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.

24-hour party people

I write this while on graveyard duty at the treatment center.

Having a job that demands round-the-clock availability really makes you realize how strange social attitudes about time and work really are. Admittedly, I've had plenty of cause to think about this before due to recurrent insomnia and the inevitably chaotic schedule of academia, but having an actual "legitimate" job with a chaotic schedule raises the issues far more sharply.

Our society operates largely on solar time; it is expected that people will wake up in the morning and sleep at night. People who choose to do otherwise are generally considered not only odd, but off somehow: unhealthy, antisocial, irresponsible, potentially criminal. Is there really any good reason for this?

Remarkably few people in our society actually need to operate on solar time. Remarkably few activities actually depend upon solar time. Agriculture, surely. Solar power generation. Earth-bound solar astronomy. Hunting. Nothing else I can think of. Technology has separated us enough from natural cycles that just about everything can in principle get done at just about any time of day. (And this is hardly a new thing, either.)

I can think of two major reasons for continuing to operate on solar time: that people prefer daylight to nighttime, and that it is important for various reasons to have (just about) everyone operate on the same schedule.

The first of these reasons is legitimate, to the extent that it's true, but I wonder about its source. Do people really have such an attachment to daylight itself, or is it that they're attached to having a "normal" schedule? Having to stay up all night may be bothersome because you never see the sun, or it may be bothersome because it disrupts your ability to live a normal life in all kinds of ways: all the shops and restaurants are closed, few other people are awake and sociable, etc. If it's primarily the latter, then it should count as a reason to get our society away from a solar clock, not to keep it on one. If we lived in a 24-hour society, it would be perfectly normal and un-bothersome to be awake at 2:00 AM. I think it's far more difficult than it might seem to disentangle these factors. Why, exactly, do we miss the sun so much when we don't see it for days at a time? Is it just that the sun is so beautiful we can't live without it? The moon and stars are at least as beautiful. Why do we fixate so much on the sun? Certainly graveyard workers miss the sun, but if working graveyard were totally normalized, maybe they would get used to this. Maybe day shift workers would come to miss the moon and stars, and envy graveyard workers.

(There is the argument that sunlight is important for human mental and physical well-being; there are various studies trying to prove this. I've always doubted that these studies have sufficient controls, though, since, given the current state of our society, there are all kinds of reasons--class, for instance--for graveyard workers to be less healthy than "normal".)

The second point, that it's important for society to be organized around one particular sleep schedule, seems problematic to me. (It's also not, in itself, an argument for solar time, obviously.) I don't see why a society couldn't have a 24-hour schedule, with people working all kinds of jobs at all times of day, and still function perfectly well. There would be various advantages to this kind of arrangement: it would create lots of jobs, obviously; it could, conceivably, raise productivity levels; it might reduce crime, since it would mean that more people were out and about at night. If a community is too small to operate all businesses 24 hours, that's one thing. If it's a major or even mid-sized city, I don't see why it's impossible.

Some of the world's greatest cities--New York, for example--are already essentially on 24-hour schedules, and this has not led to any massive breakdown in the social fabric. Is there really any good reason the rest of us can't join them?

At the very least, I feel, we should get rid of the late-night stigma. Many of us have no choice but to keep "odd" hours, and don't deserve to be stimatized. And why can't we just accept the legitimacy of people's lifestyle choices? This is supposed to be a liberal society, dammit!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Long Weekend Secularism Blogging: MLK

(I hope my massive and adoring audience can forgive the recent infrequncy of my posts; I've been very overworked and underslept lately, but this week should be better.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the very few widely-recognized American heroes that genuinely deserves the adoration he receives. I have no doubt that we will all be inundated today with tributes to his legacy, both genuine and disingenuous. He clearly deserves the adulation, but I feel like there's little point in me adding to it. I'd like to talk about a more ambiguous aspect of the man's legacy.

MLK was and thought of himself as a religious figure. He was a preacher himself, of course, and his political oratory drew heavily on religious imagery and appeals to common, and specifically Christian, faith.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining how the man has become that rarest of all American public figures: the universally, unambiguously revered icon of an activist social movement. It's hard to imagine a secular or even a non-Christian figure achieving a similar standing. Certainly Malcolm X did not, despite his own very deeply felt Muslim faith and earnest, principled stand for civil rights. Nor did the atheist W.E.B. Du Bois. I don't think this is due to their relative lack of importance, or even due to King's practice of exclusively non-violent resistance. Certainly this is a big part of his legacy, and the violent resistance advocated by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers turned so many whites off that it (unfairly, IMO) tarnished their images. But I don't think it's possible even to imagine a secular or atheistic person, no matter how pacifistic, in King's role.

MLK is now revered even by all but the most extreme right-wingers. Conservatives often try, absurdly, to claim him as one of their own, in part based on his use of religious arguments. As Andrew Busch of the National Review puts the point (quoted in a piece from TNR quoted by Digby),
he rallied his followers with an explicitly religious message" and thus "stands as a stinging rebuke to those today who argue that religion and politics should never mix."

Now, it would be perfectly reasonable to dismiss this line of argument entirely, since it's obviously nothing but a transparent attempt to appropriate a popular left-wing figure to make a case for policies and principles utterly opposed to his own. But we shouldn't dismiss it entirely, because there is a kernel of truth here. King did use religious language and religious arguments. Nothing about that contradicts with liberalism or leftism per se, but it should at least raise some hackles for us secularists. (Not all leftists must be secularists, though liberals really ought to be if they want to be intellectually consistent--note that secularism is not the same as atheism!)

No offense to Dr. King, for whom I have the utmost respect, but it troubles me that the total reverence he inspires is so intimately connected to his religion. This seems to me to be part and parcel with the unspoken rule that candidates for political office--particularly national political office--must be possessed of a deep religious faith of some kind.

Now, I understand that we do live in a mostly Christian society, and that it makes perfect sense that people would respond to faith-based arguments in politics and would feel more connection to openly religious public figures, etc. That it's understandable shouldn't make it any less troubling, though. It's troubling that you have to be publicly religious in order to have your voice heard in this country--and that non-religious voices are utterly shut out. But it goes deeper than that.

Whether a good faith-based argument can be made for a particular policy has absolutely nothing to do with whether it's a good policy, and should have absolutely nothing to do with whether the policy is implemented. Whether a person puts on a good show of piety has absolutely nothing to do with her fitness for public office, and should have absolutely nothing to do with whether she gets elected. Whether a person's activism draws on his religious faith has absolutely nothing to do with whether his activism ought to succeed, or whether his legacy ought to be respected. In King's case, I think his activism and his ideas would stand on their own feet without their religious dressing. But I wish that our society could get to the point where it was possible for them to actually do so.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The stupidest thing ever

I seriously think this quiz might be it. (Via Digby.)

The quiz, by the authors of a book called "Applebee's America" that sounds like a true steaming pile of crap, is premised on the idea that Americans are not ideologically and culturally divided in the simplistic way the media's red state/blue state divide would suggest. No, the situation is far more complex: we're divided into three "tribes": the red tribe, the blue tribe, and the "tipping tribe"--the swing voters, who the authors seem to think form a kind of semi-disenfranchised majority. The idea seems to be that America is really a "moderate" nation, politically, and, thus, that the Democrats ought to take a more moderate, bipartisan approach to governance now that they are back in power in Congress. (As Digby points out, books like this never seem to be directed against the Republicans...)

Now, I'm willing to accept this up to a point. I do disagree with the idea that America is as rigidly and radically divided as the primary-colored maps suggest. I do not, however, think that this is because most of us are part of some happy middle ground that eats at Applebee's and somehow has no real representation in national politics; I think it's because most Americans are apolitical. Apolitical people are not "moderates": they cannot, as a matter of basic logic, be represented in national politics. It may be true that most apolitical Americans would like to see a more civil tone in Washinton and more bipartisan cooperation and soforth. But, coming from apolitical people, this cannot be taken as an ideological preference. (Indeed, I'm not sure it even makes sense to think of it as an ideological preference.) It may be no more of a preference than my preference that baseball players don't cheat or use steroids or get into fights or abuse their spouses. I don't care a whit about baseball and don't follow it, but hearing that players are doing these things is still somewhat upsetting: baseball is a small part of the image of America itself, and what its players do reflects in some small way on us. The preference for comity in politics, etc., that apolitical people have may be different in degree, since obviously national politics is more important than baseball, but I don't see how it's different in kind--and that kind of preference simply is not worthy of serious consideration in policymaking.

Anyway, to get on to the true stupidity: The quiz is meant to inform you what "tribe" you belong to yourself. It asks banal questions about preferences in soft drinks, sports, and cars. To tell you whether you're culturally a Republican, Democrat, or "tipper". Huh. Asking questions about seemingly unrelated things can be a legitimate technique in a quiz in some circumstances, but certainly not in this way.

How do I know? Because I, of all people, am apparently part of the "tipping tribe".

I, who have never voted for a Republican and never will short of a currently-unimaginable political realignment. I, who attended Michael Dukakis' alma mater. I, who spent hundreds of hours planning activism against the Iraq war. I, who am a militant atheist. I, who am the child of hippies. I, who read Marx for pleasure. I, who work in academia. (Well, a community college...) I, who had a fantastic time at the Democratic Party bash on election night. Even on a more superficial level: I, who am a proud native of (the People's Republic of) Portland, Oregon! I, who love brie! I, who have close gay friends! I, who can't stand NASCAR! I'm not in the blue tribe? Who the hell is, then?

I actually went back, after giving my own answers to the quiz, and tried to fill in what I thought to be the most stereotypical Blue answers, and still got "tipping tribe". What does it take?

As far as I can tell by experiment--I'm not willing to put a whole lot of time into this--all the top choices are Red, all the bottom choices are Blue. This means that apparently Dr. Pepper is a Red State drink, while Sprite and Pepsi are Blue. Why would this be, exactly? I genuinely have no idea. I can see why Coors is Red and Budweiser is Blue, because Coors is owned by right-wing wackos and Bud is union-made, but I don't get the soft drink thing. The authors also seem to be saying that Red people prefer bourbon or scotch to Blue people's vodka and gin. Why? I don't even see how this works on the level of stereotypes. In one case, they even get the stereotype dead wrong, in my opinion: in the question about choice of bottled water, "Ozarka or local brand" is the Red choice and "Evian or Dannon" the Blue. Isn't it beyond obvious that true liberals are always going to prefer the local brand to a giant corporate brand? I certainly always do. (In Portland, I try to get Earth2O, from Opal Springs--it's good stuff.) Perhaps the idea is supposed to be that Evian is French and therefore culturally liberal. But being liberal, even in a cultural sense, doesn't have anything to do with preferring French products, even if it might have something to do with preferring French health care policy to our own. I would have thought that this was something so obvious that it would never need to be said, but apparently I'm wrong.

That these authors are getting mainstream attention--and may even have some affect on political dynamics in Washington--tells you just about everything you need to know about the health of our republic.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging, Monday Edition

(So, I missed it yesterday. That's what working at 6:30 AM on no sleep will do to you.)

Today I wanted to bring up and briefly discuss something I've been thinking about a lot recently: the positive psychological and social benefits of religious belief. Everyone, even devout atheists like the current author, has to admit that these exist, or can exist in certain situations. But what should be our attitude toward them?

I have been thinking about this a lot at my work at a drug treatment center. People in treatment for serious addiction almost always fall back on religion as a coping mechanism, and are encouraged to do so by, among other things, the structure of the omnipresent 12-step programs, with their "surrender to a higher power" thing. I have no doubt that this is in most respects a good thing. Certainly the 12-step programs are effective, and surely religious conviction can be comforting for some people, and can help impose structure on people's lives when they need it.

The ubiquity of the 12-step programs in this line of my work (I have two lines of work, at the moment at least) makes me somewhat uncomfortable, both as an atheist and a secularist--i.e., as a person committed to keeping religion and lack thereof a private matter. Although the 12-step program isn't ever literally imposed on anyone, it's definitely expected. To refuse to take part in it because you don't believe in any "higher power" to surrender yourself to would be pretty much beyond the pale. I can't even imagine any of the clients I work with refusing. My qualm here is with the semi-coercive aspect, which would bother me in any event--but it's made worse by the fact that the facility gets a fair amount of government money, since many of the clients are wards of the state.

The 12-step program isn't officially religious, because the "higher power" is left so vague, and certainly isn't identified with any particular deity or deities, and one is left to interpret the "higher power" as one likes. The meetings do end with the Serenity Prayer, however, which, while nice enough for a prayer, is expressly addressed to God. It's good that the program is so tolerant of religious diversity, but I don't think the vagueness is enough to make it tolerant of atheism. I don't believe in any higher power, no matter how vaguely defined, that I can surrender myself to in any productive way. I suppose the force of gravity is a higher power, but I can't see how surrendering to it would accomplish anything, let alone help me overcome any hypothetical addiction. I don't think there's any truly secular "higher power", in the 12-step sense. The whole point is that our humanity isn't enough; belief in the power of the "human spirit" or somesuch won't cut it.

Given that 12-step is effective, though, the real question is whether any of these qualms really ought to matter. Surely it's less bad for someone to embrace some kind of fuzzy spiritualism than for them to die of a heroin overdose. Certainly none of these qualms make me reconsider my decision to work in this field, because I think it's important enough that something be done to help addicts that it doesn't matter if I have some problems with one relatively minor aspect of the program.

The whole thing does raise one very difficult semi-philosophical question, though: if religious belief can help people in certain difficult situations, what ought we to do if we find ourselves in those situations? Applying the question to the current case: If we find ourselves in the position of needing to recover from an addiction, ought we as atheists/agnostics actually try to accept the idea of a higher power? Should we try to force ourselves to believe, since it might be in our best interests?

There's a lot of debate amongst philosophers about whether it is possible to force oneself to believe something for "extrinsic" reasons--reasons other than those that would give you reason to believe that something is true. Can you make yourself believe that you are super-sexy, for instance, to increase your confidence, even if you don't believe yourself to be so? I believe it is possible, though it isn't possible to achieve the belief simply through recognizing the extrinsic reasons. You have to train yourself over some period of time. We are what we do; when we act a part, we eventually come to believe that it is us. The really tricky question, to my mind, is whether this is ever a rational, or even an advisable, thing to do. Ought atheistic addicts train themselves to accept the idea of a higher power?

I don't really have an answer to this question, though I definitely want to think it's "no", but any full answer would have to take into account the following:

One of the most basic tenets of 12-step is that an addict must admit that she, by herself, doesn't have the ability to overcome her addiction. This is a very powerful and probably a very useful idea. But is it useful because it is literally true--i.e., that one literally cannot overcome one's own addiction oneself and needs to surrender oneself to something--or for some other reason? Maybe it's important to admit one's powerlessness because it reinforces the social aspect of treatment: we need to rely on each other to get well, we can't just rely on ourselves. Or, more simply, maybe it's important because we have to admit that we can't just decide internally, on the spur of the moment, to quit--not effectively, at least. It takes lots of work, and "surrendering" might just be a recognition that one can't overcome one's addiction right away.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Dispatches from an alternate universe

Image via Digby.

Apparently the fine folks at Fox News want us to believe that Nancy Pelosi wants to "turn" the country into San Francisco, and expect us to recoil in terror. We have to assume that they know their target audience well enough to be reasonably certain that at least a good number of them will, in fact, believe it and recoil.

Who are these people?

San Francisco is one of the nation's great cultural centers. It's arguably the most beautiful major city in the country, geographically and architecturally. Would it really be so awful if Gary, Indiana (for example) "turned into" San Francisco?

I don't understand how people can really buy into this "turning into" concept, anyway. It would obviously be impossible for Gary to turn into SF in anything remotely resembling a literal way. I assume the main thrust of this is anti-gay bigotry and "concerns" about gay marriage (but I repeat myself!), since San Francisco is so associated with gay culture. But why try to tarnish Pelosi with Teh Gay in this indirect, geographic way?

Some people on the right apparently regard large portions of the country as somehow not being "real" America. Yet they claim to be the only true patriots. I don't understand this. Surely if you despise some of our largest and most iconic cities, you're at best a qualified patriot. Some people on the right take this to pretty absurd lengths; Bill O'Reilly, for instance, once infamously fantasized on air about SF's total destruction.

I don't think there's anything quite comparable to this on the left. I am as close to the mythical coastal elite liberal as a person can be and actually exist in this world, but I don't think Texas or Kansas is any less truly American for all that, or any less worthy of continued existence.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Eaten by wolves...

It's hard to summon very strong feelings about the death, or for that matter the life, of Gerald Ford. But since Bush proclaimed this to be a federal holiday for him, I feel that something, at least, ought to be said.

Ford was lackluster in just about every respect, and his presidency could charitably be described as phoned in, but he was at least recognizable as a minimally sane human being. He did some bad things, like pardoning Nixon--surely the worst use of the power of pardon in American history. He also did some good things, like instituting vehicle fuel economy standards. Woefully low standards, of course, but at least he tried to do something. He also established the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was probably a good idea. (I just happened to read about this today in an old New Yorker that I glanced at in the bathroom, just as I was trying to think of something to say about Ford. Odd coincidence.)

Ford was something of a joke, but he was at least a funny joke, unlike our current national leadership. He wasn't an evil man. I hope that he will be remembered with the total lack of affect that is his due.