Friday, May 18, 2007

Technical Difficulties/Service Advisory

As my massive and devoted fanbase has probably noticed, I haven't blogged in quite a while. Due to a broken laptop and a hectic work schedule, I haven't had much free time and opportunity to blog.

My laptop is now fixed, which removes one obstacle, but my work is as demanding as ever. For this reason, I don't think it will be possible for me to keep this blog running as a solo project for the forseeable future.

I don't want to stop blogging entirely, though, so for the time being I'm going to sign on as a part-time contributor at Runes. I'll contribute when I can, which may not be often, but the indefatiguable team of MJ O'Brien and Geaghan can surely pick up any slack.

I will keep this site operational in the hope that I can find the time to get it running again. I'll make an announcement here and at Runes if and when that happens.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day: defining sexism, plus a few scattered thoughts...

I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with something interesting to say for Blog Against Sexism Day--otherwise known as International Women's Day--and coming up with little besides: sexism is really bad! But that hardly seems enough.

To take our customary linguistic approach, I thought I might talk a little about the word sexism, which is incredibly vague and frequently misused or misunderstood. As I see it, there are three basic senses of sexism:

1. Actively holding negative views of people on the basis of nothing but their sex. (E.g., active misogyny.)

2. The whole system of enforced gender inequality in our society--in pay, in expectations about proper behavior and sexual expression, in expectations about housework and childrearing, etc.

3. The deep-set, unconscious inability to see people as people--as fully autonomous agents--due to their sex.*

As with racism, as I've said before, I think people often fail to distinguish between sexism in the sense of openly-held negative attitudes and sexism in the structural sense.

Relatively few people are sexist in the sense that they actually knowingly believe that, say, women are inferior. Just about all of us unknowingly or unwillingly reinforce the sexist structure of our society. But I've made this point before.

What interests me more here is the distinction between definition 1 and definition 3. A great many people (not only men!) who have no conscious animus against women do find themselves dehumanizing women in various ways all the time, by supposing that their sex by itself defines the scope of their agency. This variety of sexism is distinct from outright misogyny because it can, and often does, take the form of a kind of worshipful attitude toward women.

One example of this phenomenon is the "Nice Guy Syndrome", discussed with great eloquence--and with some very interesting follow-up discussion--by Auguste at Pandagon.

The Nice Guy, who I must admit I have resembled from time to time in my own life, is the Guy who constantly complains about how women only like assholes and wonders how they can be so stupid as to fail to recognize that said Nice Guy, who worships the ground they stand on, would be so much better for them, the dumb bitches...

The Nice Guy is sexist, though he does not in fact have any actively negative feelings toward women, because his attitude fails to acknowledge women's autonomy in a pretty basic way. He supposes that all these women who fall for assholes are making a mistake about their own preferences: that they would, if they only knew, prefer the Nice Guy. But this overlooks the rather basic point that women themselves can be assholes, and can knowingly have preferences that the Nice Guy finds objectionable. The Nice Guy can't admit to himself that women can be assholes, because he puts them on a pedestal. Thus, he doesn't treat women as fully-fledged autonomous human beings. (This only stratches the surface of the awfulness of the Nice Guy--see Auguste for a fuller picture.)

It's also possible to have nothing but (what you believe to be) the highest regard for women, but to treat women as fragile china dolls, or as beautifully well-constructed baby-making machines, or as the best sort of household servant imaginable.

In general, it is not enough to count as non-sexist to have what you believe to be a glowing love for women. It's possible, after all, to have a glowing love for your blow-up toy, but that's not the same thing as having respect for an equally autonomous human being.

For this reason (among many others, of course), it is considerably more difficult to eradicate sexism than most people are willing to acknowledge. The dehumanization of women runs so deep in our culture that it expresses itself even in and through our attempts to eradicate it. (Most Nice Guys are self-avowed feminists, after all--that's part of their alleged niceness.) Even achieving full structural and economic equality might well not be enough, because the sexual resentment that forms its root won't just go away if women achieve pay equity and Hillary gets elected president...


*I want to make it clear that I'm not leaving the gender specification vague here because I think that we ought to worry ourselves about sexism against men, which seems a non-issue to me, but because putting the point in terms of nothing but sexism against women would leave out the pervasive discrimination against transgendered and intersexed people, which definitely is an issue.

On the irrelevance of "tone"

Reading through this week's New York Times Book Review, I came across Jacob Heilbrunn's review of (among other things) Joe Conason's new book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.

Conason's basic point, as quoted by Heilbrunn, is that
It is possible that the future of democratic governance in America will be determined in the final two years of the Bush presidency, when the Republicans may yet secure a court majority that reinterprets the Constitution as a mandate for theocratic dominion and untrammeled presidential power. That would raise the real prospect of an authoritarian regime acting under color of the Constitution and the law while eviscerating both.
While he shares Conason's political sympathies in large part, Heilbrunn finds the book lacking in various respects. This is all well and good; I haven't read the book and don't particularly intend to do so--since I don't really feel that my rage against Bush needs any more fuel at this point--so I obviously can't try to argue that Heilbrunn's negative response isn't warranted. I am troubled, however, by the form the criticism takes.

Heilbrunn seems distressed most not by any particular disagreements on matters of substance, but by Conason's tone:
Conason appears to view the administration's machinations with something approaching lascivious horror. His language is seldom less than apocalyptic.


In his zeal to indict the Republicans, Conason sounds as strident as Karl Rove depicting the Democrats as gutless appeasers.
Now, I can understand distaste for "apocalyptic" language on aesthetic grounds, but I don't think that's really the substance of the criticism here. Heilbrunn seems distressed by the fact that Conason is strident at all, not by the particular way in which he expresses his stridency.

I find this attitude confusing, though it is surprisingly common, particularly among mainstream pundits. Why should stridency itself be objectionable? Aren't there at least some situations that warrant stridency? (Surely the stridency of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr., was warranted, yes?) There are two possibilities here. One could, I suppose, insist that all stridency is equally objectionable--even stridency against Hitler or Stalin--which I think no-one really believes. Alternately, one could admit that stridency itself isn't really the issue: the issue is whether the circumstances warrant stridency.

I'm inclined to think that all criticisms of "tone" amount to a kind of dodge: by criticizing someone for their stridency, what you are in fact saying is that the circumstances don't warrant their reaction--a claim about the content of what they are saying--without actually having to come out and make a case for your position. Derisively attaching the label "strident" to someone like Conason, who I suspect wishes to convince us all to be more strident in opposing Bush, is particularly disingenuous.

(It should be noted that Heilbrunn does have some substantive criticisms of Conason. He says, e.g., that Conason doesn't appreciate that the real problem with Bush is his incompetence, not his fascistic tendencies. I find this criticism problematic--though certainly not because I think Bush is competent!--since it can lead too easily into a dangerously comforting complacency.)

In any event, I think there's a very general principle here: tone in itself is always and everywhere irrelevant. What matters is the justification for the use of a particular tone, which is a matter of substance, not of tone itself.

Heilbrunn's own example, Karl Rove, is a perfect test case. Does anyone--really, anyone at all on the planet--object to Rove because he's too strident, in and of itself? I find this hard to believe. Rove is objectionable because he's a deceitful and manipulative son of a bitch, not because he's strident in his rhetoric. His stridency is objectionable because it's manipulative and disingenuous--and, more importantly, because the claims he makes are always wildly false--not simply because it's strident.

As another test case, consider the radical anti-abortion movement, an objectionably "strident" group if there ever was one. Are they really objectionable because they are strident? I don't think so. If abortion really were a modern-day holocaust, their stridency would make perfect sense--it would even be morally mandated, perhaps. Their strident rhetoric and tactics are objectionable because their views are insane, not because they lack proper decorum.

Rejecting an argument because it is expressed with a degree of force you find repellent is like rejecting an argument because it is expressed in Chinese.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: truth, faith and decision-making

Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has a wonderful post up that makes two very important points:

1. Religions and religious people get away too easily with claiming that they have access to a "special way of knowing" through the exercise of their faith that allows them to see truth and falsity and right and wrong, somehow, without evidence or argument, and with justifying their actions on the basis of this mysterious faculty.

2. The very popular idea (even among secularists) that we ought to respect religion because of the good things it has done for society leaves out accounting for opportunity costs. As he puts it:
So, when it comes to selling religion for the good that it does, we need to ask what could have been done with the same resources and the same effort. We must not only at the good that people do in the name of God and call this “the good that religion does.” We must look at the good that the devotion of these resources to religion prevented from being done. This becomes the cost of religion.
I don't actually have much to add to Alonzo's post (which deserves to be read in full, of course), except to make a couple of points about the connection between his ideas and secularism.

Firstly, these two points together sum up my biggest problem with enterprises like the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (the title of which has apparently been changed to "Faith-Based and Community Initiatives", in a remarkably lame and questionably syntactical nod to secularism). Certainly, religious groups can and do help people all the time, but that in itself isn't even enough to find those groups admirable, since they might do more harm than good when looking at the broader picture. It certainly isn't enough to show that those groups are the best and most efficient way of spending the government's money to help people, which would be the only justification for spending the money on them in lieu of actual governmental social welfare programs. And, of course, there are all kinds of reasons for believing that the Faith-Based Initiatives are inefficient and don't provide the best services. (If examples are necessary, consider abstinence-only sex ed and the ridiculous marriage-promotion program I talk about here.)

One of the most important reasons to maintain a wall of separation between church and state is to avoid precisely this kind of situation: the government wasting money, time and effort (and even lives, in some cases) because it feels beholden to particular religious ways of tackling problems based on "special" ways of knowing the solutions to problems. As I see it, there are three ways that this can take place:

1. The cynical deference to religion shown by the Bush Administration in establishing the OFBI, which is almost certainly motivated by little other than contempt for social programs and a desire to shore up the religious right.

2. Outright theocracy or semi-theocracy, in which the government makes decisions on the basis of the outright or implicit establishment of religion--where the government itself claims to participate in the "special way of knowing".

This corresponds to our current situation to a certain extent, though not to the extent of, say, Saudi Arabia. Certainly politicians make policy arguments on the basis of religious claims all the time, and the government gives money to religious groups directly through OFBI. (OFBI may not constitute the establishment of any particular religion, but it definitely constitutes accepting the legitimacy of making decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, which is problematic enough.)

3. A situation in which the government itself makes decisions on a secular basis but allows enormous leeway for its citizens to make decisions on the basis of their "special" ways of knowing.

This certainly corresponds to our current situation, but it's debatable whether it's a problem from a secularist point of view. Certainly, people ought to be allowed to think what they like, but ought they be allowed to make decisions on the basis of whatever they like if those decisions affect other people? I certainly don't think so, but there's a tricky gray area here. It's one thing to say that people shouldn't be allowed to kill people on the basis of their religious beliefs and quite another to say that they shouldn't, say, make their daughters wear veils...

In any event, the point I'm trying to make is that secularism is important not just for the sake of our civil liberties in the abstract, but for keeping our government responsive to reality. To the extent that a government allows itself to make decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, it severs itself from reality and (perhaps more crucially) from accountability. (You can't have accountability without evidence.) That those "special" ways of knowing often line up just fine with reality is no comfort. We need our government to be responsive to us and to the facts, not just to the voices in our politicians' heads.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Against Nihilism

The Earth as seen from Voyager 1, at a distance of over 4 billion miles.

Surfing through the Atheist Blogroll, I see that Louie at the straightforwardly-titled blog Everything is Pointless has a lovely post quoting one of my childhood heroes, Carl Sagan, on the insignificance of the Earth in the vast universe:
Our posturings, our imagined self- importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in a great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness their is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves, it is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling and even character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. For me it underscores our responsibility, our profound responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot the only home we have ever known.
Lovely though Sagan's writing may be, and glad as I am to be directed to it, I thoroughly disagree with Louie's conclusion--which might be expected--that this sort of perspective on the Earth shows us that Everything is Pointless.

I don't think Sagan meant this line of reasoning to support this sort of nihilism at all. As I see it, he's making a different point: a subtle jab at religion ("no hint that help will come from elsewhere") and a call for humbleness and human solidarity in light of our basic aloneness in a vast universe--which solidarity would itself surely be pointless if everything is such. But of course this doesn't prove Louie wrong, it just shows that he's making a separate point from Sagan's.

Louie's point seems to be the following, which is a surprisingly common argument for nihilism: our tinyness relative to the rest of the universe proves our total insignificance and the meaninglessness of the things we find important--which are, after all, such tiny things in the grand scheme.

I find this argument interesting because it somehow seems very compelling, but it doesn't actually make any sense.

Why should the size of something have anything to do with its claim to importance? To borrow a point from the philosopher Thomas Nagel: are short people less important and meaningful than tall people? Would we have reason to think ourselves twice as important if the universe were half its size? Surely this is absurd, so why does the size of the universe make us feel meaningless?

I would guess that people think this way because they tend to assume that the meaningfulness of our lives depends on our ability to affect the world outside ourselves. In some sense, that's surely true, but the dependency isn't a linear one: to live a meaningful human life, we have to have meaningful relationships with others, etc., but this doesn't mean that we are only important to the degree that we can affect the outside world. In the same way that the meaningfulness of a book or a piece of music doesn't directly depend on how many people it affects (otherwise the latest Danielle Steele would have to count as much more meaningful than, say, Kafka), the meaningfulness of a human life need not depend on the percentage of the square-footage of the universe that it affects.

But there's a deeper problem here. The premise of this form of nihilism depends on our ability to do something that I believe is impossible: to take a perspective entirely outside of all human affairs and forms of valuation, and then, by applying some sort of "outside" standards, to find all those affairs and forms of valuation to be lacking in significance. I don't think this sort of transcendent perspective actually makes any sense. To find something lacking is to apply our already-existing forms of valuation--the same forms that we are supposed to find lacking! I don't think it really makes sense to turn our intellect in on itself in this way.

In any event, I think it's vital to distinguish between atheism and nihilism. It should be obvious that disbelief in the Sky Fairy shouldn't require disbelief in meaningfulness itself, but many people seem to believe it does. The "astronomical perspective" does, I think, give some limited weight to the case for atheism, inasmuch as it overturns old religious ideas of our place in the universe, but it gives none to nihilism.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Atheist Blogroll

As you can see, I've signed Disambiguation up for the Atheist Blogroll, which seems like a useful resource. The list of sites on the dashboard of the blog here will be a rotating sample of the more than 200 other blogs on the list. I'll be certain to check them out, and I hope my massive and adoring audience will do the same.

Case studies in disingenuousness: "micromanaging" the war?

According to the White House Language Abuse Secretary, Tony Snow, Congressional attempts to change US military policy in Iraq constitute "micromanagement" of the war.

It's objectionable enough that this sort of business buzzword-speak gets so much play in Washington, but what's far worse is the absurd inapplicability of the accusation itself. The Wikipedia entry for the term "micromanagement" defines it thusly:
In business management, micromanagement is a management style where a manager closely observes or controls the work of their employees, generally used as a pejorative term. In contrast to giving general instructions on smaller tasks while supervising larger concerns, the micromanager monitors and assesses every step.
Does anyone in the White House really expect us to believe that even they think that the current Congressional debate on Iraq constitutes this sort of close monitoring of "every step" of the war?

Take, for example, Carl Levin's proposal, as discussed in the CNN article:
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said senators are working on a draft of a binding resolution that would replace the 2002 authorization. It would set a March 2008 goal for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops and limit the mission of remaining units to training and supporting Iraqi troops and hunting al Qaeda terrorists.
This hypothetical bill would fundamentally alter the US military's strategy in Iraq. It would alter not only the nature of the military deployment but our understanding of its purpose. (As of now, of course, understanding its purpose is impossible, since its purpose seems to be defined no more concretely than "victory!!!") The Iraq deployment would be transformed from a full-scale anti-insurgency operation bogged down in a sectarian civil war to a far more modest operation.

There may be plenty of reasons to oppose Levin's plan, of course--I'm not certain how I feel about it myself--but objecting to it on the grounds that it constitutes "micromanagement" is absurd. Management is supposed to be about guiding the general strategic vision, which is exactly what this hypothetical bill would do. It wouldn't contain any tactical specifics about how to put the plan into action.

Calling this sort of Congressional action "micromanagement" is so absurd that I don't think even the White House really thinks the term applies. They object not to Congressional micromanagement specifically so much as they object to any Congressional management of the war, as is apparent from the following line from Snow's diatribe:
Snow said that kind of proposal would put constraints on troops in the field, not the president. "The people whose hands end up being tied are the folks who are in the theater of battle themselves," he said.
It's interesting to imagine what might happen if this same logic were applied to business management situations. Would it fly if I were to object to having to, say, follow the very strict confidentiality rules at the treatment center I work at, on the basis that they tie my hands and the managers who insist on them aren't in the "field of battle" on the res floor themselves? Surely not. Does Snow really expect us to weep for the soldiers whose hands are "tied" by having to follow the orders of their civilian leadership?

Snow seems to be saying that any civilian control of the military amounts to objectionable micromanagement, which is itself a pretty fascistic idea. But I don't think even this is really the Administration's position, because they aren't actually worried about the military's autonomy but about maintaining their own control over all military decisions. This idea that we need to leave decisions up to the military commanders in the field is a pretty obvious smokescreen for the idea that we ought to leave all decisions up to the White House. (Especially obvious from the fact that the military commanders in the field make their decisions on the basis of orders from the President anyway, since he is their Commander in Chief and all.)

The real position of the White House is that Congress has no power of management over the military at all, not that they are misusing that power. But they can't just come out and say that, because of the pesky old Constitution, so they disingenuously claim that they object only to "micromanagement". Surely this is so transparently absurd that few people will buy into it, but it is in another sense a very clever rhetorical ploy--everyone hates being micromanaged, after all--and we ought to do everything we can to fight it. And, more generally, to fight this Administration's abuse of words to serve its own disingenuousness, which does more harm to the English language than any of Bush's ungrammatic gaffes.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging...

...will return next week. Hectic weekend. No time for church or state, let alone both at once.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

On the practical application of tautologies

Wunderkind dove-come-lately blogger Matthew Yglesias makes an amusing point about the discourse surrounding just war theory and pacifism:
"Contrary to popular belief, international relations scholars are not doves," according to a new survey of IR scholars (Foreign Policy article here; full results here; hat-tip Daniel Drezner), "most believe that military force is warranted under the right conditions."

What do the others believe? That it's warranted under the wrong conditions? Unwarranted even when the conditions are right?
Much though this might seem like nothing more than a silly choice of words on the part of the survey authors, I've actually run across this particular pattern of reasoning many times.

The pattern seems to go something like this: First, assume that opposition to the current war, or to most wars, amounts to opposition to all war as such. (The presumption of pacifism; an unfortunately common error.) Then, and this is the step that Matt points out, assume that what it means to oppose war as such is to oppose war even when the war is in fact warranted and just.

Saying that war is warranted under the right conditions is a tautology; it amounts to exactly the same thing, for example, as saying that war is warranted whenever war is warranted. It tells you literally nothing about when and whether those conditions ever apply, or what it means for war to be warranted. Yet somehow this tautology seems meaningful enough to people that it manages to sneak into prestigious political science journals.

This sort of misreading of the logic of opposition to war is problematic because it turns an argument about the morality of a particular war into an argument about pacifism and just war theory in the abstract, but also because it distorts the playing field of the abstract argument. It makes the pacifist position seem far stronger than it needs to be, by making it seem as though the pacifist must believe that war is never warranted by definition: that "the right conditions" is somehow a nonsensical concept.

To the extent that I am a pacifist--which depends a lot on the strictness of one's definition of the term--I am what's called a "pragmatic pacifist": I don't disagree that war is warranted under the right conditions, or think that those conditions are without content, I simply believe that those conditions never occur, or occur so rarely that they might as well never occur. I'm not opposed to war in all imaginable situations, in the sense that I wouldn't oppose waging war on the armies of Sauron if we lived in Middle Earth, but I'm opposed to war in pretty much every circumstance that has any realistic chance of coming up in the real world.

(For me, the distinction between war and military action short of war--"police" action of various kinds--is crucial. I don't oppose all military action. I just oppose military action aimed at the conquering and subjugating of entire nations.)

I don't intend to defend this position right now, but only to point out that the line of reasoning displayed in the Foreign Policy article doesn't allow any space for it. If I were given the tautological survey question, I'd be tempted to answer "No", simply due to annoyance at being asked to confirm a tautology as if it were something meaningful, but this would be a distortion of what I actually think. I suspect that a goodly portion of the survey's actual respondents had similar reactions, and thus that we can learn absolutely nothing from it.


More generally, I'm always amused when people frame questions in tautological terms.

An acquaintance of mine once asked me if I'd marry and settle down if I found "the right" girl. Well, what is the right girl? Isn't it the girl with whom it would be right to get married and settle down?

Surely the point of the question was to ask if I was ready, at this point in my life, to seriously consider doing this--which, by the way, I'm certainly not--but this isn't even remotely the right way to go about asking that question. I may not be psychologically disposed to get married right now, but what it would mean for me to find the right girl would be for me to find a girl with whom it would be right regardless of my doubts.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: religion, science and the limits of democracy

One of my favorite theists, Fred Clark at slacktivist, has pointed out a disturbing example of lunatic religious extremism infecting our political process.

The story so far: lunatic Christian anti-intellectual writes books (and sets up a website) arguing that the Copernican Revolution was all based on lies, and that the Earth is the unmoving center of the universe, as he apparently believes that the Bible says. I'm not sure why even the most literal reading of the Bible would require this but not require a Flat Earth (given the references to its "corners"), but apparently this is his view. He also believes, variously, that the world is run by a dark conspiracy of secular Jewish financiers and that modern biology is a hoax propagated by this conspiracy to lure the True Believers into the waiting arms of Satan.

All this so far is garden-variety psychosis, and hardly worth mentioning. The story gets more interesting, though, when one of the lunatic's arguments--that Darwinian biology is really a religious movement, and hence that its establishment in public school curricula violates the establishment clause of the Constitution--starts to get real play among Republican politicians. Fred Clark examines how this has happened and explains why we should find it troubling, and I agree with his take entirely.

I am less interested in this case for its specifics than I am in the general principles involved. Only a few actual politicians--and none higher than a State Representative--actually signed off on any of this, and I doubt it will go much further, since its inherent absurdity is so obvious. The whole thing set me to wonder, though: what would happen, and what ought we to do, if it were to go much further?

In our political system, the structure and content of public school education--as well as a sizable portion of funding for basic scientific research--is dependent on a political process. Since this process is (at least nominally) democratic, this means that people who know absolutely nothing about science have exactly as much of a say in what gets taught in science classes as actual scientists and professional educators. In principle, it's entirely possible that a mass movement of "fixed earthers" could force a catastrophic change in our educational system through mounting campaigns to get real scientists thrown out of their jobs, to defund basic research that goes against their "Biblical" principles, to install True Believers in administrative positions, etc.

To a certain extent, we've experienced this phenomenon already, even on a national scale, with the Bush Administration's manipulation of science for political ends. (Read Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science. Now!) But thus far, our scientific and educational institutions have proven to be very resilient and resistant to right-wing pressure. The pressure the Administration has put on climatologists has adversely affected national climate change policy, but, thankfully, it hasn't actually silenced the climatologists. The pressure put on reproductive health science has adversely affected the way sex ed is taught in public schools, and the FDA's policies on abortificant drugs, the HPV vaccine, etc., but hasn't actually silenced the scientists and doctors. But since our educational system is utterly dependent on democratic political processes, nothing prevents such a silencing from taking place.

My question: Is this a structural problem? Would a proper solution involve changing our political system to make science and education entirely separate (or as separate as possible) from politics? Or is this a battle that will always have to be fought in the political realm?

I am of two minds about this.

I do not think that anyone has the right to foist their psychotic and demonstrably false ideas upon the rest of us, even if those ideas are held by a majority of the population. The basic human right to a voice in politics does not encompass a right to obscure the truth through ignorance, malice or twisted ideology. We have the right to live in ignorance and darkness ourselves if we so choose, of course, but not the right to cut other people off from the light.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it cuts both ways. "Fixed earthers" would say, in almost the exact same words, that the dastardly Jewish Darwinists don't have the right to cut other people off from the light of (their bizarre version of) Biblical Truth. The fixed-earthers are wrong: their ideas are stupid and insane. But that is neither here nor there; whether they or the reality-based win out depends upon persuasion, not truth.

Our political system is, in this sense, truth-neutral. Whether an idea is true, as an independent variable, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens politically. The truth of an idea only contributes to its persuasiveness to the extent that people are rational. Now, I can't help but consider this a problem. Whether something is true ought to matter, and demonstrable falsehoods should never be able to beat out truths. Our political system should not be truth-neutral.

The problem with abandoning truth-neutrality is that it's unclear how it could be done without establishing some kind of tyranny, by, say, enshrining (some) scientists as infallible, which would surely be undesirable, and probably detrimental to the progress of science itself. Tyrannies of this form tend--like the semi-tyranny of Scholastic philosophers in late medieval times--to ossify intellectual practice into a set of irrational dogmas.

There is no obvious way of establishing truth as a political value and a principle of government without thereby establishing some particular person or group as the recognized Voice of Truth, which is always and everywhere dangerous. Having something recognized as true because it is spoken by the Voice of Truth is no better than having it recognized as truth because it is (merely) persuasive. We want people to recognize things as true because they're true, not for some reason external to their truth. But how can this be accomplished?

The only solution I can see is to work to make people and society more rational. (Through improving education, etc.) For now at least, unfortunately, this has to be a political fight as much as an intellectual one.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Some thoughts on the embodiment of the mind...

Everyone ought to check out this fascinating post by Tristero at Hullabaloo, a response to Deepak Chopra's latest burst of irrationalism.

Chopra says:
Now let's say that a man loses his job, becomes depressed, and wants a prescription for Prozac. What made him depressed isn't the imbalance of serotonin in his brain but the loss of his job. Yet science continues to offer this kind of wrong explanation all the time. It mistakes agency for cause. The brain is serving as the agent of the mind, it isn't causing mind.
Tristero rightly points out that this is dualistic nonsense, since it's unclear what kind of non-brain mental causation (or "agency") he might be talking about other than some kind of spooky causation by supernatural entities. (God or souls/ghosts.)

I would add to Tristero's complaint that it's particularly ridiculous to describe the brain as the "agent" of the mind. Agency, which means to me the ability to perform purposeful actions, is something that people possess, not something that their individual body parts possess. Just as it's a bit odd to say that my hand is my agent, since my hand has no will of its own, it's odd to say that the brain is any kind of agent. I assume Chopra is operating on some other sense of the word "agency", but I really can't tell what this might be. He seems to be saying that the mind is (or can be) a cause of events but the brain is just an agent; on my reading, this is at best the opposite of the truth and at worst totally incoherent. People really need to be careful about their definitions when they talk about these things.

Apart from my objections, however, I'd like to point out that there isn't literally nothing to what Chopra is saying.

It's true that physical, chemical causes play a very important role in many forms of depression, and that pharmaceutical interventions can be entirely appropriate and are sometimes absolutely necessary. What is not true, however, is that depression ought to be defined as a particular kind of chemical imbalance or other simple, "merely" physical state.

A state of mind or way of living counts as a form of depression only if it conforms to a certain set of societal expectations. If someone functions perfectly well, self-reports a reasonable degree of happiness and displays none of the commonly accepted signs of depression in her interactions with people, she will not and should not be considered depressed, regardless of her brain chemistry. As far as what counts as depression goes, your head might as well be full of straw; what matters is how you live your life.

Now, of course, it's true that the correlation between chemical imbalance and serious psychiatric depression is quite strong. Some serotonin/dopamine imbalances are (at least) almost always present when depressive behavior and self-reporting are present. Depressing life events can trigger these imbalances, just as they trigger depression itself, and if such imbalances were artificially induced--as they can be by frequent use of drugs like ecstasy--they (at least) almost always lead to major depression.

This very strong form of correlation is not enough to identify depression itself with a particular kind of brain state. Correlation, even 100% correlation, is not the same as identification. In this case, the identification doesn't work because it doesn't actually make sense. It makes no sense to say (except, perhaps, as a sort of metaphor) that your brain is depressed, any more than it would make sense to say that a rock is depressed. People get depressed, not brains, because people can do things, can feel emotions and perform actions that reveal their emotions. People have life histories, relationships with others, careers, etc. Brains do not. (It is nonsense, for instance, to say that my brain teaches philosophy at a community college, even though it is obviously necessary for me to have a brain to do so--I am the one doing the teaching, not my brain.)

In short: a brain is a part of someone, if an absolutely critical part; it is not what defines them as a person. What defines us as people has as much to do with things outside our body--our society, our historical era, our personal history--as it has to do with whatever the current chemical state of our brain may be. (Note that none of these factors are spooky and supernatural: "society" is a bunch of human bodies moving around, making noises and altering the surrounding environment in various ways--a very, very complicated physical process, but a physical process nonetheless.)

None of this excuses Chopra, of course. He is still wrong to say that the brain doesn't cause depression--it can and does. But this doesn't mean that these brain states literally are the same thing as depression. And this is, I would hope, a good starting point for a more legitimate critique of psychiatric practice: to an unfortunate extent, psychiatrists have come to identify brain states and depression, and thus (I think) to value pharmaceutical treatments more than counselling. We don't have to be dualists to find this problematic.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: fake controversies and "respecting" religion

In light of the ridiculous Amanda Marcotte/Shakespeare's Sister "controversy", I've been doing some thinking about the warped nature of our national discourse about religion.

The story so far, for those who have been lost in the woods for the past week: Amanda and Shakes get hired by the Edwards campaign. Right-wing bloggers go crazy and scour their blogs for "offensive" content, find a few jabs at Catholics (as well as some other allegedly-offensive stuff I won't bother with here), and try to get them fired. Edwards keeps them on but claims to be personally offended by their comments. (For more on the fake controversy, see just about every other political blog. There's way too much there for me to try to link to all of it.)

As a big fan of both targeted bloggers, and as a blogger (that no-one reads, maybe, but a blogger nonetheless!) who criticizes religion with some frequency, I consider myself to have something of a personal stake in this. The treatment these bloggers have received from the right-wing blogosphere troubles me for lots of reasons, but I'm far more troubled by the response from liberals and Democrats--and from Edwards himself: taking offense, but considering the offense insufficient to disqualify them for the job.

"Offensive" political rhetoric is not only tolerated but entirely expected in political blogs. That Amanda frequently drops the dreaded F-bomb and calls Republicans idiots, fascists, etc. is considered so par-for-the-course that even those calling for her head wouldn't use that as an argument against hiring her. But for some reason, criticizing a religion in the same terms is utterly beyond the pale, even when criticizing it on political/ideological grounds.

Religious tolerance is a progressive value, and one that is necessary for a healthy liberal society. Respecting diversity of ideas is just as important as respecting any other form of diversity. No-one should be imprisoned or silenced by the state or shut out of public office or passed over for a job due to their private religious convictions. But religious tolerance does not require that religions and religious ideas shouldn't be criticized, or even that they should only be criticized respectfully, with kid gloves.

Religious ideas are, obviously, ideas. They are not equivalent to the color of one's skin--they are susceptible to conscious choice and critical thought. To refrain from criticizing religious ideas out of a desire to "respect" religion may be the nice thing to do (at least in some contexts), but it also amounts to a refusal to take those ideas seriously. Taking an idea seriously requires examining its strengths and defects, its degree of justification and its coherence. Refusing to criticize religious ideas is in fact a far more real slight against religion than criticizing them in an "offensive" way.

One of my biggest problems with American political discourse is that it revolves around religious ideas that aren't taken seriously. As a secularist, of course, I would take issue with having a primarily religious political discourse in any event. But since it's what we have, couldn't we at least have real debates about religion, instead of treating it as something beyond debate? As liberals/leftists, I think we ought to do what we can to open up this sort of debate: keeping religious ideas outside of the realm of what is susceptible to criticism and discussion can only help the religious right, since it leaves what they claim as the source of their whole ideology outside the realm of legitimate discourse. To refuse to debate religious ideas because of misguided ideas about tolerance and the fear of being labelled a "bigot" would be a serious mistake.

To call even the harshest criticism of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church "bigotry" is simply absurd. To be bigoted against Catholics as a class is very different from thinking (and saying) that the official ideology of the Church is stupid and wrong. (The idea that it would be is particularly absurd in the case of a religion as internally complicated and diverse as Catholicism.) Bigotry against Catholics would entail a general prejudice against people who self-identify as Catholic that extends beyond one's opinion of their religious ideas to their worth as human beings more generally. But clearly neither of the targeted bloggers has expressed any prejudice of this kind.

(I would note that I don't think it counts as bigotry to think that the followers of some particular religion are dumb, either--as long as it is clear that you think they are dumb only to the extent that they believe some particular religious idea that is dumb. What a person believes reflects their judgment more generally, and religious ideas are no exception to this; but surely there are extremely intelligent people who believe in religious ideas I consider dumb. It would constitute bigotry to assume otherwise.)

In light of all these considerations, I find it very troubling that so many liberals feel the need to condemn these bloggers' comments. It would be one thing if the condemnation simply took the form of disagreement with the content of the comments--the troubling thing is that many people seem to think that the comments were deeply inappropriate, not just incorrect. I understand that Edwards himself, as a national political figure, can't really afford to be seen to endorse such strident criticism of religious ideas. But for the rest of the liberal critics: what's the big deal? Where's the impropriety? The comments were made on private blogs, and were criticisms of religious ideologies, not of classes of citizens. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about that.

In response to the whole mess, Amanda issued an apology of sorts (see link above) in which she says she did not intend to insult anyone's religion as such, but merely to make points about the intersection of religion and politics. I think this is conceding too much. There is nothing inappropriate or intolerant about "insulting" someone's religion. It may not be the nicest thing to do, it may offend some people, but seriously: this is the fucking blogosphere. You can't expect people to be nice, and no-one should feel that they must bow to anyone who has this expectation.

In closing, as a pre-emptive strike of sorts, I'd like to make something clear:

When I attack religious ideas, I do intend to insult the religion in question. If a religion incorporates dumb and harmful ideas, it deserves to be insulted. No ideas should be immune to criticism simply because people believe them really fervently, or because they happen to be ideas about the supernatural. If I think some religious idea is dumb, I will say so. If I think that it is dumb to believe some religious doctrine, I mean exactly that, and I do in fact mean to say that it reflects on the intelligence of the person who believes it. (Believing something dumb is not the same thing as being a dumb person, but it reflects on your intelligence nonetheless.)

This may disqualify me from working for a presidential campaign, but I think I can live with that.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Thoughts on the misuse of literalism

According to this article, an American-style "debate" about evolution and creationism has been raging in Kenya, touched off by the National Museum's decision to display its collection of fossils, including Turkana Boy, the most complete proto-human fossil ever discovered. Apparently, the leader of Kenya's large evangelical movement, Bishop Boniface Adoyo, has been leading a crusade of sorts against the museum and against expressions of evolutionary theory in the public square more generally.

I won't bother pointing out what ought to be obvious: that it's alarming that this particular form of religious anti-intellectualism may be spreading, and it's upsetting that the museum authorities have to worry about the security of their exhibits and their visitors due to it.

I did want to point out one thing about the way this story was covered, however, which bothers me quite a bit. It might seem like a quibble, but it's actually a crucial aspect of the evolution controversy that doesn't get enough attention. The article describes Bishop Adoyo's views on evolution thusly:
Followers of creationism believe in the literal truth of the Genesis account in the Bible that God created the world in six days. Bishop Adoyo believes the world was created 12,000 years ago, with man appearing 6,000 years later. He says each biblical day was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years.
So the story seems to be that Adoyo is a literalist, and hence believes the Genesis account of the creation of human beings ex nihilo, hence refuses to believe any account of the origin of human beings that traces their lineage back to a non-human ancestor. Hence, literalism contradicts evolutionism.

This is fine as far as it goes. Surely it's true that the literal meaning of the sentences of Genesis is incompatible with evolutionary theory (and astronomy, geology, etc.). But Bishop Adoyo also believes that the "biblical day" was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years. No matter your interpretation of the ultimate significance of Genesis, and regardless of your general theory of biblical interpretation, this is not a literal interpretation. The literal meaning of the word "day" is 24 hours, not 1,000 years, and there's no appendix to Genesis wherein the author explains that the word "day" should be taken to have a non-standard meaning. The good Bishop therefore isn't even a literalist, really. He allows for the stretching of definitions when it suits him, but not when it suits his secular rivals.

(This is not to say that there's no case to be made for Adoyo's interpretation here, which many theologians accept. I've always found this interpretation a bit odd, though. Is the addition of a few extra thousand years really supposed to make creation seem more plausible? It's surely no more astounding that a god could create the universe in six days than in six thousand years, or at best only more astounding in the "Wow! Superman can fly faster than the speed of sound!" sort of way. When ill-defined supernatural powers are involved, nothing should be astonishing.)

If Adoyo isn't a literalist, why do the folks at CNN insist on calling him one, and on labeling his movement this way? I assume it's because this is how they describe themselves. And this is my complaint: why can't media organizations ever question these self-descriptions? The claim to represent simple and absolute biblical truth is the only thing the anti-evolution forces have going for them. They have no science, they have no sound philosophical arguments, they just have the text of the Bible. So why don't we ever talk about how they actually use the Bible, and whether they really achieve literal interpretations? If they don't, they have nothing going for them whatsoever. If you give up the literal interpretation of something as simple to interpret literally as the word "day", why can't you give up on literally interpreting some of the other aspects of Genesis so that your theology doesn't contradict evolution? I think the answer is simple: they can't give it up because they realize that the scientific worldview constitutes a threat to their authority as long as there is a viable materialistic account of the origin of the universe, life, and our species.

I wish that news organizations would take "literalists" seriously enough to consider whether their claims to Biblical authority are genuine. I think that they can never be, and that "Biblical literalism" is more or less a contradiction in terms--surely no-one thinks that Jesus meant to say that the Kingdom of God is literally a mustard seed--but regardless of my own opinion, I wish we could have an actual debate about these issues.

As long as the culture war between reality-based science and (some wacky versions of) Christianity continues to be seen and presented as a war between science and religion as such, or between science and the Bible as such, it may seem to be a dispute between two equally coherent but contradictory worldviews. But this is simply not the case. "Biblical literalism" is incoherent, and should be called out as such.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Case studies in hypocrisy

I'm a bit behind the news cycle on this, but I happened to notice this article on about the Bush Administration's ongoing "examination" of Israel's use of US-supplied cluster bombs in the recent Lebanon war. (A subject I've written about before.)

While it's obvious, or at least ought to be, that Israel's use of these horrifying weapons against civilian targets ought to be universally condemned, I'm truly amazed at the hypocrisy on display here. There are at least two levels to the hypocrisy:

--The US government manufactured these weapons and gave them to Israel. This is, of course, the source of the outrage on the part of the US government, since the US is in part de facto responsible for their use in Lebanon. But seriously, who are we kidding here? These weapons are practically designed to be used against civilians. They are of little use against any "hard" military targets. They are designed to kill masses of "soft" targets, and have the added bonus (if you can call it that) of leaving behind mine-like bomblets that remain lethal indefinitely. These are just about the perfect weapon to use in a war, like the one in Lebanon, that pits an advanced military force against an enemy indistinguishable from the civilian population: lob one of them into a civilian neighborhood suspected of harboring enemy fighters and you can clear it right out and keep people from coming back for some time for fear of bomblets. This is the most obvious use that these weapons have. Does the US government really expect people to believe that we had no reason to expect that Israel would use the weapons in this way? If so, then the US comes out looking idiotic. If, as I suspect, not, then we come out looking hypocritical.

--The US government has itself used cluster munitions against urban targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have literally done exactly the same thing we are now criticizing Israel for doing. Somehow this has never become a serious political issue in the States. Apparently people are inured enough to the maiming and killing of civilians that the use of such weapons raises no stir. But for some reason, Israel's use of the same weapons in the same way is unacceptable.

For some reason, CNN's story doesn't even mention the US military's use of cluster bombs. Did this somehow slip their minds? Did they think it wasn't relevant to the story? Were they afraid to point out government hypocrisy so baldly? This has to be either sloppy journalism or poor journalistic ethics, but it's unconscionable in any event.

UPDATE: here's a newer version of the same story. Still no mention of US military use of cluster munitions. I'm actually really confused by this. Why in the world don't they report this?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sunday secularism blogging: picking up the meme

Picking up a meme from the estimable PZ Myers:

I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am an atheist and a secularist, "trained" in the philosophy of science, and I have strong feelings about the subject of this set of questions.

1.) Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

It's always been a bit unclear to me what "spiritual" is supposed to mean when it isn't coupled with any particular form of spiritualism or religious expression. If spirituality requires belief in the supernatural, I certainly am not spiritual. People often treat the concept of spirituality as if it were even more vague than this, though: as if it required only some sort of belief in the totally abstract "holiness" of life and the universe. If "holiness" just means extra-super specialness, then perhaps I'm spiritual in this sense. (Although I'm not sure that it really makes sense to think of life and the universe as "special"--special in comparison to what, exactly?)

I suspect that nonreligious people often take refuge of a kind in the claim that they are, nonetheless, "spiritual" people, because it differentiates them from people they find distasteful: nihilists and the mostly mythical hard-headed scientific rationalists who think they can explain everything. But this differentiation shouldn't even seem to be necessary. The idea that everything in life is meaningless without some supernatural explanatory framework is simply absurd on its face. (How is belief in the incomprehensible and inexplicable supposed to make life more meaningful, anyway?) The mythological arrogant scientific rationalist is objectionable not because she has a wrongheaded metaphysical picture of the world, but because she is simply wrong on the merits: we don't actually have all the answers, and in fact we can't. But not having an explanation for everything is no reason to start accepting fuzzy "spiritual" explanations. You don't have to be "spiritual" to accept that there are many things we don't and can't know.

2.) We hear time and time again of the disputes between the scientific and religious communities, what is your response to the phenomenon of scientists exploring their own spirituality?

In their private lives, they can obviously do whatever they like; I have no stronger feelings about their spiritual/religious beliefs than I do about their sex lives. If scientists privately decide to worship Jesus, Zeus or Baal, or to believe in the healing power of crystals, or in the existence of djinn, I would find that somewhat silly and distasteful, but not any more than if they decided to be fanatically devoted to the musical stylings of Kevin Federline.

If their "spiritual" beliefs begin affecting the content of their work, though, that's a problem. If medical researchers begin appealing to the healing powers of crystals in their explanations of things, that's a problem. (Unless, I suppose, they could prove that these powers actually exist, which seems unlikely.) If you abandon empiricism in science by appealing to things that can't be tested, you are no longer doing science, by definition. This is not to say that people shouldn't be allowed to do this, in the sense that they should actually be coerced, but they shouldn't be taken seriously as scientists.

(I should note that I don't think it's necessarily an entirely bad thing to have spiritual motives for one's scientific endeavors, as long as those motives don't affect one's methods. It's fine, if silly, to be moved to study the sun because you believe it to be the divine source of all truth and life. It's only problematic if you appeal to those beliefs as evidence for your theories.)

3.) Dr. Charles T. Tart established an online journal dedicated to scientists who wish to share their own personal transcendent experiences in confidence, known as TASTE. Many feel that they would be shunned by the scientific community if they shared their experiences with their colleagues, are you surprised by this?

I am not surprised. Nor do I particularly care whether they would be shunned or not. Scientists, like all groups of people, are free to shun whoever they want on whatever basis they want. This would only pose a problem if the ostracism led to the passing over of good and important science, which I think is unlikely: if the science itself were infused with spiritualism, it wouldn't be good science, and if it weren't, I have little doubt that it would have a full hearing.

4.) Do you feel that a scientist can be spiritual? Why is this?

As a private person, absolutely, although I think, for at least most senses of "spiritual", it would be better if they weren't. As a scientist, no. The activity of science cannot involve direct appeal to spirituality any more than the activity of, say, ditch-digging can. You can pray for the gods to help you in digging a ditch as much as you like, but to really get anything done, you've got to actually get down there in the dirt. Similarly, you can think about the world "spiritually" as much as you like, but you won't be doing science unless you appeal to direct observation of the material world to support your hypotheses.

5.) What do you say to some scientists who claim that a strong sense of spirituality and morality are essential in your line of work?

To the former, I say that the very idea is absurd, for reasons I think I've already belabored enough.

To the latter, I say: the question is unclear. Morality is obviously essential to being a "good scientist" in the sense of a scientist who is a good person, and of course it's important for society that our scientists be good in this way. I don't think, however, that morality has anything whatsoever to do with being a "good scientist" in the sense of a scientist who does meaningful, solid research and constructs good theories. Appealing to generally-accepted morality as evidence for a scientific conclusion is obviously poor science. (Although using generally-accepted morality as a starting point is fine: it can be valid and interesting to think scientifically about why certain mores are generally accepted.) Terrible, terrible people can (and have) contributed enormously to the progress of scientific knowledge, if not to the progress of society more generally.

(Also: I find the assumption here, that spirituality and morality are linked in some way, to be stupid and offensive. You don't have to believe in a Sky Fairy to believe in right and wrong.)

6.) Do you think that this phenomenon could pose a threat to the scientific community, when one considers the current religious climate in the U.S?

Absolutely it could. If spiritual appeals became commonplace in scientific practice--which, luckily, seems very unlikely at present--that would have the potential to set back science and the scientific community in this country for generations. If the religious and "spiritual" communities in the US were less intellectually backward and anti-intellectual, this would be less of a problem. But even without any direct influence on the practices and methods of science in this country, religious groups have had some successes fighting science. Certainly, having an Executive Branch that carries water for their bizarre ideology doesn't hurt.

Right now might be the worst possible time in American history for scientists to undergo some kind of faux-"spiritual" awakening. There's a war being fought over the place of reason itself in the public sphere, and if scientists aren't leading the charge on behalf of reason--if it's left to philosophers and militant atheists--we'll surely lose. It's unfortunate that science, which ought to be normatively neutral to the extent possible, has to engage in partisan battles, but the blame for that lies entirely with the religious right.

7.) Finally, have you ever had an experience that you could not scientifically explain? If so, what was it?

I cannot scientifically explain any of my experiences, personally. I'm not a scientist. I can't explain, in scientific terms, why I am blogging right now about scientifically explaining why I am blogging right now about scientifically explaining... (Gah! Feedback loop!) I know perfectly well why I am doing it--because I want to make some points about science and spirituality--but I don't know how to translate this into a proper naturalistic explanation. And, for that matter, neither does anybody else.

But this isn't really the question, I assume. The question is whether I've ever had something like a mystical experience, perhaps an experience that I couldn't in principle explain scientifically. I've had all kinds of weird experiences, of course--mostly under the influence of something or other. But how could I, or anyone else, ever know definitively that they had had an experience that couldn't in principle be explained scientifically? This is a very strange way of approaching the issue, and a very strange way of thinking about the nature of spirituality and science. Having an experience that you can't explain is, or at least ought to be, an invitation to try to explain it--an invitation to do science, not to abandon it. ("Philosophy begins with wonder", as Aristotle said.) Even if no explanation immediately suggests itself for a particular experience, that is no reason to suppose that the "explanation" must be spooky and spiritual (which really amounts to abandoning the search for an explanation): that is reason to continue looking, and to suspend judgment until you find something.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fun with words

So apparently Bush, having abandoned the title "decider", has proclaimed that he is the "decision-maker".

Next, I'm sure, he'll switch to yet another synonym--and one a bit more apt: a certain eight-letter word for one who, you know, dictates.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cheney: voice of the lunatic fringe

Many others have said just about everything that needs to be said about the spine-chilling Blitzer/Cheney interview. (See, for example, Digby.)

I did find this amusing, though: Cheney insists in the interview that, as the CNN headline goes, "Talk of blunders in Iraq is 'hogwash'", and that the administration has lost none of its credibility over its handling of the war. In one of the remarkably few onlines polls I've ever found to be worth reading in any way, asks its readers today whether "perceived" blunders in Iraq have hurt the administration's credibility. 91% of respondents say "yes".


Apparently Cheney speaks for 9% of the population. (Or at least of the population, which is arguably--very arguably--a bit more liberal than the population at large.) This is still too many people, by my reckoning, but it is, at least according to this classic post by Bob Harris at TMW, less than the percentage of the American population that believes that the US should have a royal family, or that would be willing to eat a live rat on reality TV.

Now if only there were some way that we could ignore Cheney as safely as we ignore American monarchists...

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Idle words

Atrios, via the courageous folks at ThinkProgress, gives us the text of today's State of the Union before it has even been given. This affords us two advantages: being able to provide preemptive rebuttals, and more importantly for the sake of my fragile sanity, being able to avoid having to listen to Bush's whiny voice or see his insufferable smirk.

As is to be expected, the speech is a total mess: full of lies, totally substance-free promises and disingenuous displays of "bipartisanship". Bush is a genius in very few ways, but he does possess a genius for peddling dishonest and manipulative horseshit. Just about every single sentence in the speech is objectionable in some way, when considered closely. The sheer density of the horseshit is astonishing.

To demonstrate this, I'm going to talk about a passage taken almost at random. In doing so, I'll barely be scratching the surface, but I just don't have the energy to do more right now.

The following passage comes from Bush's obligatory description of the Dire Terrorist Threat To Our Very Existence:

Listen to this warning from the late terrorist Zarqawi: “We will sacrifice our blood and bodies to put an end to your dreams, and what is coming is even worse.” And Osama bin Laden declared: “Death is better than living on this Earth with the unbelievers among us.”

These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement. In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East. Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah — a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.

The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. But whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans … kill democracy in the Middle East … and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale.

In the 6th year since our Nation was attacked, I wish I could report to you that the dangers have ended. They have not.
Even in this tiny passage, there are at least three major objectionable elements:

--"These men are not given to idle words." Wait just a second. These are terrorist leaders. Bush expects us to take the word of terrorist leaders about the extent of the threat they pose? I have to wonder sometimes whether Bush himself doesn't understand terrorism or whether he expects that the rest of us don't. I feel almost like a preschool teacher explaining this, but apparently it's necessary: terrorism is about inspiring terror. One of the best ways to inspire terror is to make your enemies think that you are more powerful than you really are, and that your capacity to cause them harm is greater than it really is. Zarqawi and bin Laden not only are given to idle words, but have an indisputable incentive to dole them out; it's part of their strategy, and part of the strategy of all terrorists as such. This is not, of course, to say that al Qaeda's leaders don't want to be a genuine existential threat to America (and all non-Sunnis worldwide), but what they want is irrelevant: what matters is what they can actually do, which is very limited.

--The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. This is just absurd. I suppose you could say, bending language a bit, that the extremists of both sects are "totalitarians", in the sense that any theocrats are totalitarians--although by that standard you'd have to include the American religious right as well. It's just ridiculous to say that they constitute one threat, however. The warring sects in Iraq have utterly unrelated motives and goals. To suppose that they are somehow the same simply because they sometimes use similar tactics and "slaughter the innocent" is absurd unless you believe, as I suppose Bush probably does, in some Unified Evil Field Theory, according to which all evil everywhere is really just a single phenomenon (Satan?). Even as theology, this has some pretty serious problems. As foreign policy, it's childish at best. This sort of attitude, and the resulting near-total ignorance of the deep, abiding and ancient sectarian conflict in Islam that pervades our political and military classes, has led to some of our worst mistakes in Iraq, and will surely lead to more and worse if Bush has his way.

(I'm not even going to go into the implied Iran warmongering embedded here. It's too big of a subject, and too well discussed elsewhere already.)

--I wish I could report to you that the dangers have ended. No, really, you don't, and we've all (well, all of us who aren't comatose) figured this game out by now. You wish you had more concrete dangers to report that would scare us back into your arms. Your administration has relentlessly hyped even the most unlikely terrorist threat for the past several years, and we're all sick of it. It's gone past even calling "wolf!" It's turned into a bad joke. Please stop.

The whole speech is like this. In fact, much of it is worse. I feel tainted just reading it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Blog for Choice Day: the fetishization of the fetus

(The uterine parasite in its early stages of development.)

((BTW, it's not a very good idea to do a Google Image search for "fetus".))

Few aspects of our political culture are as strange as the discourse surrounding the ethical status of fetuses. The surreality comes not only from the right wing anti-abortion zealots, but from the mainstream, from the media, even from many Democrats.

Why are so many Americans so deeply obsessed with the fetus? Why do people insist on talking about fetuses as if they were babies, or even "children"? There's something deeply creepy about this. Even in late stages of development, a fetus barely resembles anything human in anything but genetics. Yet many, many people work themselves into such a fervor about the value of fetal life that they seem to care far more about it than about actual full-fledged persons with actual lives and actual hopes and dreams.

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon: either people actually do care this deeply about fetuses, or this concern is a mask for something else. I'm inclined to think that it's mostly the latter, specifically, a mask for anxiety about female sexuality. For this reason, some feminists refuse even to discuss the concept of concern for a fetus, since (they would claim) it's never genuine enough to bother addressing at face value.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. I think the fetus has become a strange sort of totem symbol, a locus of meaning that appeals to some degree to the sentiments even of many pro-choice people. I don't think the use of the ubiquitous mangled fetus pictures is only a cynical ploy to trick people into restricting female sexuality. It is that to at least some degree, but the ploy wouldn't work if there weren't any power to the fetus-as-symbol.

So where does this power come from?

Obviously, late-stage fetuses look like babies, and many people get all gooey-eyed when they look at a baby. (Not everyone, though--I have no great affection for babies, myself. I love kids, but not babies. A baby, to me, is like a far more annoying, far less cute and far less intelligent small dog. And I don't like small dogs.) I'm not sure this is enough to explain the power of the fetus-image, though, because even images of actual babies don't seem to motivate the same fervent concern. Pictures of dead or starving or mutilated babies (and children) come out of warzones and famine-stricken regions all the time, yet this doesn't seem to upset people in nearly the same way.

What's interesting and odd to me about moral concern for the fetus is that it takes the form of concern for innocent human life in general and magnifies its intensity almost in direct proportion to the absurdity of extending this concern to such a basically inhuman object. A fetus has none of the properties that we care about in actual human beings: it is not and cannot be involved in anything, it has no full-fledged emotions, no love, no friendship, no thought, and not even much in the way of perception. It is essentially nothing but a stomach and a heart. (The obsession with the fetus' "beating heart" is a particularly creepy sub-genre of fetus fetishization.)

I wonder if it's not precisely the inhumanity of fetuses that makes them such a perfect symbol: they lack most of the things that make us who we are, but they somehow seem thereby to be purer and more perfect versions of us. The poor man who's spiritually richer than Croesus, or the blind man who sees the higher truth we all miss, are classic mythological archetypes; examples of such legends exist in nearly all human cultures. The fetus may be our modern, abstracted, perfected version of this archetype: a bare human life, lacking everything but its "sacred" humanity itself, yet somehow higher and better than the rest of us.

Even taken at face value, the fetishization of the fetus is an absurd mess. It's sad that we can't seem to move past all this to a place where we could talk about the value of human life, reproductive choice and sexual freedom without constantly having to battle against the most ridiculous kind of superstition.

Blog for Choice Day: sketches for a manifesto

(Note: this is not anyone I know; I just like the photo.)

I am pro-choice and proud of it. I think that the legal recognition of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade was one of the most important advances in human freedom in our country's history. I have never tried to come up with a comprehensive list of my reasons for believing this, however, so Blog for Choice Day gives me a good excuse to make an effort.

Too many pro-choice arguments are negative: they aim to disprove arguments against abortion, or to show that these arguments should not persuade us to make abortion illegal. Too few embrace abortion rights as a positive good in itself. To some extent, this is due to political expediency: many Americans have some ethical qualms about abortion, even if they think it should be legal, and might be made uncomfortable by arguments that celebrate the right in itself. While this attitude makes sense in some contexts--I think parents should have the right to raise their children to be Republicans, for instance, but I can't say I'd be comfortable celebrating that right--I don't think the right to abortion is one of them.

Legal access to abortion is a positive good, not merely a regrettable outgrowth of women's privacy and autonomy, as Democratic politicians and pundits often seem to suggest it is. Here are a few of my reasons for believing this:

--Abortion saves lives. Given that those opposed to abortion claim to be "pro-life", there's a fair amount of irony to this, but it's indisputably true. Not only in the sense that legalizing abortion takes abortion out of the back alleys and therefore prevents the deaths that would result from botched amateur procedures, but in other ways. Pregnancy and (especially) childbirth can be extremely dangerous in some circumstances; allowing women to opt out of them when they choose can save their lives. Aborting pregnancies that would produce unwanted and unsupportable children, or that would make the parents incapable of supporting themselves, can also save lives. Aborting pregnancies can save lives by preventing women from getting beaten to death by jealous spouses or boyfriends (or, for that matter, girlfriends). There are many circumstances in which abortion can save lives that cannot be covered by a "health" exemption in an abortion ban.

--Abortion improves quality of life for all. The more choice we have over the size of our families, the timing of births, and, of course, whether to have children at all, the better our lives will be--and the better it will be for everyone around us. Unwanted and unsupportable children are a problem for all of us: a terrible burden for the parents, an awful position for the child in question, a drain on social services, even an indirect drain on the economy (parents with children they can't support aren't exactly ideal employees). Moreover, in our overpopulated world, surely any voluntary measure that keeps population growth down should be encouraged. Anti-abortion forces have recently developed--or at least made more explicit--the argument that abortion is a threat to American society because declining birth rates will turn America into a nation of immigrants, which will make us lose our identity (read: whiteness). This deeply offensive argument does not deserve to be taken seriously, but my semi-serious response would be: Why isn't this a good thing? Surely the last thing this world needs is more white Americans--and I say this as a white American.

--Abortion humanizes sexuality. This is the tricky one. Many of those opposed to abortion oppose it for exactly this reason: it decouples sex from its "natural" function; it allows women to be fully human, sexual beings without sacrificing their autonomy and becoming baby-making machines; it removes (some of) the "moral hazard" of sex. For most conservative foes of abortion, these are bugs, but for me they are features. The idea that we ought to be restricted to having "natural" sex and enduring its "natural" consequences is silly in lieu of some reason to believe that we ought to be "natural" more generally. Abortion is a medical procedure, and as such, it is certainly in some sense unnatural, but no more so than, say, appendectomy. I assume most abortion foes are not Christian Scientists, so they have to think that there's some difference here. What is the difference, though, apart from religious ideas about sexuality, and the bizarre if widespread fetishization of the fetus? (ideas we ought to dismiss out of hand as irrelevant to policymaking.)

If women must live in constant fear of becoming hostages to their anatomy, they cannot live fully human, autonomous lives. Living an autonomous life requires that one's fate be one's own to the extent possible, and not a mechanical result of biology and coercion. By allowing us to treat pregnancy and motherhood as a freely chosen act and a freely chosen association, it elevates us all: not only women, but men as well, since it allows men the privilege of relating to women as equals. This is non-negotiable, and ought to be obvious. I think that it is in fact obvious even to most abortion foes, and that much opposition to abortion in fact springs from discomfort at the thought of women being fully human. (Someone might object that this would suggest that no women were fully human until the 20th century. I would point out that birth control and abortion have in fact been available for most if not all of human history. Legal recognition of these practices is crucial, however, for reasons that also should be obvious.)

Access to abortion, by removing the "moral hazard" from sex by decoupling sex from reproduction, allows our expression of romantic/sexual love to be more pure: less attached to material concerns, less attached to social production and economics, more of an expression of personal feeling. Surely this way of looking at it will outrage many, but I do think we ought to celebrate this fact. The right to an abortion frees (straight) sexuality from having one biologically-determined meaning, allowing it to become a means of (inter-)personal expression and discovery. To those abortion foes who say that we could have all the social benefits of abortion simply by embracing abstinence, I say: don't be absurd. Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human experience. Even if we could cut ourselves off from it to achieve social benefits, which I don't believe we ever really could, we would be giving up something very basic about ourselves.

In closing:

Many pro-choicers insist that they aren't "pro-abortion"--that they wish people didn't have abortions because abortions were unnecessary, but sadly they are necessary, and thus should be kept legal. (Cf. Clinton's slogan: "safe, legal and rare.") I have always found this attitude a little odd. Surely, it would be nice if abortion weren't necessary because contraception was so effective and available that there were no unwanted pregnancies and pre-natal health was so advanced that there was never any need to abort to save a woman's life, etc. But this is so far from being true that I don't really see how it's relevant to anything. It would be nice if appendectomies were never necessary, since they're unpleasant and a bit dangerous, but does this mean that we should be only reluctantly pro-appendectomy? Surely not. I understand that Democratic politicians have to walk a fine line with their terminology, and may have some reason to avoid claiming to be pro-abortion, but I am not a Democratic politician and I am not talking strategy--I'm talking about my own beliefs.

Legal access to abortion is absolutely necessary for women's health and the cause of human freedom more generally. Hence, I am pro-abortion, and I make no apologies for putting it exactly that way.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Escalatio, again: "Gordon Smith is an equivocating fool" edition

Apparently, Oregon's Republican Senator, Gordon Smith--who has been painfully ambivalent about the Iraq war for some time now--has come out against the Biden/Levin/Hagel measure opposing the Bush escalation plan. (h/t BlueOregon.)

His reason? The language of the bill is too inflammatory because it explicitly refers to the Bush plan as an "escalation"--which is apparently a "partisan" word choice.

So Smith, who claims to support a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq, refuses to support one of the few moves the Senate can make to open up the possibility of such a withdrawal--because of word choice?

I understand that Smith, as a Republican in a blue state with a potentially-difficult re-election bid coming up next year, is in a very awkward position, and his attempt to triangulate some middle ground position on the war makes sense. He can't afford to alienate either the truly crazy rural Oregonian Republican base or the "moderate" suburban voters who have lately turned against the war in a big way. I fail to see, however, how he's going to win any votes whatsoever by refusing to support a bill that should be the logical consequence of a position he's already taken due to what can charitably be described as a semantic quibble.

As many before me have noted, the Republican Party has had remarkable success in the past several years in controlling the terms of "respectable" political debate: not only the underlying assumptions, but literally the terms, the specific words used to describe things. There have been some missteps--such as the amusing moment in 2005 when Bush was for "private accounts" for Social Security before he was against them and in favor of something totally different called "personal accounts"--but for the most part their efforts have succeeded so handily that we rarely even notice the effort on their part.

I don't think it's going to work this time, though. I suppose it's pretty obvious why Bush and other war hawks would prefer the manly-sounding "SURGE" to the Vietnam-echoing "escalation", but since what they propose fits the literal dictionary definition of escalation, it's hard to see them winning the semantic fight here. It's not possible to change the words people use to describe things simply by applying blunt force PR trauma. The Republicans can't just rename the escalation plan "the absolutely most perfectest increase in heroic warrior presence resulting in free lunches and cute fuzzy bunnies for all" and expect people to accept it; if the plan calls for increasing troop levels and combat intensity, it's an escalation plan, and that's what people are going to call it.

I don't know what Smith thinks he can accomplish by getting involved in this idiotic, substance-free dispute. I do know that I hope now, more than ever, and irrespective of his alleged new-found opposition to the war, that the good people of Oregon will see fit to rid our state of this embarrassment in 2008.

(P.S., the image above comes from a truly astonishing nugget of online pop-culture nostalgia:, a site devoted to preserving the memory of the short-lived 90s soda.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The forces of theocracy encroach!

Yet another reason to hate Vancouver, WA:

As Pam at Pandagon reports, a group of 'Couv-based fundies is the focus of a suit against the Bush Administration by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Apparently this group, called the Northwest Marriage Institute has been getting federal funding under Bush's "Building Healthy Marriages" initiative, despite their explicitly Christian message.

The Institute seems to devote most of its energy to giving seminars on "saving" troubled marriages. While marital counselling is all well and good, and apart from all my secularist qualms about the whole endeavor, I worry about their insistence (included in their mission statement) that "all marriages can be saved". I looked through their online "marriage quizzes"--which are the irritating kind of quiz that requires submitting an email address, a classic evangelical trick--and found a few troubling questions, such as the following:
What marital problems inflict so much damage on a marriage that the couple can never recover?

*An affair
*Domestic violence
*None of the above
I assume the correct answer is supposed to be "none of the above". This kind of attitude is loathsome and dehumanizing, regardless of its religious context. Saying that no degree of domestic violence is enough to ruin a marriage permanently is equivalent to blaming the victim for leaving in self-defense when that proves necessary, as it often does. Yuck.

Anyway, the website tells little about the religious content of the group's workshops, but the following excerpt from the "About" page reveals a lot:
The Northwest Marriage Institute was born of necessity to help address one of the greatest problems in our society - marriages that are falling apart. The statistics are staggering: Half of all first marriages will end in divorce, 75% of all second marriages will end in divorce, and one-third of all third marriages will end in divorce. This means, when you spend thousands of dollars to see your child walk down the aisle during a marital ceremony, you may actually be sending them towards THE most stressful event in life - divorce. The problem is great, but solutions are few. Some churches have marriage and family experts on staff and provide marriage workshops of their own. But here's the real problem - 65% of all who live in Oregon and 67% of all who live in Washington have no connection to any church. The great need, then, was to take biblical marriage education and biblical marriage counseling to the communities. With this in mind, the Northwest Marriage Institute was loosely organized in June of 2004.
You have to love the emphasis on the financial cost of marriage, and the assumption that parents pay for their children's weddings.

You also have to love the dig at Northwestern irreligiosity. I take great pride in the fact that my region, and particularly my city, is one of the least religious places in the country, but apparently these people think that's a problem, and intend to fight that problem using hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars. I hope Americans United gives them hell.

Avoiding the next war

Now that just about everyone realizes the irredeemability of the Iraq war, an interesting debate has flared up about the exact nature of the mistake that was made. Would it have been possible to wage the war in an effective and just fashion, if only Bush weren't the antichrist? If a war with Iraq would have been a mistake in any event, does this mean that any war based on the same premises would be a mistake in the future? Can we avoid making the same mistake in the future without wholly abandoning military interventionism?

(Warning: this is going to be very rambling and unfocused. I'm thinking as I type, here.)

There are too many interesting takes on these questions out there for me to comment on more than a tiny fraction of them, but I do want to express a very general concern I have about the terms of the debate.

Take this excerpt from the brilliant Max Sawicky:
The politics of war should be difficult for the aggressor. There should be a high bar to clear for its advocacy. It should not be enough for some other nation to be an enemy, for it to have nuclear weapons, for it to be a tyranny, for there to be idle U.S. troops not engaged in some other war, for it to abuse its subjects or its neighbors, for it to be universally despised, for the U.N. to vote for its demise. My three exceptions would be 1) self-defense (in the face of an imminent, manifest, tangible threat, or act of aggression), naturally; 2) the threat of genocide, or 3) the near-guarantee of very great benefits at very low cost.

I agree very strongly with what I believe to be the underlying premise here: a case for war needs to be stronger than a case for just any policy. It's not enough to make the argument that there's a good chance that a war will make things better in some way, to some degree. This would be enough argument on behalf of, say, a health care plan, but war is different from health care. One might hope that this would be obvious, but the evidence of our national experience in 2002/3 shows that apparently it isn't obvious enough.

I do worry a bit about the "exceptions" Max outlines. The third exception is particularly tricky, if taken literally--though I doubt Max intends it in this way--because it would seem to allow superpowers free reign for military adventurism against smaller and less powerful countries. Seizing the Panama Canal or the oil fields of Kuwait would probably be possible at very little cost, and might be thought to yield very great benefits, but surely shouldn't be considered legitimate.

The three exceptions neatly line up with those specified by the Nuremburg Principles, as helpfully laid out by our friends at Runes:
1. When a government wages a genocidal war against its own population;

2. When a government attacks another country without provocation; or,

3. When a country is faced with a humanitarian crisis of such proportions that its own government is unable to respond due to internal instability or civil war.

(I say that these line up because I think the third sort of situation is the kind that Max was imagining for his third exception--as in Rwanda, for instance, where thousands of people were slaughtered with machetes.)

As M.J. O'Brien at Runes puts the point, the Nuremburg Principles are supposed to disallow "wars of choice" in general. These exceptions to principled pacifism are supposed to specify the cases in which a war is necessary and not a matter of choice.

I worry about this way of putting the point, though, because strictly speaking even the most clear-cut cases of defensive war involve choice. Surrender is always an option, and sometimes the best. (Surely, for example, it would have been better if Germany had surrendered instead of defending itself when invaded at the end of World War II, even though by that point it was clearly a case of defensive war and hence "necessary".) Certainly, any non-defensive foreign intervention, even to stop a genocide, is also a matter of choice; it might be the best choice, but it's still not strictly necessary.

More generally, though, I worry about this method of creating systematic exceptions itself. Just about any war can be sold as self-defense. The Vietnam war was sold in those terms, and certainly Bush tried to convince us that Iraq posed an immediate threat. Just about any war can be sold as humanitarian. Just about any war can be sold as easy and cheap.

I'm concerned that even if these principles were to gain wide acceptance, we would be just as likely to get suckered into yet another unjust war. The principles are too vague and too easily stretched. I'm not sure they can be made more precise, though, since they have to apply to situations as-yet-unimagined.

The trouble with allowing any exceptions is that it's alarmingly easy to convince people that your pet war fits the exception. The trouble with not allowing any exceptions (principled pacifism) is that it allows genocide to go unanswered. Which is worse: allowing the Iraq war, or allowing Rwanda?

Certainly it's possible for reasonable people to come to a middle ground position here, but I'm not sure it's possible to enshrine this position in terms of general principles that will actually achieve the desired result.

I'm inclined to think that if we have to choose a set of principles, they should be wholly pacifistic. Allowing for particular exceptions seems far less dangerous to me than allowing for general exceptions. The problem with this, of course, is that it means that we have to consider every potential war as a particular case. But we already do this.

So how do we avoid the next war? Try not to elect idiots, and try to keep idiots from acting out their war fantasies when we do. Take it to the streets, and take it to the ballot box. That's the best we can do.