspondence, or their journals? Let's assume that person had a known desire for privacy.

I wondered the same after the book on Mother Theresa hit the shelves - her private correspondence with her confessor was published for the world to see (worrisome, as confession is meant to be private, plus she did state in her lifetime that she did not want her letters released). I think of Kurt Cobain's journals as well.

Does the 'good' of what we learn from outsize lives outweigh that person's desire for privacy?
If we think of privacy strictly in terms of rights, then the case seems to lean towards making the material public since once the person dies, there is no longer someone to have the right to privacy unless the papers were explicitly transferred into someone else's possession through a will. But this, I think, illustrates one of the problems with relying only on the notion of rights. There does seem to be some sort of respect that we should maintain for the person, even after his or her passing.

But what does this respect entail? If the papers hold details or claims that could be harmful to others who are living, then that seems to be a separate case. Let's simply assume that what is contained in the papers are merely personal, reflections, historical details, and the like. In this case, is the only possible harm to our understanding of the person, to his or her reputation? If so, do we have the right to shape our historical image? This seems not to be the case. If it is a matter of embarrassing truths causing us to be remembered in a way we would prefer not to be, then it seems like truth may be more important than vanity.

But suppose it is not mere vanity, but that you know you would become a symbol and such revelations would not allow for the same power that would contribute to the advancement of something positive that you dedicated your life towards. I think this could be argued perhaps in the Mother Teresa case, that displaying her clay feet with their clay warts and bunions could lead to her example being less inspirational and therefore less influential on creating more potential good. On utilitarian grounds, then, should we avoid it?

Suppose we have good reason to believe that the private writings will be misinterpreted. Without the writer around to give context and explain intent, these writings could be misconstrued and used in harmful ways. Of course, this sort of question is precisely what scholars discuss for a living. If one is a public figure, then they seem the rightful subject of scholarly study and if we are to understand the world around us better, shouldn't we have as many data points as possible. In this case, wouldn't the sequestering of the material be a harm to humanity at large. Should we lose a depth of understanding of what really happened in our history to protect someone against embarrassment who can no longer feel embarrassment?

Man, Effie, that's a good question.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Jobs and Questions

We'll start on this batch of questions, but if you have others, feel free to leave them in this weekend's thread and I'll try to get to as many as possible.

pm asks,

If you could have any career other than the one you currently have, what career would you want to have and why?
A salesman, like maybe in a haberdasher, or maybe like a chapeau shop or something. You know, like, "What size do you wear, sir?" And then you answer me. "Seven and a quarter." "I think we have that." See, something like that I could do. (name the film for Comedist extra credit)

Actually, if I was not a philosopher I'd like to work for Wackenhut as a guard at a nuclear facility because after the hectic holidays, I could sure use some rest. You know it was bad enough that the Bush administration has made it so that you can't tell The New York Times from The Onion, but now we have to face the fact that The Simpsons is a documentary.

Hanno asks,
I had a question, but I forgot it. My question: what was my question? the answer to your question would in fact be your question. So, in asking it you have answered it. Unless, of course, it has no answer in which case it would not be a question, but a pseudo-question. So, indeed, before we can set about answering your question, we first need to establish whether your question is, in fact, a question.

Now the act of asking is a form of request and answering that request is a context specific action. One can answer a knock at a door by opening it. One can answer a call from God by joining the clergy. One can answer another team's scoring, by mounting a strong drive to a touchdown. But to answer a question is a speech act requiring the assertion of information in the form of a declarative sentence. If one were to ask, for example, "What color is grass?", the appropriate response is the declarative sentence, "Grass is green." "What color is grass?" is a question because it is a request for information that can be communicated by way of declarative propositions. Your request is not for information so capable of formulation and hence is not truly a question. This applies, not only to your question, but also to your meta-question -- but avoiding the need to invoke something like Russell's theory of types, we'll simply deal with your first order concern.

So, if your request is not, in fact, a question, what then is it a request for? What sort of action would be the appropriate response in the context? My implicature which rationally reconstructs speaker's intended meaning here would reasonably lead to the belief that the request really was for a dopesmack upside the head. Consider it to have been executed, my dear friend.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's that time again.

For those new to the Playground, I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I let the students ask absolutely any question they have, any question at all, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Some former students asked me to revive it on-line when this blog first started, so every once in a while I open it up. So, if you've ever had a question you always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll get to as many as possible in this week's posts.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Did Civility Win in Iowa?

Looking at the results of the Iowa caucuses, there are certainly many particulars that are parts of the explanations for the victories of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. At the same time, there is a similarity: the two nice guys won.

After decades, especially the last seven years of faux-tough guys, politicians full of fake swagger, folks who avoided Vietnam pretending to be GI Joe, is this indicative of a shift in the cultural zeitgeist? Have we gone from "a guy I'd like to have a beer with" to "a guy I'd like my daughter to marry"? Or is this reading something in that isn't there?

The Power of Negative Role Models

TheWife and I have been having conversations recently about the best place to raise the short people. We're in an area in which the funky folk density (FFD) is significantly deficient and we dream of living in a place where our bumper stickers arouse less ire and the shorties would have less of a sense that they are being raised by weirdos...or at least weirdos who are comparable to more of their friends' parents.

This led me to think of my own path and wonder how much of who I am was defined by the positive influences, the people and values I accumulated from my surroundings, and how much was due to negative role models, to that which I rebelled against. I grew up in a wonderful place surrounded by wonderful people, some of whom are regulars here. In addition to my family, I had an exceptional crowd that I ran with in my school days. There were always interesting arguments on every topic we could wrap our young minds around (and some that we couldn't, but still argued about anyway). They were good people, smart people, funny people, caring people. I owe much of who I am to their influence and love them all dearly to this day.

At the same time, I was a nerd in an upper-middle class suburb and the ruling class in that school were the Heathers. They were cliquish, materialistic, fashion-conscious, shallow, and nasty. There were bullies. Life was not easy in many ways and the presence of the cool kids was always there. Our group defined itself as much negatively, in terms of not being the in-crowd, as we did positively, in terms of our own identities and interests.

So this leads back to the original question. How much do we profit from having those around us who provide living examples of how not to be? Are we more strongly formed by that which we aspire to include in ourselves or that which we are repulsed by? How important, how formative is alienation from the negative and harmful side of our culture? Sure, it is hard at the time, but in the long run, is it better to feel like a weirdo growing up or not?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ham Radio, Chemistry Kits, and the Future of American Science

I've been having a correspondence with Tom Coates, an amateur radio operator, who has brought to my attention some proposed legislation in Maryland to protect amateur radio antennas from local and home-owner association regulations. Ham radio is one route for young people to enter into the world of science and technology, one path to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with something that will spark the intellect and imagination.

And it isn't only amateur radio. Steve Silberman has a fascinating article over at Wired about the fate of chemistry sets detailing the why and how they are being turned into sterilized, pointless, joyless magic kits that will inevitably fail to spark the imagination of would-be future scientists.

We have, Tom notes, slipped from third to seventeenth in the world in terms of the number of bachelor's degree recipients in the world (Tom Friedman in The World is Flat quotes this statistic on page 257). Yet, we fail to plant the seeds of scientific resurgence, in Tom's words:

I've been thinking about your article in the Baltimore Sun back in June. One solution to the problem of spreading a common understanding of science and technology through society has existed for almost a century--the Amateur Radio Service. Amateur (ham) Radio has also sparked some notable careers: The inventors of FM radio, the integrated circuit, the Apple Computer and the AltaVista search engine all acquired their interest in science and technology as teen-aged amateurs. Nobelists Jack Kilby, Michael Brown, MD, Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse also started as teen-aged amateurs, as did Michael Griffin, the current Administrator of NASA.

More to your point are those who pursue non-technical occupations while enjoying Amateur Radio. Prof. L.B. Cebik of the University of Tennessee - Knoxville teaches aesthetics at the university and teaches antenna theory to hams. Singer- songwriter Joe Walsh of the Eagles band is an active amateur. Walter Cronkite is retired, but still on the air as a ham. Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, MD, Surgeon General of the Navy, is a new ham, licensed in 2005. Other notable examples are congressman Gregory Walden and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

You point out the scarcity of teachers like Mr. Wizard who explain the sciences to non-specialists. Good teaching is very important, of course, but shouldn't the objective be encouraging self-directed life-long learning? That is also one of the purposes of Amateur Radio, as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations title 47, Part 97.1. As you can see, it works.

Or at least it worked for a long time. Unfortunately, Amateur Radio is in a state of decline. The number of U.S. licensees has declined about 4% since peaking in 2003 and median age that year was 59, a new high. The publisher of the largest Amateur Radio magazine, QST, reported in June 2004 on page 45 that only 3% of its readers were under 35. The same article is my source for our advancing median age. Of course, everyone nowadays has a steadily growing menu of alternative leisure activities.

But there's another factor, too. Since the 1980s, real estate developers have routinely written antenna prohibitions into the land titles as restrictive covenants. This practice may have been originally instigated by cable television companies, but it persists even after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 invalidated such restrictions for a narrow list of television broadcast and Internet antennas. It is difficult to retain a teenager's interest in Amateur Radio after her or his parents
learn that experimentation with outside antennas could lead to trouble with the community association and possibly a lawsuit. Amateur Radio has become largely invisible.

Maryland Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 941 were introduced in the 2007 Maryland General Assembly session to remove Amateur Radio antennas from the control of developers and newly-formed homeowners associations, but, like more than 95% of the bills that session considered, they didn't pass. We plan to try again in 2008.
Those in Maryland, please do contact your local representatives and see if we can get this on the radar screen -- assuming the radar is still allowed, of course. Anyone know of similar efforts in other states?

What other means are there to rekindle the interest of Americans in science -- including kids, teens, and adults? In the 60s and 70s, the space program was sure to get the dreams of kids going. Shows like NOVA got to me hooked into a lifelong love affair with all sorts of big questions related to the nature of science and the universe. Ham radio and chemistry kits are tried and true. What other novel routes should we also look to bolster, especially in terms of interesting girls as well as boys?