Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Crime Healthy for Society?

In his book on the sociological method, Emile Durkheim argues that while individual criminal acts may be pathological to social health, crime itself actually is good for society. At first glance, we think that eliminating all crime would be a positive ting, it would lead to a healthier, more productive, more progressive culture. But then he invites us to imagine a society with no crime. Such a place would not long remain because we criminalize acts that are abnormal. We start by tolerating small deviations from the norm in order to concentrate on those that are most deviant. If no one is committing those, he contends, society will then criminalize less and less abnormal behavior until it is enforcing an unhealthy degree of conformity. Smaller and smaller differences would be criminalized until there were no differences left and these differences are what produce the options that give rise to social change and progress. The existence of crime provides the space to keep healthy differences legal.

Further, he argues, it is only when a crime is committed that we have a chance to focus on a given law and think about whether or not it is a prohibition that helps or hurts the society. It takes a Dred Scott case, for example, to focus on and clearly enunciate what a law really says and that is a necessary step in social change. We would never critically consider a rule that was never broken. We need to see what it means to live in a way that violates a rule in order to have a standpoint from which to think about the value of the rule itself.

Is this argument for a seemingly bizarre conclusion cogent? Should we be glad for crime?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's the Difference: Worry, Fear, and Anxiety

I was invited to sit in on a colleague's abnormal psychology class last week.  No, I was not used as an exhibit.  During the discussion, they were distinguishing between the ways in which mental health professionals use the words "worry," "fear," and "anxiety."  I thought to myself "hey, THERE'S a blog post."  So, what is the difference between worry, fear, and anxiety?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dr. Bronner's "All-One!", Is It Really?

We use a number of products from Dr. Bronner's.  They are good soaps without all the garbage large corporate companies feel the need to include in their products.  Back when I had eyes that were young enough to be able to read the small print on the labels (it always reminded me of the times a teacher would allow you to bring in one sheet of notes for an exam and you tried to cram as much on as possible), I was fascinated by the range of theological writings they squeezed on there.  The central idea was that while religious doctrine had long been a source of conflict between people and between peoples, there was a central core to all religion and it was this commonality that disclosed the wisdom, if not the truth of it all.  There seem to be three different claims implicit in the Dr. Bronner's labels:

(1)  There is a common set of fundamental axioms underlying all religions.

(2)  These axioms are (a) true or (b) a foundation for moral, peaceful coexistence.

(3)  The elements outside of this common basis are unimportant or at least of a less important sort than the common features.

Are any or all of these claims true?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Unanswered Questions

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend, let's ask questions we don't want answered.

If someone who speaks with the dead is a medium, is a midget who communicates with the deceased an extra small?

If someone wins an award as dental hygienist of the year, do they get their plaque removed?

If "tomb" is pronounced "toom" wouldn't "bomb" be more appropriately pronounced "boom"?

What are questions you don't want answred?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, February 24, 2012

Are Recipes Intellectual Property?

The Food Network has dropped dessert chef Anne Thornton when it was discovered that recipes in her cookbook were, but for small alterations, the same as those in cookbooks by others.  The word "plagiarism" is being used for the case.  It is, at first glance, an odd fit.

Plagiarism generally involves unattributed use of others' ideas or words in a work where it is assumed to be the author's.  Do we have that expectation in a cookbook?  When I read the little paragraph before a recipe, there is always something like "this has been in my family for generations and I grew up loving it..." or "with a couple minor changes, this is a dish I ate at a friend's party..."  Recipes we make, in almost all cases, are not devised out of thin air, but are the result of having had something we liked, figuring out how to make it and writing it down.  When I buy someone's cookbook, I don't think that these were thought up by the author, but that the author is vouching for their quality. 

At the same time, if one is a writer of cookbooks, the recipes are your life's blood.  If someone steals your recipes, they steal your content.  But is it the individual recipes or the range covered in your book that is important?

Can a cookbook recipe be plagiarized?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How Old is History?

On Presidents' Day, PBS showed a new documentary about the Clinton presidency.  I heard an interview with the director on Fresh Air where he argued that the time was right for this work because it was far enough in the past that it had just become history.  Similarly, we had a candidate here a few weeks back who argued that it is appropriate to put a memorial at Ground Zero, but not a museum, since a memorial is a place for remembrance, but a museum is a place to make meaning and it was still too close to be able to acquire a deep understanding of the event.  Twenty-five years, he argued, would be necessary to achieve the temporal space needed for the required objectivity.  In both cases, there is a distinction drawn between current events, old news, and history.  Is this a meaningful distinction?  How old does something have to be to be history?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Should Maple Bats Be Alllowed in the Major Leagues

The traditional baseball bat is made from the wood of the ash tree.  When he shattered the home run record, Barry Bonds swung a bat made of maple which is harder and has a tighter, straighter grain.  As a result, pro players started switching over to maple.  One argument, then, against maple bats is that they give batters an advantage that they did not earn.  Philosopher of sport Fred D'agostino argues that part of the essence of sporting competition is that we set out a goal and then eliminate the easiest and most efficient means of achieving those goals.  On the other hand, there are regular advances in sporting technology that become a standard part of sports.

The difference often pointed to is seen at the end of a bat's life.  Ash bats splinter and crack whereas maple bats break into pieces with jagged edges often flying off in random directions.  They become missiles that could do serious harm.  The possible threat to players, coaches, and spectators is often cited as a reason to disallow them.  Some work has been done to figure out how to make maple bats safer when they break.  Is the promise of safer bats in the future a sufficient reason to allow them now?  More home runs makes for more viewers and a more robust league.  Do long term considerations of the game come into play against possible dangers now?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fat Tuesday: The Honest Holiday

Playground regulars know of my holiday hypothesis.  "Holiday" comes from "holy day" and while we claim that our holidays commemorate virtue, actually they function as controlled outlets for vice.  Thanksgiving is not about gratitude, it is about gluttony.  Christmas is not about peace on Earth or goodwill towards men, it is about greed.  Valentine's day is not about love, it's about lust.  So, when Fat Tuesday arrives, I am especially grateful because it is the one honest holiday where we let it all hang out without pretense.

The question for today is whether these usually disguised outlets are necessary in and of themselves or necessary because of what our culture does to us.  Is Nietzsche right that society has imposed order on us and damaged our nature, that these regular dionysian outbursts are required to blow off steam because culture harmfully restricts us?  Would it be possible to have a society where these urges were satisfied in the course of things, or would such a culture itself degenerate (and cause us to be degenerates)?  Are holidays necessary to maintain a healthy society or only necessary because society is unnaturally repressive?

Either way, needs me some 'Fess.  Laissez les bon temps rouler, mes amis.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Most Important Presidential Words

On Presidents' Day, let's think about what Presidents of the United States have said.  Perhaps the most powerful part of the position is an informal power, the bully pulpit.  When presidents speak, we listen.  What are the most important presidential utterances?  The easy ones are:

Washington's farewell address, by stepping down when he could have consolidated power and made himself a king, instead he established the nation as a democracy that puts laws above rulers.

Lincoln's Gettysburg address.  Enough said.

Eisenhower's farewell address in which he warns us of the rising power of the military-industrial complex

Kennedy's inaugural speech -- ask not...


Friday, February 17, 2012

Justifying Fashion

This is fashion week in New York.  To be honest, I've always had an antipathy for fashion.  Growing up as a nerd in an upper-middle class suburb, fashion always seemed to me to be a two-pronged evil.  On the one hand, it was something that was used to delineate the cool kids from the not cool kids.  It was divisive in a way that only made the unhealthy social divisions deeper.  On the other hand, it was the very model of surrendering autonomy.  You were letting someone else determine what you like.  To be fashionable is to be a sheep, to not think for yourself and that is not a good thing.

But I am ready to reconsider this long held bias.  Is there justification for fashion?  Could you argue that aesthetics are progressive and that by following fashion, you are follow and contributing to the progress of an art form?  Could you argue that fashion is reflective of the spirit of the times and that by being fashionable, you are really being political in a meaningful way?  Could you argue that you are contributing to social cohesion? 

In the other direction, perhaps the argument is that rejecting fashion is to embrace a separate fashion.  There is no thinking for yourself, just the acceptance of a different fashion. One cannot escape fashion, just choose which set of cultural categories by which to identify oneself.

Is there meaning and value in fashion?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Santorum and the Ethics of Sex: It's Not Just for Making Babies Anymore

I am frankly flabbergasted that  contraception has become a serious issue of conversation lately.  I am also baffled that it is being referred to as a moral issue.  Theological?  Sure.  But moral?  Really?  

Rick Santorum put it this way,
"One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, “Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.”

It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also unitive, but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special."
The idea that having a sexual encounter without the intention or likelihood of conception is to moraly diminish the act is wrong.  The ethics of making babies are different from the ethics of making whoopie.  They may involve the same mechanics, but morally, they are completely different acts.  Baby-making is a goal directed activity where any pleasure that might be created is secondary.  The object is insemination.  Especially in the case of couples who need to try repeatedly to conceive, the act loses the glow we usually attribute to it.  Far from easing tension, it may cause great anxiety.  The playfulness and intimacy are replaced by a basal thermometer working like a job-site foreman telling you to get to work.  

The process of baby-making reduces the partners to their most basic animal selves.  At that time, you are little different from farm animals out to stud.  Aristotle and John Stuart Mill are among the philosophers who saw actions that reduce humans to animals to be ethically degrading, to be morally below humans and it seems that this purely biological function would have to be included in that category.

But, of course, that is not necessarily the case.  The act is one where you are thinking beyond yourselves.  It can be truly an act of the deepest care.  A philosopher colleague of mine once said to me that there is nothing that affirms life like creating it.  To willingly seek the responsibility of bringing a life into the world with the intention of creating a loving space in which to nurture a human being is selfless and wonderful.

This is not to say that one cannot act selfishly in trying to conceive.  Thinking that it will repair a broken relationship is a bad, bad idea. The person who thinks that having a baby will make him or her seem more grown up or is simply looking for a tax deduction is mitigating the moral goodness and most likely will be a lousy parent. 

There are also utilitarian considerations.  There are better and worse times to get pregnant.  There are better and worse situations in which to bring a child.  These considerations are certainly part of the story.  It does not mean at all that people who do not live lives of privilege should not reproduce, but only that in one's full consideration about having children, the place in the world that the child will occupy is one morally relevant factor.

Just as every reason for baby making isn't a good one, so too there are good reasons for not making babies.  Having children is not a moral imperative.  People who choose to remain childless are not necessarily acting in ways that are immoral for their selfishness.  Choosing to not have children because you think that you would not be able to meet the very high moral expectations of parenthood is a noble choice, not a selfish one – even if you have to put up with years and years of your mother bemoaning her lack of grandchildren.  Autonomy means being able to choose your projects.  For some people that includes a contribution to the next generation, but that is not the only way one can help to make the world a better place.  If one is in a position to be able to do it well, parenthood is a morally wonderful act.  It is an act unlike any other that affirms life.  But it is not morally necessary.

Just as making babies is morally distinct from making whoopee, there are also several morally distinct cases of non-baby-making sexual activity.  To lump all of them together as selfish acts of the most base sort of pleasure seeking is to paint with far too broad a brush.  We'll consider several different cases.

How do our moral systems respond to sexual activities with a committed partner about whom you care deeply?  Let’s look at our boxes.  Certainly no one has a right to demand intimacy, nor does one have a duty to provide it.  And everyone certainly has the right to bodily autonomy that would allow one to say no if intimacy is undesired.  But to address this issue solely in terms of rights and duties is simply an inappropriate framework to capture the full human depth of this issue.
Utility is clearly an issue.  On the one hand, if executed by technically proficient practitioners, sexual activities should produce ecstatic pleasure for both partners.  The comfort, the closeness, the anticipation, the arousal, the climax – all contribute to tipping the universal balance in the direction of pleasure.  If we are seeking to create a world with the best balance of pleasure over pain, this would certainly be one way to bring about more pleasure.

But there are, of course, questions about long-term utility as well.  If done without protection, the results could be catastrophic.  Unwanted pregnancies are a big deal.  Sexually transmitted diseases are a big deal.  Waking up the next morning and thinking, "Where am I? Is that who I think it is?  Oh my God...." is a big deal.  All of these negative factors can swamp the positive utility derived from the act.  So utility is certainly part of the conversation, but again, this does not seem like the complete framework for our consideration.  We don’t make love based on a cost/benefit analysis – at least not legally.

Care certainly is a major factor.  When you make love to your partner, the act itself, especially if both are being attentive to the needs, preferences, and desires of the other, makes the experience one which deepens the relationship between you.  The playfulness, the passion, the deeply personal contact gives lovers a connection, a bond that is very special, not only in terms of emotional attachment, but also in ethical terms.  Being someone’s lover, especially an exclusive lover, places deeply personal parts of yourself into the life of the other.  We are sexual beings.  All people have that element to them, although for each it is expressed differently.  That expression is part of who you are, and by looking to someone to accept and embrace that part of you is to endow him/her with a very special role.  To be a lover is to embed yourself deeply in the self of your beloved.  It is a deep form of care.
In addition to care, virtue also is relevant.  It is unfortunate, however, that the word “virtue” gets used in a loaded fashion in a sexual context.  Particularly applied to women, the term “virtue” historically has been linked to chastity.  This usage begs exactly the question we are considering.  Is chastity really a virtue?  Here, Aristotle seems to provide some guidance.  Certainly self-control is virtuous.  One who acts out of uncontrollable lust is certainly not actualizing their potential as an ideal human because such actions would lead to a character which sees the bodies of other people as things, mere objects for his or her use. 

But is an ideal human one who is rigidly abstinent?  What is the effect on one’s character by completely rejecting a natural avenue of joy?  Turning away from the possibility of enjoying the pleasures of life, leads one to not even see the beauty, the possibilities for joy in front of one’s own eyes or to see them through a lens in which they become distorted into sources of fear, resentment, and/or alienation.  The world and what is in it ceases to be presented as something appreciable, and this leads one to not even consider the possibility of the bliss that may be derived from it.  Aristotle says that the life spent seeking pleasure is a life for cattle, but a life where avenues of pleasure are shut off is also one sadly impoverished, one that fails to realize what a full, rich human existence can be.

The choice between the two extremes is a case of false alternatives.  Aristotle’s notion of virtue as the mean between vices here seems appropriate.  Is there a middle path – one in which certain sorts of bodily indulgence help form a good human character when combined with other virtues of gentleness, generosity, and a sense of rhythm?  Of course, there is.  This is why we often feel awkward looking for that right time to begin intimacy with someone we realize we have real feelings for.  Intuitively, we have the sense that there is a mean to be sought here:  to jump in the sack too soon would be to surrender to mere lust and cheapen what should be deep, but at the same time, we need not wait too long if the care is genuine because there is virtue in being authentically intimate with the object of our care.  And if the object of our care is also the object of our desire, moving a bit to the lust side of the equation ain’t the worst thing either…at least not the first five or six times.  After that, even Aristotle would say to get some sleep.

So the real key here is care, consideration of the lover, and a full appreciation for the joy that a lover can bring to one’s life. To either unnecessarily constrain this connection with an artificial prohibition on certain sorts of contact or to treat the lover as a mere object to be used to satisfy one’s own urges is morally problematic, but one can certainly engage in all sorts of sexual activities without running afoul of such concerns. Good lovers are being good humans even if they are doing what they will to avoid creating other humans in the act.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's the Difference: Secrecy, Privacy, and Confidentiality

Let's play what's the difference. So, what is the difference between secrecy, privacy, and confidentiality. If you don't feel comfortable explaining the difference in the public sphere of the comment section, please contact me off-line and I promise not to tell anyone else what the distinction really is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What Is Love?

To recognize its 50th anniversary last week and Valentine's Day today, at noon by the mayor's proclamation, everyone in San Francisco will sing along with Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." A fitting tribute from the city that gave us the summer of love (I was born three months earlier in the lesser-known springtime of foreplay).

In the summer of '68 there was a lot of use of the term "love" in many different contexts and what day would be more appropriate to think about what the word means? Is love an emotion? Sitting in a room by myself, I could be angry, happy, or bored. Emotions require only a single being to experience them. Could a solitary person feel love independent of the world around him or her? Or is it a relation? Does it require a lover and a beloved and describe the not aways symmetrical relation between them? Is it a stance towards the world, as in "she's just a person full of love." Or is it something independent of people feeling it? If no one loved, could there still be love? "There's a lot of love in this room," one might reasonably say even if no one in the room was in love with anyone else in the room.

So, what is love? Maybe Tony Bennett would help:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Do You Know That?

We haven't done this one in a while, so today let's have a round of why do you know that?  It's the inverse of "Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics" where instead of asking questions about anything from the mundane to arcane, in this case you provide answers.  Tell us anything interesting that you know.

West Side Story was the first Broadway production to have its Playbill sport the now ubiquitous yellow stripe at the top.

Duckpin bowling was invented by baseball hall of famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson when they were members of the championship Baltimore Orioles teams of the 1890s.  They owned a sports bar/pool hall/gymnasium called the Diamond and had ten pins shaved down for lanes in the bar area.  One of them -- no one remembers who -- told a local reporter that when you hit them, they fly like ducks and thus was born the name "duckpins."

So, what do you know and why do you know it?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Product Names

My Fellow Comedists,

Let's think about some unintended commercial comedy this weekend. The most famous example, of course, is the Chevy Nova, which did not sell well in Spanish speaking countries, translating to "doesn't go." Less well-known is the great success of the first eppisode of "Joanie Loves Chachi" when shown in South Korea. The term "chachi" in Korean refers to the male genitalia. TheWife takes a daily dose of the enzyme CoQ10+. Not sure what it does, but her sudden interest in learning French makes me a little nervous.

Other brands with odd, funny, or inappropriate names?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irrevend Steve

Friday, February 10, 2012

Enforcement of Social Facts

I'm team-teaching a class this semester in the history and philosophy of sociology with a buddy of mine who is a sociologist.  Today, we started working on Emile Durkheim's book, The Rules of the Sociological Method.  The central notion in his view is that there exist social facts, norms that are internalized within members of the society and sanctions for those who would violate them.  We starting thinking about these penalties.  Some of these norms are formalized into law and violation these may bring about fines, imprisonment, or removal of your rights to possess firearms, drive a motor vehicle, or participate in the political process.  For those that are not made into law, there are other means of being punished -- dirty looks, nasty comments, not being able to get dates,... 

Some are more effective than others, but there are those that have a certain style.  I had an apartment mate in college who would regularly come in in the wee hours of the morning in various states of chemically induced intoxication and would do things whose volume would seem inappropriate for the hour, especially if someone in the apartment had an early morning class.  One night, he decided that playing drums on his furniture at 3 in the morning was a good idea.  When reminded of the hour, he thought that playing lighter on the wooden dresser with wooden drum sticks for the next hour and a half was sufficient to address the concern.  The next morning, on my way to my 8 a.m. class, I left our phone outside of his door, put it on speaker, maximized the volume, and dialed the time. 

What are some of the most creative sanctions you've heard of for violating social norms?

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Grammar Curmudeons

Had a student ask yesterday about grammatical pet peeves.  His was "irregardless."  My big three are:

1)  "Quote" used for "quotation."  Quote is a verb.  You quote someone.  What you write down is not a quote, but a quotation.  " are quotation marks, not quotes.

2)   The death of the adverb.  It seems the only times we hear "ly" these days is Bruce Lee and broccoli.  the adjectival forms are used as adverbs.  Come on people, did you never play MadLibs?

 3)  Less/fewer.  Even on NPR, I'm hearing less used for discrete objects.  You can have less butter, but you get fewer eggs.

What grammatical errors make you want to dangle your participle in public?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Prescription Drugs in Schools and the Ethics of Shooting the Elephant

FBC sent me this link to a story about a young woman who faces expulsion from school for acting as a good Samaritan.  Her friend was undergoing what seemed to be an asthma attack and she responded by using her inhaler.  The school has a strict policy for the use of prescription drugs -- they may only be used for the person for whom they are prescribed.  This rule is designed to avoid life threatening situations where medicines can be harmful if not used properly.  The rule was designed to safeguard the safety of children. 

Jeremy Bentham was an advocate of what philosophers call "act utilitarianism" in which an act is morally good if the agent expects that doing it will generate better overall consequences than not doing it.  In this case, the student trying to be helpful was clearly acting out of care with a desire to help her classmate, thinking about what harm could come from not helping.  John Stuart Mill argues that trying to apply the principle of utility to each and every act is not practical develops what we call "rule utilitarianism" in which it is consequences of following the general rule which is considered.  In this case, the rule is in the vast majority of cases a good one.  But, Mill readily admits, reality is a messy place and sometimes we are better off disregarding the rule for unusual situations.  He builds in an ethical safety valve.

But these valves bring danger.  How do we really know in the heat of the moment whether we really are in one of these unusual situations?  How do we know we are helping our friend and not harming her despite our good intentions?  Especially when the actors are minors with limited information, experience, and critical faculties, these calculations are more likely flawed.  Shouldn't we erect safeguards to make sure that good people don't end up doing harm?  If so, how do we keep people to the rule and not deviating in what seems to be an unusual case?

This is what George Orwell considers in "To Shoot an Elephant" in which he recalls an episode in which he was a policeman in Burma and was forced by circumstance to shoot an elephant that had been rampaging after it had settled down.  Orwell knew that he didn't have to shoot the elephant for safety's sake, but rather to create a general sense that he was in control.  He committed an act that he knew was wrong in and of itself in the name of a larger sense of order and safety.  The principal in this case sees himself in Orwell's position.  Expelling the students is shooting the elephant.  If we give any agency to students in determining when they ought to share medications, the first fateful step on a slippery slope has been taken. 

Surely, we all regret the principal's stance.  It seems horribly unjust to punish someone trying to aid a sick friend.  But is it ever justified in such a case to shoot the elephant?  Could the larger ramifications ever justify harsh punishment for a laudable act?  Is there a case to be made for the principal's rigid stance?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Tale of Two Cultures

On Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, let's ask whether we are living in a tale of two cultures.  A colleague came back from Europe six months and was fascinated that people were asking about "American spring," comparing the Occupy movement to the Arab spring uprisings.  The idea was that we were starting to recognize the oppression that we were laboring under, even in our opulence, and were starting to emerge from its influence.  It does lead us to ask whether these are the best of times and the worst of times.  Are we seeing a repetition of the London and Paris of Dickens' story in western culture and the rest of the world?  Or would it be China and America?

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Political Power of Humor

I should have put this up as a comedist post this weekend, but never got around to it.  I've been thinking about the political power of humor.  We've been discussing the legacy of the Occupy movement around the department and while I think there can be no doubt that questions of inequality and fairness in the economy are front and center in a way they have not been in probably forty or fifty years, I worry that the right has been able to minimize the impact that might have been felt by trying to paint Occupy as radical wackos.  When groups moved to shut down ports or take more strident disruptive actions, it only fed into the counter-narrative that kept the real message, the important message from getting through.  When the Occupy movement was at its strength was when coverage focused on the clever signs.  It was the handmade humor that I believe really led the positive reception.  Funny people are seen as insightful because you can get a message through to folks better when you say it in a joke.

Al Franken coined the term "joking on the square" to mean a joke that is meant to amuse, but also to carry a message.  I look back at Neil Patrick Harris' opening to last year's Tony Awards and wonder if any op/ed, any protest march could be a better, more effective commercial for the moral necessity of giving GLBT Americans fully equal rights under the law.Humor forces you to see things in multiple ways and that is a key for driving social change where we are fighting the impulse to cling to old ways that may be clearly unjust and immoral, but are comfortable.  We hate change, even when we know it is necessary and right.  Humor greases the skids like nothing else and allows us to see how absurd our current state of being is. This is, I believe, why liberals are funnier than conservatives.  There are not that many conservative humorists and those that are out there tend to be less funny -- defending the status quo.  Similarly, if you look at who becomes comedians, they tend to be groups on the verge of assimilation.  Think of the borscht belt Jewish comedians in the first half of the 20th century, African-American comics in the 70s-90s, and the rise of Latin comics in the last decade.  We're seeing more Asian-American comics on the scene now as well.

So, where are we seeing the best examples of liberation comedy today?

Friday, February 03, 2012

Are Atoms Illogical?

The word "atom" comes from the Greek for uncuttable.  The idea in the doctrines of Democritus and Lucretius was that there was a basic unit of material existence that had no parts, was complete unity in itself.  Descartes, in his book The Principles of Philosophy (his book about physics), argues that the such an atom is a logical impossibility.  His argument is based on an insult to God's omnipotence along the lines of the inability to create a rock so heavy He can't lift it.  The idea of an atom would require God's ability to create an entity He could not divide.  Since an all-perfect God was a logical necessity according to Descartes, atoms had to go.

We can create a non-theological version of the argument from another element of Descartes' views on physics.  According to Descartes, the primary property of a material entity is extension, having size.  If we posit for the argument's sake that classical atoms exist, then they have to have size.  This size could be mapped onto the real numbers, that is anything that has a size can be measured and we can determine how big this size is.  But for every real number, there is a real number that is half as large, that is we can split any real number in half.  Couldn't we then split the space occupied by the atom in half and talk about, say, the left half of the atom and the right half of the atom?  Would this undermine classical atomism? 

Could Democritus respond to this secular Cartesian argument?  What about something Leibnizian along the lines of the division would not create things out of the "parts" of the atom because they have no properties since the atom itself and not its parts are the sole possessors of properties?  The parts, in essence, are not parts.  But wouldn't they have properties of being to the left of or to the right of the other part?

We know the ancient view is factually wrong, but is it logically possible? 

Thursday, February 02, 2012

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Birth of American Freedom

This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Few books hit me as hard as that one did -- only Hiroshima and Death of a Salesman have affected me that deeply.  It's not only a timeless allegory, but seems to better and better describe the times years later.

The movie version is wonderfully done, but misses the entire point of the work.  It is Chief and his meditations of the combine that frame the telling of the story, giving it it's meaning.  The Christ figure of McMurphy is the Marlboro Man, the libertarian, Ayn Rand individual, the American, rugged individualistic free spirit.  He brings the American hope of freedom from then system.  He escapes justice through cleverness, getting himself wrongly transferred to the asylum from prison.  Thinking there are systems that can be played, not a system, he denies the existence of the machine, the combine.  The will of the individual, Kesey shows, even at its most audacious and liberated, is no match for the structure.  The combine will harvest it and grind it to dust.

One of my favorite essays in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy was written by my friend and colleague Gary Ciocco and traces the move from the beats to the hippies.  The beats were expressing individuality.  They were atoms bouncing around the void of the American cultural soul.  The next generation were the hippies who latched onto freedom, but moved it from Kerouac's adventures told in ones and twos and created communes.  It became about us, about changing the system itself.  Ken Kesey was the pivot point about which this change rotated in its ninety degree shift.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest details the fatal flaw in the beat philosophy.  The free individual is still inferior to the combine, the system will crush the one.  Freedom cannot be freedom from the machine, but rather freedom only comes in dismantling the machine and for that we must have many hands, we must be together. 

The hippies spoke as much about love as freedom.  Freedom may be possessed by an individual, but love is a relation requiring a lover and a beloved.  It is in relations between people that freedom is found.  In this way, Chief love McMurphy and in his love destroys the machine that destroyed McMurphy and walks out of the asylum into freedom.  Freedom requires relations between people.

Kesey was the intellectual and material bridge from he beats of the 50s to the hippies of the sixties.  His Merry Pranksters were the end of the beat generation and their acid tests created the scene from which the sixties emerged.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a unique point in our cultural history and one whose message must still be heeded in contemporary life.  when you hear a politician campaign on notions of "individual responsibility" what he is trying to do is drive us apart and protect the combine, protect the machine that keeps us from being free.  They invoke freedom and liberty with the intention of subverting it.  fifty years ago, Kesey showed us the trick.  It is now for us to summon our inner-Chiefs.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Sexualized Nerds

I've been reading Daniel Boyardin's book Unheroic conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man.  He argues that our contemporary picture of sexuality arises from the Christian division of masculinity during the Middle Ages into the monk and the knight.  The knight is physical, strong, bold, gallant, and brave.  He is rewarded for his life of the body with romantic love, that is, he is the image of the sexually desirable male.  The monk, on the other hand, in devoting his life to the spirit and to study, is removed from the body and completely desexualized.  He is does not desire (or at least seeks to elevate himself above mere desire) and, more importantly, cannot be seen as an object for desire.  This picture, Boyardin contends, is -- to paraphrase Nietzsche -- rendered invisible because it has triumphed so completely.

But it is not the only picture out there.  Boyardin argues that the Jewish construction of masculinity in classical Talmudic times and in 17-19th century eastern Europe was completely different.  There it was the scholar, the skinny, sensitive, clever nerd who was the real husband bait.  Non-Jews, goyim, were big, strong oafs who were violent and drank too much.  Jewish men who were strong and physical were seen as inferior husbands and fathers.  Unlike the Christians, the Jews had sexualized their monks.

When the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were being codified at the end of the 19th century, this sexualized nerd of the Jews is what made it easy to conflate Jewish and gay men, Boyardin holds.  In reaction to this and political injustice Jews were subjected to, we see Freud and Hertzl trying to change Jewish masculinity.  Zionism was an attempt to create muscle Jews, to conform Jewish masculinity to Christian masculinity.  It was, he argues, a move that succeeded, but which impoverished our approach to sexuality.

I look at the rise of the tech world and wonder whether our capitalist presuppositions are undermining this.  If a good husband and father is one who provides for his family and if one could provide better by being a nerd, does that make the nerd hot?  Bill Gates is a better "man" on this account than Joe the Plumber, despite the fact that he is less "masculine."  Is the digital revolution leading to a new kind of sexual revolution allowing us to re-envision masculinity?