Tuesday, July 26, 2005

MSM: tastes great, less filling

Wonkette alerted me to this gem of a column from Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald.

"I just read that the Greensboro News & Record will permit readers to write their own editorials and contributions on the paper's Web site. With the readers blogging their stories, the newspaper is truly a "voice of the people." I have given much thought to this. Suppose a reader wants to write a column like this one. I can help him. Just fill in the blanks and you can make it anything you want it to be."

As Wonkette points out, "The Post "humorist" is "spoofing" the gimmicky reader-participation stunts newspapers use to boost reader interest in a sagging market. Of course, the gimmick-mimicking becomes a tedious gimmick itself in no time flat." Wonkette ends up thinking it was sort of funny--but I'm sort of mad that the WP would have a columnist on hand who, in making fun of bloggers, (1) isn't funny and (2) has no content whatsoever.

This further proves my point that the MSM is defined not by liberal bias but by lack of analysis. If the MSM were a supreme court justice, they'd be Sandra Day O'Connor--wrong every single time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Judges, litmus tests, abortion

Conservatives and liberals interested in law have an ongoing fight about whether the Constitution should be "read" (conservatives) or "interpreted" (liberals). What I would like to point out in this post is:

1) Both sides bring something important to the debate.
2) When you combine their arguments you reach a conclusion that no one is willing to admit, but that everyone knows is true. (Pointed out below).

Abortion is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Conservatives say that there is no right to abortion in the Constitution; they're correct. Liberals say that "evolving standards of decency" mean that in a free society a woman should have access to an abortion; they're correct.

When there is a ruling about abortion, not only are judges ruling about what they think is in the Constitution, but they're also ruling about what they think would be best for the country. There is no way to separate these two lines of thought, but you'll still never find a judge who says "Well, I don't think this is the right way to rule, but I'm going to anyway because the Constitution and I just disagree here and I'm going with the big C."

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


The conservative blogosphere has some commentary on this story , which is about how NBC news anchor Brian Williams supposedly compared the founding fathers to terrorists. Find the video through here; Williams's defense of himself is here.

I blog about this story because it's a perfect example of analysis that I would consider banal, unenlightening, pseudo-intellectual and corporate, while the conservatives in the room would probably consider it liberally biased.

Here's what he said.

"What would it all matter if [the claim that Iran's president elect was a hostage taker during the hostage crisis] [was] proven true? Someone brought up today: The first several U.S. presidents were certainly revolutionaries... and might have been called "terrorists" at the time by the British Crown, after all..."

Here's him defending himself.

"Today, apparently, on some radio talk shows and blogs, my friends in the media have accused me of labeling George Washington a terrorist. They apparently missed my point: That the BRITISH CROWN might have viewed American revolutionaries that way."

If we take him at his word, he was saying that the British Crown might have viewed revolutionaries--as revolutionaries. Thanks, Brian. I think that's all I have to say--instead of going a bolder route and offering analysis of ANY related issues, liberal OR conservative, he tautologized. He's a talking head. He's a suit. He's irrelevant. He does us progressives no good.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Gloss on the Santorum post in light of the latest post, and dividers, not uniters

In a post below I criticize Rick Santorum's attributing of the Catholic Church's abuse epidemic to liberalism. I don't think Santorum is being biased or conservative: I just think he's wrong. For him to be right, he would need to be able to show that liberal beliefs are strongly correlated with child abuse. I think this is completely not the case: I don't think "liberals" are any more likely to molest children than conservatives are. And even IF a correlation was found, it would have to be shown that liberalism was causing the molestation, and it was not a third thing (factor X) causing both the liberal beliefs and the abusive behavior. Santorum and his aides would really have to do their homework on this one.

Let's be clear: Santorum equates liberalism, relativism, homosexuality and tolerance; these 4 concepts are bound up in his mind, and as he is one of the most powerful men in America, he is unlikely to unhitch them from each other and attempt nuance in his statements. That's fine. But he's still incorrect, and the burden of proof on this statement is enormous, as any sociologist would tell you.

In fact, this is in the same vein as Karl Rove's statement that conservatives saw the "savagery" of 9/11 and prepared for war, while liberals saw the savagery of 9/11 and offered therapy. I don't really care what Rove says to his troops: it's irrelevant whether he believes it or not, because it wasn't designed to be tested. It's equivalent to statements uttered at high-school pep fests. I want to point out that it's a gross generalization, and clearly false; nearly the whole country supported (and supports) the war in Afghanistan, a clearer battle against terror than Iraq.

Another statement that falls into this category is Richard Durbin's mini-diatribe equating Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib with the gulags or the concentration camps. Not only is Durbin wrong, but he's contradicting himself; he coasted along with everything the administration did, and for him to raise his voice against our troops and the (almost exclusively) brave and hard-working guards at this point in the game is pathetic--at least Republican politicians are consistent.

BUSH: I'm going to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be fun. There are going to be problems across the board; it's going to be rough on insurgents, terrorists and the prisoners we take. In fact, I'm going to get really flaky on intelligence, and also try to get the country to believe that Iraq, al-Qaeda, terrorist, and Saddam Hussein are interchangeable terms.
DEMOCRATS: Fine by us.
BUSH (stunned): Really?
DEMOCRATS: Absolutely. Go for it.

*two years later*

DEMOCRATS: Wait, so one of our guards KICKED a prisoner?
BUSH: Well, yes, I mean, what did you expect?
DEMOCRATS: Not kicking! We're upset. Very upset.

Our role as bloggers should be to question ruthlessly every statement and action by those in power, be they Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, on a case-by-case basis.

Blogging, philosophy of science and our discussions

Logical positivism was the doctrine advanced by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle that held that the meaning of statements is found in the conditions under which they would be verified. For example, the meaning of the statement "wood floats" is found in the event of wood floating on water; wood sinking would render it false. The powerful flip-side of logical positivism asserts that statements that cannot be definitely proved true or false are utterly meaningless and should be ignored. For the logical positivists, metaphysics, religious statements about God and most of ethics fell into this class. This was all part of an attempt to make philosophy more like science.

One problem for the positivists is that their pinnacle statement--"meaning is the set of conditions under which a statement is proven true or false"--seems to collapse under its own weight; what set of criteria would we need to make it true or false? The testing of every statement--which seems to be impossible. Two further, rather simplistic problems that are legitimate (but have been answered to some extent) are, one, the sets of conditions under which different people would take statements to have been verified are different; and, two, it seems as though it would take an infinite mind to verify all cases of something, as in statements like "uranium is an unstable element."

For most neo-pragmatists, meaning is detached from any universal theory and becomes simply what agents do when confronted with a belief. The "meaning" of the statement "God exists" is simply the sum of the outcomes of the actions of agents who assert the statement--it is statistical rather than absolute. We can certainly bring in true, false and universal as much as we like in conversation, but when pressed, most neo-pragmatists tend to give up on coming up with a single, coherent account of meaning like the logical positivists did.

Pragmatism is helpful, as it brings agents and actions into the abstract, cold world of the logical positivists; but it leaves people wanting more in most cases, especially when 20th-century science has been so successful at predicting and changing our world. (GK Chesterton once said that pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and the first is a need to be something more than a pragmatist.)

Karl Popper developed a powerful critique of positivism without going the relativistic route of some of the pragmatists and neo-pragmatists. For Popper, the bolder and more easily falsifiable a claim is, the more scientific it is. Einstein's prediction that light would be bent by gravitational fields is bold, measurable and generally understood; Marxism's ability to absorb all historical events without changing its paradigm is not. But Popper never gets top-heavy like the positivists do, by attempting to universalize and perfect his theory: for Popper, good science has a number of characteristics, and that's that.

Some people have expressed frustration at our inability to get anywhere with each other in the blogosphere. I enjoy the debates: even in arguments where neither side gives an inch, I tend to think that we all learn something. So, one way to advance our arguments is, first, to recognize pragmatism's insight that verifiability depends to some extent on each person; and two, to appropriate Popper's insight that good science admits of falsifiability. I think it's important to bring this to bear on our political debates. Most probably, all of this would be unhelpful in discussions of such things as abortion. When it comes to history, however, and the actions of states and statesmen, it' s important to bring to the table that set of conditions that would make you wrong. If I say that the atomic weight of oxygen is 27, I can be disproven; if I say that the Iraq war is justified, I should be able to say to some extent what would make the Iraq war unjustified, and so on.

I'd appreciate anyone's meta-comments on how to blog effectively and persuasively. We all like to think that we're logical, open-minded, fair, and reasonable; here are some ways to do so.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Rick Santorum blames the priest scandals on "liberalism"...

"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," [Rick] Santorum wrote in a July 12, 2002 article for the Web site Catholic Online. "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

Asked by the Boston Globe this week whether he stood by his remark, Santorum said he did. "I was just saying that there's an attitude that is very open to sexual freedom that is more predominant" in Boston, the Globe quoted him as saying Tuesday.

I'm not offended by Santorum's comments; to me, this is like hearing an 8th grader claim that the Revolutionary War was fought in the 1870s. He's just dead WRONG--you can't attribute something like the Catholic church's sex debacle to an abstract concept like liberalism. That's reification up with which I will not put. For me, the scandal stems from the conservatism of the Catholic church--and that's NOT political conservatism. It's the authority/secrecy duality that's a problem. In fact, where's the diocese with the highest rate of abuse? KENTUCKY.

"Based on statistics publicly reported by many of the country's 195 dioceses, the Boston-based lay activist group BishopAccountability.org has calculated that the highest percentage of abusive priests from 1950 to 2003 was in the diocese of Covington, Ky. Boston was among the 10 worst dioceses, but several other cities commonly regarded as liberal culturally and politically had relatively low rates of abuse. Just 1.6 percent of San Francisco's priests have been accused of abuse, for example, compared to more than 4 percent nationwide."

Rep. Barney Frank called Santorum a "jerk."

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

London every day

We forget that the nature of the insurgency creates Londons every day for the people of Iraq. I am not attempting to minimize in any way the horror of the London attacks--it's just that they hit closer to home for us, because they took place in a Western democracy.

We're better than the terrorists. I'm a frequent, aggressive critic of American foreign policy, but to my knowledge, we've never purposefully suicide-bombed crowds of children. That's unspeakable. So, I wish we'd either kill all the terrorists and stabilize the freaking country, or leave.

I just don't think we will.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

On a lighter note--an economic question

This is from an IT magazine I was browsing:

"Every year, Americans waste 2.3 billion gallons of gas idling in traffic. At today's prices, that's a $6.2 billion wallop in the nation's pocketbook. Figure in 3.7 billion hours of lost productivity and the gridlock tab tops out at $65 billion."

We see analyses like these about lost productivity and lost dollars everywhere, but it seems to me that they misunderstand the cyclic nature of our economy. That "6.2 billion dollar wallop" went right back into the pockets of the oil companies, who employ hundreds of thousands of workers--so from an economic standpoint it was good for their pocketbooks.

Assumably it also led to more purchases at gas stations, more purchasing of CDs and DVDs to watch/listen to while stuck in traffic, and more car repairs. In fact, I bet you could make the argument that traffic is pretty darn good for the American economy. What it's not good for is the American psyche, as almost everyone hates being stuck in traffic, or the American environment, as cars pollute. But, you wouldn't have an article if you conducted the analysis this way, right?

This is what's wrong with people's arguments against being taxed (at all), as if tax dollars simply disappear when they leave our paychecks. Now, this is not to say that we shouldn't be taxed less, as we definitely should; or that our tax dollars could be used more efficiently, as they definitely could; or that our government isn't a sprawling bureaucracy that could stand a lot of trimming, as I wish the RepubliDems would stop expanding it (and their salaries) every year.

Tax dollars are just like those dollars listed above: in fact, I bet you could do a pretty sweet PhD thesis on the returns people in different occupations get on their tax dollars. Just as some states, like those in New England, get more transportation money back than they're taxed, so I bet certain people get more "value" out of the things their taxes pay for than others. Those who drive more get more money out of the roads; those who are healthy get less out of the health care system; those who work for giant farms get money from subsidies.

One man's inefficiency is another man's job.


Friday, July 08, 2005

Killer New Republic article about evolution

This article, which is available to registered readers at The New Republic (registration is free), is awesome--it's a summary of interviews with 15 prominent conservatives (William Kristol, Grover Norquist, David Frum, Stephen Moore, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, William Buckley, John Tierney, James Taranto, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Brookhiser, Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson, Rannesh Ponnuru, and David Brooks) about their views on evolution. The questions were tapered to fit each respondent's general thoughts, but they basically break down into...

-Whether they personally believe in evolution
-What they think of intelligent design
-Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools

10 of them more or less say yes to the first question, 4 hedge, and Buchanan says no. They're split evenly on what they think of intelligent design--about half say it's legitimate, half say it's not science--and they're also split evenly on whether it should be taught in public schools. Goldberg was particularly good:

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I don't think you should teach religious conclusions as science and I don't think you should teach science as religion. ... I see nothing [wrong] with having teachers pay some attention to the sensitivities of other people in the room. I think if that means you're more careful about some issues than others that's fine. People are careful about race and gender; I don't see why all of a sudden we can't be diplomatic on these issues when it comes to religion." Great point.

In fact, all of the answers seemed straightfoward, well-thought-out, and fair, except for one comment of Frum's:

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I don't believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. ... Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. ... I don't believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle."

We can't go by what offends people--we have to go by truth.

Becoming what you hate

About terrorists, blogger CW writes:

"Quite frankly, annihilation of these hateful ideologues is the only true solution."

Once you say things like that, there is nothing to differentiate you from the terrorists. That's what they say. We're supposed to be different.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Skepticism about government

I was going to put this at the end of my previous post, but it needs its own thread. Here's a question for everyone. Why are conservatives not more skeptical of our government's ability to A) choose when wars are justified and B) fight them? They're (rightly) skeptical (as I am) of our government's ability to manage and run Social Security, implement universal health care, etc., and they decry "our tax dollars" being spent on the above programs and also things with which they disagree (federally funded abortions.)
Bracketing off the facts that for most of us, 1) our tax dollars come back to us in our paychecks and 2) the government is intimately intertwined with the corporations we work for, why should my tax dollars go to pay for wars I disagree with? Shouldn't we err more on the side of caution in a war than in a public program? The social service goes wrong--we wasted money; we need reform. The war goes wrong/badly--people are dead. Don't/shouldn't wars require a higher standard of proof? In effect, conservatives are saying something like:
"Iraq: why our government can't be trusted with universal health care, but can be trusted with invading and managing a country 10,000 miles away that's never done anything to us."
Hit me.

Justifying the Iraq war

"Saddam Hussein and people like him were very much involved in 9/11," Rep. Robin Hayes said. Told no investigation had ever found evidence to link Saddam and 9/11, Hayes responded, "I'm sorry, but you must have looked in the wrong places." Hayes, the vice chairman of the House subcommittee on terrorism, said legislators have access to evidence others do not.
I'm not sure if I have anything else to say about this issue. Most of the conservatives I respect make the legitimate case that Saddam was a fascist dictator who was dangerous to his neighbors and catastrophically repressive to his own people, and that that's why the war was justified. I disagree that this justifies the war, as I think we facilitated him when it was convenient to do so, but at least my hawkish brethren are willing to discuss it on a level playing field. Mr. Hayes, disputing both John McCain and President Bush with this assertion, has left the building.
I guess I feel like Hayes is rewriting history before our eyes. I want our children to grow up remembering 9/11, and knowing that it may take military and civil action to combat terrorism. But I also want them to know that our government is capable of subtle propaganda campaigns, and that they should approach the news and government press releases with a commanding knowledge of history--more than Hayes knows--and skepticism.