Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The War for Masculinity

Watching football last weekend, the incongruity of back to back commercials caught my attention. First was a Burger King ad. Burger King's pr people have been working very hard over the last couple of years to appeal to men by really hammering the two classic routes to masculinity. One approach is classic frat boy, a combination of titilation and intentional stupidity that shows that you know you have social power and flaunt it by explicitly using it for absolutely nothing. The ads with the masked king, the adolescent junior whopper, the burgers to poor villagers, and the seven incher "blow your mind" ad are just meant to stir up people with their bad taste and give the "we're so cool, we can rattle their cage" wink.

The other is "meat is manly." Their ads always make me think of the old Christopher Titus routine that he used as the basis for his tv series,

My dad's from that era when you lived to 50, your heart exploded and that was that. You know when you cook bacon and you pour the grease into the can? My dad's the can!
You eat meat and have a heart attack and die, that's just what men do.

But then there was the ad for NutriSystem. They bring out Dan Marino and Lawrence Taylor, a golden boy quarterback and one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. Not just men, but MEN. Then there's a string of other athletes and sportcasters, people who are without a doubt in the manly club for men. They show them with the belly and then fit. Here's the other part of masculinity, physical power which is tied into verility.

Diet plan companies who have traditionally targeted women are now focusing on expanding their market to include men. It reminds me of the steel companies after WWI. They had so much extra capacity, having geared up to provide material for weapons and ammunition, that there was a glut of steel on the market once peacetime came. They were selling razor blades to men and figured they could double their market if they could sell to women too. But women seemed to have no need for razor blades, so they would have to damage their self-image to create the demand. Hence the birth of "silky smooth legs" as a cultural necessity for feminine attractiveness.

The difference here is that there is a pre-existing demand for healthier living among American men. But because of the health crisis in this country that results from the typical American lifestyle of nothing but lousy tasting, horribly unhealthy foods coupled with little or no exercise, those with the most social capital are finding themselves pulled in opposite directions. Corporations are in a battle to define modern masculinity and the winner stands to gain a huge reward.

Of course, this assumes that the two sides are mutually exclusive. If men yo-yo between Double Whopper weight gains and NutriSystem weight loss, both sides are happy. Each creates a demand for the other. The real threat would be a completely different way of approaching life that stressed contented, healthy, sustainable living. Damn good thing we're protected from such evil, socialist ideas.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors

The less short of the short people wanted in the most desperate way to go to the National Book Fair this weekend in D.C. So, standing out in rain, we went to hear talks and readings by some of her favorite authors. We saw Kate DiCamillo who wrote The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. We saw Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson Series. Despite the weather, the place was packed.

What surprised me was the reception the authors got from the assembled pre-teen crowd -- equal parts boys and girls. I wouldn't say rock stars, but definitely ball players. They were heroes to these kids in the same way big league shortstops are to others. It made me happy. There is clearly a reading culture among at least a certain slice of kids today in which they inhabit the same imaginary worlds.

Part of it is driven by marketing, of course, but the fact is that there is a market for interesting, thoughtful, clever books above the Dr. Seuss level. And there are a bunch of very talented authors putting out good stuff. No doubt the Harry Potter phenomenon went a long way towards cementing this demographic in the mind of publishers, but the ramifications of it are what interest me. I wonder if, despite all the hand wringing about tweets and blogs, we will be seeing a resurgence in American letters in a generation or so.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Feast of Saint Spanky

My Fellow Comedists,

The old saying is never follow children or animals and Hal Roach decided that he would bring Depression era audiences both with his Our Gang shorts. This week would be the birthday of George McFarland, known for the rest of his life as "Spanky," the original Our Gang scene stealer. The round face, the big eyes, he went from a toddler finding trouble to gang leader over the course of the 30s. The gags were as cheap as they were plentiful. Later dubbed "The Little Rascals" for television, it was wholesale comedy at its purest: volume, volume, volume.

After coming out of the Air Force as an adult, he was never able to shed the "Spanky" persona and eventually landed a kids' show in Tulsa.

Favorite Rascals moments?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Do You Know That?

Let's try this again. It's the converse of "auto mechanics to quantum mechanics," where the idea now is to contribute those bits of knowledge that seem really cool even if they are not directly applicable to anything.

Mine for this week:

In Ethiopia, 12:00 a.m. is what we think of as 6:00 a.m. (from a former student who just got back).

Ohio has the only non-rectangular state flag.

The philosopher Hans Reichenbach introduced skiing to Turkey when he fled there after the Nazi purge of 1933. He was also a great ice skater.

What do you know and why do you know it?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Boss and Encores

Yesterday was Bruce Springsteen's 60th birthday. Let's play with a question I thought about for my contribution to Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy.

Bruce is famous for leaving it all onstage. His shows don't end when the shows end. Anyone who has ever been to see the E Street Band knows that the encore is not just one hit held back to throw out before hitting the bus, that for Bruuuuuuce, the encore is virtually another set.

But what is an encore? Joni Mitchell, for example, is well-known to not play encores if she thinks the crowd was not sufficiently accepting of the show, if they weren't quiet enough at the quiet times or rowdy enough at the rowdy times. If you bought a ticket to her show, do you have grounds to be angry for not having gotten your encore?

On that view, the encore is like a tip the band gives to a hard working waitress. Is that what it is, a thank you from the band that is gratuitous, that is not expected, but appreciated (don't open the tip conversation back up please...) Is it a standard part of the rock show format which fans have a right to demand, a ritual that is not what it may seem at first glance? If so, how much of an encore do fans have the right to expect?

Happy birthday, Bruce.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ponies For All My People

I think Republicans may have just solved the deficit problem once and for all. In their zeal to go after ACORN for the crime of registering minorities to vote, they have crafted a bill that would defund them for infractions of their employees. H.R. 3571, the Defund ACORN Act, reads as follows:

(a) Prohibitions- With respect to any covered organization, the following prohibitions apply:

(1) No Federal contract, grant, cooperative agreement, or any other form of agreement (including a memorandum of understanding) may be awarded to or entered into with the organization.

(2) No Federal funds in any other form may be provided to the organization.
(3) No Federal employee or contractor may promote in any way (including recommending to a person or referring to a person for any purpose) the organization.

(b) Covered Organization- In this section, the term ‘covered organization’ means any of the following:

(1) Any organization that has been indicted for a violation under any Federal or State law governing the financing of a campaign for election for public office or any law governing the administration of an election for public office, including a law relating to voter registration.

(2) Any organization that had its State corporate charter terminated due to its failure to comply with Federal or State lobbying disclosure requirements.

(3) Any organization that has filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency.

(4) Any organization that--

(A) employs any applicable individual, in a permanent or temporary capacity;

(B) has under contract or retains any applicable individual; or

(C) has any applicable individual acting on the organization’s behalf or with the express or apparent authority of the organization.
Please, please, please pass this. We do need to keep organizations who break the law from receiving government contracts.

According to the Project on Government Oversight's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, this would not only apply to the tiny ACORN, but also some of the larger oaks in the forest of government contracts. Let's take a peek at just the top 10 recipients of government contracts, shall we?

Contractor (Instances of Misconduct)

1. Lockheed Martin (50)
2. Boeing Company (31)
3. Northrop Grumman (27)
4. General Dynamics (9)
5. Raytheon Company (17)
6. BAE Systems (3)
7. L-3 Communications (5)
8. United Technologies (13)
9. SAIC (10)
10. KBR (18)
That accounts for $137 billion per year -- just for the top ten. That's a lot of savings we're trading for a few hundred people registering people who tend to vote Democratic. You know, with that kind of money, we could probably afford health care for all Americans. Oh wait, the public option would make it cheaper. Well, how about if we each get a pony?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Meanings of Titles

So, I'm now chair of the department -- do not congratulate me, do NOT congratulate me. This is not a promotion. This is not gaining power or authority. With any organization there is crap work, not busy work, but detail work that needs to get done so things can happen and the chair is the person who makes sure that stuff is completed. It is not a position of vision or power. I don't control the department. I just stand in on behalf of it when someone has to, when e-mails need answering, when meetings need attending, when forms need signing, schedules and budgets need working out, etc. The point simply is that this is stuff somebody needs to do and it's now my turn.

But for some reason (probably because chairs did run the department under the old European model of the university), people give the position a sense of importance beyond what it really deserves. And that is what gives rise to my question. I've noticed that other colleagues who chair their departments make that clear in their e-mail signature. I've been thinking about it, but am uncomfortable with it. It seems a bit arrogant, as if I'm claiming some prestige I don't really deserve. At the same time, it could be useful in making clear that I'm the person to contact with questions or concerns about the department. But then that information would be easy enough to find, should it be needed.

So, should "chair" appear in my sig or not?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Terror, Horror, Gross-Out, and Stephen King

Today is Stephen King's birthday. In his honor, let's play with a quotation of his.

"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
(I must say that it was hard not to leave the first word off of the quotation, after all what would be more appropriate than decapitating Stephen King. The worry would be that someday he might have cause to quote me and then would do the same because, you know, the traditional notion of justice dictates an I for an I.)

King distinguishes here between terror, horror, and grossing-out. What is the difference? Can you be terrified without being horrified? If you are sufficiently grossed-out, doesn't it bleed into being terrified by the image? Is this a meaningful distinction? If so, what's how do we account for the difference?

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Ahoy My Scurvy Comedist Maties,

In honor of "Talk Like a Pirate Day," let's do pirate jokes. The classic, of course, is,

A pirate walks into a bar with a steering wheel attached to his belt. The bartender asks him what it's for to which he responds, "Arrrr, it's driving me nuts."

Another classic:
A pirate walks into a bar and the bartender says, "Hey, I haven't seen you in a while. What happened, you look terrible!"
"What do you mean?" the pirate replies, "I'm fine."
The bartender says, "But what about that wooden leg? You didn't have that before."
"Well," says the pirate, "We were in a battle at sea and a cannon ball hit my leg but the surgeon fixed me up, and I'm fine, really."
"Yeah," says the bartender, "But what about that hook? Last time I saw you, you had both hands."
"Well," says the pirate, "We were in another battle and we boarded the enemy ship. I was in a sword fight and my hand was cut off but the surgeon fixed me up with this hook, and I feel great, really."
"Oh," says the bartender, "What about that eye patch? Last time you were in here you had both eyes."
"Well," says the pirate, "One day when we were at sea, some birds were flying over the ship. I looked up, and one of them--yarrgh, er, pooped--in my eye."
"So?" replied the bartender, "what happened? You couldn't have lost an eye just from that!" "Well," says the pirate, "I really wasn't used to the hook yet."
So, what be your favorite pirate jokes?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Henry Ford: Evil Bigot

Yes, I've read Howard Zinn. Yes, I get that history is written by those with power who in turn construct myths based upon ideals that elevate their own interests and goals. But I am still at a complete loss as to why the name Henry Ford is celebrated and not vilified in American culture.

A successful captain of industry. A pioneer in transportation who changed the world. Creator of an eponymous brand that survives to this day. An innovator in business efficiency. O.k. But also a scumbag bigot.

O.k., I know Godwin's law. Yes, we carelessly and ignorantly throw around Hitler's name and call people Nazis for the dumbest things. But to say that Henry Ford was like Hitler is literally true. Hitler kept in his office a framed picture of Henry Ford. In all of Mein Kampf, there is only one American named. That American? Wait for it...

"Every year makes them more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions only a single great man, Ford, to their fury, still maintains full independence."
"Them," of course, are the Jews. Hitler presented Ford with an award, the Verdienstkreutz des Ordens vom Deutscher Adler, the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, the highest honor that could be awarded to a non-German. An award Ford proudly received.

He acquired The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper that would them give him a platform for his overtly anti-Semitic writings. He collected his hateful columns into a single volume, The International Jew. In the preface, Ford writes,
"We confidently call the reader to witness that the tone of these articles is all that it should be. The International Jew and his satellites, as the conscious enemies of all that Anglo-Saxons mean by civilization, are not spared, nor is that unthinking mass which defends anything that a Jew does, simply because it has been taught to believe that what Jewish leaders do is Jewish. Neither do these articles proceed upon a false emotion of brotherhood and apology, as if this stream of doubtful tendency in the world were only accidentally Jewish."

We know that this book was not only translated into German, but that Hitler owned a copy in which he left ample laudatory marginal notes. The Germans were the bad guys and Henry Ford objected to American entry into WWII because he supported Hitler. I know we worship money and those who gain a lot of it, but please explain to me how his name did not suffer the same fate as that of Benedict Arnold. Why do most Americans have a warm fuzzy feeling around the name of this horrible human being?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

RIP Mary Travers

Sad news. Mary Travers has passed. I do not know the number of times I sat on the lawn at Pier 6 in Baltimore or Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia singing along with Peter, Paul, and Mary. It was always wonderful for me because I felt at home. Unlike Dead shows, where the crowd was a fairly thin demographic slice, Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts always felt like a family reunion with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. It was a peaceful place full of hope, love, and joy.

Performing for decades with two men, she would constantly be asked which one she was married to. Her answer was always "both." Even though she was legally married to neither, theirs was a relationship of love and respect. Mary would tell stories between songs of her beloved granddaughter, claiming it was the only thing her son-in-law, usually referred to as "that Republican," ever got right.

For the countless plays of "Peter, Paul, and Mommy" on late nights trying to soothe a crying infant, for helping bring harmony to an inharmonious world, thank you Mary Travers. You will be missed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Great Tomato Riots

It is mid-September. Like so many others I have been drowning in tomatoes for the last four weeks. Large, beautiful, tasty, fresh tomatoes. Yet, I go to our dining hall or any restaurant around and want a tomato on my sandwich, it is the same flat, tasteless red thing as always. After the softball game, we took the kids to the Chinese buffet in town and the cantaloupe was awful. Cantaloupe is in season! If there was ever as time when we should all be going, "Oooooh. THAT's a good lope," this is it.

I get the fact that if we insist on having tomatoes and melons in February that we will end up with produce that comes from very far away and is grown for volume rather than flavor. Anyone who wants an end-of-summer tomato in the dead of winter will be disappointed. But why don't we get end-of-summer tomatoes at the end of summer. Or, more pointedly, why do we put up with it? Why don't we have a problem with the fact that, absent sweet and fatty, our foods have no flavor? Is it a matter of acculturation, that we've grown to expect dull? Is it ignorance, have we lost the collective memory of what delicious tastes like? Why do we allow them to even put the word "fruit" on fruit cocktail? Why do we allow them to serve brown flaccid green beans to our children in elementary school cafeterias? Is it that we've lost all connection with production? Why do we let them get away with literally shoving this bland not good for your body, only good for the bottom line corporate food down our throats when local farmers are struggling? Why aren't we having tomato riots?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Opening Day

It's opening day for the Gettysburg College intramural softball league and I'm playing right field for the faculty team which has the throwback name of "The Faculty 9." Dave, our skipper, had intended to call us "The Fighting Schmuckers" after college founder Samuel Schmucker, but changed his mind. Frankly, I'm glad because it eases some of the pressure on us. With a name like The Fighting Schmuckers, we'd have to be good.

But, then, I thought that surely there's something better than the Faculty 9. I mean, we could pull a page from soccer team names and become Faculty United with team jerseys emblazoned with our F.U. logo. Or we could lift from football and become the Oakland Graders. The Toledo Redpens? In grad school the team was, of course, the Home Platonists.

So, what would be a good name for us or, alternatively, what was the best team name you ever had?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Institutional Apologies

The British government has apologized for its treatment of Alan turing, the genius who created the machine that allowed the British to crack the German Enigma code during WWII, the most complex that had ever been developed at the time and was considered completely secure. He was an intellectual giant working at the intersection of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and computer science before there were computers. He ought to be a point of great national pride, yet he is, in fact, a subject of great national embarrassment. When the government found out he was gay, they treated him abominably, the MI6, the U.K.'s version of the CIA hounding him and the court declering that he would need to be chemically sterilized, it led him to suicide.

After a popular movement calling for an apology gained momentum, garnering both publicity and celebrity support -- yes, the British actually have intellectual celebrities, imagine that -- the Prime Minister made the apology on behalf of the government.

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly. Over the years, millions more lived in fear in conviction. I am proud that those days are gone and that in the past 12 years this Government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality, and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind's darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years.

It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe's history and not Europe's present. So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.
The question is what it means for an institution to apologize. When an individual apologizes to another person whom s/he has wronged, the apology does four things: (1) it takes responsibility for the action, you cannot apologize for something if you do not claim ownership of the wrong, (2) it empathizes, an apology requires an acknowledgement of the suffering of the other and a sense that you understand the harm you have done, (3) it expresses regret, the sense that right now you wish you could turn back the clock and chosen to have done differently, and (4) it promises, it makes the forward looking claim that in similar circumstances, you will act differently.

But what about cases like this one, or apologizing for slavery where the person doing the apologizing on behalf of an institution was not the one to have commited the act and those who were directly harmed are no longer alive? Can such an apologizing act really apologize?

The key here is that it is the institution, not the individual, that apologizes. For an instittution to say it acted wrongly, it must be the case that an individual can act. This is a live question in the world of business ethics. Thinkers like Manual Velasquez argues that corporations do not act, individuals only act since only individuals have bodies. But others like Peter French argue that corporations make decisions, decisions that may not be identical to those of any one individual -- take corporate board decisions, for example. These decisions are then put into action using the means of the corporation. Just as someone who has been paralyzed would be guilty of murder for paying a hitman, so too the corporation may be held responsible for its acts for paying individuals in its employ to carry out its will.

So, we can say that governments act. This means that governments can act wrongly. But what does it mean for a govenrment to apologize? It can accept blame, that seems clear. It cannot express empathy or regret, though, as while it may make decisions, surely institutions do not emote. We can talk of the morale of a group, but that does not seem the same as having extra-personal emotions. It can say that the current people occupying spaces in the organization are individually unanimous in empathizing and regretting the actions of the institution at a previous time, but that seems different in important ways.

What it can do, though, and this seems to be where these sorts of public apologies on behalf of institutions are meaningful, is make the claim that lessons have been learned and deciusions and behavior will change. Demonstrate that safeguards and procedures have been put in place to make sure that horrors of that sort will never gaain be possible and that the institution is now on the other side of guarding those who were harmed instead of further harming them or abandoning them.

As such, these apologies seem to be half apologies. They accept responsibility and offer reasons to believe that they have changed. This makes them valuable acts even if they are not full apologies.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

RIP Larry Gelbart

My Fellow Comedists,

We lost a good one this week. Larry Gelbart died. Amember of Sid Caesar's legendary writing team, he went on to give us A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tootsie, and most memorably, he was the creative mind behind M*A*S*H, possibly the greatest series in the history of television.

So, in his honor, a simple question...funniest scene in the history of M*A*S*H? My bid is for "Next, he gets taller."

Thank you, Larry Gelbart for all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 11, 2009

All Tipping All The Time

For whatever reason, few posts at the Playground generate as many comments as those on tipping. One post that has disappeared from the front page continues to generate discussion, so let's bring it back.

Hanno asks a question that we've wrestled with at home. Do you tip if your service is provided by the owner? Our context was a haircut for TheWife who was styled by the salon's owner. She tipped the woman who washed her hair, but was unsure about tipping the owner. The discussion around tipping generally turns on the low wages paid to service workers by the owners, but what if the worker is the owner? Does it matter what kind of establishment it is, that is, what variety of of service you've received ? Is a hairstylist different from our favorite restaurant where the owner waits tables (and is the single best waiter we've ever had bar none -- we do always tip him)?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Little Feat, Viagra, and Autonomy

So, I'm driving into work singing along with a '78 Little Feat show and the chorus to Old Folks' Boogie catches me:

And you know that you're over the hill
When your mind makes a promise that your body can't fill
Old folks boogie
And boogie we will
'Cause to us the thought's as good as a thrill
Of course, this was written before certain pharmaceutical advances. I figured they'd have to rewrite the words:
You know you ain't over the hill
As long as you get a little blue pill.
Old folks boogie
And boogie we will
'Cause Pfizer given us a chance at a thrill.
On a more serious note, it does raise some interesting autonomy questions. Given that we have a number of older people in assisted living facilities and means to allow some, who previously could not, to remain sexual, how much autonomy should be granted concerning the use of these drugs?

This is not a question of privacy. Surely consenting adults should be able to do what they choose in their home, even if it is a shared home as long as they are not intruding on the rights of their neighbors. But what happens when it becomes a question of safety? Suppose there are concerns about side effects or mixed medicines? Suppose there is concern about the health of a man's heart and the effects of the drug? These are adults, not children, but at the same time the facility does seem have some responsibility for the medical well-being of its residents. Is it a different question if it is not a pharmaceutical matter, but simply fear on the part of a physician for the strength of the bones of someone with osteoporosis? Humans are sexual beings, it is a part of a well-lived human life, but how far may concern for the well-being of another or professional obligations intrude upon the autonomy of a person to make a personal decision like this?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rationing and Race

The current health care debate has echoes of politics long played. There is a despicable ploy that is being dusted off again because it is so damn effective. When you hear the word "rationing" used to scare those who are now employed and healthy, explicitly think race because that is what they are trying to get you to think subconsciously.

The man who is perhaps the most responsible for the disgusting state of contemporary political discourse is Lee Atwater. With Nixon's Southern Strategy well in place, designed to break the traditional Democratic coalition between northern liberals and southern conservative whites, the going started to get difficult. Overtly racist attacks had worked well for a while, but eventually it began to appear unseemly to openly advocate for white power. The solution was not to surrender racism as a foundation for your politics, but to become appropriately subtle about it. It is not a problem of morality, but merely one of etiquette. Here's how Atwater put it,

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger".
Racism has to be in there, but you need to code it. At first, the coding will be wink, wink, nudge, nudge, but eventually it will almost disappear from view.

And so Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi extolling states' rights. Cute. And we saw this develop in many other places. Affirmative action was not about leveling the playing field so that the old boys network didn't continue to give plum positions to cronies, but about those lazy, undeserving black people taking the jobs of honest better qualified white people. Anything that allowed us to be our brother's keeper was seen as "big government waste" and merely an opportunity for "welfare queens" to cheat the system. Of course, the stories Reagan told about those welfare queens were made up lies, but what was crucial is that we all know what color they are, even if we are barred by the political correctness police from saying it.

And so racism became a part of our discourse in a way that allowed us to be abstract and not explicitly appeal to race. As such, it is not merely a Republican tactic. Think back to the last Democratic primary and Hilary Clinton's appeal to "hard, working, honest, real Americans" or listen to virtually anything that came out of the mouth of Chris Matthews. This implicit racism of Lee Atwater is still poisoning our well.

And so it is with the rationing scare tactic. The whole argument is that if we do what every single other industrialized nation has successfully done and make sure that everyone in this, the most prosperous nation in history, has a basic level of health care, then there will be health care rationing, in other words you, the hard working, honest white people will no longer get the health care you are used to. There is a finite amount and it will be redistributed so that your share goes to someone else. Of course, it remains unsaid, but we know who that someone else is...and what color they are...

It is regularly pointed out that we ration health care right now only we do it on the basis of income. But this is an utterly ineffectual rhetorical strategy because those who benefit from the system either are selfish asses who don't care that the system is unfair as long as it is unfair in their direction or -- and this is the evil genius of Atwater's work -- who don't see it as rationing, but as a legitimate distribution of a social good to those who deserve it. Those who have coverage have it because they deserve it. We work hard and play by the rules and so we are given health care as a just reward. Those who are uncovered are uncovered because of lifestyle choices that make them undeserving. If they were good hard working white people like me, they would have the same health insurance I do. They don't deserve it and so don't take away something I have rightfully earned.

Of course, the sad irony is not only that it is false and self-serving, but that those who think they are protecting their self-interest by not wanting to help others are in many sad cases screwing themselves. One in five, twenty percent, of insured cancer survivors have to file for bankruptcy because of medical bills. Now we try a second order Atwater here by saying, "well, they must have been smokers who deserved the cancer," but of course, we really know better. Ovarian and testicular cancers, colorectal and skin cancers, cervical and brain cancers appear without warning across the board.

Add to that the practice of rescission, where insurance companies try to figure out ways -- legitimate or not -- to deny coverage to their policy holders in order to reduce costs, even if it means that you die after dutifully paying your premiums, and what you get is a game of Russian roulette that we are talked into playing by an insurance lobby who preys on our invisibly racist and deeply class insecure society. The head shakes sadly looking at the town hall meetings where the ones who most need protection are the ones screaming the loudest and craziest. It reminds you of the Presidential campaign where those who went nuts over "redistribution" were exactly the ones who would benefit most from it. Lee Atwater's ghost lives on in a way that takes race and embeds it in our social insecurity in a way that gets those most at risk to not only think that the treatment is worse than the disease, but to not even realize that there is a disease. He exploited -- and the health insurance lobby continues to exploit -- a weakness in our cultural immune system, racism and fears about downward class mobility, as entry points for an illness that figuratively destroys our economy and moral integrity and literally kills many of our fellow Americans.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Privacy and Secrecy

This came up in a colleague's class and I thought it a great question. What is the difference between privacy and secrecy?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Bullshit or Not: Eugene Debs Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

In honor of Labor Day, let's look at a quotation from Eugene Debs.

"Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. 'But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun."
So, is it still true that labor today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known? Is it at least one of the more vital and potential powers?

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

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Feat of Saint Sid

My Fellow Comedists,

This week brings us the feast of Saint Sid. Sid Caesar turns 88. His Your Show of Shows took comedy from Vaudeville into the suburban world of grey suited middle managers of the 1950s. He could do the slapstick, he could do the highbrow and subtle, he could do music. But his character was a new archetype in American history. He was the first one to really lampoon life in Levittown, with its smug arrogance and alienation.

A talented comedian, he put together the single greatest collection of writers in comic history: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen. In an interview, Gelbart said that the show stood at a lucky time in history. Televisions were so expensive that the only ones who could afford them were the well-off, the highly paid professionals like doctors and lawyers. So, the only people watching were among the most educated and that meant that they could do smart comedy. Once the price of the sets came down, shows needed to play to a different demographic and tv comedy changed forever.

Happy birthday Sid Caesar.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 04, 2009

Million Dollar Idea: Death Panel Insurance

So, here's my latest million dollar idea. Death panel insurance. For $100, if you are condemned by one of President's Obama's death panels, we will pay your next of kin $1,000,000. The $1000 policy assures you a one-way ticket to the non-socialist country of your choice (or Alaska), new identification documents when you arrive, a fire arm of your choosing, a hardback edition of Atlas Shrugged, and $1,000,000 of start up funds for the capitalist free-market venture of your dreams.

My only worry is that the government will introduce a public option for death panel insurance and even though they are too incompetent to do it well and as a free market entrepreneur I am necessarily more efficient and effective, they will drive me out of business.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Myth of the Given

71 comes up with a tehcnical one,

"In Mind and World McDowell claims that the problem with a grounding empirical claims in a pre-conceptual Given is that this leaves us w/ only exculpations and not justifications for our beliefs. Justifications are obviously more desirable than exculpations, but why can my pointing to a pre-conceptual Given not count as my giving reasons for a belief? What is it about that pointing that fails to count as a move in the space of reasons?"
When Wilfred Sellars passed into spirit, his ghost uneasily haunted the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt and we are thankful that it has been reembodied by John McDowell. (A dear friend of mine wrote his dissertation on Sellars and I told him that he should have no problem finding a job since it was a Sellars market. He punched me.)

McDowell is picking up on Sellar's famous "myth of the Given." The idea is that there is a difference between what happens in the brain as a result of sensory stimulation, what happens in the mind to create an experience, and then what happens philosophically to create a judgment in terms of the truth or falsity of abstract linguistic claims. Empiricists of Sellar's time, like the Logical Positivists, were trying to base all knowledge on what they called protocol sentences, observation reports like "Red, here, now." These provided the bricks and logic provided the mortat and thus we could build complex edifices of knoweldge, that is true justified belief. But this, Sellars pointed out, conflates the scientific description of the situation with the phenomenological experience of it and then tries assert that this mere description has normative powers. McDowell argues that modern empiricists, like his friends and colleagues down the hall, are still guilty of the sin pointed out by Sellars.

When you point, you are not pointing to the thing, but rather to your experience of the thing which requires mediation. You are not in the realm of the world, but in the space of experience, of the mind. When you make a claim about the world, you are not in the realm of the world, but the realm of linguistic concepts, you are in the abstract. If we try, as the empiricists assume we can, to use our sense data, experiences from the world interpreted through the mind, we are in the realm of the mind, but not in the realm of the abstract linguistic conceptions. To try to use one as evidence for the other is a category mistake. By pointing, we think we are referring to the thing, but are actually referring to our mind-mediated experience of the thing, and we then compound the mistake by thinking it can be used to correctly scientifically explain something universal about things like it, but this notion of correct indicates something normaitve and not merely descriptive and that takes conceptual analysis, not mere facts of the mind.

As complex as "the myth of the given" is, it is nothing compared with "the myth of the returned with a gift slip because it was not the right size."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Religious Belief and Scientific Worldviews

A couple from Hanno today. First he asks,

"Do you think that religious belief is incompatible with a scientific world view, as the fundamentalists believe? Or do you think that these are different realms of truth, like Francis Bacon believed? Or do you think that they are compatible, but only certain kinds, as truth does not conflict with truth, as Aquinas believed?"
The answer, of course, d. all of the above. It depends upon what you mean by religious belief and scientific worldview. Both notions are ambiguous and there are senses that are inconsistent, distinct, and compatible. Here are a few ways of interpreting what is meant by religious and scientific worldviews

Logical (based on the form of the sentence)
science - Propositions that are empirical
religion - Propositions for which there can be no empirical evidence
Metaphysical or unfalsifiable claims
Ethical claims

Metaphysical (based on beliefs about the nature of reality)
science - Belief that the empirical in principle and the laws by which it operates is the sum total of reality
religion - Belief in the existence of one or more supernatural beings
Belief in an inherent order or connectedness to the world

Epistemological (based upon what is knowable and how one can acquire knowledge)
science - Belief in the likely truth of propositions best supported by all current evidence
Belief in the likely truth of proposition supported by some current evidence
religion - Belief in propositions for which there is no current evidence
Belief in propositions for which there can be no possible evidence
Belief in mystically revealed truth

Methodological (based upon how one acts)
science - The process of framing and investigating empirical claims
religion - Performing of rituals associated with or prescribed by a religious structure
Reflection or introspection about one’s relationship to or place in the universe

Phenomenological (based upon human experience)
science - The Eureka moment
religion - Experience of something larger, salvation, revelation, ecstasy, or connectedness

Sociological (based upon human interactions with other people and social institutions)
science - Propositions currently endorsed by the scientific community or some portion of it
Propositions under investigation by some portion of the scientific community
The community that performs the investigations and membership in it
religion - Propositions endorsed by a religious institution.
The religious institution and membership in it

Historical (based upon a place in the record of the institution)
science - Propositions once endorsed by the scientific community or some portion of it
religion - Propositions once endorsed a religious institution

Normative (based upon how one ought to act or believe)
science - Belief that all empirical claims ought to be investigated empirically
Belief that one ought only believe that for which there is sufficient evidence to deem it likely
religion - Belief that some empirical claims ought not be investigated
Belief that one ought to believe certain propositions for which there is not currently sufficient evidence or perhaps no possible evidence

These are just a few of the ways in which one might sense of scientific and religious worldviews. Surely, some of them are perfectly compatible, while others not. Einstein, for example, held himself to be religious in the sense of experiencing awe and wonderment and believing in a well-ordered universe, but explicitly denied the existence of a God of the usual sort. One could certainly do good scientific work and have an instrumentalist view that science does not provide us with actual explanations of what happens in reality, but useful models and way of thinking about systems while claiming that mystical revelation provides us with access to the nature of reality itself.

At the same time, surely there is some inference to be made from the success of science. When a certain mindset continuously produces explanatory and predictive successes, there seems to be good reason to think there is something to it. Does that mean the materialistic metaphysic of a strong scientific point of view must be true? No. Does it give some reason for reasonable belief. Probably. Does that mean one cannot make sense of scientific progress while also holding non-materialist views? No. But it does seem that they would need to provide some sort of argumentation to fill the gap.

Hanno also asks,
"Ockham's razor seems like a good parameter for theory preference. All things being equal, reduce your metaphysical footprint. But why would this be tied to truth? Just because a theory has less metaphysical baggage on the face of it does not make it more likely to tbe true. Unless there is some philosophical underpinning to the razor (like Descartes' tried (and failed) to do), isn't the adherence to Ockham's razor simply a psychological preference, rather than a vehicle for the discovery of truth? I.e., you just like theories that have less baggage?"
This goes back to a post from last week where we discussed the view of folks like Michael Friedman and Clark Glymour who argue that theories may derive unequal degrees of confirmation from the same evidence if the two theories have different metaphysical presumptions.

Translated into that context, the question seems to be, "does increased metaphysical baggage make a theory less well confirmed or just less aesthetically desirable?" I would take the strong realist line and say that it is confirmation we are talking about here, it is likely truth. Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary proof. This version of Occam's razor is, I think, easier to defend because all that is being employed is the requirement that claims be given support -- more claims, more support needed. Note that this qualification applies to a very small group of theories -- those that are empirically equivalent, but metaphysically distinct when realistically interpreted. For that class, this use of Occam's razor seems perfectly well defensible.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Free To Be You and Me...Well, at Least Me

Justin asks,

In a previous blog post, you mentioned how libertarian arguments fail to take into account "the realities of context" and I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on this. It seems to me that many college students and recent grads are labeling themselves "libertarians" rather than republicans, as many of them consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal (gay marriage, pro-choice, etc). Some have tried to "convert" me, but I'd like to get a more critical perspective.
I am so glad you brought this back up Justin because I fully intended to devote a post to it, but, to be honest, forgot.

You've got a couple of things packed into your question. First, it is absolutely true that the term "libertarian" is adopted by many who are not. Republicans who for whatever reason are shy about calling themselves conservative, love to say they are libertarian, but really aren't.

But the interesting case is when you look at the arguments of those who truly are libertarians. It is a view that arises from consideration of the question, "how ought we arrange society to maximize human flourishing?" Libertarians argue that maximum individual freedom leads to the best lived human life. We need authority or government only to enforce contracts and keep order...and even the degree to which that that second condition is enforced is not universal amongst them. The key notion here is that we are dealing with a very bare-bones rights-based approach in which the individual is primary and can be maximally creative when given the fewest constraints.

There is no doubt that liberty is a wonderful thing and that freedom ought to be sought for individuals. But the flaw comes when it is held as an end and not a means, when we realize that it is a good, but not the sole good.

Consider a different, but similarly flawed system, ethical subjectivism, in which moral determinations are purely a matter of personal preference. The motivation behind the move is a celebration of tolerance. We should not be closed-minded with respect to the fact that others can intelligently disagree with our value claims.

This is true, but notice what happens, if an act is morally good for me because I think it is, then it does not matter what someone else thinks. I have no reason to take anyone else seriously. Raising tolerance to the status of the only relevant virtue undermines tolerance.

The same thing happens here. Aristotle was absolutely correct in arguing that we are political animals. We live in societies, in cultures in which we are affected by the actions of each other. We are not atoms, monads who live unattached to those around me. Rather, we are inextricably interconnected in such ways that my freedoms can be circumscribed by the actions of others.

Take free speech. I may be free to say whatever I want as loudly as I want on a street corner, but if there is someone on the adjacent street corner with a megaphone, I will not be heard. Am I still free to speak? Well, in a sense yes, but if it is impossible for me to be heard, then in the operative sense I cannot really speak. The libertarian argues that the marketplace of ideas is maximally enriched by placing no restrictions on speech, but the fact is that unless we have ground rules restraining speech, either no one or no one other than the person who has the biggest megaphone really has that freedom. It may seem paradoxical, but we need to restrain freedom to guarantee freedom or at least guarantee what it is that the freedom is supposed to achieve -- in this case a free exchange of ideas.

And so it goes with many libertarian arguments, that the purpose of liberty is to secure something good, something helpful in living a rich life. But in the moral lessez faire of fetishized freedom for all, actual factors on the ground that lead to unequal abilities to utilize that freedom are ignored.

The ad hominem move here is to attribute motivations to this ignoring of the context pointing out that those who most usually champion the libertarian cause are those who stand to gain the most, those who have the head start and the big megaphone. Libertarians are in general rich, white, smart, and or well-educated. But if we set aside why those who put forward the argument do so and look just at the cogency of the claim itself. It is true that liberty is an aspect of society necessary for human well-being, but it is not the only one. We live -- and must live -- in a way in which I have responsibilities to others. There is no doubt that there are times when I am freed from these responsibilities and may pursue my own rational self-interest without concern for anyone or anything else, but there are also times where I cannot and those constraints on my personal freedom may benefit the whole, including me. they may be a necessary condition in setting up an environment in which I can be free, in which I can make use of liberty in a way that allows me to grow, to transcend, to become great -- all the things libertarians speak of. but it is a matter of context, of the way the world is that determines how much liberty needs to be constrained to be effective. Elevation of individual freedom to the sole condition of human flourishing leads to no one flourishing.