Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Buddhist Deals With The Same Subjects As Some Recent Posts Here

Thanks to the reader who tipped me off to Alan Wallace’s work. It’s kind of a non-political slant on a lot of what I’ve been writing about from a political viewpoint. I especially like this review of one of Sam Harris’ books. For comparison here’s my response to one of Harris' articles. I’d better point out, since so many people figure if you agree with someone generally that you’ve bought the whole package that while I don’t know if reincarnation is real I truly hope it isn’t. One life in this vail of tears is quite enough, thank you.

The Salon interview makes some of the points I’ve been making here. It’s almost spooky, as Dame Edna might say.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Arguing About A Total Waste Of Time While People Defer Healthcare Because They Don’t Have Insurance Now.

Note: I was going to hold this till later but a piece of junk mail came today, from “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by what I consider to be the pseudo-skeptical group, CSICOP*. You can imagine the effect it had on me. I might post a piece on that group someday about why I am very skeptical of its skepticism. Maybe it was the praise of Stephen Pinker in the come on that really got me going. I assume that there are any number of feminists who will understand why that might be. This is also posted as motivation to skeptical evaluation of claims of the kind of science he and many others toute. Until then, hope you find this fun. I did.

Query: What did you mean when you said the “prayer studies both pro and con are bogus”?

Now, you will remember, before we begin, that no claims are made here as to the effectiveness of prayer. This is about why the studies are bogus, nothing else. It is also about why both the believers and skeptics are being dishonest about these widely reported “scientific studies”. The real point is, spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, that would really save lives and improve health.

In order to study something you have to be able to observe it, to define what you are observing within some limits and to be able to verify that it is present in your study. “Prayer” is not definable and it can’t be known to be one thing or to exist at any particular time. Any possible mechanism of its operation or the results of it are also undefinable or prone to ambiguity. The widely reported “prayer studies” don’t even get past the first hurdle of logic, never mind science.

Prayer” is an undefined activity, it is also an activity that can’t be observed. It seems that the only verification of the presence of “prayer” in these studies were the reports of those doing the “praying”. Self-reporting, one assumes by people who “believe in the effectiveness of prayer”, is hardly objective verification. It isn’t even knowable if they had the same idea of what they were supposed to be doing. One person might have been trying to appeal to a god to effect healing, one may have been trying to send out healing “energy” from themself, someone might have been trying to do both at once or at different times. Another might have been doing something else. It could be that two people who used exactly the same words to describe what they were doing were actually doing different things. It is quite possible that the mental activities of two such people were quite distinctly different. How would the researchers have controlled for that? If imaging or other techniques were used to monitor brain activity during prayer, there isn’t any way to know if that would have an effect on the outcome.

It could be that any single person was actually doing different things on different occasions, even if they thought they were consistent. We have it on the authority of people who pray that they don’t always “get it right”. So, there is no defined activity that can even be tested for its presence. It gets worse.

It is possible that a subset of the group studied would have actually shown a result different than that of the whole group. It is possible that those were the only ones “doing it the right way”. There is no way of knowing which of the results, positive or negative, might have been right or if neither of them were valid.

Given the very nature of what was allegedly being studied, there is a possible participant in the study whose participation didn’t even seem to enter into consideration. What could be a rather important “other”. If every single person who was “praying” was praying in exactly the same way for the intercession of a god or other spiritual consciousness there is no way to know, 1. If they exist, 2. If they would cooperate with the sloppy study, 3. If they found the entire thing too insulting and so sabotaged it. Maybe the “agent of healing” had entirely different motives and chose to act in an entirely mysterious way without informing the participants. There are precedents reported in the literature of prayer that are consistent with that kind of thing.

And now for one of my pet peeves in this kind of “science”, the control group. It is entirely possible that such an agent of healing had motives entirely separate from those of the study and who chose to effect healing within the people in the “control” group. Maybe God took pity on people who were set aside by the protocols set up for the convenience of the researchers. You think a God who is willing to heal people on the basis of abject, desperate, requests wouldn’t have thought of that?

There isn’t any way to know that either a member of the control group or prayed over group was praying for themselves or if other people, unknown to those doing the study, were praying for them. There isn’t any way to know if such prayer would be more of less effective than that prayer sanctioned by those conducting an official “scientific” study. There is no way to know if the effects of prayer might not be cumulative. Maybe the number of people praying has no effect whatsoever, that is if there is any effect. Even if all of the participants in the “control group”, both non-pray-ers and prayed not-overs were self-declared atheists there isn’t any way to know if some of them might have cheated and snuck in some prayer just to cover all the bases. I suspect Balzac would have suspected that as a possibility*.

Why any scientist, skeptic or religious believer would give a “study” that begins so badly the time of day is probably the most interesting question that could come from this kind of thing. With a lack of validity being so clear, questions of motives must arise. Why the media would is clear, it takes up air time and pushes agendas.

These “studies” are a waste of resources that could be better spent in other ways. It’s quite shocking that religious believers, particularly Christians, would put God to a test like this. Even if its being literally against the word of Jesus didn’t bother them, the literature of religion tells us over and over that doing this kind of thing is just asking for trouble.

The motives of “scientific skeptics” who take their side of this thing seriously are even more suspect. If they are willing to accept such sloppy science their skepticism is of a very low order. As long as no one is being charged for services or delaying treatment, let people pray as much as they want to. While it might offend the tender sensibilities of the pseudo-skeptics, it’s really none of their business how people in despair try to alleviate their distress. They certainly haven’t come up with something any more guaranteed to do that. If skeptics want to go after charlatans who bilk the vulnerable and who endanger people by encouraging them to stop or delay treatment, that would be an entirely worthy use of their time. Otherwise, it’s not only none of their business, it’s cruel.

Spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, there is an enormous amount of evidence that a universal healthcare system would really save lives and improve health. So important, it needed repeating.

* Marcello Truzzi was a co-founder and was later somewhat a hertitic of CSICOP. He is often cited as the author of the slogan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," so beloved of Carl Sagan. Apparently he broke with a number of avocational ‘skeptics’ over the fact that much of not most of the activity and writing surrounding many of the well publicized “skeptics” isn’t skeptical at all but is a promotion of their fixed opinion. The term “pseudo-skeptics” is a good word to describe the intellectual conceit that is currently fashionable among so many of the fans of the cult of materialism.

By the way, the slogan itself is scientifically problematic. Who gets to decide what claims are extraordinary to start with? Presumably the same people get to decide what evidence is extraordinary enough to fulfill their requirements.

And isn’t demanding anything above the normal level of verification be a bald faced violation of the foundation that scienctific inquiry has to be controlled, that no one gets to choose standards of rigor for one area of study that other areas aren't subjected to? The danger of that is clear, it would be an open door for allowing prejudice into what must be as objective as possible. Why would the designation of a claim as extraordinary require more than the, presumably, sufficiently rigorous level of evidence that makes ideas in science accepted? Is there something wrong with the normal level of scrutiny that science practices? I kind of think it works, when it’s actually practiced.

That is, that’s the level of verification necessary in science. What it takes to convince people in normal, everyday life is an entirely different matter. That’s too variable to get a handle on. People have a right to be skeptical for their own reasons that might have nothing to do with what can be demonstrated with the very limited and specialized tools of science. And they should be free to believe on that same basis. That's what we call freedom. And as long as they don't try to call it science or to force it on the unwilling it's their right. And, as I've tried to show in these posts, some "scientists" are just as guilty of passing off their unsupported opinions as science.

** See his short story, The Atheist’s Mass.

Fudging or Meta-Fudging. What’s The Right Word For It?
The other day, discussing the local recycling program with a former town official we both cited the necessity of taking into account that a lot of people won’t sort or clean or limit things thrown into the recycling bin. I was trying to figure out a word for the act of taking that kind of sloppiness into account, “fudging” or even “meta-fudging” don’t seem to work just right. Using them would be an act of whatever it should be called.

Just about everything in life, even those things supposedly of great precision involve some kind of ignoring the less than pristine compliance with what should be. Most of the mewling I’ve been doing here about lapses in science would fall into that category. IQ, the fact that no one can define what it is or prove that it exists as something other than the product of reification doesn’t stop even relatively serious people from making believe that they can build science and, more dangerously, educational systems on the, perhaps, illusory stuff. As it is, there is a professional conspiracy to sweep the sullied pedigree of it under the rug.

We need a formal term for this kind of fudging and a science to identify and study it. Maybe one exists already and I’m just ignorant of it. Anyone know? If this kind of stuff, accepted only because it is either necessary or professionally desirable, could be studied, papers published and, most essential to any of the behavioral sciences, paying jobs produced at universities, tenure and endowed chairs, then maybe the possible negative effects could be controlled. As it is, that kind of junk is rampant.

Anyone know the Greek for "fudging"? An inexhaustable field of study awaits.

Monday, February 26, 2007

OK, Shoot The Piano Player But There’s More To It Than That
Listening to Liane Hansen talking with Nathaniel Kahn the director of the movie “Two Hands” about the physical problems of the pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, several things were striking. First, the number of times NPR alone has done stories about Fleisher would qualify as enough, already. He’s a great musician with an interesting story but there are many thousands of pianists, not to mention players of less glamourous instruments, who could be the subject of interesting stories. Why not do something that hasn’t already been done to death on NPR? And why not do stories about classical music that aren’t centered on the movies?

Second, the stories and pieces about Fleisher have all been the same and superficial. They aren’t about music. Our media has just about a blanket boycott on actually covering classical music as music. With the exception of a few pieces done by classical music critics they’ve all been about his disability. The really important thing about that wouldn’t make very interesting radio for non-musicians. If Fleisher really wanted to say the most useful thing he could about his disability, it would be to document the aspects of his technique that could have lead to his problems. Fingering, in short. How was he using his hands when he got into trouble and what could that tell us about how to avoid those problems? Maybe a comparison with fingerings of pianists who worked for many decades without problems would tell something interesting.

The piano being my instrument, I’ll tell you that it was when I used other peoples’ fingerings without thinking of what they did to my hand that I got into trouble. This first came to my notice when I tried practicing with my eyes closed, concentrating on how my hands position in relation to the keyboard changed as they moved up and down. The keyboard is a very large object and the hands position has to change as they move from the middle of it. Fingerings that work perfectly in the middle don’t work nearly as well as they move up and down octaves. The use of the weaker small and ring fingers are especially difficult in the right hand. Having been taught the standard fingerings and using them well past the positions they really worked in for years it was necessary to really think about how to use them in a way that worked. And I did find out that what was physically most comfortable tended to work better musically.

I also got into trouble when I studied classical guitar in college. The very unnatural right hand position insisted on by the teacher lead to really bad problems in the ring and pinky fingers. After two semesters I dumped it and switched my minor instrument to one with a teacher who cared more about their students hands than their own teacher’s orthodoxy. That was what got me started on looking at my piano problems.

If NPR wanted to do a useful story about this kind of thing, they might look at the work of Dorothy Taubman. Or they could actually do something about classical music that wasn’t related to the movies or the Pulitzers. They could actually do some reporting on music that hasn’t been done to death already.

Bush Crossed The Rubicon A Long Time Ago.

Even the weak, first effort of Democrats in the Senate to advise against escalation of war in Iraq has been met with a stonewall of Republican resistance. Their effective majority of the Republican Royalists and phony “moderates”, with the help of the de facto Republican, Lieberman, will ensure that the United States will follow Bush and Cheney into an expanded folly.

When the Constitution was first taught to us the “balance of powers” was given as the proof that the “founders” were geniuses. We were taught that the powers of congress would eternally be enough to ensure that, among other monarchal catastrophes, one man couldn’t take the country into a disastrous war of conquest. By that time a line of presidents from Truman on hadcertainly shown that to be a lie*. We don’t live in a Republic in so far as our foreign policy goes, certainly not in matters of war. Any president can conduct a minor war at will. And with this war on top of the Vietnam war they can honestly claim absolute power to get us into wars longer than both of the World Wars.

War is different. It is the most serious thing that a country can do. It is a guarantee that large numbers of people will be killed by the state, both on the other side and on “our” side. War always brings with it every evil imaginable as order and morality give way to the war itself. Our constitution as it really is, not as the liars teach it, gives the power to start war to the executive branch with no real limit. Our media tried to use the war Clinton conducted against Serbia to hurt him politically but they didn’t really try to stop him. Other than that little has been done to discourage participation in a war since Republican isolationists, delayed the entry of the United States into the developing World War. I will point out, because I will never forget, that more than a few of the isolationists were great fans of Hitler and Mussolini.

The Bush war in Iraq, following on his father’s war on Iraq, is the most incompetent of the dishonest and illegal wars brought by American presidents. The inability of the congress, specifically the Senate, to pull us out of it is absolute proof that the Constitution as it really is endangers all of us. The consensus that there is no way to prevent the insane junta from getting us involved in what anyone with a brain would know will be an even greater disaster, war with Iran, should make us rise up as a body and yell at the top of our voices. But, now as it is beginning, an effective majority of seem to either be on the take or more interested in trivia.

The American People can do the right thing if they know what is really happening. The presidential horse-race, the Oscars, the rotting corpse of what passes these days as a sex goddess and a thousand other distractions are presented by the media to keep them from doing the right thing. By the time the People can’t avoid dealing with it, Bush’s attempted use of a larger disaster to save his crime family from the garbage heap of history, the world could be a much different place than it is today. Blair’s pre-Iran bugging out might indicate that even he knows what’s coming. He is a known rat, the ship is taking on water fast.

* As a comment at Echidne's blog said, the practice of presidents starting wars without the consent of Congress predates Truman. But the practice has been getting steadily worse since the Korean War. The ability to actually start a war is to the authority to declare war is a real power, the "authority" has evolved into a game of 'let's pretend'. Unfortunately the balance of powers has too. Let's stop pretending about that.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Changing the Subject 101

When did the practice of assuming that everyone was going nuclear when they said they didn’t like something become the standard? Why is it that when someone says they don’t like pornography, find it degrading and possibly dangerous it is assumed that they are calling for the government to censor everything? Why is it that when someone disagrees with something someone has said, or the way they have said it, it’s assumed that you want to silence them by any available means?

I don’t know about you but I’ve come to suspect that the people who react as if the button has been pushed are really over reacting so they won’t have to deal with the argument. It immediately takes it from the particulars of the case and turns it into a federal case over abstractions.

Funny way to run a life of the mind. Really lousy way to run a political movement.

By the way, look at the first paragraphs of the first story in Dubliners if you want to find out what the last part of The Dead means. It's got the clues.

I'll be away until next Saturday.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rethinking Leftist Blogging In Light Of The Continuing And Unfortunately Spreading Controversy
The reaction to the Edwards blog incident has really made me rethink a lot of assumptions I’d had about the capacity of political blogs to change things for the better. I don’t really care about blogs, as such. I care about better people getting into office and changing laws and appointing judges to make life better. If writing bubble gum comics showed more promise, that’s what I’d be doing. The blogs might turn into a tool to make positive change happen. Given the fact that the mass media are in the hands of the enemies of positive change they might be the best tool available. They are important only in so far as they can make that change happen. They won’t make it happen unless their standards are higher than they are now.

This incident and what preceded it have exposed some of the limits of some of the most widely visited blogs. I’d say most widely read but in some of those the comment threads seem to have very little to do with what the blog owners write. Not reading what is written or caring about it where the trouble begins. Most blogging consists of written words. Those can be either carefully considered words, just tossed off irresponsibly, or they can be good, harmless, fun. Some of the best fun can be sharp and pointed but it had better be based in truth if it is.

There is a great difference in the effect of those words. While the writers of them have an equal right to say what they do unthreatened by fascist thugs, not all of what they say is of equal value. If readers of blogs don’t care that reasoned arguments based in facts are a better reflection of reality than invective based in emotion then their judgement isn’t likely to produce good choices. If they don’t care that the invective, which might reflect their feelings, is based on something other than the truth then it is just about guaranteed to produce bad results.

The trend in some of the blogs towards a standard, acceptable, point of view, enforced by derision and dishonesty is exactly what made highschool such an ineffective way for people to learn and develop into healthy, responsible adults. I went to highschool a long, long time ago and hated every second of it, give or take my Biology class, French class and a couple of good English teachers. I’m not willing to spend any more time going against the ruling cliques on those kinds of highschool blogs at this time of life. I’m shut of that. But I’ll never get enough of an adult level of disagreement. I’m too selfish for that. Having my ideas corrected and sharpened by people showing me the errors of my ways is too edifying to give up.

Just as important as getting the facts is that the very foundation of progressive politics is the belief that people, their welfare, their inner lives are important. Being a leftist is about believing that people have a higher value than their physical bodies and their utility in games of power and commerce. Leftists have to appeal to what is best in people, not what is worst. The left can’t use people on the basis of pack sensibility or as a hoard to be swayed on the basis of prejudice and resentment. Unlike conservatism, the left isn’t there to use people in any way, it is there to serve them. It’s been just those on the left who have skimped on this foundation who are the most likely to turn apostate and end up in the Hitchens camp. I don’t trust them.

If the price to post comments on some blogs is enforced conformity then I’m not of that blogosphere. That isn’t just due to a lack of personal sympathy but, all importantly, because commenting on them is a waste of time better spent on trying to change things in real life.

I won’t stop writing for and reading blogs over this, why should I? Why should anyone? If saying what you think means fewer readers and more antagonism, that price isn’t unknown to history. If trying to follow reason and facts instead of entertaining and irresponsible, childish invective is the norm of some blogs trending left that isn’t any reason to suspect that adult level blogging is impossible. There are a number of blogs out there which consistently appeal to an adult level of discourse. My experience in politics leads me to think that it’s the adults who are more likely to actually get the vote out and write letters. Talking to them is worth the derision of other people.

My entrance into this dispute was through that one piece I wrote about why insulting religious believers would lead to unwanted electoral results for the left. It continued through answers to people who didn’t like what I said then. Looking back through the posts I’ve made on those subjects they have all been based in answers to people who read either distorted versions of what I was supposed to have said or who mis-read what I’d written. Some of those have been insulting. If I wasn’t an anonymous blogger I imagine some of them could be threatening. At least one did threaten outing, though I’m confident that was very unlikely. At the time I first answered them I joked that I’d really rather be reviving the idea of progressive taxation. Only, that wasn’t just a joke, it was true.

Note: The big winter storm caused me to delay my plans, I am still intending to take some time off in the next week.

Monday, February 12, 2007

In A Shameless Attempt To Become Mysterious and Chic

I will be away until the week after next Saturday, at the latest. If possible I'll post before then.
No, I know what you're thinking, it's not cosmetic surgery.

Hope you have a good two weeks.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Got A Child With the Norovirus To Take Care Of Today, No New Writing

But before I go and deal with what that entails, I'd like to point out that of the three candidates at the top of the polls that John Edwards has the best position on the Iraq war. This isn't the position of a coward.

Calls on Congress to Block Funds for War Escalation

Senator John Edwards released the following statement today about President Bush's expected announcement tomorrow that he will seek to escalate the number of troops in Iraq.

"George Bush's expected decision to adopt the McCain Doctrine and escalate the war in Iraq is a grave mistake.

"The new Congress must intercede to stop Bush from stubbornly sticking to the same failed course in Iraq and refuse to authorize funding for an escalation of troops. They should make it clear to the President that he will not get any money to put more of our troops in harm's way until he provides a plan to turn responsibility of Iraq over to the Iraqi people and to ultimately leave Iraq. George Bush wants to dig a deeper hole, but we need to climb out.

"The situation in Iraq demands a political solution — the Iraqi people must take responsibility for their country. Escalating the war in Iraq, which our own generals agree won't help, sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people, to the region, and the world. In order to get the Iraqis to take responsibility for their country, we must show them that we are serious about leaving, and the best way to do that is to actually start leaving and immediately withdraw 40–50,000 troops. Once the U.S. starts leaving, the Iraqi people and other regional powers will be forced to step up and engage in the search for a political solution that can bring an end to sectarian violence and allow reconstruction to take hold, creating — as should have been done long ago — Iraqi jobs for Iraqis."

It would be playing into the hands of the Malkin-Donohue-Cabloidwhore-Republican McCarthyites to give him up over what is a minor glitch in a presidential campaign.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It’s Time To Support Edwards, Not To Drop Him Like the Republican McCarthyites Planned

ZAHN: You should go work for Mel Gibson.

DONOHUE: I'd love to! Hey, Mel, I'm for sale!
William Donohue has joined in the McCarthyite attacks on the Edwards campaign begun the other day by Michelle Malkin. They, or more likely hirelings in the Republican National Committee, have done what any McCarthyite would do and looked at the public record of writing by the two people hired to run the campaign blog. Their plan is to attack Edwards through them.

The left is taking sides in anticipation of the possible firings of the bloggers. Some are defending Edwards, some saying that this is a support killer. As of the time I am writing this we don’t know how he will handle it. Instead of getting upset with one of our own, we should focus our fire on Malkin and Donohue and the other Republicans who are mounting this, the first major attempt to knock off a strong Democratic possibility.

A president’s first loyalty isn’t to the people who are hired for their administration, a presidential candidate’s first loyalty isn’t to the people hired to run their campaign. They are asking The People of the United States for their support, for their permission to be their president and to administer the country. Their first and overwhelming responsibility is to the members of their party whose nomination they are asking for and, if elected, to The People of the country. That responsibility to The People supercedes their loyalty to their friends and staff.

Anyone who signs on to a campaign as a volunteer and, especially, as a paid staffer should realize that they don’t come first, they can’t come first. Campaign workers have to realize that they have an obligation to the campaign and to their candidate. Their decision to participate in the campaign carries obligations. The entire point of the campaign is for their candidate or ballot question or party to win the election.

In George W. Bush we have seen the consequences of someone who puts their friends and cronies before the welfare of the country. We can’t hold our politicians at fault if they recognize that there are bigger stakes and obligations more pressing than personnel issues.

Whoever hired people with a very long and very public paper trail without realizing that the Republicans would go through that with a fine tooth comb to come up with dirt to fling, is the first one who should be fired. There was a clear danger in hiring anyone who has a public record and a colorful writing style. There was nothing that happened here that couldn’t have been predicted. A manager who hasn’t mastered the lessons of the past thirty-five years of dirty Republican campaign tactics isn’t ready for a presidential campaign.

I hope that a way can be found around the problem but there probably isn’t one that will not be a bitter dose of medicine. By pinning the responsibility on John Edwards, on blaming him for the situation and so sinking his campaign we would be finishing exactly what Malkin and Donohue and the Republican fat cats that they take their orders from set out to do. We would turn this into a win for the McCarthyites.

There is a better way to handle than to hand victory over to Malkin and Donohue and it is to put these McCartyites on the spot, put those who give them a platform on the spot and to make them the issue, not John Edwards.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Commentwhore: Posted about three minutes ago at Eschaton

If a woman consents to having sex with a man but then during intercourse says no, and the man continues, is it rape?

If two men get into a fight and one of them wants to stop but the other one beats him to death, is it still murder?

Why It’s Just Wrong When Pop Originates Pop Culture.

In my recent squabbles over pop culture a lot of people just didn’t seem to understand why people , like me, in their late middle age wouldn’t be up to date. So you might understand this phenomenon, it all begins like this.

Fads and pop culture begin with older teenagers and very young adults. At least they did when those used to be home made. Sadly, it now seems that a lot of them are content to just adopt whatever stupid junk corporations tell them to. But assuming that it at least has to pass through this age cohort to be a fad, I’ll continue with this entirely unscientific line based on observation.

After the fad has been adopted by it’s “originators” it is then taken up by those insecure conformists, young teenager kulture vultures, and their even more uncertain and insecure fellow second-tier adopters the thirty somethings.

After them come tweens and pre- geezers. With the tweens and even younger people, parents might notice that something is happening. I’d say they notice that something new is happening but by this stage the fad is quickly passing from the ‘originator’ cohort. The spectacle of 40-year-olds...., it’s not pretty. They didn’t learn about the fad from the originators because of the natural stealth of people that age.

It starts getting fuzzy from here but what is almost certain is that the last people to know about the dying fad are geezers, and specifically males in their fifties and up being almost certainly the end of the line. This is roughly the same age group which has authority in important areas of life, having come up through the ranks or, having been pushed up, if you believe in some vaguely amusing theories of business hierarchies. This could explain why people with the authority to make decisions aren’t up on the latest fads. The theory is based on my seeing a man in his fifties with one of those stupid tiny braids down the back of his head well after even I knew it had ceased being a fad. He asked me if I was looking forward to The Stones tour. As they say, lightening struck.

I wish young people would start smashing corporate culture instead of adopting it. It’s geezers who decide what corporations are going to promote as cool. How do you expect these business types to come up with something new? This explains the blandness and stupidity of so much pop culture these days. That’s just wrong. Geezers trying to originate and follow pop culture robs young people of one of the greatest pleasures of youth, theirs by nature and by right, condescending to their elders in matters of coolness. Give it up, Dad.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Just Can’t Get Molly Off My Mind...

The obituaries of Molly Ivins were all interested in what made her into such a great journalist. Luckily we don’t really have to wonder, great journalist that she was, she reported it. She said that for her, as for so many other Southern liberals, the question that sparked her off was race. Once you figure out that they’re lying to you about race you wonder what else they’re lying to you about. Honest people are really the best source to find out what makes them tick, you don’t need to filter it through some dumb theory. Molly Ivins noted in that passage that children are notoriously honest before they are socialized out of looking for the truth.

That reminded me of how much I love impertinent children. Just love them. Not the button pushing brats who say things and bring up topics just to make their elders squirm. As if that’s possible now that everyone spills their guts everywhere at the drop of a hat. What I really like are children who ask questions and draw conclusions about things that get swept under the rug. Sometimes, like with race, those things are done for the filthiest and most apparent reasons. But sometimes it’s just out of convenience or habit. I’ve got the strongest hunch that any system that is devised, even one that tries to stay honest, will build up a crust of junk out of the exigencies of meeting deadlines, publishing papers and not offending colleagues. It’s been that way in just about anything I’m familiar with. Career building rewards you for ignoring the muck that you know is there, if just in the back of your mind. If a kid looks at it, someone without any career or social status to protect, they can cut through the crap and find the rot underneath.

A child like that gets told that they’re asking an impertinent question, every step of the way. Of course, being inquisitive, they will eventually ask why people insist on calling a question impertinent when it’s really the most pertinent question you can ask. But by the time they’ve learned those words they know that no one is going to answer their questions and they’re going to have to figure it out for themself.

It’s not every kid who does this, a lot of them show certain signs of being socialized in the most unfortunate way. Of course, they’re the cool kids, the ones who are at the top of one or more of the highschool elites and the ones who aspire to that. They don’t ask questions that will lose them status, usually not with their elders, certainly not with their peers. For them it’s the peers who are the bigger danger to curiosity and honesty. The elites of youth are just future conformists of the world, even if they like to strike the pose of being counter culture. I don’t usually worry about elites figuring they are in a position to take care of themselves, but I do worry about the horrors of that kind of anxious, painful maintenance of status in young people, the burden of the facade of cool confidence. If only they could give it up and breathe some really fresh air. After they grow up I’ve got less time to worry about them. Though I lose sleep over wondering what the world is coming to now that adults have extended the culture of highschool well past middle age.

I think I might be drifting, but then so could Molly Ivins. Not in a piece, she was a great worker who wrote about as tight a piece as could be imagined. But she was telling the truth, she never stopped poking around no matter where it led her. What can we do to keep any part of her with us, now that she’s gone on? We do what she did. Ask an impertinent question about something important every day. Ask it without worrying about the consequences from the elites or from your peers. Ask it for Molly. Ask it with heart.

... oh Lord, I hope I never do.

You Do Know That It’s Only In Cartoons That People Have X-Ray Vision, Don’t You?
I asked an officially impertinent question last night, partly as an experiment, partly because I wanted an answer. The subject was the Boston cartoon scare, to which I will stipulate that the two dolts who set it off are being over charged, perhaps partly out of embarrassment. Though reimbursing the security budget, tight to begin with, is probably not entirely an unimportant consideration. My question was, Would you like to be the first responder at the next incident, wondering if it's some dumb kid pulling a copy cat stunt or if it's a psychopath with access to explosives making believe it's a copy cat stunt?

Well, uncool kid that I have ever been, the question was immediately ruled uncool and boooo-rrrriiing. As such the question was unanswered. Now, what are we to make of the whole thing. The ruling of the student council is that those old farts in Boston should have known that the thing was a promotion of the coool Turner Corporation product. Well, duh!, if that’s still being said anywhere.

First, not everyone is au courant with the ever changing sands of corporate cool culture. This is probably truest for people old enough to be in charge of somewhat important things.

Second, if the authorities were familiar with the trivia of the Cartoon Network how could they have used that fact to look on the other side of the signs to make certain that there wasn’t something dangerous there?

Third, so what about your volunteering for the fire department or other first responders outfit?

And , last and probably least, really cool people don’t look to giant cable TV companies to find counter culture? Cable is not cool with people who really know cool. It will not be on TV.

Maybe it is a matter of culture. I’d have liked to continue asking questions. I’d have liked to know if there were any people who worked as first responders on the threads were the question was posed. How did they feel about it? Or maybe it’s really a matter of class. Did any of the white collar people and students have members of their families or friends who might be the first person on the scene the next time some genius from the corporate world decides to do something like this without notifying the authorities that those signs are just a gimmick. And may I suggest that there be a mechanism set up for corporate imbeciles who pull stunts like this to give official and legal notification of the appropriate authorities who just might have more important things on their plate than Aqua Teen.

There might have been first responders or family members of the same, maybe they agreed with the consensus or maybe they didn’t want to risk asking. I don’t know. That’s another question I’ve got about the blogs. How free are people to ask questions? I'm through with highschool.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What We Need Are Organized Atheists*

To round out this week, before I go back to things I really think are more important, like trying to save the biosphere (glad there is finally something E.O. Wilson and I can agree on) let me make a practical proposal.

Atheists are a beleaguered group. It is a group to which several of my nearest and dearest belong. Why, my brother, one of the two people I have trusted with my identity is an atheist. He might have made a good president, if he’d not taken a different career path. I would certainly not want him to be discriminated against. How can the irrational bigotry against atheists be lessened and all of us get past that to try to save this, the only life we, perhaps, will ever get?

The problem is bigotry, the hostility that many people have towards those who don’t believe in the existence of a God. How do we end that? Building on the piece posted below on Tuesday, may I propose that the hostility that many, including many atheists and religionists, have towards religious fundamentalists could suggest a solution? Fundamentalists are unpleasant, bigoted and dangerous. They attract some converts but in most cases they also attract enemies and others who avoid them like, well, one of my really long posts. Perhaps what we need in both cases is the establishment of movements of the majority of both groups who believe in freedom of thought, freedom of belief. Maybe a liberal atheists movement to counter the now fashionable Dawkins-Harris style fundamentalism would lessen the annoyance of at least a good portion of the world who believes in religion of some kind.

As observed last Tuesday I have found the “I don’t believe” kind of atheist to be a rather rational and pleasant kind of person. They tend to have both wit and a heart. They, dear atheists, could make a much better poster for atheists than the sheering, disdainful and arrogant face of.... you know who. Maybe instead of engaging in the unnecessary and, I will guarantee you, futile attempt to promote atheism to people who will to believe, you should promote atheists of good will.

Not being an atheist myself, nor a Christian or any other identifiable religious identity you can name, I can’t make the choice for you. You do not have to accept anyone’s authority, not even if they’ve been on the Best Sellers list. You, my friends, are free agents, you have freedom to take whatever course seems to be the one that will get you where you want. Do you want to find more hatred and bigotry at the end of your journey or will you be brave enough to try friendship?

*John Mortimer, the great author of the Rumpole stories once seemed to get a great deal of jolly fun out of talking about about joining a group called “Atheists for Jesus”, a certain, rather bitter old fart wrote a polemic against them but there’s no need to go into that here. I’m not sure this is the same group. It doesn’t look like as much fun as it should be, but people have different views of what’s fun.

Note: I was going to save this for tomorrow but doing something I almost never do, checking my Eugenia Last Astrological Forcast in the paper** it said this for today:

Not everyone will agree with you but things will fall into place. You will hae to be a little outspoken and direct but either you will take the lead or you let others lead you.

I can tell a sign when I'm given one.

** What's the use of being accused of every superstition in the dictionary if you can't indulge a little whimsy now and then?

Forgot I'd Written That

This is a piece which I wrote a few months back and never posted. Probably could use a bit of editing but I've got an important committment today. I hope you enjoy it.

The Left Doesn’t Owe The “Brights” A Phony, Unnecessary and Potentially Damaging Conflict

ince Sam Harris sort of indicates it was Sept. 11th and the religious motives of the suicide terrorists that knocked him off the horse to Damascus let’s consider that one.

Harris asserts that religion is dangerous because wars and violence have been motivated by religion. Yes they have. The attacks on Sept. 11th were motivated by religion, at least in part. The religious excuse used by Osama bin Ladin played a large part in recruiting for, planning of and carrying out those attacks. We can be fairly confident that there was a religious motive in the men who actually made the attacks.

Bin Ladin wanted to destablize the Saudi oligarches and establish a fundamentalist state because he says that the rigidly conservative Wahabi establishment is insufficiently Islamic to have control of Mecca. To do that he wants the American infidels who play a considerable role in propping up the corrupt ruling family out of the holy land. That’s what he says. But there isn’t any reason we should assume that he is telling the whole truth. It is entirely possible that his real motives include other things, like wanting power over a large and rich country for reasons of his own, personal edification. Stranger things have been known to be true.

We have the testimony of many that bin Ladin is a deeply religious man but we have also been assured the same of just about every autocratic ruler of every country except officially communist ones where purported ideological purity takes the place of religion. Some of those stressed the scientific nature of their ideology. Is it worth going there in search of yet more dangers to humanity from scientists? How accurate bin Ladin’s publicity about his religious adherence might be is unknown. Many of the other publicly devout public figures have feet of clay, religion wise and science wise when exposed full-length.

But arguing that the Sept. 11th attacks and other violent acts mandate the destruction of religion invites other factors in the identity of the attackers to be considered for eradication. An objective and impartial identification of those factors and the call for those to be expunged from the species would seem to be required, following Harris’ line.

They were all males. Why doesn’t this mandate the end of all males? Most of the violence in wars and in daily life is committed by males. But I don’t see Harris or others calling for any curbs on the production of men. Is the fact that males constitute about half of the population the decisive fact in their preservation? Well, religious believers constitute considerably more than half of the species so the numbers argument wouldn’t support men being tolerated any more than religious believers.

If we add that they seem to have all been hetero-sexual males that makes the numbers argument more interesting. Maybe it’s hetero-sexual males that need to be suppressed.

Oh, and let’s see. Some of the 9-11 attackers, Bin Ladin and a lot of the other Al Qaeda terrorists also had training in the sciences, yes, there seems to be a problem here too. Considering the role played by scientists in the production of armaments, well, it must be too dangerous to tolerate.

But maybe the continued tolerance for the existence of heterosexual males with training in the sciences can be defended because some of them aren’t so bad, some are even rather nice, rational and pleasant to be around. Some are downright good people who do good things and don’t do bad things. But the same can be said of religious believers so Harris’ proposition would fail on that account. That might be too big a chance to take. Religious moderates are not to be tolerated, according to one of Harris’ admirers who I argued with a while back, because if maintained they have the potential to spawn dangerous religious fanatics. Ok, if that’s true then looks like that’s it for straight scientists of the male gender.

Looking at the bios of both Harris and Dawkins they seem to have shared more than just gender and sexual identity with the 9-11 attackers. They also all seem to have come largely from the middle and upper classes of their societies. This is a trait they have with everyone who gets to decide if there is going to be a war, they inevitably either came from or successfully joined the upper class. Yet economic leveling of society doesn’t seem to enter into their programs. Surely there isn’t a personal motive in this neglect. Being ready to take on the entire Islamic world, from the front lines of North America Harris certainly couldn’t be afraid to take on the monied interests here.

Organized war by states is certainly the most violent, most murderous, most destructive form of violence and those are always begun and continued by economic and political elites. I am trying to remember a war called by religious authorities in the past century and am having a hard time. Even in the Iraq-Iran war it was the secular leader that started it. There is violence with religion as a feature, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka (sad to say that the non-theistic, Theravada Buddhists seem to be one side in that one), various other horrors, are all fought on the basis or religion. But notice this, around the world there are places where mulitple religious communities have co-existed with minimal trouble for decades or centuries.

Wars and violence have had many different stated motives and even more clear though unstated ones. Is religion the most insidious one of these? Clearly not these days. None of the major wars the United States has fought have even had a stated religious motivation. While there has been support by religious leaders for every one of these wars there have also been opponents to them, on both sides, who based their opposition squarely on religion. Most crimes of violence have absolutely no religious motive attached unless it is directed against a person on the basis of their own religion. It doesn’t seem just to require that the victims of crime give up or suppres their religion because of the opposition of bigots to it.

Motives of enrichment of the ruling classes and their continued rule would seem to be the primary motive of just about all modern war. The tools of bigotry and resentment of ethnic, religious and ideological ‘others’ is just about always a means of talking a populace into fighting a war for the benefit of their rulers, not the real reason that the war is brought. Ignoring that in all western societies and in some others there is religious opposition to these wars is relevant. I’m prepared to go out on a limb and guess that your typical Catholic Sister or Tikkun reader has done more to oppose war and violence than your typical “bright” has in the past half-century. If that is correct it is highly relevant to an objective view of this struggle for the minds and hearts of the left.

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