Monday, June 30, 2008

My Latest Conspiracy Theory

So, I was working on an intro to a new bit I'm writing on the fake rubber testicles that you now find hanging off the trailer hitches of large pick-up trucks and working another open mic with a bunch of guy comedians -- not just males, but real guys -- and it hit me hard.

If one has a desire and at the same time has power, the rational agent will use the power to maximize the likelihood of satisfying the desire. Nothing deep or difficult there. Yet, males seem to have as a primary desire that they seek quite vigorously, dedicating a lot of time, money, effort, and concern to whether they get it and fretting when they don't.

At the same time, it is a male dominated culture. The social power is largely in the hands of males. Yet, they spend that power reinforcing in each other those behaviors that are likely to minimize the likelihood of satisfying their primary desire. "Dude, you're turning down these tickets to the game to go to dance lessons? That's so gay." Few tools in the social tool box are more effective at controlling male behavior than "that's so gay." It not only affects the individual, but defines masculinity as a concept.

But, and here's where the conspiracy pops up, it is almost without exception that the things labeled as "that's so gay," are in fact the very things that would maximize one's chances of that which is, in fact, contrary to homosexuality. Spending most of my time in academic settings or hanging out with the family, I don't spend a lot of time anymore in guy culture, but it really shocked me how almost orchestrated it is that guys do to each other exactly what they have to in order to make sure that they individually and as a group do not get any. Being emotionally responsive to someone you care about, having passionate interests that would make you an interesting person to talk to or be with, exactly the things that would make one a source of real interest are the things that are discouraged with nothing short of hostility.

Something so clean, so perfect could not be mere accident. It seemed as if these behaviors are introduced by someone or a group of someones who intentionally do not want man to succeed in their quest.

At this point, I don't know if it is a star chamber, a small cabal of men, seeking to keep the secret to themselves or if it is, in fact, a major offensive by the united front of lesbians trying to make the competition into a bunch of unattractive morons. Watching the other routines last night, it just all seemed a little too exact, a little too perfect to be accidental. Surely that many men cannot be that stupid, working against their own self-interest, it must be a conspiracy.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Shelby Steele Subtitles

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we have a mighty task in front of us, we need to help African-American conservative commentator, author, and Hoover Institute fellow with his new book. See, he titled it "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." But then when asked why he thinks Obama can't win, he admitted that he actually thinks "he can definitely win." He said in an interview with Sean Hannity that he regrets the subtitle,

"It was an afterthought. And I don't argue that in the book. He can definitely win. There is a powerful desire in American society today to see someone like him move to the White House."
Why would he choose THAT subtitle? Why would the thought of such a proclamation on the cover of the book seem like a good idea at the time even though it was nowhere argued for in the book itself and is a position the author doesn't hold? The answer, of course, it's provocative and would sell books making Shelby Steele more money.

So, since he's having to distance himself from that subtitle, what would be other subtitles that have nothing to do with the book's content, but would be guaranteed to increase his sales can we think of?

How about:

A Bound Man: Pictures from the Bowels of Dick Cheney's BDSM Chamber
A Bound Man: Everyone Who Buys This Book is Bound to Get Free Beer
A Bound Man: Walks Into A Bar and Orders a Beer (joke finished in chapter 8)
A Bound Man: And How He Lost 53 Pounds Eating Only Chocolate Chip Cookies

Come on, my dear Comedist friends, help out a poor (rich) conservative in need by contributing a suggestion for a subtitle guaranteed to move books.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 27, 2008

ICRR -- Internet Correction Response Reflex

Chris V asks,

Is there a term for the almost visceral response some people (mostly me, but I think a lot of others feel the same)have to things they strongly disagree with? I don't mean 'find distasteful' so much as I'm thinking of the comment threads on some blogs, or on youtube. The angry back and forth and the endlessly repeated arguments with no backing, and for what? What is it that compels us to correct something/someone we believe to be WRONG when it won't change anything, least of all their mind?
I don't know if there is one, but there darn sure should be. I'd propose ICRR -- Internet Correction Response Reflex.

There seem to be two flavors of what is happening here. One is serious. For example, when I was conducting oral history interviews with surviving members and family of the Berlin and Vienna groups of Logical Empiricists who fled Germany after Hitler purged the universities in 1933, I noticed something odd. This was a year or so after 9/11 and the political situation was in that very weird, very scary place where any criticism of the government was widely treated as unpatriotic bordering on treasonous. When the tape recorder was off, these older people who had escaped Nazi Germany or Austria after the Anschluss would always engage me on political issues. Not necessarily to spur me to action of some sort, but just to make sure that people were talking and that objections were being voiced. It was eerie at the time because it was never with the passion that I got from such conversations with people my age or younger, and it came after a couple hours of heavy conversation swirling around the real Nazis. But there was this impulse that some objection had to be lodged for the sake of something larger, because they knew what happened when people didn't object early enough and they were legitimately concerned.

But then there is the less grave version, best set out in this cartoon from xkcd. It is an odd thing. It does not involve the sense of importance of the case above, you generally know that no one's mind will be changed, but you MUST make that comment. It was one of the rules of blogging that I learned early on -- people only comment if they think you are wrong. If they read and agree, they'll just think, "hey, well said," and move on. but if they think you were sloppy, missed the point, or completely missed the boat, then man the comments come in. And then, of course, those who thought you were right feel compelled to defend you and respond to these errant responses. Next thing you know, folks are having fun.

It is a strange reflex. I'm not sure if it is more likely to occur on-line. If so, I'm not sure if the facelessness encourages it or what but I agree with Chris that it is a phenomenon widespread enough to deserve a catchy name.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Field Values, Teaching Ethics, and Sheroes as Role Models

C. Ewing gives us three questions. Taking them in order:

precisely what work is accomplished by physical objects so far as the theoretical is concerned? I'll readily concede that it fits our intuitions better (or at least, most of our intuitions), but what does the existence of physical objects do that is of particular importance? If you prick me I bleed, surely, but do we need blood and sharp objects for that?
Actually, modern physics does away with the notion of object altogether. Everything ends up becoming (oversimplifying a bit) blobs of field values that are more or less localized in spacetime. Parts are made up of smaller parts, but when you get down to subatomic size, objects lose what philosophers call "genidentity," that is unique selfness that differentiates them from other basic objects and everything can be seen as waves in a great universal field.

Number two:
Is ethics or moral thinking (whatever term we're liking today) something that can actually be taught, and assuming it is, must it be taught whilst young? It seems sensible (in some manner of speaking) when we say things like, "He just wasn't raised right", but later in life (and I don't think I'm alone here) we deal with cyclic behavior that intellectually we know is bad for us (and possibly others), yet seem to have an absurdly difficult time changing behavior that we know should be changed. Are we just dense as grandmum's biscuits or is there something to the Catholic idiom, "Get 'em while they're young"?
Doing the right thing is a two-step process. Step one (moral deliberation) is deciding what is the right thing to do in your context. Step two is doing it.

Step one is taught when we are young. When children do something wrong we not only correct them, we explain why their action was wrong or at least what the proper action should be (or if there are less enlightened parents, the children figure out which things they don't get yelled at or beaten for). Of course, these lessons break down for the tough moral conundrums and that is why philosophers still have jobs.

Step two is a function of character. While there is no doubt that some degree of personality is innate within each of us, the way we choose to behave and the decisions we make are often -- as Aristotle rightly observed -- a function of habit, habits that are often (but not always) formed when young by observing how others act and by positive and negative reinforcement. You see an out of control child and when you meet the parent, you are rarely surprised. While some people are likely more naturally empathetic than others, empathy (or guilt or fear) can be encouraged or discouraged when young and this will screw you up for the rest of your life, although it can be mediated by a good therapist.

And lastly:
On the topic of super heroes: are characters like Supergirl, Power Girl, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, etc., beneficial to women or does the sexual appeal undercut the good that can be done? Does the good message of strong, smart, assertive, independent women get low-balled by cup size and wardrobe?
I think the costumes are part of the problem. I always thought with Wonder Woman's invisible plane that surely people were constantly saying, "Hey, who is that scantily clad woman squatting across the sky?" But an additional issue is that they are just male superheroes -- displaying culturally gendered masculine behaviors -- in women's bodies. There is still the black and white, absolute good versus absolute evil plot lines, violence and force are seen as the only justifiable means of dealing with those who are "them." If my daughter were to look for a fictional hero, those would not be the ones I would encourage as they are certainly pregnant with classical patriarchal baggage.

On Epiphenomenal Qualia and Lacrosse

Justin asks,

I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this. I recall talking in one of my philosophy courses that if someone makes a sudden movement, apparently the neurons the cause the muscle movements fire before the ones in our brain that allow us to be mentally aware of the movement. Some have argued that this is evidence for "epiphenomenal qualia". I remember reading some criticisms of this argument, but I can't for the life of me remember them. Do you know what they are or if there are any legitimate ones?
Let's first explain this wonderful term "epiphenominal qualia."

Qualia is the easy one, it's just the content of our experiences -- the redness we actual sense, the pain we feel, the ticklishness of the tickle. There are brain states associated with all of our experiences, but the qualia are not that, they are the actual lived sensations.

Epiphenomalism comes for an old debate in philosophy concerning the nature of reality. Humans were held by many to be composed of two parts: (2) a non-material body or soul that served as the seat of reason and volition, that transcended after death to be judged for the decisions it made, and (2) a material body that decomposed back into the earth after death, but had all the fun first. This view that reality had material and non-material elements is called dualism.

A concern for the dualist is the problem of interaction. We know how material things are affected, they are pushed on by other material things -- that's what the laws of physics describe. The non-material entities are ideas or forms of some sort, so they interact with each other according to laws of logic or psychology. But how do they interact with each other? If minds are non-material, but could causes the body to move that would violate the laws of physics. Further, by what mechanism could it possibly happen? And the same in the other direction, how could a body on body interaction cause a change in mental states? If these things are completely different sorts of stuff, they shouldn't be able to affect each other.

There were four options: (1) avoid the question by surrendering dualism and say everything is matter or everything is mind, (2) come up with some explanatory mechanism, Descartes tried (3) claim that the two happen on parallel tracks and look like they interact but don't -- Leibniz's pre-established harmony, and (4) epiphenomenalism, they view that the body can affect the mind, but that the mind does not affect the body thus allowing sensation without violating the laws of physics.

From this classical sense, Frank Jackson, starts this discussion in his famous paper "Epiphenomenal Qualia" in which he openly declares himself "a qualia freak" proving once again that philosophers have the world's most boring fetishes (I've always had the image of Jackson at the moment of ecstasy shouting "Red, here, now. Red, here, now. No mere protocol sentence could contain this!) argues that mind states and brain states are different (the functioning of the nerves and the pain section of the brain is different from the "Ouch!"), that brain states give rise to mind states (the pain receptors and the brain are needed to cause the "Ouch!"), but that mind states do not affect brain states (the "Ouch" can't cause anything, it is merely experienced)-- hence, epiphenomenal qualia.

So, now let's finally get to Justin's question. It is true that the startle reflex and many other bodily functions operate the the pre-conscious level, that is they cause action before the signal has reached and been processed by the rational parts of the brain. When I was a lacrosse goalie, for example, I would routinely (o.k., occassionally) stop shots going around 100 miles an hour from not all that far away. I was watching and I would move my body and hands in a very specific fashion, but it was not a conscious decision. It was such a bang-bang event that i would never have had time to process what needed to be done. Does this stand as a supporting instance of Jackson's epiphenomenal qualia? Since it happens faster than the conscious mind can process the sensation, analyze it, make a decision about it, and then sense out the signal to the body about what to do, it seems epiphenominal, that is, the experience doesn't cause the bodily motion.

Jackson is not arguing that all qualia are epiphenominal, just some which is all he needs to undermine the physicalists' claim that minds do not exist and everything is material responding to physical laws.

The strongest objections seems to me is to hold that it wasn't me who stopped the shot, that is, I (me, the conscious Steve with a mind) didn't move my hands, my hands were moved my body independent of me and my will, hence it was a conditioned reflex, just a plain old body/body interaction. Coaches always tell athletes not to think (which, for most lacrosse players, is their natural state), that thinking only screws up performance. Everything must happen on the precognitive level and this is why we train, so that the body simply takes over.

Indeed, this was one of the things I loved most about playing. It was a time when my brain was off, yet (and this seems to speak in favor of Jackson) I was hyper-aware. At the same time, the awareness was not exactly what I would call sensual (or sensuous, for that matter). That is, I felt myself a part of the game, but didn't really feel the sensations. So, (and this would be a point for the anti-epiphenominalists) where were the qualia?

More questions tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Guestpost today from YKW:

There are few people I truly hate (politically) more than would-be demagogues like James Dobson. He’s the second coming of Henry Ford, minus the cars.

(CNN) -- A top U.S. evangelical leader is accusing Sen. Barack Obama of deliberately distorting the Bible and taking a "fruitcake interpretation" of the U.S. Constitution.
In comments to be aired on his radio show Tuesday, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson criticizes the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for comments he made in a June 2006 speech to the liberal Christian group Call to Renewal.

In the speech, Obama suggested that it would be impractical to govern based solely on the word of the Bible, noting that some passages suggest slavery is permissible and eating shellfish is disgraceful.

Dobson sticks his foot directly in his own mouth of course, and shows why the evangelical movement he heads is so offensive to so many, when he starts by saying that Obama shouldn’t be referring to antiquated dietary codes and passages from the Old Testament that are no longer “relevant” to the teachings of the New Testament.

Hello? There are several million people, voters the last time I looked, who if they don’t actually follow the dietary codes of the Old Testament, at least give them a measure of respect in their daily lives. We’re called “Jewish People.” If you read the Bible, James, you’d see us referred to as the “Chosen People.” By God. Obama’s point is that running public policy by a Bible that few people follow or can even agree on is a bit unwieldy, and probably not the way we’re supposed to compromise in a democracy, to say the least. And Dobson up and proves it by offending all of the Old Testamentary Jews in one broad swoop.

Obama and the Evolution of the Complex

Two more today:

R.Porter asks,

how many more times does golden boy Obama have to do something as f'd up and *Republican* as his FISA vote until his supporters realize what they've foisted on the party? I'm not just being smug, either. If this is a one-time lapse, then obviously I'm overreacting. However, if this is a trend - and if you look at his biggest piece of legislation since he's been in the Senate, the E85 bill, the trend has at least two data points now - I think we have to wonder when the rose-colored glasses come off.
I guess the answer to this question depends upon what glasses you assume Obama supporters to be wearing. Anyone who thinks Obama is a taller better-looking Dennis Kucinich is simply wrong, but then I'm not sure many of the folks who support Obama really interpret the message of hope and change as one of a full-throated all out progressive attack on the last administration and a half.

Obama has never called for the implementation of the progressives' agenda, but rather a change to the way things are done, that is, an end to the hyper-partisanship where everything is seen as nothing more than opportunities to demagogue. This can take one of three forms: (1) what we now call "bi-partisanship" which is meeting the other side in the middle, (2) what we saw in his work with Dick Lugar and Tom Coburn in the two bills that bear his name in which you take an issue that Dems and GOoPers disagree about, find some area where there is common interest and craft something that fits into both agendas, and (3)passionately arguing for something that is partisan, but doing so in a way that does not create a strawman out of your opponents.

If you look at Obama's career, he has used all three paths, deciding which path based on pragmatic considerations. The case of FISA is an example where he chose (1) and we wish he had chosen (3). I'm with you that (3) would have shown leadership and real interest in the rule of law. But it was a battle he chose not to fight at this time, most likely for political reasons. It does allow administration and telecoms to get away with having broken the law and reinforces the Nixonian notion that if the President decides it doesn't break the law, then as an analytic truth, it doesn't break the law. This IS a bad thing.

At the same time, to argue that this is evidence that something horrible has been foisted upon the party by putting someone in charge who runs the most most effective party registration and voter sign-up operations we've ever seen thus laying the groundwork for Dem electoral gains for decades, who chooses Samantha Powers as a foreign policy advisor, who has worked for the voiceless, and who has shown an incredible political sense infused with a positivity we have not seen from a Dem in a long time seems an overstatement. No, he's not going to be a progressive's wet dream. No one who is paying attention believes that. Yet, he will certainly bring in with him a wide array of new voices, shaking up the stagnant backwater that has been Democratic politics for the last two decades. Some of what gets churned up will be scum (FISA is one example), but then it also seems likely that some pearls will be found that otherwise wouldn't as well.

John Steward asks,
I believe in evolution but I don't understand how it accounts for the complexity of the world. What's the relationship between complexity and evolution?
The tough part about this question is the slippery nature of the word "complexity." The arguments for design based on complexity can be found as far back as Aristotle, but really take there modern form with William Paley. The idea is that there are systems whose parts are so perfectly designed that random mutations, which would only bring parts, could not account for the intricate way these parts interact. The workings of a watch, of example, are so perfectly fitted that they could only be crafted, must be an artifact of an intelligent watchmaker.

The standard example if the human eye which contains many parts, none of which by itself is seemingly useful. If random mutations gave us bits, there is no reason why they would be selected for, the argument goes, hence the most reasonable explanation for eyes must be design and not natural or sexual selection pressures.

One can account for the complexity of the eye through evolutionary means both through negative and positive argumentation. The negative route, showing problems with the design argument, tends to take two lines. First, there are a multitude of different sorts of eyes among living beings, although we tend to find the same sort among related species who inhabit the same sorts of environments, variations found among similar eyes based on environmental factors. Second, flaws in the design of the eye are pointed to -- most normally the placement of blood vessels in front of the retina, something that no decent engineer would ever do. If the supposed designer is maximally intelligent, surely HE wouldn't have made such a blunder.

The positive argumentation is to look for transitional forms of the eye in past and current species. indeed, we do find such evidence in the world that would account for the differentiation of the parts of the eye. Each example of complexity needs its own story to be told and that story needs to be supported with empirical evidence. Not every explanation about advantages conveyed are actual histories of biological complexity, but there are examples of such that can be recreated.

Two more tomorrow.

Monday, June 23, 2008

RIP George Carlin

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

We lost a giant. George Carlin is dead.

Carlin and Richard Pryor were the link between Lenny Bruce and pretty much every single comedian of the last forty years. Carlin took Bruce's ability to talk about the new, the shocking, the edgy and made it tight and funny, brought it back into the more standard stand-up format.

His work was often political, anti-institution, anti-religion, pushing the boundaries. In this respect, his routine "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" was the bit that made him a household name. But just as often, his routines were straight ahead skit-type comedy, as with his fake news casts featuring (my favorite) Al Sleet the hippie-dippy weather man, with all the hippie-dippy weather, man, or straight ahead observational comedy as in his famous comparison between baseball and football.Fact is, he was an incredibly smart man who was a master jokesmith and a performer par excellence. He will be missed.

A few great lines:

Hansel and Gretel discovered the ginger bread house about 45 minutes after they discovered the mushrooms.

And, of course, the funniest food: "kumquats". I don't even bring them home. I sit there laughing and they go to waste.

If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?

Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things.

When someone asks you, A penny for your thoughts, and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?

I've begun worshiping the sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun. It's there for me every day, and the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, reflections at the park -- the occasional skin cancer, but hey. There's no mystery, no one asks for money, I don't have to dress up, and there's no boring pageantry. But I don't pray to the sun - it wouldn't be polite to presume on our friendship. You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci.

Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?

And finally,

I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it.

What were your favorite Carlin lines or routines?

Thank you George Carlin for all the years and all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Clash and the Titans

Let's commence with the first question from Gwydion,

Why doesn't the character of Superman resonate with modern audiences the way, say, Batman and Spiderman do? He's an immigrant (or a refugee), struggling to assimilate, adopting
"heartland American values" to fit in. It would seem to me that in a country that's transforming as much as ours is, he'd be a natural candidate for capturing our attention. Batman, on the other hand -- a self-made, technology-focused, angry white male -- does so much better at the box office. (You could describe Iron Man, another box office success, the same way.) Likewise Spiderman, a teenager going through a pseudo-adolescent transformation and struggling to control his changing body, also gets top billing. Even the Hulk -- a victim-of-modern-technology, seething-with-rage white guy -- seems to be more popular. So what gives?
My guess is that it has something to do with the complexity of characters like Spiderman and Batman who pull both from our aspirations and our insecurities. Superman, in a sense, is more one dimensional. He's good, but not so much complex or conflicted. He isn't human and while he may embody super-human attributes we desire or admire, he does so in a way that is more reminiscent of earlier, simpler times when we could pretend the world was more black and white.

Indeed, when I think Superman, I think black-and-white -- I think of George Reeves who was the man of steel but not abs of steel. Superman was American when pure evil like Nazis and Commies were the enemy. I think the associations with Superman are the associations of a view of the world that seems oversimplistic -- fair or not to the Man of Steel -- and that may be why we are drawn more today to superheroes who are flawed like we are, who live in more complex psychological worlds.

bill asks,
Should I stay or should I go? When things get tough, how do you know when it's time to leave -- a job, a marriage, a political movement, grad school -- rather than continuing to try to solve the problems? What's the difference between cutting your losses and quitting, and how do you spot it? Is there a metric, a litmus test, a way to know that you're getting out instead of giving up?
Of course, you should go bill, London's calling.

Man, this is a tough one. One could go the economists' route and bring in questions of expected value. You calculate the probability of succeeding and multiply it by the benefits you would receive and costs you would endure, and this is your expected utility for staying. Compare it with the costs and benefits of leaving and you pick the higher one. Of course, in real life, you can't actually make these calculations.

In the case of staying at a job, rouging this out though may be the appropriate line. I really need the benefits, so I have to stay even though the work is tedious and the boos is a jerk. Or, you know, there really is nothing keeping me here but fear of the unknown, so take this job and shove it. Something will turn up.

Of course, it also depends on the job. My grad school adviser once mused that you can never tell which grad students will be the ones who really do well in the long run. He said he had seen many stars burn out and that the ones who ultimately made it were the ones who simply had the tenacity to keep chugging away no matter what. So, certainly there is an advantage of being able to keep on taking it when other would throw in the towel.

On the other side, I had a beloved former student forced out of his grad program by a horrible adviser and it looks like it will turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. Doors he never imagined are opening for him and an incredibly exciting life seems to be unfolding that he never could have predicted.

But in cases that deal with interpersonal relationships, often the "rational" thing is not the right one. When you've made commitments to someone, how much do things have to change on the ground before you break them? How much should you expect to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship and how much sacrifice is too much? The easy way, is to simply go passive aggressive and let them determine when to dump you, but that probably is not a terribly helpful suggestion. The only think close to a metric that I could offer in such cases is the existence of the self measure. Are you still you within the relationship? Is the whole adding a dimension to you or taking one away? If you have lost your identity for the sake of keeping the relationship together, that seems pernicious and unfair. The problem, of course, is that the problems come in all shapes and sizes as do the relationships. Anyone else got a better answer?

More tomorrow.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Auto Mechancis to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's been a while since we've done this and I've been meaning to get back to it for about a month or so, so let's have at it.

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

Friday, June 20, 2008

Celebrities, Self-Esteem, and Nietzsche

Aristotle said that humans are political animals, that is, we are social by nature. We are not atoms, but require interaction. There's an interesting article coming out in the journal Personal Relationships on the way those who suffer from low self-esteem benefit from relationships that don't actually exist.

For many people, the admiration of celebrities can have some important benefits. Jaye L. Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York illustrate how parasocial relationships can provide a safe route for people who have a difficult time with real interpersonal relationships. People with low self-esteem can use their parasocial relationships to feel closer to the ideals they hold for themselves.

Researchers conducted three studies using approximately one hundred undergraduate university students each to examine the relationship between self-esteem, parasocial relationship closeness, and self-discrepancies. Participants identified their favorite celebrity and described that celebrity in an open-ended essay. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale assessed global self-evaluations.

Results showed that people with low self-esteem saw their favorite celebrities as very similar to their ideal selves. Low self-esteem people primed with their favorite celebrity felt more similar to their ideal selves than low self-esteem people primed with a control celebrity. Also, people with low self-esteem primed with their favorite celebrity felt more similar to their ideal selves than low self-esteem people primed with a close relationship partner.

The current research demonstrates that parasocial relationships can have self-enhancing benefits for low self-esteem people that they do not receive in real relationships. These parasocial relationships, which have very low risk of rejection, offer low self-esteem people an opportunity to reduce their self-discrepancies and feel closer to their ideal selves.

“Even ‘fake’ relationships with celebrities, relationships without any actual contact, can have benefits for the self,” the authors conclude. “We found that parasocial relationships can sometimes have benefits for people with low-self esteem that ‘real’ relationships do not.”
We do use celebrities as ideal selves. That's why I found it so interesting years ago when basketball player Charles Barkley, not noted for his decorum and well-mannered way, declared unilaterally that he was not a role model. The fact is, that is not for him to decide.

We use celebrities to personify what we as a culture deem virtuous, whether that be beauty, strength, artistic talent, or rebellious spirit. On the one hand, as Nietzsche argued in On the Use and Abuse of History, it is good to have great figures who stand as markers for how far humanity can go, who give us something to aspire to, and who force us to revise upward our image of ourselves individually and as a whole. On the other hand, it is utterly unfair to those who end up as celebrities to have to live up that role -- I believe it was that unfairness that Barkley was chafing at. Further, those who excel at some endeavor generally do so at the expense of other parts. Great individuals are often lousy humans.

At the same time, celebrities today are by in large created by those with monetary interest shopping for "the next big thing" in order to cash in as they are elevated by society for their virtues. Focus groups are used to shape images that will catch on with the masses, that titillate and appeal to our baser desires. This would undermine what Nietzsche saw as the value of celebrities -- they give us something to gawk at, not something to emulate and transcend. Does this mean we are harming the character of those with low self-esteem who turn to these celebrities as role models?

Of course, one with low self-esteem would look to others to validate them -- that is the nature of having low self-esteem. The celebrities are popular and that in and of itself surely is part of what makes the association esteem-building, by being a devotee of something very popular makes you part of the movement and thereby normal. Celebrities are not used to create high water marks in the development of humanity, but to dictate the direction of the herd. There is no doubt that we should be glad that those who suffer from low self-esteem have this means of normalizing their lives, but at the same time we should also be concerned about having surrendered the power to define that which normalizes us to profiteers.

What celebrities say the most about us as a culture? What celebrities give us the most hope for progressing as a culture and which are the most worrisome?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Home of der Whopper

This is nothing short of stunning.

So we went to war based on bad intelligence. A group of neo-conservatives cherry picked intel about the Iraqi program for weapons of mass destruction and used it to sell an unpopular war. The main informant was an agent named "Curveball." When the President of the United States said,

we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs. These are designed to produce germ warfare agents, and can be moved from place to a place to evade inspectors. Saddam Hussein has not disclosed these facilities.
it was Curveball who sold them on it through reports from German intelligence that the Germans said were not credible. Curveball's story was bought without ever having American intelligence agents actually talk to the man...if they had, they may have figured out what employees at Burger King quickly realized...

The LA Times tracked down Curveball who is in exile Germany...fleeing corruption charges in Iraq. "Curveball has flipped burgers at McDonald's and Burger King, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant and baked pretzels in an all-night bakery."
In early 2002, a year before the war, he told co-workers at the Burger King that he spied for Iraqi intelligence and would report any fellow Iraqi worker who criticized Hussein's regime.

They couldn't decide if he was dangerous or crazy.

"During breaks, he told stories about what a big man he was in Baghdad," said Hamza Hamad Rashid, who remembered an odd scene with the pudgy Alwan in his too-tight Burger King uniform praising Hussein in the home of der Whopper. "But he always lied. We never believed anything he said."
So we were led into a war because our President and his administration were outfoxed by a man that couldn't fool teenagers working at Burger King.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What Are the Necessary Conditions For Democracy?

As Bush attempts to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq that includes what amount to permanent bases and immunity from prosecution for US troops and contractors, one realizes that even the person who spent so much time trying to trumpet the idea of a free and sovereign democratic Iraq doesn't buy it.

One of the interesting ironies is that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the result of neo-conservative thinking largely shaped by Francis Fukuyama, who in his book The End of History, argues a neo-Hegelian line in which there is an end state to history, a state towards which all countries are moving. It is American-style corporate capitalist free-market representative democracy. All nations strive for it and if only loosed from their shackles would instantaneously begin to create it. This is why the neo-cons were so certain that we would be greeted as liberators and Democracy would be on the march right in. "Shock and awe" would cut the head off the snake and a democratic Iraq would spontaneously appear. (Dozen of democracies spontaneously appear each year, it's just not widely reported.)

Of course it didn't quite work. Thus Bush negotiating a SOFA while more likely needing time on the couch.

This idea that there are no other prerequisites for a democratic government than release from tyrannical rule stands in distinction to earlier conservative writing. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in her famous article "Dictators and Double-Standards" argues that it is ok to try to assassinate, undermine, and overthrow left-wing evil, murderous dictators, but to prop up, aid, and supply arms to right-wing evil, murderous dictators because the right-wingers are not apt "to alter significantly the distribution of goods, status, or power" and this means that they are more likely to give rise, ultimately, to democratic societies. In other words, right-wing tyrants will create the preconditions for democracy, but left-wing tyrants won't.

That one didn't quite pan out either, of course, but the paleo-conservative picture at least considers that there is certain social, political, and intellectual infrastructure that must be in place for democracy to come about, to flourish, and to be maintained. Surely, whatever those preconditions are, they are not in fact aided by right-wing death squads. But what are they?

What about free speech? Scott argues that this is overrated as a condition.

Would Burma be on its way to democracy if the junta was ousted tomorrow? They have a popularly supported party and a charismatic leader, but is that enough? Is it like India just after partition? Could one argue that they are different because the British left the notion of a functioning independent judiciary?

Does there have to be a lack of ethnic/tribal/sectarian tensions? What needs to be present in a nation for democracy to take root?

Modus Tonens and the Psychological/Rational Tension

There's a wonderful article in the forthcoming edition of Argumentation by our friend Bob Talisse -- he of the weakman arguments. Talisse, along with Scott Aikin, look at the rhetorical use of repeating someone's words back to them with an incredulous tone of voice.

Such a response is fine when it is a genuine reaction of incredulity. It is also fine when one repeats back the words with an incredulous tone in order to call attention to an obvious error -- a trick that teachers use often, allowing conversational space for the errant pupil to realize the mistake and correct it before continuing the discussion. As such, the tone of voice comes with an assertion of power, it establishes a hierarchy. Using that tone of voice says, I really know what I am talking about, you almost do, I'll cut you a break here so that we can keep on talking as if we were equals who both understood this topic, which of course we aren't, but it is only by practicing in this way that you, young grasshopper, can come to learn what is needed to actually understand this topic.

But this pedagogic use is what allows the tone to be misused for undeserved rhetorical gain. By using the tone of voice in a legitimate disagreement, what one does is mislead listeners into thinking that your opponent is cognitively subordinate without giving actual arguments to oppose your interlocutor's position and thereby shift the burden away from yourself -- the burden of undermining the other person's argument -- and putting a new burden on your interlocutor, that of not only defending the position, but also showing that the position is not so absurd that it can be written off immediately. Such fallacious use is called by Aikin and Tallisse "Modus Tonens."

I love informal logic. I love puns. This is sheer joy for me.

Pointing out and delightfully naming the fallacy would be enough, but the interesting part of the discussion is in the pragmatic effects they discuss at the end of the article. They stress that honest discourse already faces the hurdle of group polarization, that is, when people find themselves in groups that agree on an issue, the result often ends up that the group moves towards an extreme of that position. It is a social psychological effect that has been clearly demonstrated. Modus Tonens is just one more way that dissenting voices can be marginalized, undermining the virtues of authentic discourse.

Here is where I want to pick up the discussion because Aikin and Talisse are touching on something that I've talked about with Kerry and Aspazia. Spaz contends that critical thinking may not make for better thinkers, just smarter assholes. It does not cause people to truly think critically, but rather gives them ammunition to defend previously held biases and justify them in more intellectual sounding ways. Scott and Bob bring in the issues that have most interested me, psychology. In some sense, we are fighting against our own wiring in striving to be rational. This is not to say that we cannot be rational, but that there are pre-existing barriers that slant our minds.

As such, should critical thinking be taught without a psychological component? Is being aware of these psychological hurdles a necessary or sufficient condition for avoiding them? Is it worth teaching informal reasoning. if we know there are features of the mind that we are working against or at least is it worth teaching if we don't point those features out?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse: Pope Edition

Two weeks ago, we had the first go at the new feature, Seemingly Trivial Unanswered Problems In Discourse, which goes by the acronym D.U.C.K., in which we take a question that should not be asked, a question that seems to have no answer or a perfectly trivial answer and actually have a discussion about it for no good reason.

Last week there was an interesting exchange about Martin Luther's 95 theses and it inspired this week's D.U.C.K.:

Is the Pope, in fact, Catholic?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can There Be Non-Linguistic Jokes?

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week marks the 110th birthday of M.C. Escher. Escher was the son of a Dutch civil engineer and at his parents' behest began to pursue a degree in architecture, but failed out by not passing several courses including bookkeeping.

He switched over to decorative arts and trained in making woodcuts when he began traveling to see the art of Europe. Going to Spain in 1922, he visited the Alhambra. Islamic art is not allowed to include images and as a result, they developed tiling to an incredible degree. Amazed by the art form, Escher began to work with space-filling repeating sequences, or tesselations. It was a topic that apparently had been with Escher for many years previously,

Many years later a lady... "remembered the care with which this little boy [Escher] had selected the shape, quantity and size of his slices of cheese, so that, fitted one against the other, they would cover as exactly as possible the entire slice of bread. This particular trait never left him."

Escher's fascination with tesseleations led him into group theory, projective and non-Euclidean geometry, and topology. This attraction to mathematics, a subject he showed no affinity for as a child, led to the famous "impossible world" works, the most famous being "Waterfall."
My question is "Does this count as a joke?" The way the viewer interacts with the piece seems to have all of the structural elements of a joke. There is a set up, a straight scenario that does not seem out of the ordinary. then there is a punchline that makes you realize that your initial interpretation of the set up couldn't be right. There is the moment of confusion where the mind is trying to hold competing interpretations. People react to viewing this in a way that is joke-like. They come to "get" the painting in a way similar to getting a joke. So, it seems like it could be considered a joke.

But it is non-linguistic. There is non-linguistic humor aplenty, for example, slapstick comedy. But this is a different type of comedy from joke telling. the question here is whether there could be non-linguistic jokes.

Again, let's bracket off something like what Bob Newhart would do in merely giving a look instead of delivering a punchline at a great set-up. That technique left formulating the punchline to the view, but it is a truncated linguistic joke, it was linguistic. In this case, it is visual, but non-linguistic.

So, is it a joke? Is it visual irony?

Speaking of irony, we need not move to impossible worlds. Good brother Richard has alerted me to this item from this possible world.
A casualties of powerful storms that hit the Kansas State University campuse on Wednesday was the Wind Erosion Lab, which the university said was destroyed by apparent tornado.

"The damage on campus is extensive," Tom Rowson, the university's vice president for administration and finance, said in a statement. "The Wind Erosion Lab is gone. There is significant damage to the engineering complex."
The Wind Erosion Lab was blown away. Yet another example to support our theory of humorous design.

Of course, if we pair that argument with M.C. Escher's Waterfall, we might be able to formulate something akin to the traditional problem of God creating a rock too heavy for Him to lift. Hmmmm... A job for Comedist theologians to come...

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 13, 2008

On Vanity

Ginger Meyerson of The Hackenblog has picked up on a recent trend in a fascinating direction. Where a number of bloggers have parlayed their successful novelty blogs into books, Mayerson goes at it honestly and has started The Journal of Bloglandia, collecting what she sees as the writings of some of the more interesting voices from around the blogosphere. Volume 1, number 1 is now available and well worth the time.

One of the pieces in it, Vanity, comes from one of Susan O'Doherty's weekly posts on M.J. Rose's blog, Buzz, Balls, and Hype. In it, O'Doherty muses about the meaning of the term "vanity" as in vanity press. Someone who engages in a do-it-yourself approach to anything that has (normally corporate) gatekeepers, is deemed a vanity production and treated as necessarily inferior.

Yet, she argues, if we think of the standard meaning of vanity -- the noun form of vain -- then isn't it those who slave to gain the approval of the gatekeepers, those who determine their worth from the acceptance of the establishment, rather than those who simply delight in their work and want others to also enjoy it, who are the truly vain ones in the equation?

There is definitely something to this argument, but as a blogger (yet another form of vanity publishing in this sense) it seems like there are vain bloggers and ones who are not so vain. There are blogs whose purpose is to be self-aggrandizing, others that are about the author but not in a vanity-type sense, and still others about something the author cares about other than him/herself.

The use of the word "vanity" that pops to mind is vanity license plates. At first, when this was an expensive proposition, having a custom plate may have been an act of vanity. But with the price significantly decreased in most states now, it hardly seems vain to put a joke or a reference to something one loves on one's car. It's a metal bumper sticker.

Yet, there does seem to be something to the use of the word vanity here. Sometimes there are books that are not as deep or novel as the author thinks. We get attached to our projects and often do have inflated images of them. If you write, you will understand this by going back and rereading something that you thought was great work several years ago. The experience is quite humbling. But vanity publishing happens in the deluded time frame. As such, perhaps there is something to the "vanity" here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hillary Clinton and the Sexist Chicken and Egg

The postmortems of Hillary Clinton's Presidential run (Aspazia's is the one that started me on this question, although the folks at Shakesville have been all over this from the start) have all rightly mentioned the blatant and horrible sexism that was directed at her, often from major media figures. Where the racism question was treated in code words, it was shocking to see how open people were in using misogynistic language and images.

There is no doubt that these attacks are due to longstanding, but threatened patriarchal power structures. That said, I know, as someone who was bullied, that the bullies don't pick on you because of the things they pick on you about. First, you are determined to be a target, then they look for the soft spots, the places they can attack that will do the most damage.

The sexism was there and came from a place of threatened male privilege (that's why we heard so little of it when Carol Mosley-Braun ran -- she was seen as having little chance and so was not threatening); but did the sexism start from a place of pure sexism or did it start as Clinton hatred which found its expression naturally in a biased society most easily in sexist terms?

I wonder how much of this misogyny would have come out if it had been a different woman running. Suppose the woman was a Republican, say, Liddy Dole or Lynn Cheney. Do you think that either one of them would have received the same treatment if they had been viable Presidential candidates close to picking up the GOP's nomination?

My guess is that Condoleeza Rice, if she were in the equivalent of Clinton or Obama's position would have received much less of a racist or sexist treatment.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Obama's Birth Certificate and the Republican Trap

Barbara has a discussion at Mahablog about the latest in Right-wing smears:

We’ve been watching this happen for years now: Some juicy bit of disinformation appears on a far-right blog or forum, and within hours it goes up the rightie media infrastructure food chain — to NewsMax to Drudge to Limbaugh to the Washington Times to Bill O’Reilly — and then corporate media reports that “a story is circulating about. …”Other rumors are that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii; his middle name is really “Muhammad,” not “Hussein”; his parents weren’t really married...

One might argue the Obama campaign ought to just release the mystery birth certificate to put the rumors to rest. But you know that would just set off a new round of rumors. Some rightie blogger would question the authenticity of the birth certificate, and that very evening Sean Hannity would look into a Faux Nooz camera and intone, why did Barack Obama release a forged birth certificate? Questions are being asked, after all.

The hunger of the right-wing rumor beast can never be satisfied. However, I do strongly suggest the Obama campaign hire some hall monitors for their campaign web sites — no more unfiltered public comments allowed. Obama supporters will understand.
The fact is what we are looking at is trap...the same stupid one the Republican operatives been using for two decades. They create a dilemma:

If you don't answer their inane questions, it's an argument from ignorance based inference that something is being hidden. Gotcha.

If you do respond to debunk it, then (just like with Intelligent Design) they simply repeat, repeat, repeat the accusation while ignoring the evidence refuting it. The fact that there is now a "serious disagreement" involving a Presidential candidate shows that it is a serious topic to be reported on widely and the fair and balanced way to present the story is "some say this is true, but slimy politician worried about getting votes denies it." Gotcha.

Further, once you've shown you'll play their silly little game, they'll deluge you with made up accusations to tie you up and make sure you can't stay on message. They will work hard to use up all the oxygen in the room -- gotcha.

And should you try to stop playing it once you've started, the fact that you answered the previous questions, but not the next one is used as evidence that THIS LAST question really has something behind it because if the candidate wasn't hiding something, why wouldn't he answer it the way he did with the others? Hmmm? Gotcha.

One way to deal with it is to do what the Republicans do. Ignore it and slime the person who brought it up. This is why they never have to answer for anything.

The best way to deal with it, though, seems to be what Obama is best at -- going meta. The Wright nonsense? Give a serious talk about race. Show the scam from above the scam as opposed to trying to fight the scam from inside. Show that the problem isn't with the question,itself, but with the fact that we ask THAT inane question instead of the deep one beneath it that we've been ignoring.

The third option is to get a press that isn't so bad that it falls for it every time...never mind...

Monday, June 09, 2008

Send More Chuck Berry: Music and Politics

This is far too rich not to comment upon. John McCain had been using Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Good as a campaign song. But now that Berry has come out as a strong Obama proponent, he's switched to...wait for it..."Take a Chance on Me" by ABBA.

I was sure that was a joke when I first read it. So we've got a candidate with an age problem, a relevance problem, and an excitement problem and the theme song his marketing people believe will help do the trick is a 1970s disco snoozer by a group of Swedes...Swedes who would not give him the rights to play it at his rallies without paying stiff fees.

Turns out he's a big fan:

"The intriguing - some might say disturbing - revelation occurred during the Johnjay and Rich show at 104.7 FM (KZZP). The presidential candidate called in at 6 a.m. as part of the duo's Who Do You Know contest, in which famous people phone in and stump for everyday folks to win a car. "He said that a lot of people won't admit that they love ABBA, but he would," radio jock Rich Berra says. "Then he asked us if it was old-fashioned to like ABBA, and we said that it wasn't old-fashioned at all.''
So McCain is a fan of ABBA, but ABBA and Chuck Berry are not fans of McCain.

This is actually an interesting side note to contemporary politics. Campaigns are treated by those running them as they would go about marketing any product. A good ad campaign has a theme song and to rally the supporters, generate excitement, seem contemporary, and appeal to fans of the musicians, campaigns have followed the 92 Clinton/Gore example which used Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" quite effectively. It appealed to boomers, signaling a change of generation and provided a sense of the campaign.

As such, classic rock has been the call for campaigns, but the rockers then get a say...and often it is "NO!" John Cougar and/or Mellencamp has refused to allow McCain to play "Little Pink Houses" or "Our Country." Tom Scholtz, who pretty much was Boston, smacked Mike Huckabee for using "More Than a Feeling."

Is there a problem here? On the one hand, it is certainly their intellectual property and their work, and it seems that they should be able to keep it from being used to support that which they find objectionable. Further, using the song would give a false sense of endorsement. At the same time, these songs are out there for public consumption, they are part of the broader cultural landscape. The political reinterpretation seems one that the free and open marketplace of ideas would want to encourage, especially when it comes to political speech.

Should artists have veto power over the political use of their songs or should the political arena have primacy even when it comes to mere packaging and not policy proposals? If they are willing to pay the fair market royalty rate, should they have the right to play whatever they deem most desirable?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dancing With the Devil

Joe Lieberman will speak to Rev. John Hagee's conference "Christians United for Israel," calling the organization "a vital force in supporting the war against terrorism and defending our ally, Israel." Hagee, of course, is the pastor whose support was actively sought by John McCain only to be rejected when Hagee's statements became public that:

"A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you...Hitler was a hunter...How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.'"
Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans....New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God...there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.
Hagee refers to Catholics as "'The Great Whore,' an 'apostate church,' the 'anti-Christ,' and a 'false cult system.'
Lieberman responded to this by saying of Hagee, "I would describe Pastor Hagee with the words the Torah uses to describe Moses, he is an "Eesh Elo Kim," a man of God because those words fit him; and, like Moses he has become the leader of a mighty multitude in pursuit of and defense of Israel."

Lest we roll our eyes and write this off as simply an act of one lone Senator, consider the reaction to Reverend Hagee from AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). He was given a major ovation for his anti-Iranian saber rattling in 2007 and just this last week a mere mention of his name received a rousing cheer.
Speakers at the session, titled “Friends in Faith: Evangelical Christians and the Pro-Israel Movement,” included Gary Bauer, president of American Values; John Buhler, founder of Christian Advocates for Israel; and David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, the group led by Hagee.

“I want to take a moment to discuss with you a good man, evangelical pastor John Hagee,” Brog said to the audience. Before Brog could finish the sentence, the crowd broke into a lengthy round of applause, ending in a standing ovation. Among the few attendees who did not cheer at the mention of Hagee’s name was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has occasionally been critical of the ties between the Jewish community and Christian Zionists.
Of course, this is not just about Hagee. There has been a warm embrace of American Dominionists since Begin.

Dominionism is a radical Protestant theology which posits that Man has dominion over every living thing and that there is a demand to convert the world to Christianity. Politically, the view dictates Christian theocracy, but the narrative metaphysic, coming out of an unorthodox interpretation of the Book of Revelations holds that Jesus' return to Earth requires the existence of Israel as a Jewish nation. Upon the return, Jews would convert or be damned. There is no tolerance for the Jews as Jews, but those in Israel serve as a vehicle for the Second Coming. This is how the outward, hard anti-Semitism of the Christian right became soften and hidden beneath pro-Zionist zeal. All of this has only been deepened since American and Israeli security appear to face perils from the same Islamic fundamentalists (This, of course, is a naive oversimplification, but Islamophobia generally does not allow for the details of a complex multinational, multi-ethnic situation).

This enthusiasm for all that would maintain Israel's existence as a Jewish state was not lost on those running the nation. American Jews were one source of income, opening another spigot of cash, diversifying the portfolio seemed like a rational and profitable move.

And so began an odd relationship. The Israelis rolling their eyes at, but pocketing the cash from, these right wing anti-Semites, while the Dominionists defending, arming, and subsidizing the murderers of Jesus who would get theirs eventually, but not until they were raptured away. It is a marriage of convenience without a prenuptial agreement, keeping both partners in the marriage without love.

But a prominent strain of American Judaism has become a sort of proprietary Zionism that more closely resembles Christianity. Judaism is a tribal religion. You are a Jew by birth, not necessarily by faith, and it is intentionally made very difficult for those not born into it to become a "member of the tribe" -- a term still very much in use. Judaic theology is informed largely by the history of being a minority in other people's lands. The understanding of the world is through the eyes of the little guy, the outsider, the oppressed.

Christianity, on the other hand, is an evangelical religion. It is a religion of belief. It was a religion that began and sustained itself through conversion. Souls were things to be gotten and held onto, to be possessed by the organization. Command and control is essential to a faith-based religion starting from a small group, aiming for subsistence and then domination. It is spiritual Amway -- you need to constantly recruit and retain in order to keep the pyramid supported. Add to this, the fairly rapid adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, turning it into a religion of the powerful and these factors combine to result in a very different ethos at the heart of the religion.

This, of course, is not to say that Jesus' own message is not infused with the Jewish ethos. Of course, it is. It is not to say that one couldn't be Christian and perceive the world from the point of view of the downtrodden. Indeed, Christian liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movements are based in exactly this way. But these are relatively small groups compared with the larger organizational structures that make up Christianity writ large and the point here is that there are theological and sociological factors which actively steer these institution-level organizations in the way that they do.

With the founding of Israel, this same sort of ethos has come to replace the traditional Jewish stance towards life. Land is substituted for souls, but the need to command and control what is deemed valuable and essential for the continuation of the group becomes primary. The perspective then shifts from the outsider trying to be treated justly to the insider, the possessor of power doing whatever is necessary to maintain the source of that power. This is a major shift that does not come without an intellectual cost.

As a result, Dominionists like Hagee who are militaristic and conservative seem much more akin to hawkish Zionists. These people are seen much more as brothers, than as mere cash cows to be exploited while they think they are exploiting the Israelis. The Zionistic fervor of hyper-Zionistic Jews have led them to look at these Christian theocrats and think to themselves "Hey, they aren't that bad looking, in fact, they're kind of cute..." Like a long-lasting arranged marriage, American Zionists are falling for these people who have no doubt -- and no problem with the belief -- that all Jews will go to hell.

Wittgenstein invokes the image of a ladder that gets thrown away once it has been climbed. This is precisely how the Dominionists see the Jews. Love 'em and leave 'em. Lieberman may think he's a real player for showing up to prom with this rich evangelical movement on his arm. But Hagee's phrase "the great whore" may come back to haunt those who choose to dance with the devil.

Friday, June 06, 2008

RIP Saint Harvey

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we lost another one. Harvey Korman is with the Cosmic Comic now, having passed away from an aneurysm.

He was a bit player on The Danny Kaye Show and the voice of the Great Gazoo on The Flinstones, but his big break was as Tim Conway's partner on The Carol Burnett Show where he was the very spirit of the show. The beauty of Carol Burnett was that the break-ups were live and part of action. You knew they were having fun and that was part of the joy of the program and the first one to lose it was often Harvey Korman. You watched Harvey waiting to see if he would keep it together, especially when Tim Conway was working him over hard. You knew how much he loved Conway and we all have that friend who just cracks us up. It was quintessentially human.

The two would try to replicate that chemistry on the short lived Tim Conway Show, but to many of us it was Harvey Korman's work with Mel Brooks for which he will always be remembered. He was masterful as Hedy Lamarr (THAT'S HEDLY!) and in High Anxiety and History of the World, Part I.

Often cast as a bad guy, he was well-thought of in real life. Here is far and away my favorite:What are your favorite Harvey Korman moments?

Rest in peace, Harvey and thank you for all the laughs.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

John McCain Is So Old...

Working on some new material:

John McCain is so old that if he gets elected, instead of a Secretary of State, he'll have a Secretary of Prostate. You can always tell the Secretary of Prostate, he's the one who checks into the White House through the back door.

If John McCain becomes President, the DoD will go from the Department of Defense to the Department of Depends. Our Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles will become Incontinent Ballistic Missiles...two or three times a night they leak fuel.

Under a McCain administration, the FEC will no longer be the Federal Elections Commission, but rather the Federal Erections Commission. It will be chaired by Bob Dole and adopt the new slogan, "It ain't just the chads that are hanging anymore."

Every Rose Garden bill signing ceremony would end not with a press conference but with "Get off my lawn!"

Thursday, June 05, 2008

To Interact or Not?

Great question from my cousin:

I'm sure you saw the pictures this week of a tribe in the Amazon that has had NO contact with the outside world. To intervene or not to intervene...that is my question. Do you leave these people alone, or go in and say hello, maybe offer them a coca-cola? My initial response is to leave them alone, but what if their average lifespan is 40? What if many of their children die of preventable diseases? What if they often go hungry? What if they are bored and would really like an ipod?? What if they haven't heard about Jesus?
Well? We certainly seem to have the reverse Midas touch when it comes to interacting with other cultures. At the same time, certainly there are some things we have to offer. Interact or not?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Copernican Election

Copernicus changed nothing in the universe. His heliocentric theory merely changed the way we looked at the universe. Sometimes that shift of mind is more radical than actual alterations in the world.

I was born less than a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. My parents needed a police escort to get through the riots in Baltimore to the hospital. Now, a mere forty years later Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee for President of the United States of America.

There is no doubt that racism is alive and well. There are shots ringing out from both of the old trenches. But this is not Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas and this is not Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Nor is this John Lewis or Andrew Young. This is somebody altogether different.

This is not Dennis Kucinich. Should he become President, Obama will not be a bulldozer ramming through progressive change. But neither is he Joe Lieberman whose ilk hijacked the term "centrism" and redefined it to mean a cobbled together pro-corporate economic stance, hawkish foreign policy positions, and moderately liberal social policies, and then uses the meaningless term "middle" to vilify anyone who disagrees with their views as extremists of the left or right.

This was the approach of the Democratic Leadership Council and their poster child Bill Clinton. It is what led Hillary to support the war in Iraq. For all the talk of Chamberlain a few weeks ago, this was indeed appeasement. Give the Republicans most of what they want and hope they'll play nicer with us. They argue that it is what got Clinton his second term and that anyone who demanded that the Democratic party stand for anything was a member of the loony left and the cause for all our failures. But the real story is that the right, led by bully Newt Gingerich, saw that the jelly-spined left would cower whenever they said boo and took their lunch money for a generation. The Democratic Party lost every position of power.

That is, as a group they lost every position of power, but the individuals most responsible for those losing ways gained much. We have a winner-take-all electoral system and that means we will necessarily have two parties. During fifteen years in the political wilderness, this group learned how to parlay loss after loss into personal gain. These are the folks who form the top of the Clinton campaign.

I feel sorry for them. Harold Ickes was going to be the next Erskine Bowles. He was set. The Democratic Party is not only in politics, but it itself is a political entity. There are those with power and having power means making the rules and it means that those who want power come to those who have it and if they are deemed loyal enough begin to share in it. He had played the game properly. The Clintons had played the game properly. They were the source of power in the Democratic Party for fifteen years. The power was theirs. They had it and determined who would share in it. If CNN or one of the networks needed a Democratic voice, they went to the Clinton machine which controlled the party. If you wanted to go anywhere in Democratic politics, you needed to be a part of the in-crowd and since the early 90s, that was the Clinton clique. Whether the Democrats won or lost, they were still the cool kids.

And this is what make for the most interesting contrast of all. Barack Obama is not Harold Ford, Jr. Both are thin, light-skinned, good-looking, extremely intelligent African American men. But Ford played the old game. He hitched his career to the powerful in order to ride their good graces to the top. Obama, on the other hand, distanced himself from the standard operating procedures of the in-crowd and provided an alternative vision. Ford lost his bid to the Senate, Obama is on the verge of winning the nomination for President of the United States.

FDR changed the course of American politics, a change that was still working its way out through the Nixon administration as we can see in the founding of the EPA and the visit to China. Reagan changed the direction of American politics, changes that were still working themselves in the Clinton administration which were evident in "the era of big government is over," the Defense of Marriage Act, and welfare reform. Obama will not be a progressive savior. He will not radically alter the world we live in. but what he realistically could do is to once again alter the direction of American politics.

We have been slaving under the curse of the venomous attack dog politics of Atwater, Gingerich, Rove, and company where personal destruction from the Republicans and bed-wetting from the Democrats trumped rational discourse. This could begin to end. Diplomacy as it has always been conducted until the last eight years may not be cast as irrational weakness. Race, religion, and class insecurity could be openly discussed with intelligent insight instead of being used in coded and naked ways to enrich and empower those who do not deserve it. The morality of torture may no longer be seen as an open question.

Barack Obama will not change the world or this nation in radical ways. But he could do is to nudge the ship that is so slow to turn off of its current course, a slight deviation that could play itself out for generations in a healthier, saner, more humane way. That is the hope. Now, forty years after Dr King's death, we have someone who may be able change the way we see race, change the way we see politics, change the way we see America, change the way we see the world. This may be seen by historians as a Copernican election.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

E-Mail and Moral Luck

A friend of mine is an administrator and we got to talking about the conundrums that can surface regarding listing someone in the bcc: slot, the blind courtesy copy (or for those old enough to remember carbon paper -- the blind carbon copy). The idea is that you are a member of the list of recipients for that message and all others for which "reply to all" is used, but no one other than the original sender knows that you are privy to the communications.

It seems to give rise to two classes of moral concerns. First, are the concerns of the visible recipients. Is it ok to even use the bcc:, to correspond with someone without letting them know who else is reading along and who else they may be sending potentially sensitive or embarrassing information to? Is it enough that the visible recipients know that someone might have been bcc'ed on the message?

Second, what are the responsibilities of the person bcc'ed? You now seemingly have a confidence to keep, yet unlike making a promise you never agreed to accept this moral obligation. This is what Bernard Williams calls moral luck, ethical claims on you that arise by happenstance, not of your own intentional doing. What is entailed by the responsibilities of being bcc'ed? Suppose you have a contribution to the conversation that would be important, is it wrong to send an e-mail to someone on the visible list "I don't know if anyone has talked to you about this, but it might help to know that..." Suppose you write the message so that it in no way is evident that you've been inside the conversation that has been happening? Do you have to request that the bcc'er release you from your hidden status to join the conversation when he or she didn't ask you when assigning it? Should someone be able to lay this ethical burden on your shoulders without your agreeing to it and how heavy is this burden anyway?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Crispin Sartwell's Challenge on the Moral Justification of State Power

Crispin Sartwell has a new book out and issues this challenge:

My irritating yet astounding new book Against the State (SUNY Press) argues that

(1) The political state or government rests on violence (force and coercion).
(2) Violence is always wrong if it can't be morally justified. (That is, violence is wrong if it lacks a moral justification.)
(3) The arguments for the moral legitimacy of state - for example those of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Rawls, and Habermas - are unsound.
(4) Hence, state power has not been shown to be morally defensible.

Until you show me otherwise, I insist that government power is in every case illegitimate.

Not only are the existing arguments for the legitimacy of state power unsound; they are pitiful, embarrassments to the Western intellectual tradition.

So I issue a challenge: Give a decent argument for the moral legitimacy of state power, or reconstruct one of the traditional arguments in the face of the refutations in Against the State.

If you can't, you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism.

Henceforward, if you continue to support or observe the authority of government, you are an evil, irrational cultist.

You're an anarchist now, baby, until further notice.
We don't let "irritating, but astounding" go so easily around these parts, buddy.

The rub here is that one would have to read the book to see if premise 3 is correct, but my line would have to follow Thomas Hobbes. I've been swayed by Hanno's non-standard reading of Hobbes wherein it's not that we all are psychological egoists (people who can only act in our own perceived best self-interest), but it is a fact that no matter where we are there will always be an asshole among us. If we do not have a strong enough state to keep the asshole in check, no one thrives. Given that human flourishing is a significant moral good, state power at least to the point of keeping that amount of order which provides the social infrastructure for human flourishing would be morally justified. It may be a live question how much government that is, but that at least some is needed seems legit on this basis. You can watch Crispin's response to the social contractarian line over at his blog Eye of the Storm.

So, what's your take?