Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Moral Status of Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

So, you take this opportunity to make a New Years' resolution and a day, a week, a month later you break it. Where's the problem?

A resolution is a promise to yourself. Breaking a promise is going back on your word and this is morally forbidden. Of course, one also has the power to forgive contracts, if one is owed. If you have borrowed $20 from me, I have the right to demand back the money, but also the right to nullify the deal, to say, "Ahh, don't worry about it. Keep it." In the case of a resolution, you are both the maker and recipient of the promise.

In breaking the resolution, have you forgiven the obligation to yourself that you incurred? Is the problem that you've broken it without such a forgiveness? Is that even possible?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza and the Rationality of the Weak

Watching the horrible scenes of death in Gaza, it brings to mind something I wrote a while back that I'll discuss again here.

There is no doubt that the sixteen civilian deaths are part of the reason for the disproportionate attack, so, too, is the upcoming Israeli elections, the waning days of the Bush administration, and tacit approval of governments in Egypt and other neighbors who do not hold Hamas in high esteem. But the fact is, while some may think the attack expedient, in the long run it will only worsen the situation, harden those who might have been able to move to a more moderate place, undermine the possibility of eventual trust.

But this, of course, is not how many Israelis see it. As Tom Segev wrote in Ha'aretz:

Israel is striking at the Palestinians to "teach them a lesson." That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom - via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey.

The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to "liquidate the Hamas regime," in line with another assumption that has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception: that it is possible to impose a "moderate" leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations.

As a corollary, Israel has also always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over.
The assumption is the result of the divide of rationality created by asymmetric power.

The approach is based on the old Pavlovian notion of positive and negative reinforcement. If the mouse pushes the left pedal, it gets a painful shock; if it presses the right peddle, it gets a food pellet. Thereby it is trained to push the pedal the experimenter wants it to push. Such conditioning is more effective with progressive disincentives -- the more it pushes the wrong pedal, the more painful the shocks become. The more and the longer you act in a way that we do not approve of, the more difficult we make life for you -- all the time showing you that we will stop the pain if only you do what we want. Of course, the rational person prefers the absence or the alleviation of pain to the experiencing of pain, and so not allowing your will to be bent to ours under these circumstances is irrational because in acting in that way you are freely choosing pain where you do not need to be experiencing it. What kind of idiot prefers the stick to the carrot?

This is the reasoning of people who have something to lose and the foundational standard of rationality that they apply to everyone, regardless of their relative wealth, power, or circumstances.

But, of course, that sort of cost/benefit analysis is not the one made by those with less power. The weak cannot afford utilitarianism. What is on the line for them is not just pain or no pain, but one's very existence as an autonomous person or nation in and for itself. The surrendering of autonomy is a major cost that is not included in the calculation by the powerful. It may be the case that no carrot is worth suffering the stick that takes away one's soul and going along is to give in and give up more than merely spiteful resistance. More pain means nothing to them when it it their very self that is threatened.

Those who are in control think only on the operative level because they are never faced, much less are not virtually always faced with questions on the existential level -- they know their basic status as a free agent is safe and only have to decide what to do as a free agent. Israel's founding mythology -- one that is deeply believed by its residents and cannot be underestimated -- is that Israel constantly remains under existential threat, that any minute it's enemies could wipe it off the map as they threaten with their evil rhetoric. The shadow of the Holocaust is real and lives in the minds of the nation.

But it is belied by the facts on the ground. Israel is not going anywhere. It has the military, economic, and historical means to survive whatever realistically would be thrown at it. The deaths of the sixteen civilians by Hamas rockets is murder, evil, terrorism; but it is not a threat to the existence of the state of Israel. Israelis do have this threat in their minds, but their actions show that it is not in their hearts, for their logic is that of the asymmetrically strong. They do not understand the rationality of the weak. Until they do, they will continue to place landmines along the path to a stable and secure region.

The 1.5 million Palestinians living in a tiny area in enforced joblessness and hopelessness in Gaza are fish in a barrel and no matter how good you think your shots are, you will kill fish that you were or were not aiming at. The shots will not bring peace, just more and more of the tragedy that is the same.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Aisle Be Seeing You: Checkout Lane Ethics

So you're in line at the grocery store and the cashier is just starting to ring up your groceries when you realize you've forgotten something. Is there anything wrong with running back and grabbing it if there is someone behind you? Are you right in being annoyed if the person in front of you does this? Is there a difference between forgetting something and running back for it and getting a spot in line with the intent of finishing your shopping while in line? By getting in line, have you tacitly agreed to have finished shopping?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holidays are Hypocrisy

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

New bit I'm working on:

Yes, Christmas comes but once a year. Kinda like being married...

You know, I have a theory about the holidays. Holidays are hypocrisy. The term "holiday" comes from "holy day" and we like to pretend we are celebrating what is sacred, what is virtuous, but really when you look at what we are really celebrating, it's sinfulness. And not just any sins, the big ones, the seven deadly sins.

For example, we have a holiday called Labor Day when no one goes to work. We say we're celebrating hard work, but really it's laziness, the deadly sin of sloth.

Think of everyone's favorite of the deadly sins, lust. When do we celebrate this? O.k., when do we NOT celebrate this, but officially when do we celebrate it? If you are involved in a relationship it's Valentine's Day, if you aren't, it's Palm Sunday.

Greed? Christmas. Goodwill to men? No, goodwill to all the crap I got last year so I make room for everything I want this year.

Gluttony? For adults, it's Thanksgiving, for kids it's Halloween. Halloween is always a tough time for us because my wife and I are those parents everyone is glad they don't have. You know, those vegetarian organic tofu for dinner parents. The "we keep our kids away from candy" parents. So, Halloween is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, you want them to have the experience of trick or treating, but on the other hand, for kids who can't eat candy, it is kind of like taking a eunuch to a brothel on customer appreciation night.

The thing is, that is isn't just our holidays. We love to celebrate other culture's special times, too. One would think this was a great multicultural broadening of ourselves. A real "we are the world" moment. Except that whenever we do it, we invariably celebrate by taking it as an excuse to get completely wasted and take home a stranger. Think about it: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras. Nothing says "I respect your heritage" quite like meaningless drunken sex.

Interestingly, there is one non-majority holiday that calls for drinking and still isn't widely celebrated: the Jewish holiday of Passover. You're supposed to drink four glasses of wine -- it doesn't say how big -- in order to get happy. You'd think this would be a shoo-in for wider consumption, but no. My guess is the other part of the ritual, during Passover you cannot eat anything that is leavened. When you can't put anything in your mouth that rises, it may have seemed less festive.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 26, 2008

When Is Belief in Santa Claus Rational?

We can start from the assertion that anyone older than 18 cannot rationally believe in the existence of Santa. Is it ever rational?

For a five year old, you have a number of ways of acquiring this as a reasonable belief. First, there is a seemingly legitimate argument from authority. Your parents, who have been right about many things, who have more experience about the world, and who get along in the world sufficiently well tell you that Santa Claus is real. There is direct empirical evidence -- you see someone who look s like him in various places and finding folks dressed in red fur with a white beard is unusual enough to rule out chance. One could follow the hypothetico-deductive method which many argue is the foundational for legitimate scientific reasoning -- start with a hypothesis, deduce a prediction, test it, if the test is possible claim inductive support for the hypothesis and test again. Make a list of presents you would like, mail it to Santa at the North Pole, wake up in the morning and see if any of those presents are there. Successful runs of the experiment each Christmas seems to provide evidence.

So, if we argue that it is rational to believe at five, but not at eighteen, what piece of evidence or independent inferences in the years between turns the belief from rational to irrational?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry (Sorta) Christmas

We wish a chappy Chanukkah to all our Jewish playfriends and a merry Christmas to all our Christian playfriends...well, sort of a merry Christmas. Astronomers are now saying that Christmas, the day of Jesus' birth is not December 25th, but June 17th. Hopefully, we all got a good look at Venus and Jupiter the other week as they appeared close together by the moon in the early evening sky. Well, in the year 2 B.C. the same sort of astronomical event occured, except that the two stars were so close together that they would have seemed like a single new star, brighter than anything else in the sky and something completely novel. This, they argue, was the Christmas star that supposedly guided the three wise men.

Generally accepted research has placed the nativity to somewhere between 3BC and 1AD.

Using the St Matthew's Gospel as a reference point, Mr Reneke pinpointed the planetary conjunction, which appeared in the constellation of Leo, to the exact date of June 17 in the year 2BC.

The astronomy lecturer, who is also news editor of Sky and Space magazine, said: "We have software that can recreate exactly the night sky as it was at any point in the last several thousand years.

"We used it to go back to the time when Jesus was born, according to the Bible.

"Venus and Jupiter became very close in the the year 2BC and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light.

"We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star - but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far.
We have here, what Charles Sanders Peirce called a retroductive explanation, an explanation that if it were true, would explain a surprising phenomenon. The question is whether this is the best explanation, the most likely explanation.

And if it were to be true, would it matter? Two words: Santa and Speedo.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Award for Cokie Roberts

I'm kind of getting used to this winning thing. Supporting Obama was a new experience for me. Generally, if you wanted to know who would win an election -- primary, general, or otherwise, look at who I didn't vote for. But now I'm on a roll, I picked another one!

Over at Media Matters, they were holding a contest -- vote for the most inane statement of the election season. And guess what, as per my instincts Cokie Roberts won for her Hawai'i is foreign and exotic comment. She garnered more votes than the next two highest vote-getters combined. O.k., I will grant you that throwing your support behind Cokie Roberts in an inane-off is kind of like betting on a knock-out when Mike Tyson fights a third grader, but you know, regardless, I'm starting to like winning...now if they'd only get her off of NPR....ruins a perfectly good Monday morning every week.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sex and Parenting

While we're on a roll of gender questions, here's one that's been on my mind for a while. One of the lines that you hear from those opposed to gay adoption is that a child needs a mother and a father. Why?

The key to good parenting is consistency. Parents cannot send mixed signals. What one parent says, the other has to say as well. Kids are best served when they have clear, unambiguous boundaries and role models who display a consistent mode of behavior. The old idea that the father needs to be a strict disciplinarian while the mother needs to be the gentle nurturer is not only false, but harmful. You want parents who both reinforce the same message to keep kids straight. On the face of it, the idea that there should be some difference in the parenting based on sex seems simply wrong.

So, in the name of charity, what sense can we make of it? What does my parenting as a father convey that TheWife's doesn't and vice versa? I cook and clean, TheWife knows how to use power tools. What could it be?

I suppose one could say that in a society that does have gender roles still ingrained, I, but not TheWife can serve as a role model for how to be a good person while occupying a dominant role in a patriarchal culture. Similarly, TheWife can serve as a model for how to live a fulfilled life in contemporary society. This, of course, would really only be meaningful once the children get old enough so that this sort of thing would make sense to them, once they understand that mommy and daddy are people in a larger social context.

Is there some other way in which gender should make a difference in parenting?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sex and Handwriting

I was doing some grading and TheWife was looking over my shoulder. Without looking at the names, she was able to correctly determine the sex of the writer in 29 out of 30 cases. While she is quite a detail-oriented person, my guess is that this experiment could be successfully repeated with most people. If anyone can, in the majority of cases, pick out male from female handwriting, what accounts for the difference, nature or nurture?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Festivus

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

It is that time again. Happy Festivus everyone. As we celebrate a festivus for the rest of us, use the comments for the annual airing of the grievances.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 19, 2008

Would This Be Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property. If you take the ideas or worse the words of someone else's published work and include it in yours, you've got a case of plagiarism. But here's an interesting twist. Suppose the idea was yours to begin with. Now, I've got a friend and colleague who wrote a paper and in working up the idea with him, I threw out a metaphor that made it into the paper. As academics, we do this sort of thing all the time, kicking stuff around, bouncing ideas, getting responses. My contribution was unattributed per my instructions, but now working on an article for someone else's book, I find the metaphor I came up with appropriate for my own purposes. If I were to include it without attribution to the original article, would it be plagiarism? It is my idea and even my wording, so I am not stealing anything; but it was published in someone else's piece first. I would not do this, but if I were to include the metaphor in its original wording unattributed, would that be plagiarism?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Heredity and Authenticity

Two part post on a piece I'm working on now for the forthcoming Led Zeppelin and Philosophy. The paper focuses on the reunion and why Jason Bonham replacing his father john seems to many to be the most authentic choice.

The same sort of thing went on for years when there was noise made about a Beatles reunion including Julian Lennon. In that case, one might make a genetic case, that being the child of John, he voice resembled his more than anyone else would and this would save the sound. But in this case, that sort of genetic argument does not seem to work since a non-related drummer who studied Bonham's style could conceivably play just as much in his style.

If not nature, what about nurture? Derek Trucks is the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks. Here we have someone playing a different instrument, but raised in the atmosphere of the band he would eventually join as a member, playing in Duane's slot. He learned at the feet of the masters, weened on the sound by members of his extended family, both literal and metaphorical. As such, his inclusion seemed natural.

Or does it have nothing to do with the sound? Could it be that with someone who looks like him, we could think that we were seeing the original line-up? Is it a matter of creative self-deception?

So what is it with the younger Bonham behind the drums? Is there any reason to think he's more authentic a choice than any other drummer?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Felt Art

Still thinking about Ludwig von Beethoven and the nature of art. Here was an artist who lost his ability to perceive his own art form and all those connected with hearing -- music and the spoken word. But, there were others art forms still open to him. There are many, many visual media -- painting, sculpture, dance, fashion, printed poetry... Taste has it's own form of artistry in cooking. Smell has a small group of artists, perfumers. These are people who have highly trained senses of smell and guard the recipes for their fragrances jealously.

But there seems to be one sense left out. Is there no art form that plays purely and primarily upon touch? Sure, we talk about texture of clothing and of food, but they are not primarily tactile-based artistic experiences. What might such an art form be like?

The only thing that comes to my mind is amusement park rides. These are machines that are designed to make us feel certain ways. Roller coasters, for example, are much like narrative art forms such as film, opera, or literature in that there is a beginning leading to a moment of tension, then a climax and resolution. Someone who was deaf and blind could still very much appreciate the experience of a roller coaster and the way its design makes a rider feel. But this may be a different sense of the word "feel." Is it? Either way, what might a felt art be?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Beethoven 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.

Today is Ludwig von Beethoven's birthday, so let's play with a quotation of his.

I despise a world which does not feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.
Does music reveal? If so, what? Surely, we've all had the sensation of epiphany from music, what has come to be called "having one's mind blown." Is such a musical experience truly revelatory as Beethoven suggests?

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

Monday, December 15, 2008

Marriage, Gays, and that Romantic Nonsense

Guest-post today from C. Ewing:

Go here for the full story.

"As a libertarian, I was unfamiliar with why people thought the state should define marriage, much less why it should be defined in such a way as to limit it to a certain number or sex of people. And what I found is that there is an unbelievable wealth of argument in favor of traditional marriage. And most of it is based (no, not in the fevered imaginations of what Hollywood and the media elite think religious conservatives believe) but in Natural Law. In this way of thinking, society defines marriage as a sexual union between a husband and wife, based around the ideas that babies are created via intercourse, that procreation is necessary for the survival of society and that babies need fathers as well as mothers. So the entire premise of this article is wrong, if you look at it that way."

There seem to be two competing ideas here. The first is that this simply isn't the government's place, and the second is that it's not a matter of how religion or scripture define marriage, but how society does so. If marriage is a sacrament, then I will readily concede the first. It is not the place of the government to divvy out sacraments. However, if society is the one defining marriage, and society is using legislature as the avenue in which to make that definition puissant, then doesn't the government have to get involved? Society has already pulled the government into the ring. It seems unimportant that it's not government's place, because society has forced this burden upon the government anyway.

But this only changes the shoe, not the dance. Is it society's place to divvy out sacraments? I don't think the Church (pick your referent for that noun) will be willing to share such a duty. As such, it seems society is simply overstepping its own bounds. Once the government is involved, it has little choice, but to see this as picking and choosing sides. And the fact of the matter is that this is rampant, unabashed, and largely unapologetic bigotry. The U.S. Constitution is traditionally amended to grant (and/or preserve) rights to a class of people (I'm thinking of XIII, XV, XIX, specifically, but I guess there's also XXVI), which were previously denied. Despite bowing before the masses, we have a tradition of at least eventually siding with the underdog, the minority. Even the South eventually yielded, albeit kicking and screaming the whole way.

Is this where we draw the line in the sand? This issue? Why this particular issue? I'd think voting, property rights, the right to hold office or you know, something else with an impact on the way our government and/or society actually functions would be the final straw, but marriage? A tax break and faux headaches are the end of it all?

Now, yes, states are the ones stepping in here. But that's sort of an aside. It's still a matter of society determining the stature and importance of people's relationships. If we were to arbitrarily determine that no brunettes could marry blonds we would be laughed out of town. It seems if the full power of this stance is not religious in nature, then it's simply some sort of cultural bias. We're protecting tradition for tradition's sake. But if that's so terribly valuable, why are mixed race couples now somehow "ok"? They were and to some degree (this depends largely on your region) still are "nontraditional" couplings. But that tradition was not preserved. Indeed, it's now seen by many to be somewhat hokey.

I guess, not suffering from rampant homophobia, I just don't "get it". What is being preserved? What is being protected? And what does the genitalia assortment or lack of variety of another couple have to do with another couple's relationship? Is traditional marriage weakened inexplicably by nontraditional marriages? Is changing the title of the certificate all that's needed? If it's merely a matter of preferred terminology, it seems like we could have fixed this by now.

"Now, as a member of a contemporary marriage, albeit one that isn’t so foolish as to think marriage is about gender equality or romantic love, I can honestly say that the Bible has been the only guide that has helped my husband and myself. We turn to it constantly to be reminded that the husband is to sacrifice for the wife and the wife is to respect the husband (these things don’t come naturally to either my husband or myself)."

Color me stupid, but I had thought that every wedding I had ever attended had been about...wait for it, wait for it: romantic love. Well, at least that was the impression I was under previously. And do we really need the Bible to tell us that sacrifice is necessary in a relationship? Everyone who has ever been on a date (well, maybe a second date) realizes that sacrifice is necessary. Which dessert? Which restaurant? Which movie? The list continues ad nauseum.

Perhaps, gender equality isn't always important. Perhaps, romantic love isn't always important. There are severely unbalanced marriages, and prenuptial agreements were probably established for a reason. But doesn't this just tell us that marriages come in all manners? What's one more variety? We'll just have more colors of crayons. And?

But maybe I'm missing something. Maybe there's more to this hoopla than I am giving it credit. Can someone give me a really strong argument? I'd rather not be burning straw here. Help a newb out? I'm obviously clueless. I need assistance.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Feasts of Saints Emmett and Sam

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the festivals of two Comedist saints. The first is Emmett Kelly, the man who more than anyone else, is responsible for the American clown. Kelley began as a visual artist and took his talents to the Knickerbocker Circus where he started as a chalk artist who would entertain people by telling stories that he simultaneously illustrated. From there he became a trapeze artist and eventually put on white face. In 1931, he first came out as Weary Willy, a sad hobo clown who would clean up after acts and amuse crowds with his sympathetic acts. His became the face of clowning, elevating it beyond the silly, routine slapstick, humanizing the act. He would join Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey and continue the act into the 1950's.

The second is Sam Kinison, one of the figures who shaped stand-up comedy in the late 1980s. Like his father, Kinison had been a fire and brimstone pentecostal preacher. Then a divorce and disillusionment with the church led him in a new direction and he became a comedian unlike any other. He and Howard Stern -- with whom he had a much publicized feud -- were to the Reagan 80s what Lenny Bruce was to the Eisenhower 50s, crude, raunchy (often deeply misogynistic), and envelope pushing. Kinison was well-known to hang out with the big hair bands of the times and if Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were the ones moving comedy into rock concert sized venues, Kinison was the one who turned the amps up to eleven. He was killed in a car accident when his car was struck by a drunk driver at the height of his fame.

The contrast between these two at this point is interesting. Kelly, like Charlie Chaplin, was truly a product of the Depression. The ability to create bittersweet resonated with the era. There was a tenderness that audiences could identify with. Kinison, on the other hand, came out of the Gordon Gecko self-indulgent 80s with the odd contradictions of the Reagan years which elevated greed to a virtue, but canceled the Beach Boys' annual 4th of July concert on the Mall in Washington because that rock and roll was the devil's music. Hair was big, white people were angry, and his act reflected the times. The 60s were over, the social conservatives were on the rise and he took aim at all of it.

What is interesting is that we are now on the verge of a social alignment. We are coming out of an era of rage and the comedy has shown it. The rage-filled rant comedy of Chris Rock and Lewis Black follow from Kinison, albeit both coming from socially and politically very different places. It will be interesting to see if this new era, post-meltdown will bring with it a new comic sensibility, a return to something in the vein of Emmett Kelly.

Let's leave with classic Kinison:


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 12, 2008

How Important is Gifted Education?

In difficult financial times, schools tend to carry an undue amount of of the burden of cutbacks. Art and music often get cut quickly because we view education through such a utilitarian lens that anything that enriches children intellectually, but not likely to enrich them monetarily is deemed useless. We train workers instead of creating interesting people.

But what of our more intellectually endowed students? These are kids who generally are going to excel no matter what we do. With educational resources limited should we spend less on gifted education since we know they will get good, if not maximal educations without the spending while others need it more than they? Or are these kids special in that they are more likely to play a greater role in the culture and therefore it is a societal investment that would pay increased dividends? Or are both of these warped ways of looking at the question?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So THIS is What Competence Looks Like

Our next Secretary of Energy will be Steven Chu who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his work on laser cooling which uses light to slow down atoms. He was the chair of the physics department at Stanford until he left to become the director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. In that position he has been aggressive at directing research towards solving the global warming crisis in a way that brings together academics, government, and energy companies. So we have someone who (1) is an accomplished manager in a research setting, (2) has a track record of being focused on the most pressing problem connected with energy, (3) is really, really, really, really, really smart, and (4) can pronounce "NUCLEAR." You know, I could really get used to this whole competence thing.

Science, welcome back. We sure did miss you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Appeal to Irony

Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin have another critical thinking piece in Scientific American -- man, I love that they do this -- this time explaining the flaw in on tu quoque arguments, that is arguments where the arguer doesn't listen to his or her own advice and we then discount it, ignoring legitimate reasons why they may be right. Sometimes, of course, you should do as I say not as I do.

We do love to point out hypocrisy as if it was rationally relevant. There are, I believe three reasons. Part of it is, as Alfred Adler once said, "to be human is to be insecure." We bristle at goody-goodies who do everything right because we know we should too, but really don't want to and resent being told or shown that we should do what we know but don't want to admit we should do. When those who are the paragons falter, we feel more secure in our own intentional deviations. Second, we take personal weakness as a statement about commitment to the conclusion of an argument and if the arguer him or herself is not committed to its truth sufficiently to act that way all the time, then, we fallaciously infer, we have no reason to accept their conclusion, sound argument or not. I discussed this a while back in terms of the phrase "moral authority."

But there is a third and more interesting reason. It isn't all hypocrisy that gets the tu quoque or "you do it, too" treatment; it is usually those that are the most deliciously ironic. We love homophobic pastors who turn out to have been closeted, sustainability gurus who are overweight or have big homes, and just check out the flurry of articles about Oprah's weight. The cases that really get us going, the ones that seem the most rhetorically attractive are the ones that are the most ironic.

I think there is a reason for this. Consider the phrase, "I get it." We will use this phrase in two different contexts. Think about when we are learning something, for example, that is at first murky, confusing, or opaque, and then the light bulb goes off. At that point, we look up with that embarrassingly big smile and eyes wide with excitement and say, "Oh, now I get it." The words that our friend who does well in the class kept repeating over and over again suddenly make sense, have a meaning they didn't have before. Similarly with a joke. The sacred space between a set-up and a punchline lead to the same sense. Confusion, then resolution. you can tell when someone "gets" a joke.

Irony is humoresque, it connects in the brain in the same sort of way. You get irony just as you get a joke. We often say of wonderfully ironic situations, "it's too perfect." Similarly, you get that an argument is intuitively sound in the same way that you get the lesson you learned in school. There is that Gestalt moment where things not only look different, but different in a unified fashion. It is that similarity that lets us slide between these two notions of "getting it," we can easily equivocate here and it makes irony feel internally much like being rhetorically moved. As such, we buy into ironic hypocrisy with the force of rational argument. That's my hypothesis, anyway.

Let's take the occasion to play "name that irony." Possibly the all-time classic is Jim Fixx, the man who was overweight and a smoker who became a marathon runner and author of The Book of Running which began the jogging and fitness craze of the 70s and 80s. He, of course, dropped dead of a heart attack while running. The other one comes from Michael Moore's second big film "The Big One," the follow-up to "Roger and Me" where he tries to track down executives who are downsizing American workers, off-shoring their jobs after years of record profits made for them by those workers. We are repeatedly shown corporate hypocrisy with that classic Michael Moore sneer, and throughout the entire movie we see Moore and his crew eating fast food.

Those are ones I love. What are your favorite examples of irony that could easily be misconstrued as tu quoque or "you do it, too" arguments?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gregory Named as New Host of Meet the Press

Citing the Obama slogan "Change we can believe in," NBC announced this weekend that it is naming Dick Gregory as the new host of their weekly news program "Meet the Press." Gregory, a civil rights activist and humorist, will replace the long time host Tim Russert who died in June of a heart attack. Gregory commented that "seeing me on the top rated weekly news show will surely give more of the white, conservative, corporate media-types heart problems."


Gregory made his name in the 1960s as a stand-up comedian boldly discussing some of the touchiest issues of the day, especially civil rights. He began his act at the Playboy Club in chicago in 1961, this way,

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ''We don’t serve colored people here.'' I said, ''That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken''

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, ''Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.'' So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ''Line up, Boys!''
Gregory became a vegetarian later in the 1960s and has become a nutrition and weight loss authority. Citing this combination of work for civil rights and weight loss, NBC executives said that Gregory was like a combination of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, someone who would appeal to eveyone. His weekly roundtable is expected to include Chuck Todd and that guy Jared from the Subway commericals.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Wittgenstein 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.

This turn's quotation comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a short book with an arrogant title that Wittgenstein himself neither gave it nor liked.

5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

5.62 ...The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.
Is our world limited by our language?

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

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Speakeasy and Carry a Big Schtick

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

As we lift a glass to toast the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition, it seems a worthy moment to once again call for "walks into a bar jokes." Here are a few of my favorites:

An amnesiac walks into a bar and sits down next to a beautiful woman. Looking up at her he asks, "Do I come here often?"

Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, "Olive or twist?"

A guy walks into a bar with a newt on his shoulder. "What do you call that?", asks the bartender. "I call him Tiny, because he's my newt."

A kangaroo walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender is stunned, but pours him a glass and watches in silence as the kangaroo polishes off the drink. The kangaroo says, "What do I owe you, mac?" and the bartender says, "Seven fifty." As the kangaroo pulls a ten out of its pouch, the bartender says, "You know, we don't get many kangaroos in here." The kangaroo replies, "At seven fifty a beer, I can see why."

A man walks into a bar and orders a beer. As he took a pull from his glass, he hears a soothing voice say "nice tie." Looking around, he notices that there's nobody else in the bar. A few sips later the voice said "that suit really looks good on you". The man says to the bartender, "I keep hearing these voices saying nice things, and there's no one in here but you and me. Am I going crazy?" "Nah," says the bartender, "It's the peanuts...they're complimentary."

Celebrate freedom, but tip your bartender. Your favorites?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 05, 2008

Beard or No Beard?

When the President-Elect named New Mexico Governor and former Presidential candidate Bill Richardson to be the next Commerce Secretary, important questions crucial to the future of the nation like what kind of dog the Obamas will adopt got moved to a back seat. At the press conference announcing his selection, Fox News reporter Wendell Goler asked the Governor, "What happened to the beard, sir?"

Knowing that the buck stops with him, the Presedient-Elect stepped up and said,

"I'm going to answer this question about the beard. I think it was a mistake for him to get rid of it. I think that whole Western, rugged look was really working for him. For some reason, maybe because it was scratchy when he kissed his wife, he was forced to get rid of it. But, we're deeply dissapointed with the loss of the beard."
No, this is not from the Onion.

So, today's question, Bill Richardson...beard or no beard?


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Death Over Marriage

Eddie Izzard has a bit where he argues that there could never be an effective Inquisition from the Anglican Church because "cake or death?" would not be a difficult question. But apparently marriage or death is a tricky one for the Catholic Church, or sadly, not that difficult.

The Vatican is opposing a UN resolution calling on countries to decriminalize homosexuality. Of course, in many of these countries this is not only a crime, but a capital offense. So, when we prioritize "thou shalt not kill" and "do not lie down with a man as with a woman," apparently the taking of life just ain't that big of a deal when compared to two men or women living in a caring, lifelong committed relationship. You know, I'm not a member of their club, but the idea that an all-loving Being would agree with them just seems patently bizarre.

I do not want to make a strawman out of this position and really want to understand the strongest possible view on that side, but frankly I am having a hard time constructing it. The argument is:

Archbishop Celestino Migliore said the Vatican opposed the resolution because it would "add new categories of those protected from discrimination" and could lead to reverse discrimination against traditional heterosexual marriage.
How? Exactly how does the legal enlarging of the class of people who may be married affect the class of people who already had the right at all? It is not a scarce resource that gets watered down. If a company sells more stock, then my shares become worth less since they are a small slice of the pie than before the offering, but there is no analogy with marriage here. So, what exactly is the threat to marriage or society that makes ignoring death warranted? I'm not asking for a defence of the position, just the strongest possible formulation here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Music, Corporate Culture, and Social Change

Odd convergences. News this morning that Odetta has passed away. A powerful voice for positive change, she embodied the authentic power that music has to make thye world a better place. At the same time, I've been pondering over a conversation I had this weekend with Alyson Gilbert, a country singer whom some may recognize from the television show Nashville Star on which she was a competitor. The producers of the program chose to put her in the country diva/pageant queen/bad girl role, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. A kind and warm person (with an incredible voice), it brought home the way in which corporate interests harness the power of music to create an alternate reality, a fantasy world, designed first and foremost to make money. Starting perhaps with the Monkeys, there is the sense that pop stars can be created wholecloth by marketers, appealing to people's needs that go unsatisfied by life in contemporary culture and filling the gaps with the aesthetic equivalent of soylent green.

So, the combination of these two has left me thinking about the direction in which music is headed. It is a powerful force, but a force for what? With every band having its own MySpace page and the number of shows available for free download on sites like archive.org, is the role of the corporate gatekeeper declining in the way some claim? Are we seeing a democratization of access? Has the ipod and itunes ushered in the end of the age of the album in which music was produced and released in 45-60 minute chunks? Will this change how music is made and disseminated? How important is live performance? Does it become more important because that is the only place a performer can make a living or does it become a relic? What does any of this mean in terms of the power music has to make this society more fair, equitable, and good?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Soccer as Class Indicator

On the flight home last night, I was talking with a couple who had an adult child who was a lawyer and raising their grandchildren in a typically upper/upper-middle class suburban fashion. One element was to put the child in an orgnaized soccer league at 3 1/2 like everyone else.

It started me thinking about soccer as a class indicator. Soccer is popular around the world in part because it is easy to play, but hard to master, but also because you can play anywhere with anyone and only need one thing, a ball. It makes perfect sense why less affluent nations would take to soccer, but why has it become a mark of bourgieos life in contemporary America? Is it because it is the "not-football"? Because football is blue collar, it is full-contact, it is associated with communities that are not chock full of lawyers, doctors, and corporate middle managers? Or is it because it gives you a continental or more worldly sense, just like Thai food is so much more cosmopolitan than Chinese? Or is it something else? Why has soccer become a class indicator?

Monday, December 01, 2008

You Ain't Gonna Learn What You Don't Want to Know

Perhaps the most insightful of all of Robert Hunter's lyrics is the line, "You ain't gonna learn what you don't want to know." But, that is the job of some folks...say, philosophers. How does one best motivate someone to learn something he or she does not want to know? Aspazia employs film and literature arguing that narrative allows an empathy that working at the conceptual level does not. By what means can we get people to look at things they don't want to see?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tying the Knot

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend our Playground playfriends Gwydion and Maura will be getting married. This week's Comedist post will thus be devoted to marriage. Please feel free to leave good wishes and marriage related jokes in the comments.

We wish the two so-to-be newly-weds all the best in health, joy, and timing and leave with a warning to our dear Gwydion, as Alan King explains, he may have just sealed his fate...



Best of luck Gwydion and Maura, we love you both very, very much. To you and everyone else,

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 28, 2008

Does Age Really Bring Wisdom?

Does age really bring wisdom or is it more likely that young fools end up as old fools...those who survive, at least?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Power (or Lack Thereof) of Symbolic Acts

Been thinking about symbolic acts lately and on Thanksgiving it seems appropriate to discuss. TheWife was reading an article that urged the President-Elect to take a large swath of the White House lawn and make it into an organic orchard as a symbol of commitment to sustainability. A number of my students have been fasting to bring attention to world hunger and injustice. I'm wondering about the function of such acts. The fact that I slept on and off in a cardboard box at the University of Maryland for a week most likely is not to be listed anywhere among the active factors that brought down the Apartheid government of South Africa. So, what, if anything, do such acts do? Are they for those acting, to give a sense of solidarity? Is it to make us think we are doing something to help alleviate our feelings of powerlessness in the face of deep, on-going injustice, the real causes of which are political and sociological and so much bigger than anything a well-intentioned individual can help overturn? Is it part of a PR campaign, that we are trying to get a movement started because while a few folks cannot do anything substantive, a large public outcry could?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" File

Ann Coulter's Jaw Wired Shut. We wish a speedy recovery, of course, but couple this with the fact that Rahm Emmanuel lost part of his middle finger in an accident and you've got yet more evidence of the existence of the Cosmic Comic. Irony this ironic doesn't just happen people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Big Three in Big Trouble

The American car makers are in BIG TROUBLE. I used to drive a Ford. I loved my Festiva. It had 305k miles on it when I traded it in. I'm the sort of person that ought to be the target for the American car makers. I drive a Honda and will not drive anything else. They lost me and a whole lot of folks like me by making cars that were not as good as the Japanese imports and were not as appropriate for the times.

Now the Republicans are barking mad about bailing out the auto companies that are in trouble for having produced nothing but massive SUVs as gas went up to $4/gallon. Of course, not everyone wanted them to make those cars. Some folks were trying to raise the mileage requirement, trying to get Detroit to produce gas/electric hybrids, and smaller vehicles in general. But they refused and at every turn, who was supporting them legislatively in this arguing that it was American to drive a big truck, that we don't punish the successful, that it is virtuous, but not the government's business to conserve energy? The very same people who are now blaming the car companies for mismanagement and refusing to give them help are the ones who were enabling them. Of course, there were Democrats on board too, Rep. Dingell for example.

Now, we've got calls from the Democrats to help bail them out because if they go under, along go LOTS of jobs directly and indirectly, like parts manufacturers, and with things already teetering will take a major shock. What's good for General Motors, it used to be said, was good for America. But there are strings attached. You don't give the junkie money to pay off his debts without sending him for treatment at the same time. There are calls for accountability and federal oversight. The government wants to be able to look over the shoulders of major corporations while they make decisions. The conservative fears are being realized, it is creeping socialism. In fact, the new GM models are going to be marketed as CHE-vrolets.

Are the bailouts really necessary? Is government oversight and conditions on what they choose to bring to market acceptable? necessary?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Is Campaign Finance Reform Dead? Should It Be?

Getting elected means getting your message out and that means advertising. Advertising means money and that means donations. In the decision Buckley v. Valeo, the Court asserted that money was speech, political speech is protected by the First Amendment and therefore, so are campaign contributions.

But, the line for campaign finance reform goes, money is not speech, but the ability to drown out other voices. If you have enough, you keep those who have less from being heard. Money is not the speech itself, it is the access to a bigger megaphone and that works fundamentally against the reason we have free speech, that in a free marketplace of ideas the best idea tends to win. Campaign finance reform is needed to level the playing field and let a wider variety of voices be heard to serve democracy.

But, in the last election, Barack Obama raised a half a billion dollars online from small donors. Suddenly, the small fish have banded together giving them the monetary pull of the bigger fish. Does this eliminate the need for campaign finance reform? Was this last election singular or is there something systemic that has been challenged? Do the central premises of the argument still hold up?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Feast of Saint Voltaire

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week saw the 314th birthday of Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. Voltaire is the Comedist John the Baptist, he was a Comedist before there was Comedism. It was Voltaire after all who said,

"God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."
and
"If God did not exist, it would necessary to invent Him."
And so, inspired by Voltaire, we Comedists created this religion in order to gain the the inner-strength needed to squirt milk through our collective nose at the great punchlines of the Cosmic Comic.

And so this week, we ask for a partial accounting of God's great jokes. There is, of course, Robin Williams' nomination of the platypus.What other jokes has the Divine Comedian left for us to laugh at?

live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 21, 2008

Politics and the History of 20th Century Philosophy

Last week's post about the interest in existentialism led to a discussion in comments about politics and the analytic/continental split in philosophy. It is probably worth discussing the political nature of that split.

For those who are not philosophers, the roughest version of the split is that analytics are the logic nerds and the continentals are the ones wearing black and getting dates. The details of the split and how the traditions came to be manifested in American universities is a bit more complex.

The early years of the 20th century in Europe were a time of great upheaval, politically and intellectually. With the end of World War I, the old structures lay in ruins. What had been the distribution of power for as long as anyone remembered was destroyed. What had been the undeniable mathematical and scientific beliefs for as long as anyone could remember were destroyed. What had been thought of as art, music, and architecture had been destroyed. In addition, the war itself, with its incredible brutality shocked the sensibilities of those who considered themselves the end of history, the pinnacle of existence. Trench warfare, chemical weapons, mass death, how could we have done that?

In Germany, which was on the cultural ascendant, the failure of the Wiemar government was widely taken as a sign that liberal, free market approach was bankrupt. Something new needed to take its place to prevent what just happened.

The analytic side took its clue from the non-Euclidean geometry and Einstein's theory of relativity. From these advances, they saw not only the need to radically revise all of our basic concepts, but to seek a way of justifying them that was science-like in not needing to appeal to the human intuition which could be so easily corrupted by politics and self-interest. We would try to ground all beliefs on that for which we could have evidence which could be observed by anyone. Further, the scientific community would serve as the basis for our view of the world. It was the scientists and mathematicians who collaborated across boundaries, who ignored artificial borders for the advancement of all humanity. The horrors of the period were due to nationalism and superstition, the sorts of falsehoods that prey on human frailty and need to be guarded against with scientific rigor.

The Continental side followed the lead of Edmund Husserl, a mathematician who saw the failure as one based upon the alienation of human experience from the conceptual basis used in our intellectual pursuits. Husserl's protege was Martin Heidegger who followed Husserl's approach called "phenomenology" and argued that the lived experience was no longer the foundation of our understanding of the world and this led to technologies and social systems that valued theory and ideology over human welfare.

This philosophical divide needs to be superimposed upon the political divisions of the time. Science was as political then as now. To be pro-scientific was generally to be left-leaning. And so the early analytics were largely socialists. Because of Cold War sloppiness, we often now conflate socialism with Communism, but the divide was something real and deep in interwar Germany and Austria where the socialists and the Communists were all but warring factions. There were a few notable exceptions. Karl Popper and Ludwig von Mises, for example, were champions of the free market and Otto Neurath leaned towards Marxism, but by in large, the bulk of the early analytic thinkers were socialists.

Heidegger's view was that the foundations of phenomenology were rooted in the individuality of the being and this led him to so oppose Communism that he became a member of the Nazi party, eventually turning his back on his own mentor Husserl because he was Jewish. Indeed, Heidegger removed the dedication to his masterwork Being and Time which had thanked Husserl for his influence.

But not all of those influenced by Heidegger shared his despicable politics. Hannah Arendt and the existentialists like Sartre, de Beauvior, and Camus took up the phenomenological approach, but were opposed to Nazism.

At the same time, in Frankfurt there arose a group of intellectuals who were explicitly neo-Marxist. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were amongst the leading lights of this group. They joined the phenomenologists in arguing that the analytic approach, specifically positivism, was deeply flawed.

When Hitler came to power and purged the universities, all of these groups had to flee -- with the exception of Heidegger who became rector of the university in Freiburg, a very prestigious position. Others -- those who managed to escape, and not all of them did -- took positions in Britain and the US. Many of the neo-Marxists of Frankfurt found a home in New York at Columbia University and the New School where they influenced the American "New Left."

The analytics, on the other hand, settled across the country taking positions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, Minnesota, Iowa. The positivists were less strident politically when they emigrated here. The end of the war had brought McCarthyism and it struck the analytics as worrisome to see the beginning of what they had just left. As guests who were under suspicion for having German accents, they toned down the political end of the project and focused on the technical. Indeed, some of the analytics became the first hires at the Rand Corporation. But this must be understood in its context. Rand was formed by the Air Force to be a think tank focusing on basic research without concern for particular military use, but whose work could then be used as the military saw useful. As such, it was a chance to develop things like game theory whose foundations von Neumann and Helmer developed at Rand. In this way, analytic philosophy in the 50's became apolitical while the continental side maintained its overt political sensibility.

This may be why it appears to some that Continental thought is to be aligned with our political left while analytic is to be aligned therefore with the right. But this is not at all true. While Quine was politically conservative, he was unusual in that sense. Indeed, as Aspazia points out the work of Francis Fukuyama is part of the basis of neo-conservativism and pulls from contemporary continental thought. There simply is no neat mapping of the analytic/continental divide onto the contemporary American political split.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Deal Lieberman Couldn't Refuse?

Seems to me that there are four possible explanations for the Lieberman fiasco:

(1) The caucus believes that they are at 60 with Begich and Franken and the super-majority was more important than Lieberman's behavior.

(2) Obama is serious about ending partisanship as we know it and used this as a symbol of that change.

(3) The weak-kneed, spineless DC Dems collapsed yet again because that's just what they do.

(4) Obama reached into his bag of Chicago and had a conversation that went something like this:

Obama: (sitting behind his desk, petting a cat)Why did you go to McCain? Why didn't you come to me first?

Lieberman: What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.

Obama: What is that?

Lieberman: The chairmanship of Homeland Security.

Obama: That I cannot do.

Lieberman: I'll give you anything you ask.

Obama: We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel, for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your office for a cup of coffee, even though I supported you in your primary run against Lamont. But let's be frank here, you never wanted my friendship and you were afraid to be in my debt.

Lieberman: I didn't want to get into trouble.

Obama: I understand. You found paradise in the Senate, had a good committee assignment, made a good living. Fox News protected you; and there was David Broder. And you didn't need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say -- "Barack Obama, give me Homeland Security." -- But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me President-Elect. Instead, you come into my house after I win the election, and you ask me for justice.

Lieberman: Not justice, I ask you for Homeland Security.

Obama: That is not justice; you still have your seat even after losing the primary...Lieberman, Lieberman, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Had you endorsed me, then this chairmanship would be yours, even if you supported the war. And that by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.

Lieberman: Be my friend -- President-Elect? (Lieberman kisses Obama's ring)

Obama: Good. Some day, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you for a vote. But, until that day -- accept Homeland Security as a gift on my election day.

Lieberman (as he leaves the room): Grazie, President-Elect.

Obama: Prego.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gettysburg Address and Proposition to Which We Must Now Be Dedicated

It was 145 years ago today that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at a ceremony dedicating the cemetery to hold those slain in the battle. It is a spot I pass every morning. While the old part of the cemetery has small markers arranged in a circle, the fallen grouped by state, the headstones in the newer section holding the remains of those who fought in later wars glow white with an eerie symmetry in the morning sun. The pattern -- straight, offset lines of smooth regular beveled rectangles -- stands out against the trees and rolling hills of the battlefield on which it is set. This artificiality, the unmistakable touch of man, contrasts with the beauty of Nature and gives a stark sense of the difference between the world we live in and that which we choose to do to it and to each other.

But Lincoln's words, which one cannot help but think of in passing this place, appeal to the other side of our nature, to that which creates worlds of insight, justice, and wisdom. Lincoln spoke of being "dedicated to the unfinished work," pointing to our "poor power to add or subtract" in the face of the struggles of those living and dead who gave their lives to advance freedom. We are part of an ongoing process, a path that we must approach thoughtfully, dedicated to propositions, among them that all people are created equal.

It is not accidental that he stresses the place of this proposition, as he knew well that propositions matter. Lincoln was a man of both words and deeds, a thoughtful actor. At this propitious moment in time, his words are as prescient as ever.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Let's hope that we too are on the verge of a new birth of freedom and let me ask you what are other propositions to which we must now be dedicated in order to bring it about.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Ghost of Jackie Mitchell Smiles

Eri Yoshida has been drafted to play professional baseball.

A 16-year-old schoolgirl with a mean knuckleball has been selected as the first woman ever to play alongside the men in Japanese professional baseball.

Eri Yoshida was drafted for a new independent league that will launch in April, drawing attention for a side-armed knuckler that her future manager Yoshihiro Nakata said was a marvel.
This could not happen here because there is a rule banning women from American professional baseball.

The rule followed the success of Jackie Mitchell. Mitchell grew up in Memphis where she lived next to future Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance who noticed the young girl's talent. At five years old, he taught her mechanics and how to throw a breaking ball. She grew up playing in women's leagues, but at 16 her talent earned her an offer from the AA Chattenooga Lookouts. She played for them during the 1931 season.

It was the preseason, however, that carved Jackie's name in baseball history. On their way back north from spring training, the New York Yankees scheduled a tune up scrimage game against the Lookouts. The Lookout's starting pitcher came in and quickly gave up two hits and a run, so the manager yanked him and put in Mitchell. The number three slot in the 1931 Yankees' line-up, of course, belonged to Babe Ruth. Mitchell's first pitch was high, well out of the strike zone, but the next two were both called strikes. For her fourth pitch, she threw Vance's drop pitch and struck out the Sultan of Swat.

As he threw down his bat amidst ribbing from his teammates for being struck out by a girl, the number four batter stepped up, Lou Gehrig. On three pitches, she sent the Iron horse back to the dugout. Back to back, Mitchell struck out two of the greatest hitters to ever hold a bat.

Days later, the league made it an official policy that women could not play professional baseball and Mitchell's contract was nullfied. This discriminatory rule remains in american baseball to this day. But now, Japan has put Jackie Mitchell's dream back into the realm of the possible.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is the Protestant Work Ethic Ethical?

Been thinking about Max Weber's work lately and in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he considers the fact that Catholics at the time held significantly less power and wealth throughout Europe than their Protestant counterparts. One of the factors he examines is cultural difference in terms of attitudes towards work.

Is hard work intrinsically virtuous? There is no doubt that it can be taken to an extreme and, sure, that is problematic. But take two co-workers, one who takes initiative and plugs away and gets everything done as efficiently as possible, while the other does only what is asked and not a lick more and who takes his time getting done what he does. Or, alternatively, one student who studies hard, outlines the text, works sample problems and gets good grades while another with all the same aptitude, skates through with C's. We can call the one a better employee and one the better student, but is this a reflection of character, does this make either one a better person than their colleague? Is our inclination towards the hard worker something ingrained in us because of its benefits for the big boss man or is it an indication of something deeper?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Humor and Power

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend I want to discuss a wonderful essay by Bernard Chazelle entitled The Humorology of Power, over at a Tiny Revolution which was pointed out to me by good brother Ron. It is thoughtful, well argued, and well-stocked with plenty of good jokes. Well worth the read.

His argument proceeds in three steps. First, humor is a manifestation of power. The act of joking is an act that declares the joker's superiority. Even self-deprecating humor is a play on irony because by putting oneself down, one is really saying, Chazelle's line goes, that I am so far superior that I can pretend to be inferior without insecurity.

The second point, playing off of this, is that humor cannot be a force for liberation. "If humor could have a driving political purpose (and I doubt that it can), it would have to reflect a certain totalitarian temptation. Laughter is a reactionary impulse and humor is, at its root, a call for order. Crudely put, the humorist is a nag—or, to be technical about it, a law enforcement officer." Humor cannot liberate because "humor must knock down empathy in order to kill fantasy."

His final point is that humor often uses reflexivity, self-reference to create absurdities. These absurdities then play upon distribution of power.

Chazelle provides some provocative theses here, but there seem to be some places where it could use some tightening. First of all, surely the general claim that joking is a declaration of superiority is far too broad, even if we consider humor about power. Consider, for example, Colin Quinn's bit on why the Irish were the only country in Europe not to have colonies, a bit that I seem not to be able to find (free entrance into Comedy heaven if anyone can find it and provide a link) in which he portrays the last minutes preparations before the Irish army is about to board the boats and a voice from the back asks "So when we get there, will we be bringin' the beer or will they be providing it?... Oh. Well, you can count me out, I'll tell you that right now." This is reflection on a lack of political power through imploring negative stereotypes of ones own group, not sure this one can be spun to back up the thesis. In the case of the Holocaust jokes, one could always make the move that being able to laugh at it showed that it failed, but here you cannot make that move because it is not, say, playing off the British.

I'd also take issue with the second claim that humor cannot be liberating. I think this is utterly false because it misses the power inherent in the very structure of the act of joking. A joke has two parts, a set-up and a punchline. The set up leads the listener to create a possible world through interpreting the words in the natural way. The punchline is funny because it forces us to realize that we need to radically reinterpret what we understood in the set-up in a very different fashion. The humor resides in the space in between when our mind is trying its hardest to square these incommensurable interpretations and failing every way it twists them. That's what "getting the joke" is, that's why someone who telegraphs a joke is not funny.

In other words, the entire structure of a joke relies on being able to see the world in two ways, one primary and one secondary. The primary interpretation is the one we naturally leap to and that is why we need it in the set-up for the joke to work. but the power of the secondary interpretation is that we now see the butt of the joke in a way we had not before, there has been a shifting of the categories we use to make sense of the world and we now have an enlarged perspective. This enlarging is the key to humor's ability to liberate.

Groups are placed into cultural bondage largely by being pigeon-holed,by being shrunk down to caricatures which are then reinforced by carefully selected examples that we are able to find. But when we joke about these groups, especially when those groups joke about themselves, they are able to rehumanize themselves in the eyes of those outside the group, they are able to reinflate their image making them as a group multi-dimensional. Think of the social power of television shows like "Good Times" or "The Jeffersons" in creating complex images of the African American family in the 1970's. The jokes were indeed vehicles of liberation.

A few other categories of power humor that Chazell did not mention that is worth considering:

The political pun -- Anyone who supported the Khmer Rouge must have been smoking Pol Pot.

The false analogy absurdism -- If Obama wants to be President of all Americans, he'd have to be President of first graders, too. "O.k. kids, can you spell 'Arugala'?"

The false history that embeds with a tragic reality -- I don't know if you know this, but originally Hitler didn't exclude the Jews and homosexuals. It's just that they kept making trouble at the early National Socialist meetings.

"Excuse me, but vat's vit the brown shoyts? Ve vear black pents and the black and the brown don't vork so vell together."

"You know, I've just got to say my two cents here also, because while I'm not put off by earth tones, especially in Autumn, the brown shirts definitely need a collar and maybe a pair of khakis, something with a pleat. It is looking so "thug" right now and that went out with the Kaiser."

"Hey, what's this about a Beer Hall putsch...more like a Beer Hall putz if you ask me."

"Instead of a beer hall, there's this other bar down the street..."

"Hey, hey, hey, what's with the hate here calling us 'sheckel grabbers' and 'schmeckle grabbers', that's pretty funny coming from a Schickelgruber!"

"Well, maybe we don't want to be part of your group!"

"Fine."

It seems to me that humor is a multifaceted thing, something that forces us to see the world in many different ways and anything that stretches us can be a force for good.

Favorite political jokes?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Red King's Dream

In Through the Looking Glass, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee show Alice the sleeping Red King and tell her that she is merely a part of his dream.

`It's only the Red King snoring,' said Tweedledee.

`Come and look at him!' the brothers cried, and they each took one of Alice's hands, and led her up to where the King was sleeping.

`Isn't he a LOVELY sight?" said Tweedledum.

Alice couldn't say honestly that he was. He had a tall red night-cap on, with a tassel, and he was lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap, and snoring loud -- `fit to snore his head off!' as Tweedledum remarked.

`I'm afraid he'll catch cold with lying on the damp grass,' said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

`He's dreaming now,' said Tweedledee: `and what do you think he's dreaming about?'

Alice said `Nobody can guess that.'

`Why, about YOU!' Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. `And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?'

`Where I am now, of course,' said Alice.

`Not you!' Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. `You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!'

`If that there King was to wake,' added Tweedledum, `you'd go out -- bang! -- just like a candle!'

`I shouldn't!' Alice exclaimed indignantly. `Besides, if I'M only a sort of thing in his dream, what are YOU, I should like to know?'

`Ditto' said Tweedledum.

`Ditto, ditto' cried Tweedledee.

He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn't help saying, `Hush!

You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise.'

`Well, it no use YOUR talking about waking him,' said Tweedledum, `when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real.'

`I AM real!' said Alice and began to cry.

`You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: `there's nothing to cry about.'

`If I wasn't real,' Alice said -- half-laughing though her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous -- `I shouldn't be able to cry.'

`I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

`I know they're talking nonsense,' Alice thought to herself: `and it's foolish to cry about it.'
Is it nonsense?

The dream argument plays prominntly in Descartes' version of skepticism where he argues that every thought could be false because it could all be the result of a dream. Every thought, that is, except that the self exists because there must be a self to have the dream.

But this is what Carroll is questioning here. Does the ability to think guarantee independent existence? Could your thoughts be a part of the dream of someone else? Is "I think, therefore I am" invalid? Should it read "I think, therefore someone -- maybe me, maybe not -- is"? Could parts of your dreams have thoughts or do they just appear to have thoughts in the dream? Could they think if they were your thoughts is it inconsistent to think of such things as capable of thought?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Existenitalism and Young Intellectuals

Why is existentialism so popular among young intellectuals? Is it that the angst and freedom appeal to people at the phase of life when they are typically angst-ridden and on their own, just starting the project of creating their adult selves? Or does it have nothing to do with the doctrine itself and is merely the result of good PR in which the term "existenitalism" has become a stand in for "philosophical" in the parlance of smart kids of approximately that age? If we taught philosophy in the high schools would the attraction to existentialism wane?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Student Entitlement or the Usual Whining?

Interesting article in the National Post, "'Entitled' Students Expect Better Grades". The thesis of the piece is that students today widely believe that in college moderate effort ought to necessarily translate into good grades:

Most university students believe that if they're "trying hard," a professor should reconsider their grade.

One-third say that if they attend most of the classes for a course, they deserve at least a B, while almost one-quarter "think poorly" of professors who don't reply to e-mails the same day they're sent.

Those are among the revelations in a newly published study examining students' sense of academic entitlement, or the mentality that enrolling in post-secondary education is akin to shopping in a store where the customer is always right.

The paper describes academic entitlement as "expectations of high marks for modest effort and demanding attitudes toward teachers."
It is, of course, the birthright of every generation to complain that kids these days are a bunch of lazy slobs who don't work as hard as I did when I was their age and had to (fill in the blank with absurd task happily engaged in under great duress). The right to whine, however, does not mean that the whine is legitimate.

But, is it?

I'm not sure I would say that this generation is any different from mine, but then maybe we were entitled in the same way. At the same time, taking up the crotchety side of the argument, there is no doubt that many students expect to be spoon-fed and not have to work much outside of the classroom. They think that explicitly assigned readings and homework are all they are expected to do on their own. Further, lectures are not only expected to be miraculous in conveying the information, but also edutainment as lively and engaging as a live theatrical performance.

I've taught at nine different schools including community college, state universities, a Catholic college, private liberal arts schools, and a military academy, so I've seen a wide sample of students from any number of demographic categories and pretty much across the board study skills, by in large, seem not to be terribly good anywhere. Students where I am now, for example, complain bitterly about having to take foreign language classes, something that is purely a matter of putting in the time and slogging through the hard process of rewiring part of your brain. "I'm not good at languages," I hear more times than I can count. Of course, pretty much no one is good at them; it just takes the discipline to put in the time, practice, and drilling. Perhaps that is anecdotal evidence for the claim? Of course, it is not terribly good evidence and I'm not convinced that the sense of entitlement is as drastic as portrayed in the article. The phrase "gentleman's C" goes back a long way before this current crop of students.

so, is this a caricature of this generation, just the newest instantiation of "those whippersnappers", "those kids with their rock and roll music", "those dirty hippies with their drugs and free love" or is this inflated sense of entitlement real and unique to this generation? Is it new? Is it a result of the institutionalization of grade inflation? of an unreasonable tenuring process? of high school preparation? Or is it all just the curmudgeonly kvetching of bitter old people?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Meaing of Bachelor Parties


Thinking about wedding rituals today becasue (1) it is LilBro's anniversary (LilBro -- don't forget, man, it's your anniversary), and (2) one of us here at the Playground is getting married very soon and I am playing a role in the ceremony.

TheWife and I have a longstanding argument about rituals in general. She loves them because they bring certain practices into the regular routine of life and those practices can be attached to that which is meaningful, therefore making routine life more meaningful. I argue that the rutualizalation itself strips the meaning away by making it mere motions that are gone thorugh instead of an authentic spontenaous act of appreciation of that which is meaningful.

Weddings, it seems can go either way. LilBro and our friend are going the non-standard wedding route in which they create their own ritual, personalized to express what they and their partners find meaningful. But then there are standard parts before the ritual, specifically, the bachelor party.

The bachelor party was oringinally a celebration of the last night of freedom, but marriage nowadays begins well before the wedding. No one about to get married, in a sense is free the night before the wedding. Certainly, there are those who celebrate with the traditional sorts of debauchery. But for those of us for whom that would not even be considered an option for ethical and social/politcal reasons, what remains of the meaning of the bachelor party?

Sure, it is a celebration of oneself, but is it different from a birthday party? Mine was a poker game with dear friends, one of whom hit me with a coconut cream pie -- for Comedists, this is a deeply meaningful event and I will be ever-grateful to my firends for having colluded to this end. But in general, for enlightened men, what is the meaning of the bachelor party?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Problem of Non-Evil

Is the standard notion of heaven self-consistent? Can you have both the necessary freedom from suffering and freedom of the will for those in heaven? If you say that there is no suffering in heaven because the only people allowed in are those who would never choose to inflict it, then it is not necessary, but contingent. There could be suffering in heaven, but there just happens not to be because of the choices. On the other hand, if God can guarantee it, say, by over-ruling or correcting for free choices that would inflict suffering on others in heaven, then it surely is a much less robust notion of free will than we would want. There is no corresponding problem with the concept of hell, because we could strip away free will or not and still have plenty of suffering, but with heaven we seem to have a concern. So, can the freedom of the will and freedom from suffering be reconciled in a way that saves necessity?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Passing the Plate

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

I will be at a conference all weekend without a chance to give a proper homily. I do humbly apologize. But, as with any church, there is always time to pass the plate. Others ask for money, but we ask that you tithe jokes. So, dig deep, my friends.

I was asked by a student in class Friday what my favorite joke is. Turns out it is here (the last one). But it seems a good question to throw out to the congregation. What is your favorite joke?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

(Good brother RonZ, next weekend will be the post I promised...I promise)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why Do You Know That?

Here's a new something that is probably worth trying and if it goes well, maybe we'll make it an irregular. It's the converse of "any questions." The idea is to contribute those bits of knowledge that seem really cool even if they are not directly applicable to anything.

-- The letters YKK that you find on many zippers stands for the initials of Yoshida Company Limited transliterated from Japanese.

-- Hamsters can run up to seven miles a night on their little exercise wheels.

-- Charles Darwin's grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china, the father of English potters.

-- We can dream at any point during the sleep cycle, not just during REM sleep.

-- Original title of the Beatles' song "Yesterday" was "Scrambled Eggs."

What some some interesting factoids that you know for no good reason?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Not So Black and White

When Branch Rickey gave Jackie Robinson the chance to play on the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was historic. It was an important point in the narrative of race that is an essential thread for anyone who wants to understand our national story. But, be clear, it was not evidence that we were not a racist society. Indeed, it provided a context to demonstrate exactly how racist we, in fact, were.

There has been a tidal wave of American self-congratulations in the last day on how wonderful we are to have elected an African-American, how we are the only country in the world in which this sort of thing could happen, and how we stand apart from all other nations morally because it. I am in no way saying it is not a fantastic result. "Content of his character" is sadly becoming a cliche, but Obama's brains, rock-steady temperament, and care for people combine to truly make him what I believe will be a once in a lifetime leader at a time when we really, really, really need one. Like Jackie Robinson, no doubt it took someone so disciplined and talented to make it to the office. A black George W. Bush could never have made it.

But this election is not black and white. It was not a demonstration of having gone quite so far in terms of our embrace of difference and an end to bigotry. Yes, it was a tremendous step forward, but just as with the Jackie Robinson case, that step afforded the opportunity to avoid the Disneyesque approach we seem to be caught up in and to take an honest appraisal of what just happened in this election.

We saw both Democratic and Republicans race-baiting. The Clintons and their surrogates like Geraldine Ferrarro and many on the right did not make overtly racist attacks, but did clearly use dog-whistle means of invoking race to try to gain a political advantage. They used racists as tools, as convenient idiots. Should we be proud of the facts that they kept this to a significantly lower degree than they could have and that it did not ultimately work? Sure. But let's not kid ourselves, and no one with an e-mail address and conservative family members surely can.

But the real intolerance and bigotry came out in other ways. It took Colin Powell to say, and so what if we was a Muslim. Anti-Islamic bigotry was rampant. "He's an Arab." "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man. A citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not." A decent family man, as opposed to an Arab...

Then there was the Liddy Dole ad that accused Senator-elect Kay Hagen of being, gasp, an atheist. No, no, no, people rushed to her aid, she's a Sunday school teacher and an elder in her Presbyterian church. Dole got slammed for the ad and it may have been one of the things that ultimately cost her her seat. but was it because it was false or was it because we still see "atheist" as a hit below the belt. Godless clearly means immoral, right?

But perhaps the most disgusting result of the night were the ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Florida that wrote into law provisions stripping rights from our fellow citizens who happen to be gay and lesbian. Jim Crow is back, or at least Jim Crow's gay child. The law has been changed to enforce bigotry and hatred. This is horrific, but that it happened while we are all so busy back-slapping ourselves about how open-minded we are puts it clearly in the "irony can be so ironic" file.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It Wasn't An Election, It Was An Intervention

Rest of the world, it's o.k., we're back on our meds. The prodigal nation has returned.

Random thoughts about the election:

Obama won in large part because he ran a different sort of campaign in so many ways:

(1) No drama. Discipline. The focus was always on Obama and never on the inside of the organization. Additionally, he was never dramatic in the debates, but rather cool and steady and that gave him his teflon against the "he's so scary" and "he's naive" attacks because he seemed incredibly in control and reasonable.

(2) His people included precious few of the standard issue D.C. insider consultants who only know how to effectively lose to Republicans. The Democratic party has been the Washington Generals of American politics for the last two decades. He used his own people and brought in a new mindset.

(3) He played smarter, not just harder. He beat McCain the same way he beat Clinton -- he figured out how to play the game according to the rules. His team figured out that if he did well in caucus states during the primaries, he could get an insurmountable lead. Similarly, that he could lock up a number of votes by working states the have early voting. These are people who are strategic.

But there are others who played a huge role. Obama could not have done what he did if it was not for Howard Dean. In his own run in 2004, Dean's supporters created the web infrastructure that Obama's people stepped in and supercharged. His run also galvanized the anti-institutional wing of the Democratic party which turned en masse against Hilary who represented the old (loser) guard of the Democratic party. Once he was made head of the Democratic National Committee, he turned the party from a 17 state party that only focused on safe very blue regions and sucked money from state parties into D.C. to only focus on top of the ticket national races into a 50 state party that send money from D.C. into places Democrats had never been seen in order to run for everything from dog catcher on up.

Hilary Clinton was another whose contributions can't be overlooked. Her campaigning may have done a little, but it is nothing compared to what her kitchen sink, refuse to die primary run did. It gave Obama all the calluses, used up all the negative attacks the GOP could have thrown, making them all old news. It allowed him to set up and test his ground game in all 50 states and gave him early databases full of ardent supporters who could then be tapped in the general to lead the get out the vote efforts. Hilary's never ending campaign worked as a tough practice scrimmage for the Obama organization, who could then look at all the parts and see what needed tweaking and what ran smoothly.

The contribution of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W., and the religious right in general cannot be overlooked. Dover, Katrina, and the lack of WMDs in Iraq undd everything Rove worked so hard to do. Reagan and Clinton won by winning both their respective bases and the middle. Gore and Kerry tried to do the same, but Rove decided to simply eliminate the middle, forcing a complete split in the electorate with the idea that their half is more likely to vote. The country was intentionally and incredibly divided for the purpose of electing Republicans. The utter failure of Bush's reign which was predicated upon Rove's notion that you don't have to govern if you just continually campaign (and campaign negatively) undid the divide by making the center so disgusted by both the tone of the campaigning and the incompetence of the administration that they reappeared in a way that left them open to a great Democratic candidate.

Finally, there was also Steve Schmidt and John McCain who ran an incoherent campaign based on tricks and tactics. They did virtually nothing with the five weeks after his nomination while Obama and Clinton battled it out. That's not to mention the Palin selection. Aside from that, they ran the same exact campaign as Clinton did: experience, then experience to bring change, then I'm a fighter, then kitchen sink. It didn't work the first time and it didn't work the second time.

Other election issues:

Abortion ballot initiative aborted in South Dakota, but damned homophobic ballot measures pass, even in California. Culture War not pulling the troops out all together, but apparently putting reinforcements on bringing out Jim Crow's gay child, Jamie Crow.

Tim Mahoney, the adulterous lying scumbag that took Tom Foley's seat in Florida, lost big. That's a good thing.

Liddy Dole goes down. Thank God for Godless Americans.

Chris Shays, the last Republican representative in New England, is gone. Maybe now the GOP will see the wisdom of the Endangered Species Act.

Neo-McCarthyist Michelle Bachman looks to have destroyed El Tinklinberg's bid to become the first member of Congress to have a name that sounds like a Jewish-Mexican character from Peter Pan.

Got phone polled by one of the big pollsters last night during the returns. All the usual questions, except one: "How often do you shop at WalMart?" Very interesting.

Looking like Ted Stevens was re-elected AFTER his seven count felony conviction for corruption. Apparently salmon is not the only thing that gets smoked up there.