Thursday, November 30, 2006

He Who Laughs Last, Votes Best (part 1 of 2)

For the complete article -- beautifully formatted with color photos, see e Pluribus Media. (Special thanks again to kfred, Cho and everyone over at ePM.)

Forget “Soccer moms,” “NASCAR dads,” and “value voters,” the operative bloc in the midterms were the “comedic constituents.” Stephen Colbert was right to proudly proclaim that every Congressional candidate who appeared on his show – Democrat or Republican, incumbent or challenger – had been elected. The power of the laugh should not be misunderestimated.

Apathy and Irony live together in perfect harmony
Richard Nixon’s appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In was the first time major televised comedy was used for political PR and was ultimately as important to his career as the Checkers speech. But the world changed with the Ray-Banned Bill Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show. The image created the new notion of President as Celebrity-in-Chief.

Clinton's entertainment connections projected an image of Presidential glamour the country had not seen since Kennedy’s Camelot. His prime time embrace of Aretha Franklin was seen as an act of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. to the African American community as whole, a bump they also got amongst the Jewish population from the first family’s relationship with Barbara Streisand – whose social relevance was in no small part rescued by Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk” bits on Saturday Night Live.

True, Ronald Reagan was also a product of cinematic idolatry, but his Hollywood had long died out. As Governor, his rise was propelled by his contempt for the hippies and his nationwide appeal turned on his image as a grandfatherly relic of times past to which he promised to return us. Reagan's appeal was based on being unapologetically out of step like when he removed the Beach Boys from their standing gig at the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall, replacing them with that repository of traditional values, Wayne Newton.

It was in direct contrast to this that Clinton made the post-prime-time slot a necessary club in the campaign bag. Late Night and The Tonight Show were used to show that candidates had the levitas necessary for high office. “Boxers or briefs?,” a question for Clinton from an MTV candidate forum, is now shorthand for the contentless fluff needed to connect with "real people" who cynically distrust anyone with ideas, much less an agenda.

This was the period where Seinfeld dominated the comedic landscape. The show was not about nothing; its appeal was its narcissism, its ability to take trivialities and by embedding them in the intricacies of lived lives pretend that they were tragedies. To have involved the characters in authentic conflict would have been to kill the schtick – there was never and could never have been “a very special episode of Seinfeld.” It had to be axiomatic that the upper middle class lifestyle of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer was never in danger, regardless of whether one got served by the Soup Nazi, could dispose of muffin stumps, or celebrated Festivus.

And so it was with us. There were no real threats to our peace and prosperity. Congress could shut down the government and, like George losing his job, nothing changed. It didn't matter if the President was trying to put gays in the military like a liberal or declaring the end of the era of big government like a conservative. A semen stain on a blue dress could be elevated to the level of a constitutional crisis because we had the luxury of thinking that the most imperative issue confronting us was whether the Commander-in-Chief was master of his domain.

The comedy was sarcastic in its smugness. The worries of post-modern life were mere social constructions. Political theater was “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Existential crises were, like, so 1960s. And thus turn out for elections, especially among younger voters, approached historic lows.

The election of 2000 featured a brainy, earnest Democratic wonk; a language mangling, ne’er do well Republican; and an anti-telegenic Green repeating hypnotically “there’s no difference between the parties.” And it rang true because there was precious little difference between Clinton’s Dick Morris guided triangulation and the Bob Dole prairie-moderate branch of the GOP.

But Gore and Bush were different – in image. The vicious attacks on Gore came from a general cynicism among the pundocracy. Gore didn’t get the joke. Nothing was at stake and Bush’s playful nicknames and banter with the press showed them that he was in on the gag. We had no worries putting a gentleman's C student in the White House because the government was too big of a ship to be moved. Its inertia would carry it smoothly regardless of who was at the helm so we might as well spend the next four years with the one we’d prefer to watch Seinfeld with.

Tomorrow: 9/11 and the War on Humor, and Katrina (and Colbert) Open the Floodgates

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Proof Ken Mehlman is NOT Gay

So Bill Maher appeared on Larry King Live and claimed that Ken Mehlman, then chair of the Republican National Committee, is gay. A couple days later, Mehlman announces he is stepping down from the post. The general assumption, of course, is that Maher must have been right.

No, I say. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Correlation does not imply causation. In fact, not only is it a flawed inference, but I have iron clad proof that there is no reason to say that Ken Mehlman is gay.

This is a photo of Ken Mehlman dancing with A GIRL at the junior ring dance in 1984 from the Pinnacle -- the yearbook from Pikesville High School (yes, I went to high school with Ken Mehlman).

Let's think about this. Surely there's no reason a gay man would take a female to a public dance and give the false appearance of being straight. Further, no gay man ever figured out their sexual orientation after high school. And, clearly, no young woman would ever have any reason to ask a man she knew or suspected to be gay to a social function. Based, then, on rational and empirical evidence (this was long before the era of photoshop, so don't even think of going in that direction), we now have absolute confirmation, dare I say conclusive proof, that Ken Mehlman is not and could not be gay. So people, let's put this whole matter to bed...of course, as long as it is with a matter of the other gender with which it is married.

Monday, November 27, 2006

On Navel Gazing: Channelling Jack Handy

So I was gazing at my navel yesterday and as often happens, my mind began to wander. I thought about the way my mind often wanders when navel gazing and realized that I frequently think about the act of navel gazing itself. When I do, it turns out that there are roughly four categories of thought that pop up: on the form of the navel, on the contents of the navel, on the origin of the navel, and on the meaning of the navel. I meditated for a while on how interesting it was that I was now reflecting on thinking about considering navels.

Then I thought to myself, "Well, enough of this. I need to get back to work. Lots of philosophy that needs taking care of."

Am I Being Petty, Immature, and Nasty Here?

Had my 20 year high school reunion last weekend. I was incredibly fortunate to grow up with wonderful, smart, spirited people. Catching up brought a flood of emotions. For the most part, people I had lost touch with, but thought about often, ended up on paths no one could have predicted, living interesting fulfilling lives.

Of course, then there was Narcissus. He was a star athlete, extremely popular, you know the type. Used his social power to make sure that others, hypothetically, let's say the more nerdy set, knew they were below him. Arrogant jerk does not even begin to describe him. It turns out that his "adult" life is...well, mundane would be kind. While those of us who were taunted came back to compare lives of enrichment with interesting jobs and wonderful families, his glory days were half his lifetime ago. In the room, the old lines delineating the various cliques were still there, but the old power structure among them was no longer in effect. Looking at Narcissus across the room, a very deep sense of schadenfreude came over me -- even more so when I realized I could tell him that to his face and he would remain powerless (mostly because he couldn't pronounce "schadenfreude").

Ever since, I've been feeling a bit guilty about it and it's given rise to three questions:

(1) Is the feeling of schadenfreude a positive emotion in that it celebrates a sense of retributive justice or is it a negative emotion in that it is immature, petty, and vindictive? Should I feel bad for feeling superior and wanting to dance about singing "nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah"?

(2) Does it even make sense to judge emotions in the same way we judge the morality of actions since I didn't choose to feel this way? Emotions just happen. Can't we only judge that which is freely chosen? Is this a category mistake?

(3) When I go into the restaurant that he manages, should I make him call me Doctor Gimbel or Professor Gimbel?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Comedism and Evil

Brothers , Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

For those who are new to the Playground, weekends are for the weekly Comedist sermons. For an introduction to Comedism, the new religion; passages from The Comedist Manifesto, our holy book; Comedist support for evolution and gay marriage; how Comedism was founded; and a note on the War on Comedy, see these links.

So I was asked by some of my logic students last week whether Comedism suffers from the problem of evil like other religions. Is the existence of evil, suffering, or the non-funny a worry for Comedism? Those monotheistic traditions who claim an all knowing, all powerful all loving God, have a problem explaining the suffering of innocents and the existence of evil, since an all knowing God would be aware of it, an all powerful God would be able to stop it, and an all loving God would need to prevent it. But what about an all funny God?

We have no such problem. Like Manichaenism, Taoism, and certain Native American spiritual systems, we believe that nature must have balance. As Arlo Guthrie once said, "You can't have a light, without a dark to stick it in." You can't have the funny without the unfunny, you can't have a punchline without a set-up, you can't have a funny man without a straight man. We see the unwoven as an opportunity, not as a theological problem.

That said, there is true evil and Comedists are required to stand against it. Evil is not comic, it is tragic. While the human spirit is intoning and will be able to produce humor in the most horrific circumstances, true human suffering is a violation of the preconditions for the possibility of the joy Comedists seek for all.

And so we must comment of Michael Richards outburst this week. Here is a man who in so many ways, not the least of which as Kramer on Seinfeld, not to mention the underappreciated role of Stanley Spadowski in weird Al's UHF, went off on a disgustingly racist tirade against a couple of African American hecklers while on stage last weekend.

Comedy can be a powerful weapon, even against the most powerful. See this article pointed out to me by Brother MT from Der Spiegel (German for "the Spiegel") discussing the first German comedy about Hitler. Seventy-three years late, I'll grant, but an act of humorous bravery nonetheless.

Humor can be powerful, but like all weapons, it can be used for good or evil and Richards' use of it was for evil. In his public apology on Letterman's Late Show, Richards did come across as genuinely sorry, claimed ownership of the act, and expressed deep regret to those harmed. He said that the crazy thing was that he was not a racist, that he was trying "a jujitsu" against the hecklers. The idea is that you use their successful comic energy flowing at you, against them. His claim was that he was trying to go so far over the top that their barbs against him on stage would pale in comparison and cease to be funny.

I don't know if this is true or whether it came from a place of true bigotry, but, to be honest, it does not matter. Richards had power as the comedian on stage. He had power for being a comic celebrity. He had more power than the hecklers and he chose to use that power as weapon in a way that reinforced the power of bigots. He knowing chose to take that direction in coming back at these guys, a line he knew was wrong, a line of oppression. He tried to use the power of racism to boost his comedic power and that was horribly wrong, no matter the intention. He gave comic aid and comfort to the evil that is racism and that was wrong on every possible level. Comedists do believe in evil and we believe that humor can be used as a weapon by either side. It is a sad day when someone so skilled in its use employs it to harm and to oppress, rather than to liberate.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Ethics of Maids

The notion of a maid is always one that I've thought worrisome. It seems that if one has any moral obligations, one of them is to clean up after oneself. You made this mess, you clean it up. By hiring someone to clean your house, you are failing to take full responsibility for your own actions. You made that toilet, shower, carpet dirty, you need to know what you've done and you need to make it right. Like the spoiled rockband who trashes their hotel room and leave an accountant to straighten out the situation financially, it seems to say, "I have enough money that I can do whatever I want, so I don't have to care."

It's not that the job is menial or degrading and that by hiring someone to clean your house you are treating them as a less than human tool, there are lots of jobs that suffer from that and while that conversation is an interesting one, this is something different. I'm proposing the idea that there are just certain jobs that you have an obligation to perform. If someone hired someone else to raise their children or serve their jail sentence that would seem to be a similar dereliction of moral duty. It's not just your responsibility to see that it gets done, it is your responsibility to be the one who does it.

Sense here or did I just wash too many dishes last night?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thank You

It is a wonderful thing to have a time set aside to reflect on that for which you are thankful. I am indeed an incredibly fortunate individual. One of those things for which I am very grateful is the community that has grown around this blog.

I am very thankful to have as a colleague and dear friend, Aspazia, who convinced me to start the Playground and who gave me so much help and support when first starting.

It tickles me to no end to have a place where family and old friends from every part of my life can come together to be silly, insightful, prickly, passionate, human in every way. To be able to facilitate a conversation between friends from my childhood (Gwydion, for example, has been one of my best friends since we were in first grade), high school, college, grad school, along with current and former students, colleagues, cousins, my lil bro,... it is all just incredible to me. It's like the world's greatest dinner party and I don't have to do any dishes afterwards.

And to all the new playmates who I now know through this endeavor, people who I am so happy feel comfortable coming out to play here. It amazes me that such interesting folks find my silliness interesting enough to comment upon. To those who enjoy our games enough to link to me, let me express gratitude. To think enough of this toy to bring your circle in is indeed wonderful. It makes me realize how little separation there can be.

I am grateful to all those who come to lurk here, who find this virtual place interesting enough to make it a small part of your day. In college, I was one of those quiet kids in the back row who never said anything, so I know exactly where you are coming from. Thank you.

I am grateful for search engines, without which people looking for guacamole recipes, polish jokes, biographical information on Otto Neurath, arguments about gay marriage, words with silent letters, the Brother Bones version of Sweet Georgia Brown, and discussions about Albert Einstein's Jewish science would never find me.

I am grateful beyond words to TheWife, love of my life, who puts up with one more thing inserted into the hecticness of daily life.

And I want to thank Al Gore, without whom this internet would not have been possible. If you're out there, Mr. Vice President, "Confused, Maybe Not" thinks you can win in '08...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rangel's Reductio

I've been fascinated by the dust up over Charlie Rangel's proposal to bring back the draft. Designed to shame those who rushed to war, it drew only eye rolls or looks of bemused puzzlement from them. From his own side, however, a significant portion of the reaction was strong and negative -- check out Brock at Battle Panda and Dave at Quaker Agitator for a couple of smart folks who showed more than mild distaste for the idea.

I've been thinking about the underlying logic of the discussion. What Congressman Rangel was trying to do was to employ something like what we call a reductio ad absurdum argument (Latin for "reduce to the absurd") where we prove a sentence is true by assuming it is false. It works like this:

- Assume that sentence A is false.
- Adding in the truth of "not A" to what we already know must lead to a contradiction "B and not B"
- Contradictions cannot be true
- Therefore, since accepting "not A" leads to a logically untenable (absurd) position, A must be true.
In its strongest form, denying A leads to impossible consequences meaning that A must be true.

A weaker form of this type of argument is the "poison pill" where the resulting consequence is not a contradiction, but simply a proposition you know your interlocutor will be unwilling to accept. That was what the Congressman was trying to do, making the possibility of legislators own children or the children of their more well off constituents the ones who might end up in the line of fire.

None of this, of course, was lost on those on the left who objected to Rangel. So what was the problem? Rangel's entire move was based on the fact that reinstating the draft is a non-starter. But the fear is that the pill is not poisonous enough. If one could imagine a President whipping up sufficient frenzy around false claims in order to invade another country, if you could imagine people in this age being arrested for simply holding a sign that opposes those in power, if you could imagine not only having public debate over the moral permissibility of torture, but having that debate so skewed that those opposing torture are seen as the far-out wackos, then something as mundane as the draft hardly seems the absurdity needed to make the argument work. Everyone sees the point the Congressman is making, but it seems that in these times it is us that have already been reduced to the absurd, rendering the argument ineffectual. It harkens back to Alice's conversation with the catepillar wherein she said,
"being so many sizes in one day is confusing."
"It isn't,' said the Caterpillar.
"Well, perhaps you haven't found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn into a chrysalis--you will some day, you know--and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't you?"
"Not a bit," said the Caterpillar.
When one lives in Wonderland, one's definition of absurd must be adjusted. So to Congressman Rangel and most of the rest of everyone, a very merry unbirthday to you.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Voltaire and Dick Armey

On this, Voltaire's birthday, let me ask again... Is it still attacking a strawman if the other side insists on making themselves into strawmen?

Friday on All Things Considered, prominent Republicans were asked about the path forward after the thumping in the midterm election. One of those interviewed was former House majority leader Dick Armey who was parroting the now standard line that the voters were reacting to corruption and Iraq, but still back the conservative agenda. When asked about Social Security privatization and the whacking the Bush administration took for pushing that conservative wet dream, Armey argued that Bush's failing was not in the position, but in his approach -- starting a national dialogue. He said, in a condescending tone:

"Dialogues are what Democrats do, not what Republicans do. Only liberals think that if you've had a dialogue about something, you've done something."
If we pick up on George Lakoff's metaphor of the Democrats as the mommy party and Republicans as the daddy party, Armey is saying that Bush's failure was not that in making a major decision about family finances, daddy treated mommy like an adult and sat down to talk with her about the issue. What he should have done as the pants wearing member of the household was to tell the bitch to shut up and get him a beer and, oh, by the way, I'm privatizing Social Security. Armey's lesson is that if you don't act like the man of the house, you lose the House.

When we heard this, TheWife turned to me (once I was finished ranting) and said that the amazing thing was not that he believes it, or that he said it. What is astonishing is that he doesn't know enough to be embarrassed about having said it. But then again, I'm a liberal and according to Dick Armey in a speech a few years back,
Liberals "are just not bright people. They don't think deeply. They don't comprehend. They don't understand."
Yes, I am a liberal. Yes, I think that you have done something when you have had a dialogue IF that dialogue has been one that is passionate, smart, and approached by both sides in good faith. We need what I have previously called "civil fucking discourse" -- it is civil in allowing every voice a seat at the table, but it is uncivil in subjecting all views to the most rigorous critical scrutiny and outright rejecting those that fail to meet rational muster.

Of course, this notion is nowhere near novel. It dates back to ancient Greece and was the central concept underlying the Enlightenment that Voltaire loved so much. Perhaps Dick Armey is correct and I am not a bright person, I don't think deeply, comprehend, or understand much. But I can read and have always enjoyed the wit and intelligence of Voltaire who does seem to be a bright person who thought deeply, perhaps -- and this is a bit of a stretch, I know -- maybe almost as deeply as Dick Armey.

Civil fucking discourse is not only "doing something," it is essential to doing things right. I agree with Aspazia that rational processes absent empathy can be dangerous, but while they may not be sufficient, they are necessary. What Armey may be confusing is understanding with intellectual humility. Those who believe in dialogue do so for the simple reason that they understand that they might be wrong. They don't think they are, but understand that they might be and so seek to test out their ideas against the strongest objections that can be leveled against them. Like a belt holding boxer who refuses to take on legitimate challengers in defense of his title, the only people who run from dialogue are those who are afraid they will lose.

Someone needs to explain to these people that leadership does not mean being a bully. If you coerce people into doing your bidding, that does not make you a strong leader; it makes you an asshole. Real leadership is having the fortitude and concern to consider the options in good faith and wanting to do right not just win the argument.

Happy birthday Voltaire. Well, back to the garden.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Corrupting the Youth, Sorta

Great story from Hanno:

OK, so I teach a course on Political Philosophy, and in part of that course we read Marx's Communist Manifesto (not related to the Comedist Manifesto). And I have a student taking this course who happens to be a Christian, and he carries a bible with him in his backpack. This being the Bible belt, periodically there are people who come to campus giving away free Bibles. My student was approached by one such person, who asked if he wanted a Bible. My student replied "No, I already have one!" and reached into his backpack, and grabbed what felt like his Bible. But in fact, he pulled out triumphantly the Communist Manifesto, complete with a large hammer and sickle insignia!

The old man passing out Bibles was stunned, his jaw dropped, and a look of shock replaced his look of joy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Happy Birthday Lorne Michaels

It is with a sense of entitlement that every post-boomer for the last several decades could complain that "Saturday Night Live is not as funny now as it was in my day." The man we have to thank for it all is Lorne Michaels, the show's producer and visionary. He had the guts to take the Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In format and put a real edge to it. In a time slot that seemed certain death, he created an institution.

I've always been amazed at the guts it took for him to take a highly successful show and completely clean house and bring in the second cast. Sure, most of them were ready to move on to bigger things, but to wholesale let go of folks who had given you such amazing comedy and take a chance on completely new people -- faces that the audience didn't know, who might not gel as an ensemble, and who would inevitably get compared to the former beloved cast members -- took an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude.

While not a comedian himself, he is responsible for some of the funniest folks we have today. On behalf of Comedists everywhere, Mr. Michaels, we say thank you.

So, what's your favorite SNL moment?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Of Goo and Grue

Thanks again everyone for amazing questions this week. For those who were looking for past questions, check here, and here (answers are on days that follow). I'll ask again next month.

Phil Thrift asks, " Why is there something rather than nothing? Or is that a nothing question?"

It is either a nothing question or an incredibly deep question depending upon the sort of answer you are looking for. "Why" questions may be requests for motivation -- Why did you do that? -- or they may be requests for causes -- What brought that phenomenon about?

If you are looking for the first sort of answer, I ain't got it, but would point out that it is presupposed that existence requires an act of will and the ability of something whose will could create matter. I'm always amused with the version of the question, "But where did it all come from?" I usually reply, "Newark" and then point out that the question presupposes that it came from somewhere and ask where it was before that.

If we treat it as the second sort of question, what caused there to be all this stuff it is an interesting question. On the one hand, it seems as if we may have reached the limit of possible physical explanation. Physics can describe the way bits of matter and energy interact with one another, but we seem to require the assumption that there is at least the stuff there.

At the same time, spontaneous creation of stuff is not only allowed by our best physical theories, it is actually a direct result. In quantum mechanics, we have this thing called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It is usually set out in terms of position and velocity -- we can determine the exact position of a particle, but nothing about its velocity; we can determine the exact velocity of a particle, but nothing of its position; or we can determine both, but only up to a limit. I use the verb "determine" and not "know" here because the principle is metaphysical, not epistemological, that is fancy philosophy talk for saying it's not that the particle has exact values for both position and velocity and we just can't know both, it's that it cannot have exact values for both.

This needs to be stressed here because we can express the Uncertainty Relationship in terms of pairs of physical quantities other than position and velocity, for example, time and energy. If you take a small enough span of time in a region, we can determine very little about the energy of the reason. Small enough durations and the uncertainty in energy gets quite large, large enough to be the energy of a particle. In extremely short time spans, it is not only possible, but expected that complete particles will simply pop into being.

Before George Gamow's Big Bang Theory became the cosmological gold standard, physicists Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi, and most famously Fred Hoyle came up with a rival called the Steady State theory which tried to use mechanisms along this line to account for everything in the universe and its continuous expansion. The idea is that there is something instead of nothing, because, well, sometimes, matter happens. But we've long since given up this idea as an explanation for all matter and energy and asking for the source of the stuff that got banged in the Big Bang becomes at best metaphysical speculation and at worst, a dreaded nothing question.
JoeS asked, "Is the statement "The grass is grue" falsifiable only at the time where it our language system would falsify it? Is it falsifiable at all? What about descriptors of from a different language system that don't involve a time trigger in our system? Are they falsifiable?"
The" grue" of which he speaks comes from Nelson Goodman's "New Riddle of Induction" in which he argues that the central logical tool in scientific reasoning, induction, is not the language independent thing we think it is. The idea is that if the word "grue" means "green before 1/1/07 and blue thereafter" then all of the evidence we currently have that the grass is green is also evidence that the grass is grue since all observations have come before the year 2007. By using induction from this evidence, speakers of our color language would predict that on New Years' Day, the grass will still be green, but using the very same logical inference, grue-speakers will be lead by their language to argue that all scientific evidence points to it being what we would call blue. So we have different claims about how the world will be based on the same evidence and the same scientific inference, with the only difference being the language we choose to speak -- something that should be innocuous.

Is the statement "Grass is grue" only falsifiable after 1/1/07. In the naive sense, yes, because that is the first point at which there theories make different predictions. But as Duhem, Quine, Kuhn, and Lakatos (amongst many others) point out. No matter what we observe, we haven't necessarily falsified anything in particular. We can hold onto the grue language and grue-based inductions if we are willing to make adjustments elsewhere in our web of belief.

Consider a non-temporal example of the sort you requested. If I start with a glass of water at room-temperature and remove some of the heat, I get colder liquid water. If I remove more heat, I get colder liquid water. If I remove even more heat, I get even colder liquid water. One inductive inference is that removing more and more heat will give me colder and colder liquid water. Another language, atomic language, on the other hand, says I will eventually get ice (there's the grue-like move in a place that doesn't seem so weird). Is the theory in the original language falsified? Not necessarily, I can keep any part of it, it just means that I need to come up with some new kind of explanation in the language for a weird occurrence. If we woke up on New Years' Day to find all the grass was blue, we would not adopt the grue language, but rather, look for a scientific explanation for the change in the color of grass. When we saw water turn to ice, we posited the need for a new mechanism. We can keep whatever language we want, but that language helps define what it is that needs explaining.

So the notion of falsifiablility is not the right sort of approach here. But it is on the right track. I think a better way to look at it is through Imre Lakatos' notion of progressive and degenerate research programmes. We can never completely undermine a scientific theory, but we can say that it is becoming ad hoc, intellectually clunky and when this is the case and there is a sleek, elegant competitor, there is reason to prefer the competitor. We can never rule out grue speak, but the thery of the world that accompanies it is so cumbersome, so ugly that it simply undesirable.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Logic and Language

Let me try to get to some of the logic and language questions today:

Nick + Adam ask, "After a week of debate, we come to you with this question: Is there an example of an argument that one should believe that is inclusive of one or more premises that are fallacious?This is separate from those premise which cannot be classified as being, "well-grounded." (religious claims, ethical prose...) We've sat here for about a week trying to think of one. Is it possible?"
It is possible -- in a very cheesy way. Take a deductively valid argument -- here's a simple one:
Bob has sugar and cream in his coffee
Therefore, Bob has sugar in his coffee
Now, add a fallacious premise or three.
Everyone else thinks Bob has sugar in his coffee
Sugar looks like salt and Bob puts salt on his toffee which rhymes with coffee
I didn't see Bob not put sugar in his coffee
Bob has sugar and cream in his coffee
Therefore, Bob has sugar in his coffee
Deductive arguments have a property called monotonicity, that means that once there is enough logical content to make them valid, you can add anything else you want (even fallacious or contradictory premises) and they will stay valid. Maybe not what you were looking for, but a degenerate case that does the trick.

C. Ewing asks, "Can there actually be a nonsense syllable? And is doo-wop actually using such? Isn't an emotional enunciation ("ouch!" "argh!" "blargh!", etc.) saying something? Certainly it is not as easily or clearly defined as "You complete me" (to steal a movie line), but it's certainly possessed of a kinship is it not?Is "body language" actually a type of language as well? After all, a person who is crying, has a pained expression, etc., seems to certainly be "telling" onlookers something in at least some sense. Hence, focusing on language in the sense of "words" seems to not only do a disservice to language, but seems to be contradictory in that "of language" (as in, the philosophy) now becomes a misnomer itself, since now it's only the philosophy of word usage. The picture Hanno uses when introducing Hume's ethics comes to mind."
Wow. Ok, yes, there can be nonsense syllables, but it is clearly language dependent -- my favorites are the ones used by adults in the Charlie Brown tv specials and those used by Ella Fitzgerald when she scats.

Exclamations are not nonsense because we know what they mean. Exclamations are not declarative sentences, but one can deduce true declarative sentences from them by what H. P. Grice called a conversational implicature. When someone says, "Ow!" it usually means he or she is in pain, but in the context it might mean "I want you to stop doing that right now," it might mean "look at me, I might need first aid," or "how could you not notice you are sitting next to James Brown?" The key is that meaning comes from the structure of the sentence, the words in the sentence, but also from the context. Focusing on the language, by which I think you mean exclusively the words, does do a disservice to language in general.

Jeff Maynes asks, "What is the linguistic status of small talk? Does "filling silence" count as a speech act? Perhaps the speech act is just relieving awkwardness? If two people are involved and the two people interpret the small talk differently (e.g., one considers it filling silence, one considers it flirtatious) what do we say about act? Surely a speech act requires intent, but in a two way conversation it strikes me as odd to say that there are two acts going on."
Pulling again on Grice, I think you are pretty much on target that one needs to infer from the context what the meaning of the utterance from the context and people can do this in radically different ways. Thinking you know the speaker's intention is always dangerous, especially when flirting is one possibility. I think, it leads to two other questions -- So, who's flirting with you? and What is a grad student wasting time on blogs for? Get your butt back to work -- you're not supposed to have if hanging out on a blog was having a life...sigh. (C. Ewing, don't interpret that sigh, please)

Phil Thrift asks: "Are there actually nothing questions?" (I'll get to your real question tomorrow.)
Yes. A question is a request for information. When some asks a questions that they don't really want to know the answer to, but are trying to waste time in class when the prof has asked "Any questions, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics," that's a nothing question.

More tomorrow folks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Religious Questions

A couple of three interesting religious questions this go 'round. Ken asks,

"Why do I feel like Christianity is legitimate when I'm alone and read the bible but when I get around other Christians and see how they interact with the biblical word I make doubting Thomas look like a piker?"
and BPinMD asks,
"What is it that enables a person to become comfortable in the belief that a particular deity is the only true deity, when others are making the same claims about a different deity?"
Let me try to give one discussion that touches on both (I'd be very interested in comments from others on this one...Kerry? Hanno? Quaker Dave?).

Let's start by drawing distinctions between a couple of things. There's a difference between the institutional organization around a religion and the doctrine. There's also a difference between the lived experience of a person of faith and rational or faith-based certainty about abstract metaphysical truths.

Folks like Ken, [and my friend, I'm putting words in your mouth, not to mention your soul (should such a thing exist) here, so please correct me if I'm wrong on this...] have a lived experience where the words of the Bible resonate deeply with your core notions of decency, humanity, and authentic care for the well-being of yourself and those in the world with you. You have an image of what the world could be like and in the story of the life of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets (surely, some more than others), you see deeply meaningful lessons and beautifully crafted sentiments that are not only consistent with the way you think one ought to live, but form a part of the guiding principles by which you do live your life. Then you see folks who claim great adherence to these same words, but who have pledged their allegiance to the institution that has grown up around the words instead of to the words themselves.

Groups are funny things. I am very fortunate to work in a small academic department of people who genuinely like and respect each other. The combination of respect and small size means that we can function in a personal way, for example, we don't often have meetings. We don't have to, we see each other enough that most things can be taken care of in the normal course of things. If we added a person or two, however, no matter how much the personal attachment and respect remained, the sheer size would force us to establish a more formal structure to accomplish the basic tasks that need doing -- scheduling, curricular decisions, and the like. The larger a group the more formalized it must be to accomplish its goals.

Religions are massive organizations and have therefore developed quite large, intricate organizational infrastructures. This means that there are now two separate goals, (1) the original goals that the organization was created to address, and (2) maintaining sufficient resources to keep the infrastructure functioning. The government needs to collect enough in taxes to pay all its workers and other operational costs before it can begin to think about national security and serving the needs of the common welfare. Similarly, the Church (no matter which church, shul, or temple we are talking about) needs to maintain itself before it can minister to its members. Because of this split focus on both institutional issues (fund-raising, recruitment, promotion within its management hierarchy) and core mission (theological and lived concerns), people who aren't given to thinking deeply about the nature of their church because they have real lives to live are likely to conflate the two functions.

The result of this confusion of doctrine with institution gives rise to confused questions of allegiance. The best metaphor for this is one I will steal from Aspazia's discussion of voting and political party affiliation is sports fans' allegiance to their teams. You root your team on, right or wrong. If there is a bad call in favor of your team, it must be thought not to have been a bad call. Reality, ethics, and other trivialities are sacrificed in the name of "go team." (Here's where BP's question comes into play.) It always amazes me when I teach our class in contemporary moral issues how I will get students every semester who will say things like, "I believe that abortion is immoral because I am a Catholic." That always struck me as backwards, shouldn't you be a Catholic because their doctrines are the ones that you believe in not the other way around? But if you see it as a matter of rooting for the home team, it is explainable -- even if it doesn't make sense. Certain players are your favorites because you a a fan of the team. You may dislike a player immensely when he plays for the rival, but after a trade, he becomes the good guy. The same seems to hold for beliefs.

But sometimes statements regarding the orthodoxy of certain beliefs are made for institutional reasons -- consider Galileo and heliocentrism and the recent Catholic moves to reconsider evolution -- and when these moves are made the fans of the religion will adjust their intellectual loyalties. But folks like Ken who like the players for who they are regardless of what team they play on will see such moves as disheartening. When his favorite player gets traded from the Brewers to the Yankees and suddenly is the toast of the league, it is not cause for celebration that he is finally getting his due, but for bemusement and wondering whether those now singing his praises really understand what makes him such a good ball player.

Musings of an outsider. Take them for what they are worth.

Turning away from this discussion of the Phyllis Steins and onto the one, true religion,
Claude asks, "Why isn't the platypus, the proof of Nature's sense of humour, mentioned in the Comedist Manifesto?"
A very good question, my son. The holiness of the platypus was first pointed out by that Comedist sage Robin Williams who said in his routine taped Live at the Met
"Do you think god gets stoned? I do. Look at the platypus. 'We'll take a beaver and add a duck bill. It's a mammal, but it lays eggs.'"
Does the duck-billed platypus belong in the Comedist Manifesto? Yes, but give me a break, I'm busy. Who's got time for humorous revelations everyday. I'll get to it. Get off my back, man. I've been expanding beyond the section on Comic Genesis and have begun our "Book of Numbers,"
42, pi, the square root of i, 86, 99, e,...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Altruism and Multiculturalism

Bill asks, "Is there such a thing as altruism? Or does all apparent altruism reduce to enlightened (or instinct-driven) self-interest?"
The basis for the question here is that for any act, we can always -- if we work hard enough -- find some advantage for the person acting. The usual move is to go psychological and say, "Well, it made you feel good." Since that advantage is there, we can never claim that the reason for acting is completely care for another.

There are two points worth making. First, claims about motivation are always notoriously on the fringe of unfalsifiability. If you don't find exactly what you want, the temptation is always there to go Freudian and pack it into the unconscious where there is no possible way to disprove it. Are there ulterior motives for people's actions? Sure. Are they always completely aware of them at the time of acting? No. But the move to automatically manufacture self-interest worries me.

Secondly, the move resembles bad evolutionary explanations. It is true that natural and sexual selection select for certain traits based on their advantages, but that does not mean that just by finding any advantage, no matter how minimal, in a trait that it was selected for much less that it was selected for that advantage. The move from genetics to expression involves a complex interaction of genes and many traits are accidental results. Similarly, an action may have been perfectly other-oriented in its motivation, but happen to have come along with advantageous fringe benefits.

I'm an optimistic cynic and have no problem with the idea of mixed motivations, but still saying that the primary motivation from people who do unpleasant, but nice things from a sense of duty are being morally good, if not altruistic, despite the fact that it might have some positive results for them that they could foresee.
P&C asked, "is there an ethics to multicultural? and what do you think about the argument that neo-racism appears in the form of cultural racism?"
A case of unintended consequences and a very tricky pair of questions. There is indeed an ethics to multiculturalism. It is based on two fundamental insights: (1) certain cultures, this one in particular, has a legacy of injustice attached to the unfair power distribution that was and in part still is) in place, and (2) there are positive contributions to be made to the culture by those with other experiences and perspectives. Since those who are suffering from the injustice also happen to be those who have a great value, it is doubly in the interest of the culture as a whole to level the playing field. This means erasing disadvantages by conveying local advantages. It is as if there was a race and half the people were forced to carry heavy weights where the other half weren't. After a while, someone calls foul and they are allowed to drop the weights, but they are already far behind in the race -- most of them, sure, there will be some incredible individuals who will be able to keep up despite the burden. If we then allow those who had the weight to advance, but not those who did not. It may look unfair to those who had the advantage, if they fail to take the long view, but in the larger scope, it is perfectly fair.

Now it is also true that this move may have the unintended consequence of leading people in either group to think that this correction means that these folks are naturally in need of help, that they are inferior and without aid could never keep up on their own. This is simply blindness to privilege. The best advice that was ever given to me was never do the same favor for anyone the first two times they ask. After the second time, it will cease to be a favor and become expected. Some folks, because of their place in society, have always had favors done for them. This doesn't mean they didn't have to work hard to get where they are, but they see only the hard work and not the favors that are done for them. Yes, the fear is always there that this leveling of the playing field will lead to the soft racism of low expectations and that blindness to privilge will cause some to think that their local advatage is unfair, and in some cases it is (Clarence Thomas, might be one such example), but overall I think these cases are far in the minority and that morality and justice are served in the large to a mauch greater extent despite the imperfections.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Truth, Beauty and Axioms

To be filed under "be careful what you ask for...," there were some amazing questions this weekend. Let me try to weigh in on as many as I can this week. Here are three.

Gwydion asked, " What's the joke that ends with the punchline "Rectum? I nearly killed him!"
Wish I knew, but worked it into the early sections of the Comedist Manifesto (the holy skripture of Comedism) with a new set-up here.

BeepBeep asked, " The difference between an axiom and a presupposition?"
The two are similar in being propositions whose truth is presumed by some other belief or set of beliefs. A set of beliefs is axiomatized if it is shown that there some basic set of logically independent statements from which the entire system can be derived. Each member of this basis set is an axiom of the system. The classic example, of course, is Euclid's Elements where he starts with 5 axioms, 5 common notions and derives all the complex theorems of plane geometry (yes, I know Hilbert showed the complete set of axioms, but we can talk about that later).

A presupposition may or may not be an axiom because for nearly any set of beliefs you give me, I could list a large number of statements that would also have to be true for your beliefs to be true, but they needn't be logically independent nor need the set of beliefs be axiomatizable. Philosophy is very good at teasing out presuppositions and challenging them, although few after the logical positivists have thought that all rational beliefs need to be axiomatized.

pm asked, " Keats once wrote: "truth is beauty and beauty truth"do agree with Keats? Why or Why not?"
The answer is yes and no. Keats' original sentiment is a shot in the war between rationalists and romantics. Philosophy is a reactive discipline -- only when the world changes in some significant way can we realize that there is a presupposition (or axiom, for that matter) which needs overturning and along comes a new worldview. After the scientific revolution, there was a strong turn towards a rationalistic view of the world, that the universe was comprehensible by the human mind through science and reason. To many, this view stunk of hubris, it deprived the universe and life of mystery, beauty, and deeper non-observable meaning. Keats was thumbing his nose at the idol of truth held high by the scientific and asserting the primacy beauty, the hallmark of the romantic.

As someone firmly in the offending camp, I do roll my eyes at the sentiment. The idea that a mathematized well-ordered universe is somehow without beauty, elegance, or mystery is to not at all understand the results of modern science. Reality is stranger, more gorgeous, more complex than any human dream could make it. What the romantics seek is more than present in the rational understanding.

In this light, we can reinterpret Keats to should a deep truth about the way science works -- there is an aesthetic criterion of theory choice. In an important way, we do think that scientific truth is based upon beauty. We have seen it in the writings of the greatest of scientific minds. Isaac Newton, in his masterwork, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, sets out a primer on scientific reasoning, he tells us how we ought to rationally approach the world. These guidelines include this,

"We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.

To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes."

The idea here is that Nature is simple, elegant, beautiful and any scientific theory that will describe it must be poetic in its compact internal structure if it holds any hope of adequacy. Theories with ad hoc pieces stuck together in a fashion that is not intellectually streamlined and uniform will not do. The world is beautiful and so must also be its description. Clunky science is bad science.

Perhaps the best example of this attitude comes from Einstein. When the general theory of relativity came about in 1916, there were no ways of testing it aside from a hitch in the orbit of Mercury that it could describe. But in 1919, the British physicist A. E. Eddington undertook an excursion to West Africa where he could observe a total eclipse and test Einstein's prediction of light bending, an effect that was not present in Newton's theory. When word of Eddignton's observation returned to Europe confirming Einstein's theory, it seemed a big deal. Here was the first true experimental support, yet Einstein, upon being informed was unmoved. Shocked at his lack of jubilation, he was asked what he would have thought if the experiment had shown him to be be wrong. Einstein calmly replied, "I would have had pity for the dear Lord. The theory is correct." The idea is that the theory was too beautiful, too elegant to be anything other than true. Beauty, when you get to rational endeavors of the highest magnitude, indeed is a measure of truth.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's been a while, since I've asked...

I have a schtick that I do at the beginning of every class where I will entertain absolutely any question and I get requests from some of my former students to bring back the offer, so here it is:

Any questions? Auto mechanics to quantum mechanics...ask me anything.

I'll answer as many as possible this week.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Two Door Dilemma

Etiquette question: You walk up to a building slightly behind someone. There are two consecutive sets of doors. The person after walking through the first door holds it open for you. Being polite, you say, "thank you." The person then walks through and holds open the second door, are you obligated to thank him or her again? Is it one kind act or two? Is holding the second door a continuation of the thoughtfulness of the first act and thereby covered by the original "thank you" you uttered two seconds earlier or do you need to say it again? Does the fact that the two are the same kind of act mean anything? Would a smile instead of a verbalization count?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Who Do You Feel Sorry For?

I feel sorry for former Maryland Lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townshend. Before George "Macaca" Allen's implosion took him from shoe-in to laughing stock, she had a firm grip on the title of "worst political campaign in the last decade."

I feel sorry for the children of the Senate barber. You know at least some of Conrad Burns' ill-gotten Abramoff loot went for tips. With Jon "flat top" Tester coming in, I don't think Christmas will be the same next year.

I feel sorry for the administrative assistants working on K Street. That's going to be one big pile of resumes to sort through in the next few days.

Finally, I must say it, I feel truly sorry for Donald Rumsfeld. Getting fired by George W. Bush for incompetence is like Paul Prudhomme telling you to drop some weight.

Who do you feel sorry for today?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bush's Electile Dysfunction and the Thriving of American Democracy

Seems to me that in yesterday's (and in some cases, next week's) results are a short and a long term benefit.

Short term benefit: Lame duck is a poor description of what the rest of the Bush presidency will look like. He spent the first six years trying to show how macho, how politically virile he was by invadin' countries, talkin' tough, clearin' brush, and doing away with the foundations of American civil democracy. But now, he may not be completely impotent, but everyone knows that he is suffering from a serious case of electile dysfunction. Not that he really had a platform, but its specter has been exorcised. We may not see much moving forward in the next couple of years, but the gear has been shifted from reverse and the brick has been taken off the accelerator.

Long term benefit: In six years, George W. Bush has undermined the line that led so many very smart, very good people in 2000 to be extremely cynical and turned off towards politics. It turns out there is a difference between the parties. Voters in 2000 were cynical for a very good reason. Clinton's Dick Morris infected triangulated second term intentionally blurred the lines between the parties and the Gingerich led revolution destroyed civility and replaced it with naked partisanship that led to mass disgust and alienation. Politics was ugly and broken. People tuned out. Many people thought the government was an inertial being, anyway, that would run on its own regardless of who was at the helm and nothing could, much less would change. But Iraq and Katrina put the lie to that sentiment and it became obvious that politics does matter.

George W. Bush's lasting legacy may be that he accidentally saved American democracy. Because of the pictures of what happens when our government is run incompetently, because of the outrage from seeing good people vilified and muzzled for disagreeing on policy, because of everything we've seen in the last six years, people are more politically active than I have ever seen. My mother who was never politically interested is now fiery and conversant about issues. People who only argued politics before are now active and contributing both in terms of money and time. Midterm elections are supposed to have very small turn out numbers, but yesterday we saw long lines all over the country. Bush has politicized America after Clinton and Gingerich had depoliticized it. And for that, I thank him.

Monday, November 06, 2006

What Races Are You Watching?

What races are you particularly interested in? Any local elections that have your attention?

In my case, the Frederick County commissioners race is the interesting one. There is a deep divide between the pro-growth and smart growth candidates and it will be interesting to see the results. Of the slow growth folks, I have a special interest in seeing how Kai Hagen does. A smart man with a good heart, he's been a real gift to this county and it would be wonderful to see him in a position to do some good work.

Nationwide, the race that most has my eye is the Tester/Burns race in Montana. Man, would it be wonderful to have a flat-topped, burly, organic farmer in the senate instead of an Abramoff crony.

What's got your attention?

Crystal Meth, Hale-Bopp, and the War on Gays and Lesbians

The situation with evangelical pastor Ted Haggard is just plain sad. Having moved beyond the deny, deny, deny strategy, past his split the difference "I just got a massage and bought crystal meth but I didn't inhale -- with either one" defense, he finally arrived at the point of vague confession. He wrote to his congregation,

"There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life."
While we do not know exactly what constitutes this "repulsive and dark" part of the pastor's life that deserved to have war declared upon it, the inference certainly seems to be his homosexuality. I'm here to protest this war.

His hypocrisy, while easy fodder for shadenfreude-laden snark, is not the point that ought to be most discussed. I don't know whether the article in this weekend's New York Times which makes the case that Haggard wasn't as tough a warrior as some against gays and lesbians is accurate, but to be honest, it misses the point. Whether he was leading the charge or not, what we see is another gay man's life destroyed by institutionalized hatred that forced him not only to deny who he was, but do so in a way that led to self-loathing.

We really do a number on our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Haggard's story makes me think back a couple years to the Heaven's Gate tragedy. Thirty-eight members of cult led by a man named Marschall Applewhite committed suicide to allow their souls to rise up to a spaceship behind the comet Hale-Bopp. Applewhite had been a seminary student until he decided to pursue a career in music which kept him at church-affiliated institutions. But, he was gay and suffering terribly because of it. After being fired from a position at Saint Thomas University because of an incident involving a male student, Applewhite became mentally unstable and emerged with the seeds of what would become his cult which combined science fiction with Christian and New Age elements. One of the notable aspects of the cult was the director's idea that male members should be chemically castrated to eliminate their sexual desires to keep them from conflicting with theological doctrine. War not only kills, it causes stress induced mental illness. Haggard's "war on gays" was a major factor pushing Applewhite over the edge and the war then claimed 38 more casualties in 1996.

Haggard has plenty to apologize for. Anyone who is married and goes to a prostitute -- gay or straight -- has done wrong. Anyone with a family who is using crystal meth is doing something harmful that he should stop immediately. But the irony of the outing of yet another member of the thugs in charge of enforcing our social pogrom against gays and lesbians should not take away focus from the real problem -- the war on gays itself. Haggard's worst crime is not being a secret double agent in the war; his crime against morality was being a willing footsoldier fighting the war in the first place, a war which has wounded him now in more than one way.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Kerry Should Repent, Not Apologize

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend I write disappointed in the junior Senator from Massachusetts. Yes, John Kerry failed us. His words were offensive. Not to the troops -- they weren't the target of his comment. Not to the President -- he better have a thicker skin than that. No, he offended Comedists by committing the sin of blowing a punchline. Instead of apologizing for something he did not do, he whose outchins Leno should instead repent for his wicked action.

He said unto a college crowd in California:

"You know, education -- if you make the most of it, you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well; if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
One word, brothers and sisters, one little two letter word and the joke and several news cycles would have been saved. If he had said,

"You know, education -- if you make the most of it, you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well; if you don't, you get US stuck in Iraq,"
then none of this would have happened.

One word can make all the difference. If a groom brings his bride around from table to table at the wedding reception and introduces her as "his new wife," everyone thinks how sickeningly sweet, but if he introduces her at the reception as "his first wife," NOW we have a funny line.

To be fair to the Senator, he was attempting one of the more difficult comic maneuvers -- the one-liner. The classic one-liner, the Mona Lisa of comedy comes from the master of one-line comedy, of course, Henny Youngman. Marvel at the elegance of

"Take my wife, please."
Saint Henny gets a set up and a punchline in with nothing but four monosyllabic words, a period, and -- the most important part -- a comma (some scholars have contended that it actually ought to be an ellipsis, but that is a debate to be fought another time). One-liners are tough because every word counts, leave out a word and you blow the whole joke. Of course, John Kerry being John Kerry, he leaves out a word and still uses thirty-eight, but that's the Senate for you.

As a tutorial, Senator, please meditate on the following from Saint Henny:

My doctor grabbed me by the wallet and said "Cough!"

A man goes to a psychiatrist "Nobody listen to me!" The doctor says "Next!"

I'm now making a Jewish porno film; 10% Sex, 90% guilt.

There was a girl knocking on my hotel room door all night! Finally, I let her out.

You have a ready wit, tell me when it's ready.

My wife will buy anything marked down; last year she bought an escalator.

Those two are a fastidious couple: she's fast and he's hideous.

She's a big-hearted girl with hips to match.

You have a nice personality, but not for a human being.

The more I think of you, the less I think of you.
Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

Live, love, and laugh

Irreverend Steve

Hanno On Kerry

From Hanno:

The latest flap over John Kerry is solid bullshit and it amazes me how the Republican party can take absolutely nothing, turn it into a political issue, and have the press run with it. Kerry said

"You know, education -- if you make the most of it, you study hard and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."
This is not about the troops. It is about W. Bush, who didn't study, doesn't know a damn thing about foreign policy or history (funny, given that he was a history major at Yale). And if you don't know anything about foreign policy or history, you make really really bad decisions, like starting a war in Iraq, and getting stuck. This is an assault on W's education, pure and simple.
But what is it turned into?
"The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and shameful," Bush said. "The men and women who serve in our all-volunteer armed forces are plenty smart and are serving because they are patriots -- and Sen. Kerry owes them an apology."
It is now at attack on the troops.

Never mind that even if Kerry meant what Bush says he means, it would be empty. We already know that most of the people doing the fighting are not college educated. They recruit mostly out of high school, with the promise of paying for an education after service. Never mind the truth, this is an insult! Never mind that the real insult is to Bush himself, no, its our troops he insults! Never mind that it is no insult to say of people that they did not go to college, it is an insult!

But know because 1) the president says it, it is news 2) lots of Republican leaders say it, it is news so now 3) there is a 'controversy' so it is news. It being news, we are plastered with it. This is right up there with the Presidential campaign. When Kerry said he hoped that terrorism could be reduced to a mere nuisance, Bush & co started a firestorm claiming that Kerry thinks terrorism *is* a mere nuisance, and the media ate it up, making something out of absolutely nothing. It reminds me of Michael Kinsley's comic write up of that incident, showing how even the Declaration of Independence can be twisted:

/President Bush:/ "My opponent, you see, wrote -- or he helped to write -- this document, this so-called Declaration of Independence. And in it, see, he says something about how we hold these truths to be self-evident. Now, self-evident is just a fancy word -- or actually it's two words: Of course I know that! I can count! -- it's just a fancy way of saying you don't have to say anything because folks already know it."In other words, he's saying that you don't have to tell the truth. Well, I just happen to disagree with that. I think the truth is one of the most important things in our great country. The truth is American. And it's good. It's good to tell the truth. But my opponent disagrees with that. He thinks you don't need to tell the truth. And I happen to think that's wrong. It's a difference in philosophy, you see."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hilary = Yoko

Last week Aspazia had a couple of posts wondering whether the Hilary hatred was rooted in more than sexism. I believe so, but have been struggling to clearly enunciate what it is. Madeline Albright and Condoleeza Rice are both very smart, serious women, but neither elicit the same sort of reaction. There is something more than misogyny here, but saying what it is is tricky. So I will turn to my favorite means of expression, metaphor. I believe that there are different strands of Hilary-hatred; for example, I think the right-wing hatred certainly comes from a different place than the loathing liberals. It is the second case that I think is interesting, those in what should be her base that dislike her. I think I have three metaphors that explain why these people do not like Hilary Clinton.

1. Hilary is a Democratic Dick Cheney

I don't mean this in the sense of being an ideologue looking to start wars, I'm talking purely in terms of personality here. She has the same heaviness. I would put it this way (warning, SAT flashback ahead):

Hilary : Obama :: Cheney : Reagan

Cheney and Ronald Reagan have very similar politics, Cheney not only worked in the Reagan administration, but it was Reagan's interventionist foreign policy that was the model for Cheney's PNAC gang. But Reagan is to conservatives what catnip is to cats. He gave them a sense of energy and hope. He was a beacon. He gave promise for a better future. Cheney is the emotional photographic negative. And that same dynamic holds between Senators Clinton and Obama. Hillary is dark and heavy while Obama brings passion.

2. Hilary is a Democratic Bush, Sr.

When Bush the first was running he responded to a question that should have been a cinch to knock out of the park, he was asked what kind of country he wanted the US to be and he weakly responded with "Oh, that vision thing." Bush, Sr. wanted to be President in order to be President, there was no grand vision of what America was or could be. Hilary, likewise, does not really convey any sense that she has a grand vision for US, she seems to want to be President because she wants to be President. There are other Dems who do that well, in addition to Obama, Russ Feingold conveys a real sense of what he wants America to look like. Hilary's time in the Senate has only reinforced the image that came out of the second term of the Clinton Presidency, the Dick Morris years, where they were willing to turn their backs on anyone and anything that they might have stood for in order to bring the poll numbers up.

3. Hilary = Yoko

The previous two account for the rational distaste, but there is also a purely emotional level to it, too. There is, I believe, precedent for this reaction:

Bill Clinton : Hilary Clinton :: John Lennon : Yoko Ono

No one doubts that Yoko was a legitimate visual artist who had a deep and authentic concern for the well-being of the less-fortunate and a true desire for world peace and a human community full of love. No one doubts that Hilary Clinton is a very smart woman, a good lawyer, and someone who wants the world to be a better and safer place for everyone, including and especially children. Everyone who owns it is extremely happy with the invention of the CD player, so that you can program away half the tracks on Double Fantasy. Similarly, the idea of Bill Clinton giving a political address before Hilary speaks is like washing down Dom Parignon with flat RC cola.

But it is not only that it is not something we want, but also a resentment that it is being forced down our throats. And we wouldn't mind getting force fed, if it was by someone sympathetic. But it turns out to be the opposite, we are forced to endure something distasteful by someone who refuses to admit that she is distasteful and on top of it all you get the sense that there is a thinly veiled contempt for you that would explode if you were to publicly gag over the offering.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reflections on Our First Trick or Treat Experience

Took the short people trick or treating for the first time last night. It has effects you never imagine. We are trying our level best to endow them with a strong environmental ethic, but after last night, I think they are now strongly in favor of the development of suburban sprawl -- we want more houses and pack them tighter together, please.

We don't let our kids have candy with the exception of the occasional fair trade, organic, non-dairy, dark chocolate covered blueberry (at least they get the anti-oxidants), so it has never been a ritual we felt a need to rush into. Yes, sending children out to collect candy in attractive, brightly colored wrappers that they can't eat is a bit like sending a eunuch to a brothel, but having heard about it from school chums and cousins, we decided to take the plunge.

It really is an odd thing.

I was expecting the shabbily costumed teens just trolling for candy, and there were plenty. New idea of the day -- take a page from the amusement parks and sell a yard sign with a ghost and a yardstick saying, "You can only be this tall to get candy."

One thing I wasn't expecting was the number of parents walking their kids through the neighborhood with beer in hand. Is this a Frederick County thing or has this become standard operating procedure elsewhere? "Hey, if we can rot their teeth tonight, why leave our livers out of the celebration?"

The other thing that struck me interesting is the power of corporate nostalgia. Looking through their loot, there are candies I haven't seen in twenty years and it is stunning how powerfully just looking at the wrappers brought back the old impulses in terms of "oooh" and "yuck." No doubt my tastes have changed and those that appealed to me as a child will taste much different now, but that initial pavlovian response is amazingly deeply ingrained.

But now Halloween is gone, and the day after Halloween can only mean one thing...we're already ankle deep in the holiday shopping season. I was in a store yesterday when a woman with her four children came in behind us and she remarked to them that she was so glad to see "Merry Christmas" signs going up because last year all they said were "Happy Holidays" and that "we prefer Merry Christmas." As if there wasn't already reason enough to hate this time of year. Harrumph.