Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Straw Liberals Strike Again, Will They Ever Stop Blaming America First (If they Ever Actually Begin To Exist)?

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, had an opinion piece on Morning Edition this morning in which he gave a pre-emtive strike against those darn liberals who are making excuses for Iran. Apparently, liberals who used to care about freedom and human dignity when the threats were inside of the country, no longer do, according to Bowden, when the threats are from outside the country. They just want to blame America first.

Bowden is perfectly willing to grant that overthrowing the elected government of Iran and installing a dictator friendly to US interests, but unfriendly to the actual Iranian people in 1953 may be something that our Persian friends might have a wee grudge about. But, he argues, they should get over it because Jimmy Carter asked the Shah to liberalize his government and not act overly inhumanely against protesters before the Revolution. We helped the Revolution. They should have thanked us instead of taking our diplomats hostage.

But the fact that they did take hostages, in addition to violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, shows, according to Bowden, that they have little regard for decency and rule of law. And he can't understand why liberals are taking their side. So here, before the coming war in Iran, we need to establish that liberals are for some unknown reason excusing the unjust "bad behavior" of Iran's government and blaming America for anything that might have happened, being happening, or will happen in the region.

The "blame America first" line is cute. Let's see how it works. Someone in the world does something that is either immoral, illegal, or counter to US interests. Folks on the left point to the broader historical/geo-political context of the situation and how our foreign policy contributed to the situation, the right then argues that the left is exonerating the offending government of any wrong-doing and placing all of the blame on the United States, thereby justifying the immoral, illegal, or undesirable act.

There are two moving parts to this gambit that we need to take apart. First is the classic trap of limiting the scope of discussion. We discussed this move with respect to the conservative "personal responsibility" argument a while back, and it is the same exact trick. The idea is to limit what can be discussed in the context of the issue at hand. In the case of personal responsibility, all sociological facts are eliminated from the discussion and a naive folk psychology of absolute freedom it presumed. In the "blame America first" version, the geo-political background that plays a clear causal role in explaining the action is eliminated.

What conservatives get from this move is (1) the ability to portray the US as an innocent victim and (2) the ability to portray the offending party as irrational, evil, or both. If we limit discussion to eliminate any mention of how we helped set the table for this action, then our hands are clean and any actions we may take are purely in the name of "democracy," "human rights," "women's rights," or some other thing that we can trap liberals by putting on the table, albeit disingenuously. Additionally, we create a clear case of black and white. It is the Lone Ranger riding in to defeat the bad guys who are bad for no other reason than they wear black hats. The storyline is simple, clean, and justifies any messiness that includes shooting bad guys or accidentally shooting by-standers while aiming at bad guys.

Bowden, in making this move, does something that most conservatives don't, he actually admits that a historical context exists and this is to his credit. What he tries to do is defuse it with mitigating historical factors. Unfortunately, pointing to Jimmy Carter's suggestions to the Shah in his last days is like saying to a victim that you shouldn't be angry at me because when my brother and I mugged you, I convinced him to only shoot you in the leg when we took your wallet.

The other piece of the move is a classic case of false alternatives. By saying that the US bears some responsibility for the situation is not to excuse the actions of anyone else. If my brother and I were arrested for the above (fictional) mugging, I am not innocent just because he is guilty. Just because the US acted wrongly does not mean that Iran is acting rightly. Liberals are not blaming America first, we are blaming America also.

We believe that Santayana was correct when he said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" and what we see in conservative foreign policy is the desire to not only repeat the errors, but magnify them. "No, the problem was that we only stuck ONE fork in the electric socket. Let's try three this time."

Americans have a very poor grasp on even recent history and the background behind why people think about us in the way they do. We had a national teachable moment after 9/11 when the question, "Why do they hate us?" was authentically asked by Americans all over the nation. Instead of taking that as a time for candor, honest reflection, and deep thought about the bunker mentality of the Cold War, a point from which we could have ushered in from our time of horrible tragedy a new era of enlightened global unity, we were given a strawman. "They hate us for our freedom." A strawman that could be used to take us back into the bunker, back into a new Cold War, back into a situation in which we could be not a leader, but a power -- only this time, drooled the PNAC cabal, without a Soviet Union to stand in our way of complete global domination.

Liberals do not hate America, but we do blame America when America is to blame. When one is young and has crushes on pretty girls, a young man is willing to fight even his best friend for saying anything bad about the object of his affection, especially if it's true. When one is older and in love, one is willing to understand the ways in which the object of one's mature care is flawed. Liberals love their country, conservatives lust for it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

How Intelligent Design May Have Saved the Left

Ferdinand Toennies, one of the founding fathers of sociology, argued that every group has a communal part that is based on commonality and cohesion and a social part that is based upon diversity and heterogeneity. While there are many, many schisms in the left, one that is important in understanding what influence the progressive movement has had on the broader society is the intellectual divide between the scientific left and the humanistic left. Over the last couple of decades, it was the humanists who were the face of the movement, but the last few years has seen the reascendance of the scientific side, and I argue that this is a good thing.

The war on the left has deep roots. The influx of Europeans around the time of the Second World War imported into the American intellectual scene the remnants of a fight over responsibility for World War I. The horrors, death, and futility of WWI is unfortunately eclipsed in our cultural memory because of the death camps and nuclear weapons of WWII, but the effects of the Great War cannot be underestimated. It brought down the old monarchic order and introduced the world to the brutality that was capable through technology. With the Continent in ruins, the humanists blamed science for providing the tools of destruction, arguing that science had become divorced from its social context and therefore capable of the worst evils. The scientific left on the other hand saw science as a truly international enterprise, rational and democratic to its core which stood in stark opposition to the religious, dictatorial nationalism responsible for the horrors of the War. The scientific worldview would eliminate the preconditions of this sort of tragedy. Science knows no country, the brotherhood of science was beyond politics as the world needed to be.

When the main participants in this battle came to this country, an interesting thing happened. Whether it was the rise of McCarthyism or a sense of displacement in their adopted home, the European scientific left stopped being overtly political. But with the arrival of folks like Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, this was not true of the humanistic side who continued their battle with the other side largely unrepresented.

The line that we got was one that challenged the objectivity of science. Coming from Nietzsche, the central idea was that truth is a social construction. All speech is politically pregnant with the agenda of the powerful. Consider, for example, the insult "cocksucker." Most people with cocks would not condemn those who would suck it. Gratitude seems much more appropriate. But the term is an insult because it clearly indicates a power imbalance and not having the power makes one less of a man and therefore a valuable human in a society where there is a structural bias in favor of men. "Cocksucker" means that you are a woman or, worse, gay. The insult does two things at the same time. On the one hand, it conveys to the target of the insult a clear disrespect. But on the other, it expresses this disrespect by making clear that the speaker is buying into unfair power distributions in the culture. The vulgarities are not only expressing the sentiment that the person insulted is an inferior human being, but doing it in a way that grants cultural capital to unfair social structures that are already in place. "Cocksucker" is only an insult if it is universally recognized that people who provide oral pleasure to those with penises are deemed to be social inferior.

One of the perks of political power is the right to determine the meanings of the normative terms in the language and this shapes what can be said and thought. It makes the notion of truth a matter of what the powerful say it is. It allows for language -- and thereby thought -- to be an instrument of oppression. Truth becomes a way ossify the control of the powerful over society. Science which claims to give objectiapoliticalical truththereforefore just a charade that plays into the hands of the oppressor, a leftover of the Enlightenment which seeks to dehumanize.

It was at this time that we started to see the successes of the liberation movements, groups of disenfranchised Americans were finally granted not only the right to vote, the right to sit anywhere they wanted on uncomfortable, un-air-conditioned busses, and the right to use the same disgusting gas station restrooms as white people; the liberated groups also gained the privilege of having their stories incorporated into our national narrative. Being oppressed means being invisible. To address the injustices done to these groups meant society as a whole having to admit the injustices and to account for the experiences of those who suffered them. Our history, in fundamental ways, had to be rewritten. Who "we" are had changed, so "our" story also had to change.

This project of social and historical integration was -- and still remains -- an extremely difficult task. Any society's self-image and central mythology is designed in part to justify its core beliefs and values and shows its emergence in the best possible light. Giving a voice to those who had been excluded from the conversation required not only accounting, in some more or less honest way, for the inhumane treatment those people suffered at the hands of the society, but it also meant incorporating their righteous and legitimate anger for having been excluded, mistreated, and dehumanized. Further, and trickier still, this meant somehow reconciling the long standing usual story of our history with their competing accounts of what happened, when, to whom, by whom, and why. Facing these uncomfortable questions inevitably leaves a sense of collective culpability, especially on the part of those who benefited from the oppressive structure. This white guilt was, and continues to be, felt acutely on the left.

The reason the left is especially vulnerable to this is because since at least the 19th century, progressives have been fascinated by the effect that the social environment has on people's behavior. Going back to the founding fathers of sociology, the interest was not only in describing how society functions, but also in how to improve it. Poverty, crime, hunger, and illiteracy were clearly related to the structure of society's fabric and not merely to be understood as failings of individual character. If one were to place a person in a completely different environment, that person would conform his or her behavior to the new surroundings; he or she would act differently, speak differently, achieve differently, contribute to society differently. Wealth and education are obvious factors in there being lower crime in some areas of town and higher crime rates in certain others. As such, when someone from the wrong side of the track holds up the convenience store, sociological factors are part of the reason why he made that choice. Thus, the complete explanation of social ills must account for the roles of the social structures and institutions. If we want to understand why things happened the way they did, we need to understand them structurally, not just in terms of individuals. And so, when confronting the oppression of subgroups within society, the members of left tended to be quite aware of the ways in which they had benefited from the injustice simply by being born when, when and who they were and this gave rise to a deep sense of white guilt.

And from the humanists, we saw a focus on the role that language played in maintaining this social structure. It became the "post-modernist movement" and leaked out of the philosophy departments and oozed into every corner of the humanities -- literary studies, cultural studies, history -- and then on into the social sciences -- especially sociology and political science. When these folks started to assume positions of power in the academy, we saw theory turned into practice.

It was exactly this power of language to reinforce social structures that was the guiding insight behind the political correctness movement of the 1980s and 90s. The idea that what we say not only expresses our thoughts, but also carries with it, often unconsciously and in ways unnoticed by the speaker or the listener, cultural baggage that can be helpful or harmful to larger social goals seemed incredibly powerful. Language is a product of culture and as such is pregnant with cultural presuppositions. These presuppositions are sometimes wrong and harmful. They create and sustain unjust power arrangements and the subtext to the meanings of words that come from oppressive societies play a part in ossifying these structures. It was an act of resistance to "deconstruct" these terms and expose all of their malicious political baggage for all to see. Sunlight would disinfect them.

But if words could be weapons against the innocent, then there seemed to be no reason they couldn't also be used as weapons to fight against injustice. If we could replace the old tainted words with new terms that have not been infected by the unequal distribution of power, then we could use the new words to refer to groups or individuals in a way that empowers instead of oppresses them. If we take back the language, we can change the system: make it fairer, more just, more moral.

To understand this move fully, you need to see it in its complete context. This was the 80s. Overt bigotry had been successfully vilified. Jim Crow was not coming back and even the racists were taking great pains to explain that their racist views weren't really racist. But it was the time of Reagan and his incredible ability to conduct dog whistle politics. He never explicitly said we should hate "black people" when he spoke. No, it was the "welfare queens" that deserved our scorn. Now, we all knew what he meant, there was never a question in anyone's mind what color these "welfare queens" were supposed to be. But he couldn't be pinned down for saying something he didn't say even if he was really saying it. The political power to oppress derived from setting the language was obvious for all to see.

And so we were introduced to African-Americans. Not that the society didn't know them, it is just that society knew them as Blacks, and Negroes before that. The PC idea was to find new terms that did not carry old the negative connotations and implicit references to negative stereotypes. By finding a neutral linguistic playing field, social hurdles could be more easily overcome or torn down altogether.

The idea that the old language was politically infected with injustice seemed to necessitate the mandating of a new language or at least the outlawing of the most egregious aspects of the old one. And this was instituted through speech codes on college campuses to constrain how people could acceptably speak. The argument that this was a violation of free speech was smartly countered with the claim that, no, there was no proposition that could not be spoken in the new language. Anything you wanted to say could still be said, but it had to be said in a language that did not give an automatic advantage to the entrenched power. The proposition to be stated was separated from the act of speaking. Using the old language was an act of repression. It was that act and not what was being said that was being stopped.

Smart and well intentioned, but political correctness was ultimately a dismal failure. What was wrong? Three things. First, while it is certainly true that words often do carry with them shades of their lexicographic past, the effects are simply not that strong. Calling it a "manhole" really does not do that much to bolster entrenched patriarchy in the field of public works, especially when compared to real offenses out there in the culture. All the fuss over some comparatively trivial aspects of language was like trying to reverse global warming by cutting back on the greenhouse gasses emitted from the eating of Mexican food. In a world of actual problems, this probably isn't where the effort belonged. The focus on language made the approach seem silly because at best, the results would be so trifling.

Second, it was incredibly naive to think that it was the syntax, the words themselves, that had the power. You don't really change the culture by simply changing a few words; you just have the same awful bigoted place, only with new words and, of course, those new words will easily become just as infected. Indeed, using the PC euphemisms itself became an act of attacking those who were trying to help empower those without power. By using the terms with the appropriate amount of sarcasm, they became loaded with the meaning that caring about others is absurd.

Finally, and most importantly, the theory is far too subtle and when it got translated into the public mind, political correctness was transformed into the idea that it is morally wrong to be offensive to anyone under any circumstances. When it reached the mainstream, suddenly to be politically correct had nothing to do with not bullying people with language, it was simply a matter of not offending anyone. Using racial slurs is wrong, on this new pop version of PC, not because is entrenches an unfair distribution of social power and capital, but now simply because it might upset some members of the group mentioned. It didnĂ‚’t matter whether what you were saying was true or not, if people might get their little feathers ruffled, it was deemed verboten. The morality of speech now had nothing to do with bullying, the question was no longer about power, it was simply a matter of walking on linguistic eggshells lest someone become hypersensitive about what we were saying.

It was this caricature of the more sophisticated attack of the humanistic left that became the face of the left. Instead of fighting real injustice, we were worried about sports mascots and other trivialities. All of the real work we were doing could be shunted aside for the buffoonish image that the excesses of PC allowed the other side to tag us with. And it was this image that stuck -- in part because we seemed more than happy to play into it and this is one of the reasons whvilifys so easy for the right tohumanistiche word "liberal." The humanisitc left, with its perspectivalist arguments against objective truth got translated (even by some of its own practitioners as well as its enemies) into a full out assault on rationality.

But then the worst possible thing happened to the right. They took power. Their own excesses from the religious flank have led them to disregard their anti-post-modern claim to be "keepers of rationality." By allowing their Dominionist flank to take the lead and push things like abstinence only sex ed and other faith-based social policies, they showed everyone that they were happy to put religious doctrine before rationality. They adoptedmodernistse language of the post-moderninsts and equaled, if not exceeded their distaste for the "reality-based" community. If the post-modernists were right.

And so they decided to fight the big battle: Darwin. The baldface attack on evolution was the right's big push. It was Waterloo. The religious right's political muscle was being flexed and the progressives had nowhere else to turn but to the scientists. And so we started to see the reassertion of the scientific left. When it became utterly clear to everyone that Intelligent Design was a political facade on the front of the creationist movement and when it went down in flames, an important thing may have happened. With its scientists as spokesmen, the leadership of the intellectual left may have shifted from the humanists to the scientists in order to fight the conservative war on science.

The moral of the story may end up being that social control depends upon keeping the "most rational" mantle. If this is true, we need to find a way to marry our humanists and scientists. Does the classical Enlightment picture really sit underneath modern sceince? Of course not. Of course there is some degree of truth to questions about the theory-dependence of observation and issues of power and reward structure influencing debate as worked out by the better minds in the sociology of science. But the naive antipathy towards science that we saw in the Social Text heyday of post-modernism needs to be exorcized from the left. Intelligent Design may have saved the left. It has given us the chance to rework our intellectual core and we need to make sure that we do so by intergrating both of the insights that began this debate back in the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. We the international, democratic scientific ethos, but we also need to make sure that science, in its abstraction, does not become dehumanized which will be hard in the current context of hyperspecialization, technological industrialization, and publish or perish tenure models which actively discourages scientists from being players in the world beyond their academic or corporate communities.

This will not mean that scientists need to do science differently, but it will mean that scientists will have to step up more, out of the lab and into the spotlight. We need more Brian Greenes who will make science interesting and cool to the broader culture. We need more Rush Holts who will step out of the labs and into the legislatures. We need more PZ Meyerses who will take the battle to them on the internet. We need more science teachers in the elementary school classrooms and on local school boards. The momentum seems to have shifted, but tides can be fickle. We need to reincorporate the scientific left and for that we need to step up.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Limits of Humor

I got a great question about Comedist theology a couple of weeks ago that fits in well with the Polish jokes question: Are there any topics that are so horrible that it is simply inappropriate to joke about them? Is there a line that humor just should not cross?

I think there are three questions here that need to be separated: (1) Are there times and places where the telling of a given joke is immoral? (2) Are there jokes that are themselves immoral, and (3) Can a joke be immoral and still be funny?

(1) Of course. John McCain's joke about Chelsea Clinton is an example. Jokes are powerful weapons and that power can be misused. When you use a joke to bully someone or hurt an innocent person, it is wrong.

(2) This is a trickier question. There are some jokes you hear and your first thought is, "That is just wrong." Does that mean the joke is morally wrong? Let's answer (3) and come back.

(3) The way a joke works is to take a situation with two possible meanings. Use the set up to giude the listener along in a way that suggests the first meaning and then bring the punchline which forces them to flip to the second meaning. What makes a joke funny is the ability to blindside the listener with the reinterpretation. A really good joke is one where the reinterpretation is particularly tight.

What makes a joke seem wrong is that the reason for the multiple interpretations that make the joke possible is a cultural bias that is immoral. Racist, sexist, homophoibic jokes all play on sterotypes which may be socially harmful, but comedically useful. These sorts of jokes rely on using the sterotypes as archetypes. When we hear that it is a blonde or a pollack who walks into the bar, we think "stupid person." When it is a woman in the car, we think "bad driver." When it is a jew, we think "cheap." We know what type of person it is supposed to be. Are these jokes funny? Some are very funny, it is a matter of the structure of the joke. Even the most horrific situations can be turned into very funny jokes, e.g., mass murder or rape. Funny is a structural quality of the joke.

That's not to say that it is just as easy to be funny with any sort of material. It is hard to be funny with truly tragic situations. But this is because it is so difficult to take the mind away from the primary, horrible interpretation and allow the mind to see the alternative interpretation. The tragedy takes the mind out of its place where it is nimble and looking for meaning and gets saturated with the emotions connected to the tragedy. But as someone who has successfully delivered jokes at funerals, I'll tell you it can be done.

Here is where we come back to the question in (2). When we hear a funny joke about something horrific or bigoted and we find it funny -- this is a psychological response, not a moral or rational one -- we often feel guilty. This guilt is a second order feeling. We wish we didn't find the joke funny, even though we do. Why do we have this feeling?

We enjoy laughing and finding a joke funny when it is a nasty joke or a joke about a tragedy seems to be making light of the tragedy or approving of the application of the stereotype. Jokes can be used to demonize others and by laughing, we feel as if we are allowing the unjust treatment of a group to be further entrenched or that we are minimizing the suffering that may have happened as a result of the situation that provides the setting of the joke. We think of finding humor in something as rejoicing in it.

But that is a mistake. Certainly, we can celebrate something by telling jokes about it, but those who have a dark sense of humor are not necessarily making light of things by making jokes about them. Jokes are simply a way of exposing muliple aspects and these exist in even the most horrific situations. That is why I would argue that jokes themselves cannot be immoral. The morality is in the telling.

Jokes are like games. They work according to certain rules that are not expected to extend beyond the joke. But jokes can be more -- they can be used to say things that do extend beyond the joke and this is their power. The power can be used to oppress, but it can also be used to expose and liberate. The dartboard scene in "Roxanne" is a classic example of this where the Cyrano character played brilliantly by Steve Martin uses nose jokes which would be expected to denegrate him to overpower his opponent. As such, gallows humor, e.g., holocaust jokes, are linguistic tools that are neither intrinsically good nor bad.

That being said, when you hear a particularly disgusting joke, it certainly is reflective of questionable aspects of the mind who came up with it. But then again, you found it funny, too.

Why did Hitler kill himself? The Jews sent him a gas bill.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Enron Was Bush's Greatest Success

A couple of weeks ago, a German newspaper asked the President what was his best moment in office. His response was a fish tale --

"I would say the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5-pound perch in my lake."
Of course, the world's record for fresh water perch is 4 pounds, 3 ounces, but we can chalk it up to fuzzy math.

But while Bush was content to blow off the question, I think it raises two others. First, why not answer it straight? Why not toot your own horn when you are always whining that the good news is not being reported? The snarky response is that there isn't a moment that could be considered great. The ideological answer is that by displaying a great moment, it would be showing that government can accomplish great things and this undermines the GOP strategy of sabotaging confidence in governmental solutions. The likely answer is that Bush just likes playing for the laugh. He prefers goofing to serious reflection.

But the question still remains. What was Bush's best moment? With Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling having both been convicted, I would honestly say that his handling of the collapses of Enron and WorldCom were probably his finest hours.

Now, it is true that Lay was one of his biggest campaign contributors and had Enron pay the $50,000 for Bush's second gubernatorial inauguration party -- an event designed by Karl rove to be the start of his Presidential run. For this, Lay was appointed to the Bush administration "Energy Department Transition Team," was influential in handpicking the members of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission which would oversee much of Enron's business, and was deeply involved in the Vice President's efforts to construct governmental energy policy. With this, they were able to make huge profits extorting and blacking out California amongst other altruistic actions.

When the house of cards collapsed, the shockwave toppled other dominoes. The culture of fraud and corruption that is American corporate governance was exposed and there were deep ties to the administration. This should have, for rational agents, shaken their confidence in the system -- and this should have been catastrophic.

Markets work largely on perception. Think about the first time you learned that banks don't have the money you put in to them. It is much like the time you first learned that ice cream in the cone doesn't go all the way down. For the bank to work, the customers have to have confidence that even though the money isn't there, it would be if they needed it. Of, course, it can't be there for everyone and when there is a lack of confidence in the institution and a run on the bank occurs, the whole thing goes kabluey. The economy at large is the same way. The markets are supported by the confidence of the investors. If the investors get spooked and start pulling their money out, then there is a crash. What Enron, WorldCom, and all the others showed us was that there was a deep ethical cancer in the market. This revelation should have had horrible effects. But it didn't.

The reason was that Bush's "a few bad apples" line was bought hook, line, and sinker. I don't know if it was that the press has been extremely reticent to push on any story that may throw a negative light on Bush because of fear of losing access and active retaliation. I don't know if the corporate ownership of the mass media conglomerates played into it. Maybe it was because we are dealing more than ever with large institutional investors who are less likely to spook and who could afford to wait and see. All I know is that he was able to comfort investors and that avoided what should have been a really, really, really bad thing.

The "few bad apples" line has been used in many places for many things by the Bush administration, many of them bogus and designed to cover up (I want to think about that in detail next week), but in this instance it was enough to keep confidence in the market and keep the balloon inflated. So, even though, he was a part of the problem that was Enron, I would have to say that his handling of the aftermath of the collapse of Enron -- or more accurately, his handling of the media in the aftermath of collapse of Enron -- was his greatest moment.

UPDATE: Mike, the Livid Life-scientist has a very good accounting of Enron's misaccounting.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Some Thoughts on John McCain

If you had asked me two months ago, I would have given you very good odds that John McCain would be the next President of the United States. The evidence supporting my belief at that point was: (1) McCain's support for Bush, whom he is rumored to dislike deeply, during the last election cycle was no doubt bought for the price of using the Bush machine in the next election. This would help him in the race for the Republican nomination that he would have won in a fair fight last time, but for the dirty tricks of Karl Rove, (2) There are so many Democrats who are on record kissing his boots, that no credible campaign could be run against him. Commercials just showing all of the glowing references to McCain by Dems would make any real condemnation of his positions rhetorically useless, and (3) the press LOVES this man and will run nothing but love stories about him. If you thought they were fluffy on Bush, they will be downright slobbery about McCain and this will cause Reagan Democrats to cross the aisle and give him a landslide.

But I'm not so sure after this last couple of weeks. And I'm glad. I don't think that John McCain would make a very good President. I don't think he has the brains or the temperament. But most of all, I don't think he has the character.

The Jean Rohe incident is just the latest. McCain sent his goon squad after Ms. Rohe, who was a speaker before McCain at the New School's commencement ceremony. She changed her remarks and criticized not only McCain's politics, but the fact that he was about to give exactly the same comments he gave days earlier at the closing ceremonies for Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Instead of graciously accepting the criticism and remarking on how it is a strength of our nation to be able to openly express differences and other pointless, but freedom-promoting platitudes, McCain's speech writer Mark Salter was dispatched to assert that Ms. Rohe's comments were "an act of vanity and nothing more" that "made her look like an idiot." And that was the nice part...

This display of a complete lack of class from McCain is part of a pattern, a pattern that provides good reason to believe that he should not be President of the Unites States, a fact that I believe (or at least hope) that swing Dems are starting to wake up to.

The attack on Ms. Rohe was not McCain's first shot at a young woman. At least this one was against a mature, well-educated college graduate who could defend herself and not an adolescent. Remember that at a Senate fund-raiser McCain told the audience this knee-slapper:

You know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly?
Because her father is Janet Reno.

There's class, for you, boy. Disagree with someone's politics, go in front of a bunch of conservatives and call his wife a lesbian and his teenage daughter ugly. And what did Mr. Integrity do when he got caught? Have his press people lie and say it never happened. Then when that falsehood could no longer be maintained, issue an insincere boilerplate political apology.

People make mistakes. Sure. But the fact is that McCain heard this joke, thought is was funny enough to remember and thought that it would be a good idea to tell it at a public event. If he was at a cocktail party and told it to some friends, that would be one thing; but this was a large fundraiser WITH PRESS COVERAGE. The man knew there were reporters there and still thought it was a good idea to call an innocent little girl ugly in a place where the comment very well may be repeated around the globe. We have seen over the last several years what happens when the government is headed by someone who does not have even the most basic diplomatic skills. People can die. This was a slip, yes, but any decent human being would know that it is not appropriate to stand up in a room full of people and reporters and attack a little girl. Any human being with a shread of decency would never have even entertained, much less gone through with such a thing. Character counts and this is a clear window in John McCain's character.

Then, of course, there was the South Carolina primary. Remember that this was high noon. McCain had shocked Bush in Iowa and New Hampshire and was, for all in tents and porpoises, for all the marbles. The Bushies were pushpolling and spreading the rumor that McCain not only had a bastard child, but, gasp, with a black woman. So McCain decided that he need to court the bigot vote and came out with this classic.
"I hate the gooks, and I will hate them for as long as I live . . . and you can quote me."
He proudly insulted Asians and explicitly tried to make sure that his use of the slur would get reported in the press in order to suck up to some of them Carolinian hate-mongers.

Did McCain not really mean to slur Asians as a group and instead express anger at his former captors, as he claims? Maybe. Let's be charitable and accept the explanation. But the fact is that in both of these cases, we see McCain being either (a) willing to say horrible things in order to appease hateful conservatives, or (b) expressing thoughts really in his head and heart because he is a hateful conservative. Either way, I don't like it. Something like (a) gave us George Wallace who after running as a moderate in the primary for Alabama and losing in part for criticizing the Ku Klux Klan, famously declared "I'll never be outniggered again." Clearly, McCain did not intend to be "outgooked" in South Carolina by Rove's dirty tricks and felt absolutely no compunction about rolling around in the slime himself.

We've seen McCain, the supposed maverick and independent, be perfectly willing to bow down before the reactionary right. We've seen him be tastelessless, base, and uncaring. His appearance at Falwell's Liberty University and his disgusting handling of Rohe's comments ought to make very clear that this is not a person who ought to hold the most powerful office in America.

And then, of course, there are his political views. Let's be clear, McCain is not a maverick. He's a mainline conservative. Certainly a bit more moderate than the extreme conservatives in control of the party, but he is not an independent. I'm thrilled that he championed some very corner of what needs to be done in terms of campaign finance reform, but if you look at his voting record, he is a straight line Republican, not some bi-partisan trail blazer.

But you would never know that to read the papers or watch the tele. When I see the way this man is covered, the way the narrative about him is perpetuated, it reminds me of the 2000-year-old man schtick that Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks used to do. At one point the interviewer asks the 2000-year-old man if Robin Hood was real and if he really robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. the response was that he was real and that he stole from everyone and kept everything. When asked how the legend started, the 2000-year-old man replied that he had this guy, Marty, the press agent, who wrote scrolls. Marty is apparently still alive and well and covering the senior Senator from Arizona.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Happy 65th Birthday, Bob Dylan

Once a symbol of youthful rebellion, Bob Dylan now takes his on-going war on diction into his Social Security collecting years. I've never been one to fawn over popular figures, but I will embarrassingly admit that I take great joy in the fact that several old wayward friends have told me that they think of me whenever they hear that wonderful verse from Tangled Up In Blue,

So now I'm goin' back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They're an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter's wives.
Don't know how it all got started,
I don't know what they're doin' with their lives.
Gosh, I love that song. The whole album is magnificent.

It would be impossible to be a nerdy Jewish kid who longed to be cool growing up in the second half of the 20th century and not have Bob Dylan as one of your heroes. His ability to express angry derision in Positively 4th Street, the poignancy of Desolation Row, the empathy of Hurricane, the goofiness of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, the humane longing of Simple Twist of Fate, the dead-on targeting of Masters of War. And with all of that, to still be able to write,
Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word "NOW"
And you say, "For what reason?"
And he says, "How?"
And you say, "What does this mean?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home"

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Putting the Cart before the Hearse

Last week we commented on HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson telling a meeting of the Texas small business forum that politics play a role in awarding or denying contracts in his shop.

Now, we have a fascinating post by Chad, at the always interesting Uncertain Principles. Chad's a physicist reporting on an address by Patricia Dehmer, the Associate Director of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at the Department of Energy, that she gave to a meeting at last week's conference of the American Physics Society's Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics. Associate Director Dehmer's words seems eerily like those of Secretary Jackson.

The annoying thing was the peripheral message-- she took pains to state several times that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support science, in a tone that basically came across as chiding us for thinking otherwise. That was annoying by itself, but at the very end of the talk, she specifically warned against taking partisan positions, citing the letter supporting John Kerry that was signed by a couple dozen Nobel laureates as something that made it harder to keep science funding. She said that after that, when she met with administration officials about budget matters, she could see them thinking "Damn scientists..."

There is no doubt that this tidbit was being given in the spirit of friendly advice and not as part of an organized crime protection racket. Surely, Associate director Dehmer thought of herself like a friend pulling you aside at a party and trying to be subtle about telling you that your fly is down. But what is fascinating is the insight into what is happening behind the closed office doors that we get from this warning and from Secretary Jackson's little admission/retraction/partial admission/partial retraction dance last week.

The "Republican War on Science" is a rallying cry from places on the left that I have been reading. The Bush administration is often portrayed as possessing a real antipathy to the reality-based community on the other side of the cultural divide.

But could the real meaning of Dehmer's discussion be that Republicans really don't hate science, they have no problem with science -- IF scientists help them maintain their political position. It is not a deep, intellectual, metaphysical battle with those in charge, it is shallow to the point of absurdity. They'd be happy to give us more recess if we stop saying that they really aren't the teacher and pretend along like everyone else. All they want is to be loved.

What we have is politics uber alles. Now, this seems trivial. You are dealing with political appointees, of course there is politics. Has science become politicized. No doubt. Is this a really, really, really bad thing. Yup.

But this is different. There seems to have been a bizarre sort of radical inversion. At this point what we see is that the job description of politicians has changed. No longer are they elected to govern, now they govern with the sole intent of getting re-elected. The job of the Associate Director of the Office of Basic Energy Research is not to serve the Director of the Office of Basic Energy research, but to serve his boss' boss' boss' boss, the guy in the house that is white...well, not to serve him, but to serve his political advisor -- at least until he is indicted.

You play to your base and do favors for political friends -- that's always been the game. The political agenda is shaped in part by principles and in part by payoff. You dance with the horse that brung ya. Politics is a nasty, ugly sausage-making game. All that is, was, and has always been true. But this change is different. It is radical in its nihilism. It's looking like what we've come to is complete political bankruptcy -- aside from holding seats, the agenda is no agenda.

It's not that Bush is mouthing empty platitudes to get support from his base and appease the soccer moms while hiding his real agenda. There really seems to be nothing up his sleeve. Bush is not pushing libertarian, fiscal, or social conservative positions. He's not really doing anything other than immigration which is really just an act of desperation to keep his party from completely imploding. There is no there there. Is it that there never was or that with zero political capital he's just biding his time? Is it a vacuum from the fall of neo-conservatism? Is it that Bush is so loyal to his people, now that his people's incompetence has left him paralyzed, he is simply happy to just float? It is perpetual August, looking at perpetual November. Politics is dead, long live politics. Could it be?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The DaVinci Code is Anti-Catholic in the Same Way That Protesting the War Was Anti-American

Haven't yet seen the film and most likely wouldn't have read the book, but TheWife hates to fly. Traveling to a dear friend's wedding in New Mexico last year, she read it from Kentucky to Amarillo and demanded that I read it so that she could talk to me about it.

My first thought after finishing the book was that it was written with the intention of being easily adapted into a screen play, but my second was that it was an incredibly clever way of doing subversive religious left politics. The howls that the story is anti-Catholic or more broadly anti-Christian are incredibly predictable, and follow exactly the same inferential line that we've seen before -- if you oppose the orthodox conservative line, you hate the institution. The opponents of The DaVinci Code equivocate between their politically-infected theology and the religion as a whole just as the rhetoric from supporters of the President failed to distinguish between the administration's neo-conservative project and the country itself. To challenge one is not to declare oneself as fundamentally opposed to the other.

SPOILER WARNING: I will try to avoid giving away any of the surprises, but some of the following discussion will have to refer to aspects of the plot of the book (and presumably are included in the film adaptation). If you haven't seen or read The DaVinci Code and are planning to, you might want to hold off on the rest of the post until after.

Brown's protagonist, Robert Langdon, is a member of the "Eastern liberal elite" written in a style that will be incredibly attractive to "Eastern liberal elites." He is a Harvard professor, and a humanist at that, but he is neither suave nor arrogant. He is smart, but drinks chocolate milk. He is liberated enough to talk about sex in class, but does it in a way that is both cutely awkward and sophisticated and pro-feminist.

He is then embedded in a plot that would be very attractive to progressive minds, one that embeds the culture war inside the Church. Where we are used to seeing it played out as secular versus religious, science versus faith, here we have a plot in which the progressive versus conservative is fought out on faith versus faith grounds. It is done in such a way that the progressive faithful are the great heroes of history, indeed they are the saints of Comte's anti-religion religion, the Church of Man. Not only DaVinci, but Isaac Newton and a whole host of the greatest minds in human history are seen as both religious and liberal. Not only is the reinterpretation of the Holy Grail naturally appealing to the contemporary left, but it redefines within its fictional realm what it means to be authentically Christian. You can be smart, gay, scientific, artistic AND a real Christian like Leonardo. The contemporary pseudo-moralistic, conservative, uptight, religious right is portrayed as barbarians who protect their own power by intentionally distorting religion.

It is for this reason that the film is the most dangerous. By locating the bad guy in Opus Dei -- an ultraconservative, exclusive, secretive, right-wing religious/political faction, Brown brings out into the open, the Catholic Church's real life culture war. Catholicism has good works as a central theological notion. It also has a strong hierarchy as a central theological notion. These do not always work together in harmony. Catholic thinkers, especially those on the ground in the least privileged regions, seized on advances in sociology in the first half of the 20th century. The sociological thought of the time analyzed the ways in which class structure and other social institutions entrenched poverty. This became what we know as "liberation theology." Since part of the job of the Church was to work for the least among us, this new understanding which locates a primary the source of social injustice within the structure of the government and economy necessitated a political role for the Church. Standing up for human rights, for a fair distribution of wealth, for social services for the poor was part of one's religious duties. Corporate capitalism, on this view, is not only antithetical to what Catholics ought to stand for, but a force that needed to be opposed in order to free the suffering. And you saw in South and Central America especially, Catholic clergy standing against horribly evil regimes. This is why death squads (often trained and funded by the US) often targeted priests and nuns for torture and murder.

But this sociologically inspired Catholic left was not universally loved, especially by those from Eastern Europe who suffered under the Soviets. The USSR openly held contempt for religion and when the Cold War ended and democracy came to the region with the freedom to worship openly, it was capitalism that was associated with it. Having a Pope who was part of that struggle in Poland gave the organization a politically rightward lean and this meant that those associated with liberation theology would be squeezed out of the power structure, purged like Democratic intelligence agents from the CIA under Porter Goss. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was John Paul II's Dick Cheney. He led the charge against the leftists in the Church hierarchy. it was in this environment that Opus Dei has been looked upon quite favorably.

And so, just as there has been a culture war in the US, there has been one in the Catholic Church as well. Indeed, they are not independent. Part of American conservative doctrine has always been anti-immigrant sentiment. When the immigrants were Italian, Irish, and Polish, this became an anti-Catholic sentiment. But now, with the right-wing of the Catholic Church in control, you see American conservatives for the first time embracing Catholics.

What Brown is doing in The DaVinci Code is calling this unholy alliance of the Holy Church and right-wing politics unchristian. To progressives who are Christian or spiritual, but not religious, this move strikes a deep chord. The DaVinci Code is for these folks what The West Wing has been for Democrats more broadly over the several years. A safe fictional space to imagine what life might have been like if we had won the election. But in religion, where power resides in controlling discourse (this is true everywhere, but especially so in faith-based organizations) to have a powerful counter-image for faith is a matter for alarm. Having won the battle inside the Vatican, they want to claim the right to write the history. But here is a loser who is acheiving great success with a counter-history demonizing the winners. that just isn't fair. The DaVinci Code threatens to be the educated left's version of the Left Behind series, a way to redefine spirituality within the confines of the religious structure from the ground up based upon appeals to politically desirable themes. It may re-energize the Christian left by giving them a positive image to rally around. That is why it is so imperative that they decry and demonize this book and film. it is why the very sweet woman who cuts TheWife's hair was scared away from the book by her religious advisor.

You don't need great literature to be subversive, and this clever piece of writing pulls all of the right strings. That being said, TheWife and I are still not sure we want to drop $20 to see it.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Polish Jokes, Rabbis, and The Nature of Human Nature

If you are new to the playground, weekends are time for the week's Comedist sermon. If you are unfamiliar with the new religion Comedism, here is an introduction to Comedism, ; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the fundamentalist War on Comedy.

This week, we continue our discussion of Polish jokes with a surmise about their origin. This is pure speculation on my part, but as an educated guess I would put forward the possibility that Polack jokes derive from a series of Jewish jokes about the town of Chelm. Chelm was a small village in Poland and the jokes were about the townspeople, especially those who came to the Rabbis for advice with a problem. The advice always solved the problem...sort of.

The Rabbis of Chelm decided they had a problem when half the inmates of their prison claimed they had been wrongly convicted. So they built a second prison. Now they have one for the guilty and one for the innocent.

Or this one,

Two sages of Chelm got involved in a deep philosophical argument.

"Since you're so wise," said one, sarcastically, "try to answer this question: Why is it that when a slice of buttered bread falls to the ground, it's bound to fall on the buttered side?"

But as the other sage was a bit of a scientist he decided to disprove this theory by a practical experiment. He went and buttered a slice of bread. Then he dropped it.
"There you are!" he cried triumphantly. "The bread, as you see, hasn't fallen on its buttered side at all. So where is your theory now?"

"Ho-ho!" laughed the other, derisively. "You think you're smart! You buttered the bread on the wrong side!"

My guess is that these jokes came over to America in the beginning of the 20th century with the European Jews immigrants. When they got here, some goyim asked where Chelm was. When they were told Poland they looked aorund and saw Polish immigrants right off the boat trying to figure out their new homeland, and lo and behold, Polack jokes. These strange new people are inferior, they are stupid.

But something important (if this story is true) happened in the translation. It is not so similar to what happened to the word "polack" in translation. "Polak" is Polish for Pole. The -ak suffix is common in the region for designating nationality. Litvaks, for example, are Lithuanians. It became a derogatory term in English through usage, not derivation. In the same way, the Polish joke wherein the Pole is supposedly stupid seems to be a warping of the original meaning of the jokes.

There are wo types of cultures: those for whom there is a single picture of human nature and those for whom there are multiple human natures. The Greeks give us an example of the first type and it was this notion of soul connected to a singular human nature that infected early Christianity and informs our approach to people. There is a single sense of human perfection towards which we are all striving and people may be judged by how far along the path they are.

But Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, had a multi-faceted view of human nature not unlike the German notion of archetypes. There were different types of people and each had a stereotypical set of characteristics. There were butchers who were strong and strong willed, but not too bright. There were merchants who were clever, but not honest. Jewish wives were nags and their husbands intentionally obtuse. And there were Rabbis. Jewish scholars studied the Talmud with its cryptic circuitous reasonings and they were always lampooned as never quite having the reality thing figured out despite a sense to the contrary. The idea is that no matter who you are, there is a joke about you. There are a fixed number of types of people and everybody gets it evenly.

But when these jokes were taken out of the context of a world view in which there are multiple human natures and put into a cultural context in which there is a single picture of human nature. Now to have a joke about you is not to make you like everyone else, now it makes you less than everyone else. Because there is a single sense of what a human ought to be, we can rank people according to how well they meet that standard. Jokes at your expense aren't appreciative ribbing of your place in the web, they are marks of your inferior position along the chain. In this switch, the jokes became weapons that they were not before. By making a joke about you, I put myself above you in a way that did not exist in the earlier context.

So, if I am right, Polish jokes were not really about Poles and were not insulting until they came over here. But then again, I'm just a scholar and can say some pretty dumb things.

We'll end today with two classics:

Christians believe that a human has value from the moment of conception.
Buddhists believe that life has value before conception. Jews don't think
that life has value until after medical school.

The only cow in a small town in Poland stopped giving milk. The people did some research and found that they could buy a cow from Moscow for 2000 rubles or one from Minsk for 1000 rubles. Being cheap, they bought the cow from Minsk. The cow was wonderful. It produced lots of milk all the time, and the people were amazed and very happy. They decided to acquire a bull to mate with the cow and produce more cows like it. Then they would never have to worry about the milk supply again. They bought the bull and put it in the pasture with their beloved cow. However, whenever the bull came close to the cow, the cow would move away. No matter what approach the bull tried, the cow would move away from the bull and he could not succeed in his quest. The people were very upset and decided to ask the rabbi, who was very wise, what to do. They told the rabbi what was happening; "Whenever the bull approaches our cow, she moves away. If he approached from the back , she moves forward. When he approaches her from the front, she backs off. An approach from the side and she just walks away to the other side." The rabbi thought about this for a minute and asked, "Did you buy this cow from Minsk?" The people were dumbfounded. They had never mentioned where they have gotten the cow. "You are truly wise rabbi. How did you know we got the cow from Minsk?" The rabbi answered sadly, "My wife is from Minsk."

Ramesh Ponnuru is an Asshole (in the technical sense of the word--personally, he's most likely a nice fellow, never met him so I can't really say)

Jon Stewart's interview last night with Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review editor and author of Party of Death, was magnificent. One of the points he so wonderfully put forward is that anyone using hyperbolic rhetoric and claiming that difficult moral questions are straightforwardly solved is failing to be a responsible contributor to our contemporary moral discourse.

Ponnuru seems like a smart enough fellow, but he is emblematic of exactly what is wrong with our current discussions of ethical issues, namely, no one is talking about ethical issues. The people who claim to be talking about ethics are not really talking about ethics -- they are either politicians or political operatives pretending to talk about ethics while actually pushing political agendas or just pushing hot buttons to drive single-issue voters (read, suckers) to the polls, or they are religious right televangelists who are pushing political agendas or just pushing hot buttons to drive viewers (read, suckers) to send in contributions. Nobody is really talking about morality for all of their huff and puff about "morality."

The fact is the hard moral questions out there require serious, thoughtful, but passionate discussion. The hard questions do not have easy solutions for a simple reason, they are hard. Anyone, like Ponnuru, who tries to build a strawman out of those who hold a different view and then claim that there is no real difficulty with these issues, that their answer is clear, obvious, and indisputable, is not only a fool, but undermining our society as a whole. We need real dialogue, not posturing. I understand that the man is trying to sell books and that there is a huge market among right-wingers for simple-minded demonization of anything associated with the left. But, gosh darn it, we need an authentic right willing to engage in fair discussion.

The problem is that there are only two models of ethical argumentation that get put forward today. One is the "I'm right and you're evil" model. We all know the sort who think that the only purpose served by discussing morality is to convert you to their way of thinking. Any ethical issue must be spoken of in an incredibly condescending, arrogant, self-righteous tone because this person is not engaging in open-minded discussion, he is bringing the truth to the rest of us mere mortals. The technical term for these people is "asshole."

On the other side are the subjectivists. These are the one's who think that there's your morality, and my morality, and Soupy Sales' morality. Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, so what is there to talk about? If Stalin really believed that mass murder was morally good, then it was for Stalin. With these buffoons, moral discussion consists of simply repeating the phrase "who's to say" over and over until you punch them in the mouth.

The motivation behind this move is a good one -- it comes from a good place, the desire not to be an asshole. They see the obnoxious jerks spouting a closed-minded absolutism and knowing that is wrong, make the mistake of going all the over to the other extreme. It is done in the name of tolerance. But actually, it is not at all tolerant. Tolerance means everybody having a fair chance to be part of the conversation. What this sort of relativism does is make it so that there is no conversation. I don't need to listen to you because my morality is whatever I think it is. If you disagree with me, talk to the ethical hand. We are all in our own little moral bubbles with nothing to think about. There is no sense in listening to you because by definition whatever I think is right, is right for me. I can't be wrong about it, so why bother thinking deeply? This justifies closed-mindedness, not authentic conversation.

What Stewart was plaintively calling for last night was open-minded, but passionate legitimate discussion. He was saying to Ponnuru, "Look, be passionate. Put forward strong arguments. Believe in your view. But understand and acknowledge the complexity of the issue and approach the views on the other side charitably. Take on the left, please. But take on the real left, not some strawman designed to look vaguely leftesque" The problem that he was pointing out was not that the view was conservative or flawed in any specific way, but that, by Stewart's reading of his book, Ponnuru was being an asshole -- in the technical sense. He is a smart fellow who had a real opportunity to help create a legitimate discussion about hard issues. He could have played it fair and not only sold books, but actually helped to carve out a space for real, passionate, hard-core, full-contact ethical discourse. Instead, like a champion boxer who refuses to face real challengers for the belt, he wimped out.

The saddest part of the whole thing, as usual, is that a comedian is going to be the only one out there in the media wilderness making this point.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

How Did It Become Supposedly Immoral To Be Offensive?

I had a great time yesterday chatting about ethics with Mickey and Amelia on 98Rock. What was interesting to me (besides how short Mickey is), was the effects of so-called political correctness. This is a show on which T&A references are not usually Thomas and Aristotle. Putting an unknown philosopher on the air was a gamble on their part, but they seemed really into it and questions about language that I had been thinking about previously only seemed to be much more pressing when I saw what it was like for other people whose livelihoods depend on language.

During one of the breaks, Mickey asked me point blank how important I thought language was to a culture. (For a guy who plays up the "I ain't got no education" angle for his schtick, both he and Amelia are incredibly smart. They both have the ability to cut right to the point which is something I have to spend a lot of time training students to do in my logic classes and both make very sophisticated points once a question is on the table.) The question about language is one of the most interesting questions going and has really been the heart of virtually all philosophy for the last century, but especially the last 20 years.

What was funny was that right after we had an off-air conversation about zero-tolerance policies at radio stations about language (swearing and sexual references) Mickey twice came within a hair's breadth of letting the old s-word fly. (This is why blogs are better than radio -- shit, shit, shit, no FCC here) . The bogeyman of the conversation about the language police was, of course, political correctness.

Now, what interests me is that (1) the source of linguistic oppression here is not political correctness, the original PC, but it's two right-wing siblings, patriotic correctness and puritanical correctness, and (2) political correctness is one of the few places that contemporary technical geeks-only philosophy has actually oozed out of the ivory tower and influenced culture, but only when it was warped from it's real foundations.

The power of language is that it contains connotative elements beyond the denotative -- fancy philosopher-speak for words say more than what they point to. If I am referring to someone's gender, choosing the word "woman" rather than "girl" says, not only that the person is female, but a lot more. Words mean what they point to, but they are culturally loaded with more baggage as well. Language is a cultural product and it is pregnant with cultural presuppositions.

The idea that gave birth to PC was that if the culture had an imbalance of power and there were some in the culture who were considered inferior and oppressed by the structure of the society, then this would be reflected in the language. The language would then be a tool to keep those who are up, up, and those who are down, down. The words we used would unknowingly serve "the man" by further entrenching his power. Philosophers reached back to Nietzsche and developed an intricate discussion about political power and the roots and hidden meaning of language.

The idea that the hidden political power of words which comes from their roots was developed into a political movement to replace words with new ones that had no history of oppression. Blacks became African Americans. The disabled became challenged. The idea was to give new words that did not have the old connotations. This would make them linguistically neutral, or even empowering (yes, this is where we got that word, too) to the oppressed groups. the new language would be a step towards leveling the playing field.

Of course, this was naive. Of course, using "Native American" instead of "American Indian" did nothing to correct the wrongs of the past or help improve the state of life on the reservations. Of course, the new words could be used with a sarcastic tone and a roll of the eyes and be just as insulting in the mouths of bigots. Of course, not all uses of the old terms -- even the most insulting of slurs -- does not entrench oppression.

But what came out of it, what it became was something completely different. It left the philosophy department, went into other departments, into highbrow journals and magazines, into non-academic intellectual circles, and then into the culture more broadly and through the game of intellectual telephone it got turned into something completely different. It became the commandment, "IT IS IMMORAL TO BE OFFENSIVE." The philosophers who came up with the original view had no problem with offensiveness -- some of them were quite irreverent themselves (as many good philosophers are). This was not the point of the philosophy, but it became the meaning when it was turned into speech codes on college campuses and then into social mores in the broader culture.

There is no right not to be offended. Reality is an offensive place. Deal with it. At the same time, bullying is wrong and language can be used to bully. It can be used to oppress and these are wrong, but this does not mean that we need to tip-toe around anything that would offend someone. But that it what it has become.

And from there, it was a small step to 'all talk about body parts offends those with "traditional values"' and the ability of the religious right to start wielding the power to cut off speech that was not intended to bully, but speech that was intended to challenge social norms or political stances or policies. From there is was a small step to "Janet Jackson's nipple helps the terrorists and Majority Leader Daschle is Janet Jackson's nipple." The speech codes that the twisted version of political correctness ushered in were easily appropriated by those with a different agenda and PC became the twins, patriotic and puritanical correctness. One mistake led to another. The fact that Stephen Colbert's rather tame bit of social commentary could create such a tizzy is a mark of how far we have fallen.

But my hope is that the tide is turning. Maybe the change in the polls are signaling a turn back towards sanity. Back to a time when if Mickey accidentally did let the s-word slip, he wouldn't fear for fines and his ability to feed his family. Mickey and Amelia gave me the chance to be a smart guy who openly admitted to being liberal in a major market at drive-time in a spot where there are often large breasted women doing things more interesting to many listeners than talking about Aristotle. It was a wonderful time and I thank them very, very much.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Four Letter Ethics

As I ready myself to step into the world of the seven second delay, I've been thinking about the ethics of swearing.

On the one hand, curse words are just sounds that have been culturally designated as vulgar. To swear in polite conversation is socially unacceptable, but social unacceptability is not the same as immorality. It is extremely impolite, not to mention disgusting, to pick one's nose, but it is not immoral (assuming you wash you hands afterwards). They are your boogers and your fingers and certainly your right to bodily autonomy allows you to introduce the two. In the same way, asking your aunt to pass the gravy at Thanksgiving dinner by requesting the "brown gooey shit" would certainly be frowned upon, but is not immoral. Curse words are just sounds, by employing them in polite speech you have not harmed anyone. You may have made a few people uncomfortable or embarrassed yourself, perhaps, but none of this is of moral consequence. It is merely a difference of how you said what you said, not a difference in what you've said; and if saying it one way was ok, then saying the same thing in different words should have the same ethical status.

The best way to understand the meaning of swearing seems to be through Grice's notion of a conversational implicature. Grice argues that conversation is inherently a cooperative rule-based endeavor and whenever someone says something unexpected in a conversation that seems unhelpful or that clearly breaks a rule, it forces us to make an additional inference -- what he calls an implicature (he was British, he could use cool words like that) to figure out a way that the utterance would not break the rule. In the same way, when someone swears, it seems to violate a rule of polite conversation and requires an additional step to figure out the full meaning of what he said. Often inclusion of a four letter word works like a verbal exclamation point. "Get out of the way!" may work, but not as well as "Get the hell out of the way!" Inclusion of the cuss word indicates the imperative nature of following the advice. John Kerry intentionally swore in an interview with Rolling Stone to seem less effete. There is, of course, an element of class consciousness underlying all of it. Swearing attacks the social structure by showing you refuse to play by the linguistic rules of the upper crust. It makes you a linguistic rebel which is why teenage usage is rampant. But curse words can serve the widest range of functions, many contradictory.

Consider the multifaceted use of the curse word "fuck." It is the Swiss army knife of language. There's nothing it can't express. When considering whether to ask out the girl of your dreams, you may finally decide by saying, "What the fuck?" When she screams "Yes!" into the phone, you may express joy by thinking "Fucking-A!" When you realize you haven't asked her out yet, you may express confusion by asking "What the fuck?" When she says that she is romantically or physically involved with someone else, she may tell you to "Fuck off," leaving you to wonder, "Who is she fucking?" When it turns out to be your best friend, you may at first express disbelief by thinking, "No fucking way," and then anger with "Why is he fucking me over?" The anger may rile you to shout, "Fuck you!" In disappointment you say "Oh fuck" and then shuffle down to the corner bar to drown your miseries and get fucked up. There seems to be nothing that the word cannot express in the proper context.

But none of this explains why it seems to be a completely different case when we get to kids. Swearing may be socially unacceptable, but morally innocuous in the adult world; but it seems different in the case of children. There seems to be something completely wrong with shouting, "Hey kids, get the hell up. Guess who left some cool shit under the god damned Christmas tree? Santa fucking Claus, that's who!" But if there is nothing inherently wrong with cursing, why should cursing in the presence of children make any difference?

My thought, and I'm not sure I buy it myself at this point, is that while curse words are empty vessels that we can use to express anything we want -- they don't have a meaning in and of themselves, but acquire one in the context of an utterance -- they do come from somewhere. They have been selected as the empty syllables we designate as culturally impolite because they used to refer to something and that something is usually either sexual, heretical, or scatalogical and we think that the process of explaining this etymological past will have to include ideas or concepts that are age inappropriate. We may not be saying anything that refers to fecal matter when we say, "Oh shit" because the first basement let that ground ball go through his legs, but we are indirectly referring to it and we don't want kids talking about poopies.

This would explain why it is ok to substitute for curse words and express the same thing. "Sugar" or "shoot" can be used for "shit"; "freaking" or "flipping" for "fucking"; "fudge" for "fuck"; "dang" or "darn" for "damn" -- the idea is that these words while homophonically similar are etymologically distinct. They sound like the curse they are standing in for and so it is clear when I hit my finger with a hammer and say "sugar," I wanted to say "shit" but couldn't because of the company. So "sugar" linguistically points to "shit" but doesn't carry the same cultural baggage because when we use it to refer to something, that something is a nice substance used in cookies and not what we do an hour after eating the cookies.

So even though I was saying nothing about sucrose or feces, by using one word or the other as an exclamation, I was, in fact, making an indirect reference to one or the other, and that reference to something to which I did not really refer might have to be explained to a youngin', and that explanation might not be something that it is morally acceptable to explain to junior, so the fear of the possibility of having to make a possible explanation about something that I did not really refer to is the reason it is wrong to swear in front of kids?

I love language.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Looking over yesterday's very interesting comments, I'm wondering if the whole "creeping fascism" thing isn't, well,... just so 2003.

The bumpersticker version of Mussolini's rise to power was that he was able to get the people to happily hand over their rights because he made the trains run on time. Anyone ridden on Amtrak lately?

Richard Clarke, on Bill Maher's show last week, argues that one fatal flaw in almost every single conspiracy theory is the presumption of governmental competence. Not only do you have to assume that they can keep a secret, but you have to assume that they are good enough to pull off the grand scheme outlined in the conspiracy story. The folks who nominated Harriet Meirs to the Supreme Court, the ones who put ol' heckuvajob Brownie in a position to oversee life or death decisions, the people who allowed George Deutsch, a guy who couldn't finish college, to determine what Ph.D. holding astronomers could say about astronomy...These are the people who are supposed to be competent enough to rework the wiring of our democracy.

Now, I have no doubt that these spawn of Nixon clearly have designs on re-establishing a centralized structure in which maintenance of their power and corporate interest are substituted entirely for the good of the nation at large -- I now write my long-distance phone bill out directly to the NSA in order to eliminate the middle man. But just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the tracks for the mag-lev bullet train to hell is built from these.

My guess is that historians in a couple of generations will look back at this period and see that we came to the edge, but were spared because the powers that wannabe just weren't sharp enough to pull it off. The Mayberry Machiavellis had the braun, they just didn't have the brains.

There is no doubt that they made it to second base. The foundation had been laid. The media was told, "sit, stay, good boy." The opposing party (you just have to chuckle even typing that phrase) was cowed into submission. But watching the Oval Office address last night and looking at those who hope to fill the spot, like George Allen, for example, you realize that these are nothing but schoolyard bullies who just don't pack the necessary intellectual firepower to close the deal. When you have a President who isn't well-informed, well-spoken, or well-mannered enough to hold an unscripted press conference, you are not going to be able to wag the dog into complete power. You not only need the intention, you need the goods. And if they had it, we'd be in a world of trouble right now. It may yet turn out that incompetence was the GOP's greatest virtue.

And it is one that has actively been cultivated. Government, by conservative presupposition, is inefficient and incompetent. Anything administered by the feds is by definition mismanaged. The argument begins with greed -- I don't want to pay taxes. The second step is that taxes go to fund governmental functions. If these made the country or the world a better place, then it would be money well-spent and irrational and immoral to want to eliminate it. Hence, we must assert by fiat that all government work is wasteful and ineffective.

But since it is a first principle that the government is broken, it really makes no difference who you put in charge of it. Are you a bad movie actor? We'll make you Governor of California and maybe President of the whole nation. Having conservatives in charge who aren't Rhodes scholars is fine. The whole point is to undermine the power of the government. If they let corporate lobbyists write legislation and simultaneously erode the public's confidence in the government's ability to do anything right -- double bonus! If they are effective in putting in place conservative policies that work, great; if they are massive failures, that is fine too -- it only shows how bankrupt government solutions to any problem are. Win or lose, they win. Completely unfalsifiable. Brilliant.

But from the "irony can be so ironic" file, all of the work they've done to weaken the government is exactly what has hindered their ability to strengthen the government. My guess is that looking back, we'll end up sounding like Yogi Berra when we say, "If he weren't so bad, he would have been worse."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Catch Me on the Radio

For those of you in the Baltimore area, I'll be on the 98 Rock afternoon drive-time program "Mickey and Amelia" Wednesday around 4 to talk about ethics.

Fascism as Buzzword

The use of certain words in conversation ought to immediately raise concern. Nazi or Hitler references ought to immediately raise a red flag (and not the kind with a Swastika on it). Not far behind these references is "fascism." It is a term bandied about because whatever it means, it is bad and should I be able to label my opponents with it, they will be perceived as bad and I will therefore win the argument. It is an ad hominem goldmine.

We hear charges of fascism from the left against the Bush administration for the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, for arresting non-supporters who attend Presidential appearances, and any number of other actions designed to silence dissent or at least minimize its effects. We frequently hear the phrase "Islamo-fascism" from the right to characterize the jihadist movement. But rarely do we get any explanation of why these groups deserve the title "fascist." It simply carries a negative connotation that is rhetorically convenient.

One element that is frequently associated with fascism is authoritarian power by the central government. This is what is often behind the accusation. Whenever there is a perceived overstepping by a government, fascism is the claim.There is no doubt that fascist governments are authoritarian and authoritarianism is a bad thing, but that does not make all government over-reaching evidence of fascist motivation. There is more to fascism.

Fascism arose as a counter-point to Marxism. Marx argued that economics set up a situation where there would be class-driven conflict through a series of prescribed steps which leads, ultimately, to the dissolving of governments and the flourishing of people in a state of complete peace. Fascism denied all of this. In his 1932 piece "What is Fascism," Benito Mussolini, took issue with all of these points. Fascism begins with the axiom that war is the natural state of man.

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism -- born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision -- the alternative of life or death.
This is a crucial point. A state of war is a special thing. When one is in the state of war, the normality of life is suspended. War is a time of crisis and in a state of crisis, what is normally irrational if one wants to create a civil society may become rational. During wartime, a nation is so threatened that all possible projects within the nation depend upon successful prosecution of the war, and as such, all other projects are therefore less important than winning the war. Everything in life is subjugated to the government's efforts. The survival of the country and everyone in it is in question, so your little interests need to be put on hold. A state of martial law allows for complete governmental control because it is needed to protect each and all.

But normally, we think of these periods of war as occasional. We are willing to temporarily suspend basic rights if it means ultimately preserving those rights. But fascism, by arguing that war is the natural state, also contends that liberty is not to be liberally granted.
The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone.
By creating a permanent state of war, the bunker mentality requires the forfeiture of freedom, something we are accustomed to unquestioningly thinking of as good. Authoritarianism therefore flows from a metaphysical picture of what nature -- particularly, human nature -- is. And since in a time of war, the state must be the focus, an overwhelming nationalism must be the enforced attitude. Internationalist leanings or sympathy for the other is a strike against the nation's project of saving itself. The enemy must not be seen as human lest it lead to a softening of the national will and the downfall of the society as a whole.

So, is there any sense to the worries about heading down the slippery slope to fascism from either side of the political aisle? TJ Templeton at Project for the Old American Century argues that there is significant similarity between Mussolini's Italy and Bush's America during the War on Terror. The central idea being that the War on Terror is designed to be an open-ended war. as such, there will be no possible way to not be on a war footing and down the slope we go. On the other side, Ali Sina, at, argues that Islam, or at least certain strains of it, are inextricably political in a way that leads the state to be a militant arm of a culture that denies basic equality and freedoms taken as necessary for liberal democracy. Both are interesting pieces of work well worth a look-see. Are there fascists under your bed? Probably not. But are there things we ought to be worried about? Yeah. Is "fascism" a cheapshot used by lazy interlocutors who just want to tag their opponents? Usually, but then again, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mothers' Day

To everyone out there who is a mother -- and to those who just get called one -- Happy Mothers' Day!

Friday, May 12, 2006

Polish jokes

This weekend's Comedist meditation will be the first of a three part series on Polish jokes. Next week we will set out a surmise about the history of Polish jokes. Why did Poles end up a standard butt of "dumb people" jokes? The easy answer is that they came over with German immigrants who always held their neighbors to be inferior. But the story may be a bit more interesting. That's for next week.

This week, we'll look at a couple of interesting features of these sorts of jokes: one logical , one sociological. First, these jokes lack what logic types call a semantic substitutivity. The referent of the term "Pollock," "blonde," or any other group that we plug into these jokes is an arbitrary stupid person -- we use the groups because they are immediately recognized as being stereotypic stupid. If you substituted "stupid person" for the member of the group mentioned, the sentence would have the same meaning. Yet, if you substitute "stupid person" into the joke, it suddenly ceases to be funny. "Did you hear about the Polish hockey team? They drowned during spring training." "Did you hear about the stupid hockey team? They drowned during spring training." Different, no?

(What did the hockey coach do when the ice melted? He sent in the subs.)

The second is the universality of these kinds of jokes. Every group has some other group that it makes these jokes about. Brunettes have blondes. Montanans have North Dakotans. There is always someone who can be plugged in. This can be understood in terms of the work 19th century sociologist, Ferdinand Toennies. Toennies argued that all groups will organize themselves in two ways: Gemeinshaft, or community, is social organization based on similarity -- think of a family or a neighborhood -- and Gesellschaft, or society, is social organization of those who do not share commonalities, but are united around a goal or task -- think of a team or corporation. Toennies argued that within any society, communities will form; and within any community, social factions will form. Stupid person jokes are one way of unifying a community. By identifying them as beneath us, the jokes serve a unifying function. It erases the differences between those in the society, unifying them into a community by making them similar in being superior to them.

Next, the history of Polish jokes. Part three, are these jokes immoral?

So give us your best stupid person joke.

Did you hear about the two West Virginians who went looking for a Christmas tree? They walked mile after mile, for hour after hour. Finally, one turns to the other and says, "We're cutting down the next tree we see, I don't care if it has lights on it or not."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

HUD Secretary Jackson Was Not Drunk Last Night...

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson – the one who said that only the best residents should be allowed to return to New Orleans public housing - publicly declared that he won't give government contracts to people based on their political views. From the Dallas Business Journal,

"He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years," Jackson said of the prospective contractor. "He made a heck of a proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.'

"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.'

"He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

So when Secretary Jackson was confronted with the fact that this is textbook corruption, the excuses started flowing. At first, it the reply was that the Secretary's story was just anecdotal. Then it became something along the lines of the Secretary is not directly involved in awarding contracts, so it doesn't matter. Now, finally we have a press release that says, it's ok ma, I'm only lying.
"I deeply regret the anecdotal remarks I made at a recent Texas small business forum and would like to reassure the public that all HUD contracts are awarded solely on a stringent merit-based process. During my tenure, no contract has ever been awarded, rejected, or rescinded due to the personal or political beliefs of the recipient."
It reminds me of the way Bertrand Russell sketches the logic of George Berkeley's argument for idealism, "I was not drunk last night. I only had two glasses; besides, it is well known that I am a teetotaller."

Frank Lautenberg has called for Jackson's resignation while Henry Waxman and Barney Frank in the House have called for investigations into HUD contracting decisions during Jackson's tenure. These are exactly the sorts of investigations that make the GOP tremble at the thought of a Democratically controlled House or Senate.

Specialization and Society

A few weeks back there was a discussion over at the Leiter blog (the place for philosophy professor "inside baseball" chats) "In Defense of Baroque Specialization". Jason Stanley argues that we should let technical philosophers be technical philosophers and not insist that they be public intellectuals. Their job is to crank out this generation's contribution to philosophy and that is contribution enough. The argument is set out in terms of philosophy, but could just as well be physics, biology, psychology, or any other field. The argument runs like this:

(1) Great philosophy sometimes has an effect on society.
(2) Great philosophy is extremely subtle and complex and not entirely translatable for non-specialists.
(3) Great philosophers are often good only at complex philosophy, not good at the translation of complex philosophy into publicly accessible language and the process of this translation is distracting and time consuming for great philosophers and takes away from their ability to do great philosophy.

(4) Therefore, in order to allow philosophy to have its maximum long-term impact on society, we should not saddle philosophers with the need to be public intellectuals.

While I am perfectly willing to buy 1-3, 4 would only hold for great philosophers -- and there ain't many around. Most of us are hacks who churn out a few adequately insightful bits filling in corners of corners of corners of some question that our graduate advisor found interesting because his graduate advisor found it interesting because...

The result is much like what happens when a colleague of mine asks about a top tax rate of 100%. When he asks his students, "Isn't there some amount of money that is enough? Some annual income, say $100,000,000, that beyond which we say, you now have more money than you can spend, additional income will help society?", the response is almost uniformly, "no." The reason he often gets is, "But I might be that person someday." Now, it is fair to say that it is incredibly unlikely that any of our students are going to be that person, but the hope that drives one to buy a lottery ticket is there. And so it is with academics -- not just philosophers -- that this next paper could be the one. I'm smart, I could stumble upon the next great breakthrough and having to be a public intellectual in addition to teaching could keep me from doing my great work.

This, in addition to the fact that baroque, technical work and not one's place as a public intellectual, is what gets you job offers, raises, and promotions has led to a significant disengagement of academics in general from the broader world. We are too busy. Lawyers may have to do pro bono work as a public service, but grading seminar papers is supposedly sufficient for us. Of course, when we aren't there, political and religious charlatans and charismatics are more than happy to step in as authorities to shape public discourse and sentiment. But with some exceptions, Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett, Barbara Forrester, PZ Meyers, the minor of us are putting out the effort to do it.

Nicholas Maxwell, from University College, London, on the other hand, has an argument that this is because of the structure of the university and that a radical change needs to occur. We need to refocus the aim of higher education from knowledge to wisdom. The search for knowledge has been seen as an end in itself and , arguing much along the same lines as Husserl and Heidegger, science without a clear eye on its social implications is a recipe for disaster. As such, Maxwell argues that we need to re-organize what and how we teach.

"There needs to be a change in the basic intellectual aim of inquiry, so that it becomes, not just the search for knowledge, but the search for and promotion of wisdom -- wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides."
Maxwell argues that economics, political science, and sociology need to go back to their focus on social advancement and natural sciences need to change "so that it includes at least three levels of discussion: evidence, theory, and research aims."

I would argue that there is a middle path here. The current hyper-specialization of contemporary research is the result of incredible advances in all fields. One of the effects of it is the alienation of the academic from the broader community. Maxwell's approach is designed to fecous efforts, but my fear is that it would retard their advance in the way that Stanley argues. The key is to realize that not every academic will be making that great advances. I am more than happy not to have Saul Kripke out there as the leading public face of philosophy. We do need a division of intellectual labor, the problem is that like my colleague's students, all of us think we are the ones who should be in the class excused from the responsibility to be public intellectuals. For those of us who make up the bulk of academic mass, we need to re-think things in two ways:

1) We need to restructure colleges in much the way that Maxwell is envisioning so that we teach rather than train. This is especially true in the sciences. Some incredible thought has been going into reshaping science teaching in the last decade and it needs to be given priority. Carl Sagan, in his last book the Demon Haunted World, was exactly right when he wrote,
"We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster."
We need to restructure our high-school and college curricula in such a way that we not only allow a broader swath of people to understand science, but enable them to participate meaningfully in public debates concerning them, e.g., global warming, stem-cell research,...

2) We need to retool training and reward structures for academics to encourage them to be public intellectuals. the normal scientist ought to be able to step up on a stage and know how to effectively take on cranks. They ought to be rewarded for playing roles in broader scientific discussions. blogs and other mechanisms can be effective. But they need to be sources of professional status, not just fun little play toys.