Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Moral Status of Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

So, you take this opportunity to make a New Years' resolution and a day, a week, a month later you break it. Where's the problem?

A resolution is a promise to yourself. Breaking a promise is going back on your word and this is morally forbidden. Of course, one also has the power to forgive contracts, if one is owed. If you have borrowed $20 from me, I have the right to demand back the money, but also the right to nullify the deal, to say, "Ahh, don't worry about it. Keep it." In the case of a resolution, you are both the maker and recipient of the promise.

In breaking the resolution, have you forgiven the obligation to yourself that you incurred? Is the problem that you've broken it without such a forgiveness? Is that even possible?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza and the Rationality of the Weak

Watching the horrible scenes of death in Gaza, it brings to mind something I wrote a while back that I'll discuss again here.

There is no doubt that the sixteen civilian deaths are part of the reason for the disproportionate attack, so, too, is the upcoming Israeli elections, the waning days of the Bush administration, and tacit approval of governments in Egypt and other neighbors who do not hold Hamas in high esteem. But the fact is, while some may think the attack expedient, in the long run it will only worsen the situation, harden those who might have been able to move to a more moderate place, undermine the possibility of eventual trust.

But this, of course, is not how many Israelis see it. As Tom Segev wrote in Ha'aretz:

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to "teach them a lesson." That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom - via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey.

The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to "liquidate the Hamas regime," in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a "moderate" leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations.

As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over.
The assumption is the result of the divide of rationality created by asymmetric power.

The approach is based on the old Pavlovian notion of positive and negative reinforcement. If the mouse pushes the left pedal, it gets a painful shock; if it presses the right peddle, it gets a food pellet. Thereby it is trained to push the pedal the experimenter wants it to push. Such conditioning is more effective with progressive disincentives -- the more it pushes the wrong pedal, the more painful the shocks become. The more and the longer you act in a way that we do not approve of, the more difficult we make life for you -- all the time showing you that we will stop the pain if only you do what we want. Of course, the rational person prefers the absence or the alleviation of pain to the experiencing of pain, and so not allowing your will to be bent to ours under these circumstances is irrational because in acting in that way you are freely choosing pain where you do not need to be experiencing it. What kind of idiot prefers the stick to the carrot?

This is the reasoning of people who have something to lose and the foundational standard of rationality that they apply to everyone, regardless of their relative wealth, power, or circumstances.

But, of course, that sort of cost/benefit analysis is not the one made by those with less power. The weak cannot afford utilitarianism. What is on the line for them is not just pain or no pain, but one's very existence as an autonomous person or nation in and for itself. The surrendering of autonomy is a major cost that is not included in the calculation by the powerful. It may be the case that no carrot is worth suffering the stick that takes away one's soul and going along is to give in and give up more than merely spiteful resistance. More pain means nothing to them when it it their very self that is threatened.

Those who are in control think only on the operative level because they are never faced, much less are not virtually always faced with questions on the existential level -- they know their basic status as a free agent is safe and only have to decide what to do as a free agent. Israel's founding mythology -- one that is deeply believed by its residents and cannot be underestimated -- is that Israel constantly remains under existential threat, that any minute it's enemies could wipe it off the map as they threaten with their evil rhetoric. The shadow of the Holocaust is real and lives in the minds of the nation.

But it is belied by the facts on the ground. Israel is not going anywhere. It has the military, economic, and historical means to survive whatever realistically would be thrown at it. The deaths of the sixteen civilians by Hamas rockets is murder, evil, terrorism; but it is not a threat to the existence of the state of Israel. Israelis do have this threat in their minds, but their actions show that it is not in their hearts, for their logic is that of the asymmetrically strong. They do not understand the rationality of the weak. Until they do, they will continue to place landmines along the path to a stable and secure region.

The 1.5 million Palestinians living in a tiny area in enforced joblessness and hopelessness in Gaza are fish in a barrel and no matter how good you think your shots are, you will kill fish that you were or were not aiming at. The shots will not bring peace, just more and more of the tragedy that is the same.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Aisle Be Seeing You: Checkout Lane Ethics

So you're in line at the grocery store and the cashier is just starting to ring up your groceries when you realize you've forgotten something. Is there anything wrong with running back and grabbing it if there is someone behind you? Are you right in being annoyed if the person in front of you does this? Is there a difference between forgetting something and running back for it and getting a spot in line with the intent of finishing your shopping while in line? By getting in line, have you tacitly agreed to have finished shopping?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holidays are Hypocrisy

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

New bit I'm working on:

Yes, Christmas comes but once a year. Kinda like being married...

You know, I have a theory about the holidays. Holidays are hypocrisy. The term "holiday" comes from "holy day" and we like to pretend we are celebrating what is sacred, what is virtuous, but really when you look at what we are really celebrating, it's sinfulness. And not just any sins, the big ones, the seven deadly sins.

For example, we have a holiday called Labor Day when no one goes to work. We say we're celebrating hard work, but really it's laziness, the deadly sin of sloth.

Think of everyone's favorite of the deadly sins, lust. When do we celebrate this? O.k., when do we NOT celebrate this, but officially when do we celebrate it? If you are involved in a relationship it's Valentine's Day, if you aren't, it's Palm Sunday.

Greed? Christmas. Goodwill to men? No, goodwill to all the crap I got last year so I make room for everything I want this year.

Gluttony? For adults, it's Thanksgiving, for kids it's Halloween. Halloween is always a tough time for us because my wife and I are those parents everyone is glad they don't have. You know, those vegetarian organic tofu for dinner parents. The "we keep our kids away from candy" parents. So, Halloween is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, you want them to have the experience of trick or treating, but on the other hand, for kids who can't eat candy, it is kind of like taking a eunuch to a brothel on customer appreciation night.

The thing is, that is isn't just our holidays. We love to celebrate other culture's special times, too. One would think this was a great multicultural broadening of ourselves. A real "we are the world" moment. Except that whenever we do it, we invariably celebrate by taking it as an excuse to get completely wasted and take home a stranger. Think about it: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras. Nothing says "I respect your heritage" quite like meaningless drunken sex.

Interestingly, there is one non-majority holiday that calls for drinking and still isn't widely celebrated: the Jewish holiday of Passover. You're supposed to drink four glasses of wine -- it doesn't say how big -- in order to get happy. You'd think this would be a shoo-in for wider consumption, but no. My guess is the other part of the ritual, during Passover you cannot eat anything that is leavened. When you can't put anything in your mouth that rises, it may have seemed less festive.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 26, 2008

When Is Belief in Santa Claus Rational?

We can start from the assertion that anyone older than 18 cannot rationally believe in the existence of Santa. Is it ever rational?

For a five year old, you have a number of ways of acquiring this as a reasonable belief. First, there is a seemingly legitimate argument from authority. Your parents, who have been right about many things, who have more experience about the world, and who get along in the world sufficiently well tell you that Santa Claus is real. There is direct empirical evidence -- you see someone who look s like him in various places and finding folks dressed in red fur with a white beard is unusual enough to rule out chance. One could follow the hypothetico-deductive method which many argue is the foundational for legitimate scientific reasoning -- start with a hypothesis, deduce a prediction, test it, if the test is possible claim inductive support for the hypothesis and test again. Make a list of presents you would like, mail it to Santa at the North Pole, wake up in the morning and see if any of those presents are there. Successful runs of the experiment each Christmas seems to provide evidence.

So, if we argue that it is rational to believe at five, but not at eighteen, what piece of evidence or independent inferences in the years between turns the belief from rational to irrational?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry (Sorta) Christmas

We wish a chappy Chanukkah to all our Jewish playfriends and a merry Christmas to all our Christian playfriends...well, sort of a merry Christmas. Astronomers are now saying that Christmas, the day of Jesus' birth is not December 25th, but June 17th. Hopefully, we all got a good look at Venus and Jupiter the other week as they appeared close together by the moon in the early evening sky. Well, in the year 2 B.C. the same sort of astronomical event occured, except that the two stars were so close together that they would have seemed like a single new star, brighter than anything else in the sky and something completely novel. This, they argue, was the Christmas star that supposedly guided the three wise men.

Generally accepted research has placed the nativity to somewhere between 3BC and 1AD.

Using the St Matthew's Gospel as a reference point, Mr Reneke pinpointed the planetary conjunction, which appeared in the constellation of Leo, to the exact date of June 17 in the year 2BC.

The astronomy lecturer, who is also news editor of Sky and Space magazine, said: "We have software that can recreate exactly the night sky as it was at any point in the last several thousand years.

"We used it to go back to the time when Jesus was born, according to the Bible.

"Venus and Jupiter became very close in the the year 2BC and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light.

"We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star - but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far.
We have here, what Charles Sanders Peirce called a retroductive explanation, an explanation that if it were true, would explain a surprising phenomenon. The question is whether this is the best explanation, the most likely explanation.

And if it were to be true, would it matter? Two words: Santa and Speedo.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Award for Cokie Roberts

I'm kind of getting used to this winning thing. Supporting Obama was a new experience for me. Generally, if you wanted to know who would win an election -- primary, general, or otherwise, look at who I didn't vote for. But now I'm on a roll, I picked another one!

Over at Media Matters, they were holding a contest -- vote for the most inane statement of the election season. And guess what, as per my instincts Cokie Roberts won for her Hawai'i is foreign and exotic comment. She garnered more votes than the next two highest vote-getters combined. O.k., I will grant you that throwing your support behind Cokie Roberts in an inane-off is kind of like betting on a knock-out when Mike Tyson fights a third grader, but you know, regardless, I'm starting to like if they'd only get her off of NPR....ruins a perfectly good Monday morning every week.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sex and Parenting

While we're on a roll of gender questions, here's one that's been on my mind for a while. One of the lines that you hear from those opposed to gay adoption is that a child needs a mother and a father. Why?

The key to good parenting is consistency. Parents cannot send mixed signals. What one parent says, the other has to say as well. Kids are best served when they have clear, unambiguous boundaries and role models who display a consistent mode of behavior. The old idea that the father needs to be a strict disciplinarian while the mother needs to be the gentle nurturer is not only false, but harmful. You want parents who both reinforce the same message to keep kids straight. On the face of it, the idea that there should be some difference in the parenting based on sex seems simply wrong.

So, in the name of charity, what sense can we make of it? What does my parenting as a father convey that TheWife's doesn't and vice versa? I cook and clean, TheWife knows how to use power tools. What could it be?

I suppose one could say that in a society that does have gender roles still ingrained, I, but not TheWife can serve as a role model for how to be a good person while occupying a dominant role in a patriarchal culture. Similarly, TheWife can serve as a model for how to live a fulfilled life in contemporary society. This, of course, would really only be meaningful once the children get old enough so that this sort of thing would make sense to them, once they understand that mommy and daddy are people in a larger social context.

Is there some other way in which gender should make a difference in parenting?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sex and Handwriting

I was doing some grading and TheWife was looking over my shoulder. Without looking at the names, she was able to correctly determine the sex of the writer in 29 out of 30 cases. While she is quite a detail-oriented person, my guess is that this experiment could be successfully repeated with most people. If anyone can, in the majority of cases, pick out male from female handwriting, what accounts for the difference, nature or nurture?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Festivus

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is that time again. Happy Festivus everyone. As we celebrate a festivus for the rest of us, use the comments for the annual airing of the grievances.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 19, 2008

Would This Be Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property. If you take the ideas or worse the words of someone else's published work and include it in yours, you've got a case of plagiarism. But here's an interesting twist. Suppose the idea was yours to begin with. Now, I've got a friend and colleague who wrote a paper and in working up the idea with him, I threw out a metaphor that made it into the paper. As academics, we do this sort of thing all the time, kicking stuff around, bouncing ideas, getting responses. My contribution was unattributed per my instructions, but now working on an article for someone else's book, I find the metaphor I came up with appropriate for my own purposes. If I were to include it without attribution to the original article, would it be plagiarism? It is my idea and even my wording, so I am not stealing anything; but it was published in someone else's piece first. I would not do this, but if I were to include the metaphor in its original wording unattributed, would that be plagiarism?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Heredity and Authenticity

Two part post on a piece I'm working on now for the forthcoming Led Zeppelin and Philosophy. The paper focuses on the reunion and why Jason Bonham replacing his father john seems to many to be the most authentic choice.

The same sort of thing went on for years when there was noise made about a Beatles reunion including Julian Lennon. In that case, one might make a genetic case, that being the child of John, he voice resembled his more than anyone else would and this would save the sound. But in this case, that sort of genetic argument does not seem to work since a non-related drummer who studied Bonham's style could conceivably play just as much in his style.

If not nature, what about nurture? Derek Trucks is the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks. Here we have someone playing a different instrument, but raised in the atmosphere of the band he would eventually join as a member, playing in Duane's slot. He learned at the feet of the masters, weened on the sound by members of his extended family, both literal and metaphorical. As such, his inclusion seemed natural.

Or does it have nothing to do with the sound? Could it be that with someone who looks like him, we could think that we were seeing the original line-up? Is it a matter of creative self-deception?

So what is it with the younger Bonham behind the drums? Is there any reason to think he's more authentic a choice than any other drummer?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Felt Art

Still thinking about Ludwig von Beethoven and the nature of art. Here was an artist who lost his ability to perceive his own art form and all those connected with hearing -- music and the spoken word. But, there were others art forms still open to him. There are many, many visual media -- painting, sculpture, dance, fashion, printed poetry... Taste has it's own form of artistry in cooking. Smell has a small group of artists, perfumers. These are people who have highly trained senses of smell and guard the recipes for their fragrances jealously.

But there seems to be one sense left out. Is there no art form that plays purely and primarily upon touch? Sure, we talk about texture of clothing and of food, but they are not primarily tactile-based artistic experiences. What might such an art form be like?

The only thing that comes to my mind is amusement park rides. These are machines that are designed to make us feel certain ways. Roller coasters, for example, are much like narrative art forms such as film, opera, or literature in that there is a beginning leading to a moment of tension, then a climax and resolution. Someone who was deaf and blind could still very much appreciate the experience of a roller coaster and the way its design makes a rider feel. But this may be a different sense of the word "feel." Is it? Either way, what might a felt art be?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Beethoven 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.

Today is Ludwig von Beethoven's birthday, so let's play with a quotation of his.

I despise a world which does not feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.
Does music reveal? If so, what? Surely, we've all had the sensation of epiphany from music, what has come to be called "having one's mind blown." Is such a musical experience truly revelatory as Beethoven suggests?

So, bullshit or not? You decide. As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word to a dissertation.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Marriage, Gays, and that Romantic Nonsense

Guest-post today from C. Ewing:

Go here for the full story.

"As a libertarian, I was unfamiliar with why people thought the state should define marriage, much less why it should be defined in such a way as to limit it to a certain number or sex of people. And what I found is that there is an unbelievable wealth of argument in favor of traditional marriage. And most of it is based (no, not in the fevered imaginations of what Hollywood and the media elite think religious conservatives believe) but in Natural Law. In this way of thinking, society defines marriage as a sexual union between a husband and wife, based around the ideas that babies are created via intercourse, that procreation is necessary for the survival of society and that babies need fathers as well as mothers. So the entire premise of this article is wrong, if you look at it that way."

There seem to be two competing ideas here. The first is that this simply isn't the government's place, and the second is that it's not a matter of how religion or scripture define marriage, but how society does so. If marriage is a sacrament, then I will readily concede the first. It is not the place of the government to divvy out sacraments. However, if society is the one defining marriage, and society is using legislature as the avenue in which to make that definition puissant, then doesn't the government have to get involved? Society has already pulled the government into the ring. It seems unimportant that it's not government's place, because society has forced this burden upon the government anyway.

But this only changes the shoe, not the dance. Is it society's place to divvy out sacraments? I don't think the Church (pick your referent for that noun) will be willing to share such a duty. As such, it seems society is simply overstepping its own bounds. Once the government is involved, it has little choice, but to see this as picking and choosing sides. And the fact of the matter is that this is rampant, unabashed, and largely unapologetic bigotry. The U.S. Constitution is traditionally amended to grant (and/or preserve) rights to a class of people (I'm thinking of XIII, XV, XIX, specifically, but I guess there's also XXVI), which were previously denied. Despite bowing before the masses, we have a tradition of at least eventually siding with the underdog, the minority. Even the South eventually yielded, albeit kicking and screaming the whole way.

Is this where we draw the line in the sand? This issue? Why this particular issue? I'd think voting, property rights, the right to hold office or you know, something else with an impact on the way our government and/or society actually functions would be the final straw, but marriage? A tax break and faux headaches are the end of it all?

Now, yes, states are the ones stepping in here. But that's sort of an aside. It's still a matter of society determining the stature and importance of people's relationships. If we were to arbitrarily determine that no brunettes could marry blonds we would be laughed out of town. It seems if the full power of this stance is not religious in nature, then it's simply some sort of cultural bias. We're protecting tradition for tradition's sake. But if that's so terribly valuable, why are mixed race couples now somehow "ok"? They were and to some degree (this depends largely on your region) still are "nontraditional" couplings. But that tradition was not preserved. Indeed, it's now seen by many to be somewhat hokey.

I guess, not suffering from rampant homophobia, I just don't "get it". What is being preserved? What is being protected? And what does the genitalia assortment or lack of variety of another couple have to do with another couple's relationship? Is traditional marriage weakened inexplicably by nontraditional marriages? Is changing the title of the certificate all that's needed? If it's merely a matter of preferred terminology, it seems like we could have fixed this by now.

"Now, as a member of a contemporary marriage, albeit one that isn’t so foolish as to think marriage is about gender equality or romantic love, I can honestly say that the Bible has been the only guide that has helped my husband and myself. We turn to it constantly to be reminded that the husband is to sacrifice for the wife and the wife is to respect the husband (these things don’t come naturally to either my husband or myself)."

Color me stupid, but I had thought that every wedding I had ever attended had been about...wait for it, wait for it: romantic love. Well, at least that was the impression I was under previously. And do we really need the Bible to tell us that sacrifice is necessary in a relationship? Everyone who has ever been on a date (well, maybe a second date) realizes that sacrifice is necessary. Which dessert? Which restaurant? Which movie? The list continues ad nauseum.

Perhaps, gender equality isn't always important. Perhaps, romantic love isn't always important. There are severely unbalanced marriages, and prenuptial agreements were probably established for a reason. But doesn't this just tell us that marriages come in all manners? What's one more variety? We'll just have more colors of crayons. And?

But maybe I'm missing something. Maybe there's more to this hoopla than I am giving it credit. Can someone give me a really strong argument? I'd rather not be burning straw here. Help a newb out? I'm obviously clueless. I need assistance.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Feasts of Saints Emmett and Sam

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the festivals of two Comedist saints. The first is Emmett Kelly, the man who more than anyone else, is responsible for the American clown. Kelley began as a visual artist and took his talents to the Knickerbocker Circus where he started as a chalk artist who would entertain people by telling stories that he simultaneously illustrated. From there he became a trapeze artist and eventually put on white face. In 1931, he first came out as Weary Willy, a sad hobo clown who would clean up after acts and amuse crowds with his sympathetic acts. His became the face of clowning, elevating it beyond the silly, routine slapstick, humanizing the act. He would join Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey and continue the act into the 1950's.

The second is Sam Kinison, one of the figures who shaped stand-up comedy in the late 1980s. Like his father, Kinison had been a fire and brimstone pentecostal preacher. Then a divorce and disillusionment with the church led him in a new direction and he became a comedian unlike any other. He and Howard Stern -- with whom he had a much publicized feud -- were to the Reagan 80s what Lenny Bruce was to the Eisenhower 50s, crude, raunchy (often deeply misogynistic), and envelope pushing. Kinison was well-known to hang out with the big hair bands of the times and if Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were the ones moving comedy into rock concert sized venues, Kinison was the one who turned the amps up to eleven. He was killed in a car accident when his car was struck by a drunk driver at the height of his fame.

The contrast between these two at this point is interesting. Kelly, like Charlie Chaplin, was truly a product of the Depression. The ability to create bittersweet resonated with the era. There was a tenderness that audiences could identify with. Kinison, on the other hand, came out of the Gordon Gecko self-indulgent 80s with the odd contradictions of the Reagan years which elevated greed to a virtue, but canceled the Beach Boys' annual 4th of July concert on the Mall in Washington because that rock and roll was the devil's music. Hair was big, white people were angry, and his act reflected the times. The 60s were over, the social conservatives were on the rise and he took aim at all of it.

What is interesting is that we are now on the verge of a social alignment. We are coming out of an era of rage and the comedy has shown it. The rage-filled rant comedy of Chris Rock and Lewis Black follow from Kinison, albeit both coming from socially and politically very different places. It will be interesting to see if this new era, post-meltdown will bring with it a new comic sensibility, a return to something in the vein of Emmett Kelly.

Let's leave with classic Kinison:

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 12, 2008

How Important is Gifted Education?

In difficult financial times, schools tend to carry an undue amount of of the burden of cutbacks. Art and music often get cut quickly because we view education through such a utilitarian lens that anything that enriches children intellectually, but not likely to enrich them monetarily is deemed useless. We train workers instead of creating interesting people.

But what of our more intellectually endowed students? These are kids who generally are going to excel no matter what we do. With educational resources limited should we spend less on gifted education since we know they will get good, if not maximal educations without the spending while others need it more than they? Or are these kids special in that they are more likely to play a greater role in the culture and therefore it is a societal investment that would pay increased dividends? Or are both of these warped ways of looking at the question?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So THIS is What Competence Looks Like

Our next Secretary of Energy will be Steven Chu who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his work on laser cooling which uses light to slow down atoms. He was the chair of the physics department at Stanford until he left to become the director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. In that position he has been aggressive at directing research towards solving the global warming crisis in a way that brings together academics, government, and energy companies. So we have someone who (1) is an accomplished manager in a research setting, (2) has a track record of being focused on the most pressing problem connected with energy, (3) is really, really, really, really, really smart, and (4) can pronounce "NUCLEAR." You know, I could really get used to this whole competence thing.

Science, welcome back. We sure did miss you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Appeal to Irony

Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin have another critical thinking piece in Scientific American -- man, I love that they do this -- this time explaining the flaw in on tu quoque arguments, that is arguments where the arguer doesn't listen to his or her own advice and we then discount it, ignoring legitimate reasons why they may be right. Sometimes, of course, you should do as I say not as I do.

We do love to point out hypocrisy as if it was rationally relevant. There are, I believe three reasons. Part of it is, as Alfred Adler once said, "to be human is to be insecure." We bristle at goody-goodies who do everything right because we know we should too, but really don't want to and resent being told or shown that we should do what we know but don't want to admit we should do. When those who are the paragons falter, we feel more secure in our own intentional deviations. Second, we take personal weakness as a statement about commitment to the conclusion of an argument and if the arguer him or herself is not committed to its truth sufficiently to act that way all the time, then, we fallaciously infer, we have no reason to accept their conclusion, sound argument or not. I discussed this a while back in terms of the phrase "moral authority."

But there is a third and more interesting reason. It isn't all hypocrisy that gets the tu quoque or "you do it, too" treatment; it is usually those that are the most deliciously ironic. We love homophobic pastors who turn out to have been closeted, sustainability gurus who are overweight or have big homes, and just check out the flurry of articles about Oprah's weight. The cases that really get us going, the ones that seem the most rhetorically attractive are the ones that are the most ironic.

I think there is a reason for this. Consider the phrase, "I get it." We will use this phrase in two different contexts. Think about when we are learning something, for example, that is at first murky, confusing, or opaque, and then the light bulb goes off. At that point, we look up with that embarrassingly big smile and eyes wide with excitement and say, "Oh, now I get it." The words that our friend who does well in the class kept repeating over and over again suddenly make sense, have a meaning they didn't have before. Similarly with a joke. The sacred space between a set-up and a punchline lead to the same sense. Confusion, then resolution. you can tell when someone "gets" a joke.

Irony is humoresque, it connects in the brain in the same sort of way. You get irony just as you get a joke. We often say of wonderfully ironic situations, "it's too perfect." Similarly, you get that an argument is intuitively sound in the same way that you get the lesson you learned in school. There is that Gestalt moment where things not only look different, but different in a unified fashion. It is that similarity that lets us slide between these two notions of "getting it," we can easily equivocate here and it makes irony feel internally much like being rhetorically moved. As such, we buy into ironic hypocrisy with the force of rational argument. That's my hypothesis, anyway.

Let's take the occasion to play "name that irony." Possibly the all-time classic is Jim Fixx, the man who was overweight and a smoker who became a marathon runner and author of The Book of Running which began the jogging and fitness craze of the 70s and 80s. He, of course, dropped dead of a heart attack while running. The other one comes from Michael Moore's second big film "The Big One," the follow-up to "Roger and Me" where he tries to track down executives who are downsizing American workers, off-shoring their jobs after years of record profits made for them by those workers. We are repeatedly shown corporate hypocrisy with that classic Michael Moore sneer, and throughout the entire movie we see Moore and his crew eating fast food.

Those are ones I love. What are your favorite examples of irony that could easily be misconstrued as tu quoque or "you do it, too" arguments?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gregory Named as New Host of Meet the Press

Citing the Obama slogan "Change we can believe in," NBC announced this weekend that it is naming Dick Gregory as the new host of their weekly news program "Meet the Press." Gregory, a civil rights activist and humorist, will replace the long time host Tim Russert who died in June of a heart attack. Gregory commented that "seeing me on the top rated weekly news show will surely give more of the white, conservative, corporate media-types heart problems."

Gregory made his name in the 1960s as a stand-up comedian boldly discussing some of the touchiest issues of the day, especially civil rights. He began his act at the Playboy Club in chicago in 1961, this way,

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ''We don’t serve colored people here.'' I said, ''That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken''

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, ''Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.'' So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ''Line up, Boys!''
Gregory became a vegetarian later in the 1960s and has become a nutrition and weight loss authority. Citing this combination of work for civil rights and weight loss, NBC executives said that Gregory was like a combination of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, someone who would appeal to eveyone. His weekly roundtable is expected to include Chuck Todd and that guy Jared from the Subway commericals.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Wittgenstein 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.

This turn's quotation comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a short book with an arrogant title that Wittgenstein himself neither gave it nor liked.

5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

5.62 ...The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.
Is our world limited by our language?

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Speakeasy and Carry a Big Schtick

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

As we lift a glass to toast the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition, it seems a worthy moment to once again call for "walks into a bar jokes." Here are a few of my favorites:

An amnesiac walks into a bar and sits down next to a beautiful woman. Looking up at her he asks, "Do I come here often?"

Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, "Olive or twist?"

A guy walks into a bar with a newt on his shoulder. "What do you call that?", asks the bartender. "I call him Tiny, because he's my newt."

A kangaroo walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender is stunned, but pours him a glass and watches in silence as the kangaroo polishes off the drink. The kangaroo says, "What do I owe you, mac?" and the bartender says, "Seven fifty." As the kangaroo pulls a ten out of its pouch, the bartender says, "You know, we don't get many kangaroos in here." The kangaroo replies, "At seven fifty a beer, I can see why."

A man walks into a bar and orders a beer. As he took a pull from his glass, he hears a soothing voice say "nice tie." Looking around, he notices that there's nobody else in the bar. A few sips later the voice said "that suit really looks good on you". The man says to the bartender, "I keep hearing these voices saying nice things, and there's no one in here but you and me. Am I going crazy?" "Nah," says the bartender, "It's the peanuts...they're complimentary."

Celebrate freedom, but tip your bartender. Your favorites?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 05, 2008

Beard or No Beard?

When the President-Elect named New Mexico Governor and former Presidential candidate Bill Richardson to be the next Commerce Secretary, important questions crucial to the future of the nation like what kind of dog the Obamas will adopt got moved to a back seat. At the press conference announcing his selection, Fox News reporter Wendell Goler asked the Governor, "What happened to the beard, sir?"

Knowing that the buck stops with him, the Presedient-Elect stepped up and said,

"I'm going to answer this question about the beard. I think it was a mistake for him to get rid of it. I think that whole Western, rugged look was really working for him. For some reason, maybe because it was scratchy when he kissed his wife, he was forced to get rid of it. But, we're deeply dissapointed with the loss of the beard."
No, this is not from the Onion.

So, today's question, Bill Richardson...beard or no beard?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Death Over Marriage

Eddie Izzard has a bit where he argues that there could never be an effective Inquisition from the Anglican Church because "cake or death?" would not be a difficult question. But apparently marriage or death is a tricky one for the Catholic Church, or sadly, not that difficult.

The Vatican is opposing a UN resolution calling on countries to decriminalize homosexuality. Of course, in many of these countries this is not only a crime, but a capital offense. So, when we prioritize "thou shalt not kill" and "do not lie down with a man as with a woman," apparently the taking of life just ain't that big of a deal when compared to two men or women living in a caring, lifelong committed relationship. You know, I'm not a member of their club, but the idea that an all-loving Being would agree with them just seems patently bizarre.

I do not want to make a strawman out of this position and really want to understand the strongest possible view on that side, but frankly I am having a hard time constructing it. The argument is:

Archbishop Celestino Migliore said the Vatican opposed the resolution because it would "add new categories of those protected from discrimination" and could lead to reverse discrimination against traditional heterosexual marriage.
How? Exactly how does the legal enlarging of the class of people who may be married affect the class of people who already had the right at all? It is not a scarce resource that gets watered down. If a company sells more stock, then my shares become worth less since they are a small slice of the pie than before the offering, but there is no analogy with marriage here. So, what exactly is the threat to marriage or society that makes ignoring death warranted? I'm not asking for a defence of the position, just the strongest possible formulation here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Music, Corporate Culture, and Social Change

Odd convergences. News this morning that Odetta has passed away. A powerful voice for positive change, she embodied the authentic power that music has to make thye world a better place. At the same time, I've been pondering over a conversation I had this weekend with Alyson Gilbert, a country singer whom some may recognize from the television show Nashville Star on which she was a competitor. The producers of the program chose to put her in the country diva/pageant queen/bad girl role, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. A kind and warm person (with an incredible voice), it brought home the way in which corporate interests harness the power of music to create an alternate reality, a fantasy world, designed first and foremost to make money. Starting perhaps with the Monkeys, there is the sense that pop stars can be created wholecloth by marketers, appealing to people's needs that go unsatisfied by life in contemporary culture and filling the gaps with the aesthetic equivalent of soylent green.

So, the combination of these two has left me thinking about the direction in which music is headed. It is a powerful force, but a force for what? With every band having its own MySpace page and the number of shows available for free download on sites like, is the role of the corporate gatekeeper declining in the way some claim? Are we seeing a democratization of access? Has the ipod and itunes ushered in the end of the age of the album in which music was produced and released in 45-60 minute chunks? Will this change how music is made and disseminated? How important is live performance? Does it become more important because that is the only place a performer can make a living or does it become a relic? What does any of this mean in terms of the power music has to make this society more fair, equitable, and good?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Soccer as Class Indicator

On the flight home last night, I was talking with a couple who had an adult child who was a lawyer and raising their grandchildren in a typically upper/upper-middle class suburban fashion. One element was to put the child in an orgnaized soccer league at 3 1/2 like everyone else.

It started me thinking about soccer as a class indicator. Soccer is popular around the world in part because it is easy to play, but hard to master, but also because you can play anywhere with anyone and only need one thing, a ball. It makes perfect sense why less affluent nations would take to soccer, but why has it become a mark of bourgieos life in contemporary America? Is it because it is the "not-football"? Because football is blue collar, it is full-contact, it is associated with communities that are not chock full of lawyers, doctors, and corporate middle managers? Or is it because it gives you a continental or more worldly sense, just like Thai food is so much more cosmopolitan than Chinese? Or is it something else? Why has soccer become a class indicator?

Monday, December 01, 2008

You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Want to Know

Perhaps the most insightful of all of Robert Hunter's lyrics is the line, "You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know." But, that is the job of some folks...say, philosophers. How does one best motivate someone to learn something he or she does not want to know? Aspazia employs film and literature arguing that narrative allows an empathy that working at the conceptual level does not. By what means can we get people to look at things they don't want to see?