Wednesday, September 29, 2004

George Bush/Dan Rather: A Side-By-Side Comparison

Sent to me by my friend Beth-the-Sociologist, I know not whence:

Dan Rather, CBS News Anchor:
1) given documents he thought were true
2) failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3) reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4) when challenged, launched an investigation, quickly.....apologized
5) substance of the bogus documents appears to have been true...anyway
6) cost to the world in lives and money: zero
7) Bush camp conclusion: should be fired as CBS News Anchor

George W. Bush, President of the United States
1) given documents he thought were true
2) failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3) reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4) when challenged, stonewalled an investigation,.....never apologized
5) substance of the bogus documents appears to have been...bogus
6) cost to the world in lives and money: incalculable
7) Bush camp conclusion: four more years!

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Dogs of Peace:
More on Mercenaries and Humanitarian Military Intervention

Turns out that the idea of using mercenaries to conduct humanitarian interventions is not new with me--not by a long shot. A colleague of mine in Anthropology told me about the now-defunct South African mercenary outfit (or "private military company" as they prefer to be known) Executive Outcomes and their involvement in stopping the RUF in Sierra Leone in 1995; according to this Newsweek article, The Dogs of Peace, the EO mercenaries are considered heroes there. They also offered to stop the genocide in Rwanda for $150 million. A very, very small price to pay, if you ask me.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

William Kristol Gets It Right
A Wee Suggestion for a Free Market Solution in the Sudan

William Kristol and Vance Serchuk get it right in todays WaPo: we must stop the mass murder in Sudan NOW. Here's one kind of thing that neo-cons and hawkish liberals can agree on.

I know we're overstretched thanks to Bush's Folly in Iraq, but we simply cannot stand by and watch this happen. To Hell with Russia; likewise China. We need to get in there and start splashing those shiny new MIGs they bought and start blowing Janjaweed into itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny smoking little pieces. Those murderous bastards seem to fancy themselves brave men when they're strafing and slaughtering starving, unarmed civilians. I'm interested to see how they'd feel about a bit of a tussle with the 101st Airborn and a squadron of F-15s.

If the U.S. or the U.N doesn't act soon, then I suggest that it's time to stop giving money to Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders and time to start collecting money to hire mercenaries to stop the genocide. A sub-optimal solution, needless to say, and one that will generate its own problems. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it. There seem to be some at least semi-reputable "private security firms" out there these days--we needn't hire drooling Soldier of Fortune-type lunatics. One might worry about armed mercenaries running amok, but (a) that situation would be no worse than the one we already face in Darfur, and (b) it is unlikely to occur given that it would, of course, be written into their contracts that they would forfeit all pay and benefits if they failed to conduct themselves in a just and humane manner to the extent that this is possible.

Perhaps this is part of the solution to the problem of humanitarian interventions in the 21st Century. Some have qualms about risking the lives of American solidiers to save the lives of non-Americans. These qualms should be dissipated at least to some extent by the realization that we have an all-volunteer military (ignoring problems raised by stop-loss orders that is). But the qualms in question must evaporate entirely if the humanitarian military force is comprised entirely of people who freely agree to fight for pay in the specific conflict in question, and who can stop fighting and exit the conflict whenever they choose.

That is, perhaps a free market solution is in order here. And that should be an added incentive for the neo-cons to get on board.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Survivin' Ivan

One of the members of our little 'Raptor community, Dixie6256, recently elected to ride out Ivan. Below is her account of the experience. Try to stay calm, boys...this is the story of a woman with "edumacation" AND her own rechargeable reciprocating saw... Here's the tale:

[I'm] A-OK, and thankful like you wouldn't BELIEVE that the power is finallyback
on. I am so glad that my redneck neighbors, even though they tell me
theypity me for it, don't actually look down on me jes cause I have me
some edumacation. (This kinda stuff is our running joke, of course, because
mybackground is just as much redneck as theirs.) They have had power on
their side ofthe street since yesterday due to the vagaries of exactly which
transformerpowers their lines. I pled with the crew of one truck to come
down one more blockfor a quick look because there was no damage to the lines and
they'd onlyhave to close the air gap, but they sympathetically but firmly told
me that theyhad to deal with the main lines with no turning aside. "Two to
five weeks,ma'am," one young man from Illinois said.

Well, the good ol' boy network sprang to my rescue: the neighbor calledhis cousin who dated a girl whose sister's sister-in-law had just divorced(amicably, thank
goodness) a fellow who worked on a road crew with Baldwin CountyElectric
Membership Corporation. And yes--within the good ol' boy network,that
relationship is close enough to get him to drive out here before he satdown to
his dinner. The other two families on my cul de sac were just as happyas
I, but they had at least had generators to power minimal lights and ceilingfans
as well as saving the contents of their refrigerators/freezers.

I date this experience from last Monday afternoon (September 13) when Ipassed
through the school office on my way to class and overheard the principaltelling
the secretaries that all after school events were to be cancelled andschool
closed until further notice. (Further notice has been extended tonext
Friday, by the way.) It has been a long six days. To start, the
athleteswere called to the office by room numbers so that they could call
parents ifthey needed transportation home from cancelled practices or games, and
allteachers received a phone tree and emergency shutdown instructions to carry
outbefore leaving for the day. My middle school would be open as a shelter
if Ivanweakened to Category 3 or less. There would be NO shelters in this,
thesecond largest county east of the Mississippi, if it remained Category 4
orstrengthened. I'm sure you're not surprised to know we had no shelters.
The choiceswere two: hunker down or get the hell outta Dodge.

So many variables go into a decision to stay during a major storm.
Mineincluded a house well built less than four years ago, no trees of any
sizenear enough to fall on the house, and plywood already cut to size for all
mywindows stored in the attic space of the carport. Along with that, I had
beenliving with my parents in '79 when we made to decision to evacuate.
Theyunhappily rode out the night after Hurricane Frederic in a Dodge van
in a Montgomerytruck stop. I had driven farther north to Tuscaloosa to
stay with friends atthe University of Alabama. Strong thunderstorms and
tornado watches andwarnings kept me there for three days without communications.

I felt that I couldtake reasonable steps for security during this storm.
I did not want toexperience once again that disconnect from family and
friends and daily life. Astorm may kick normal routine in the ass, but
it's easier to pick back up ifyou're in the midst of your own place and

So, the shopping began as soon as my son and I left school.
Fresh bread,milk, eight bags of ice. With a teenager in the house, I
keep a good supplyof batteries for video games, for flashlights so that kids in
the neighborhoodcould play what they call Night Find on the four acres I have
and the woodsthat extend beyond me. I've never been without a good supply
of canned goods,and I have recently begun to wonder if that's due to memories of
weeks andweeks without power after Frederic. I know that choosing to have
gas cooking andwater heating is directly related to hurricane aftermath.
The rest of Mondaywas for organization and cleaning--all dishes washed,
all laundry done, all cabinets checked, all flashlights, battery and windup
clocks, radios, andcoke-can sized TV tested.

Tuesday was truly the first labor day of this month. The fourteenhalf-inch playwood sheets had to be handed down from the carport rafters, carriedaround to lean against the house under the windows they fit. Then we used the14.4 battery-powered Black & Decker drill to screw them in place. I worked onthe ladder for
the upper screws; my son finished off the bottom ones while Imoved the ladder to
the next window. I have good tools--there were two batterypacks with the
set I'd bought, and we used up the charge on both of them.Luckily, we had time
to recharge both before the power went out. I like pottedplants on my deck
and patio--they were all carried inside. The tool room hadto be cleaned up
so that the push mower, the riding mower, and the trailerwould all fit inside.
The pop-up camper I backed into the space between thehouse and the
carport. My spare car was driven to the neighbor's house just incase my
driveway was again washed away. I took down the lattice at one end ofthe
deck so that the porch swing and deck furniture could be stowed underneathand
then nailed it back into place. A moment of outward pride in all
thatwork--the builder, who had expressed "admiration" of my request to have
theplywood cut for the windows when I had the house built, came by to tell me
that hehad really thought I had been silly. Now, he intends to offer
cutting plywoodduring construction as a value to make his business more

Wednesday I drove into Bay Minette (county seat and city
to my north) togas up, get tires checked and fixed, pick up some drink mix and
my guests forthe storm. My mother, before she moved to North Carolina, had
gotten close toMazie and her granddaughter Kayla. When Mazie called me on
Monday evening, Itold her that whatever I decided to do, I'd come to get the two
of them.Mazie, at 86, shaky on her pins, and just shy of legally blind, doesn't
drive.And the small wood frame house she rents (closely surrounded by oaks) is
almostas old as she is. I guess the deciding factor for me was when she
told meher landlady had driven by to anoint the trees and the house, to pray for
theirdeliverance from the storm. From my point of view, what the woman
needed tobring was a chainsaw to cut some limbs and a screwdriver to remove a
latchlessstorm door. The wind began rising just before 1 p.m. with gusts
that my sonand Kayla laughingly fell back from as they ran around outside the
housecalling the cat and thereby insuring that she hid effectively from them.
Ivan wasstill over 100 miles from landfall.

Wednesday night found us stepping onto the back deck or front porch fromtime to time to watch the trees bend and whip and the rain fall horizontally.The front door was the sheltered one. I was the only one to open the backdoor, an act that
assured I'd be stingingly rain slapped for my temerity. At 10p.m. we were
all aware of our fatigue. Fear had Murphy pull his mattressinto my walk-in
closet to sleep. Fear put Mazie in a recliner in my bedroomrather than in
the spare bedroom, and fear put Kayla on an air mattress at herfeet. Fear
kept me awake.

By landfall around 2 a.m., I wasn't opening any more
doors, but I'd shinethe flashlight out the window of the front door--the only
glass we hadn'tcovered with plywood. Up to that time, we'd heard the wind
howling and the treelimbs lashing, creaking, and cracking. For the next
hour, all those thingscontinued but added was shaking--if I put my hand against
an exterior wall, Icould feel the house shiver whenever the noises outside were
loudest. I didtest this on interior walls but didn't feel movement.
That small fact was a bigrelief.

The power remained on through so much of the storm that the green-blueflash of the transformer going was a surprise. The color blob stayed on myretinas, a strange experience with my eyes wide open. But once the power went,there was nothing but darkness and noise. I was chiding myself for foolishnessas I crept quietly back into my bedroom for the flashlight. Did I think I wasgoing to wake anyone? I
think age at the opposite ends of the scale kepteveryone else in my house asleep
at that point. I went through the house turningoff the fans, the air
conditioner, the four lights I'd left on, and finallyunplugging the refrigerator
and freezer so that surge wouldn't damage anythingwhen the power did

With the battery TV, I sat in the living room and watched
the radar showthe eye of the storm inch up from the coast until it reached us.
And, ofcourse, I did exactly what the talking heads said not to do.
I opened my frontdoor. There was still a light splatter of rain, but
at times it was hard totell if that water might be actual rain or drops shed
from trees. The low partof my property had flooded since we'd gotten a
foot of rain during the firsthalf of the storm. Some water roared through
my two 24" culverts at the base ofthe five-foot buildup for the driveway,
digging a pool on the other side. Asheet about two inches deep and at
least ten feet wide rushed over the top,creating a waterfall on the eastern
side, and eating away at the packed clay asNiagara erodes its way into Canada.
As I swung back around to return to thehouse, the beam from my flashlight
picked out two large water oaks that hadbeen downed. The one nearer the
driveway had snapped off about three feet fromthe ground. The other on the
far side of the new Lake Hamilton had come up byits roots. Both had fallen
to the west, nowhere near the house. I went outat the beginning of the
eye, which was huge, and had not seen clear skies aboveme. The neighbor's
boys were more adventurous. They drove their father'swrecker up and down
the road a couple of times, down my driveway to thewaterfall over the culverts,
reversed out, and later reported that they were amazed athow many stars they
could see when there were no streetlights. We adults inthe neighborhood
found out for ourselves the next three nights when we'dcongregate to report on
our labors and share news before trying to fall asleepduring still nights that
cooled far too slowly after 90 degree days.

When the storm resumed, it was definitely the less powerful back quarter.I sat through another half hour after the eye, then carried the battery TVto my bedside. My thought was to lie down on top of the comforter whilewatching the coverage. My body's idea was to sleep. Mazie woke me just after 8 onThursday morning. We
cooked a hearty breakfast, both to stoke the fires forthe energy we'd need for
cleanup facing us and to use up the perishables ofegg, milk, bread, and bacon so
that they wouldn't go to waste withoutrefrigeration. A daylight survey
showed that I'd suffered the least damage in theneighborhood. The driveway
had withstood the waterfall--only a quarter of it on theeast side had washed
away, leaving me plenty to drive over until I can getthree loads of clay
delivered. I used my battery reciprocating saw on smallerlimbs of the two
oaks that had fallen. Not a single shingle had come loose onthe roof.
Trees were stripped of leaves so that they presented themid-December look
we recognize in southwest Alabama.

I drove Mazie and Kayla home shortly after noon, and it was eerie toslalom from lane to lane on Hwy 59 to avoid downed trees. The anointing, itseems, had worked on everything except the latchless storm door. Safety glasssparkled on the wet wood of the front porch, frightening Mazie into thinking thatthere would be ravages
beyond. Everything inside was perfectly fine, however,and I did a walk
around her house. One limb was on her roof, but the angleallowed me to see
that it hadn't damaged anything in its relatively short drop.

The time that followed has been one of working at restoration. My son isat his
dad's house because they got power back sooner than I did, so I tookthe plywood
down by myself. The neighborhood boys hoisted it back into itsplace in the
carport rafters. I've ridden over the dry parts of the acreage onthe
mower, picking up limbs to make a burn pile for the fire department toapprove.
A sweetheart of a damn Yankee from Boston pulled his van into mydriveway,
opened it to reveal a generator which he plugged into my freezer for threehours
on Friday and three hours today. I believe he saved the whole load.

I know how lucky I've been. Friends and coworkers are surveying
housesthat are unlivable right now. My favorite cousin came by to see if I
neededanything done, not only because he was concerned but because he needs
money topay for repairs on his own house and knew I am in a position to pay his
modestcharge in advance. I gave him the $300 I'd withdrawn for emergency
money andtold him to come back after Christmas when I'd have the money saved to
buymaterials for a fence line I want. I gave the Baptist preacher up the
street oneof my five gallon cans of gasoline so that he could get out and
seeparishioners. Right after the power came on, I called to tell him he
could get theeight bags of ice from my freezer. He blessed me both times.
I didn't tell himI thought he had been redundant the first time.

So there you have it, happy ending and all. If John/John wins in November, I think we all know who we should push for the new director of FEMA...

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

More on Expertise and Hiring Reasoners

A couple of ya'll (gently) busted me for the post about hiring others to do one's reasoning, in particular with regard to the possibly-forged CBS documents. Actually the reasoning in that case does seem to be pretty easy, and it is the knowledge that's esoteric. But the general point stands, I think.

A better example of hiring someone to do our reasoning for us is when we (in effect) hire statisticians to interpret data for us. We could reason about it ourselves, but we'd just botch it.

The Feith memo was another such case. There the reasoning and judgments of trained intelligence analysts was the only thing for it. As I noted when that memo came out, any layperson who thought he could make heads or tails out of that thing was just fooling himself. It ended up being a Rorschach test that allowed the more partisan among us to "see" whatever they wanted to see. Part of that had to do with our lack of knowledge about such matters, but part of it was because we have no experience in reasoning about such things. Sure, the general rules are the same--modus ponens is always valid, and in its general outlines, reasoning will always be a matter of hypothesis formation and testing. But cognitive scientists seem to have shown that reasoning skills are domain specific; that is, one's ability to think well about, say, computers does not mean that one will be able to think well about, say, history. In very many cases, we're just better off listening to the experts.
For God's Sake! Everybody Unpanic RIGHT NOW!

From Mark Kleiman. It seems that it's not as bad as it seems. Poll-wise, that is.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Idea for Anti-Bush Ad

Here's an idea from one of my colleagues:

The background is a shot of Bush on 9/11/2001 reading My Pet Goat.

The sound is a series of voice-overs from the Republican convention and elsewhere, including Bush's own speeches, all saying things like:

"American needs strong and decisive leadership"
"George Bush is a decisive and unwavering leader"

That's it.

Somebody needs to make this damn ad!

Friday, September 10, 2004

One More Thing: Reasoning, Expertise, and the New Bush Documents

One more thing about something I mentioned in the last post: waiting for the judgments of the experts. Many "critical thinking" courses and textbooks promote the myth that we should always try to do all of our thinking for ourselves. But one thing you have to do in order to become a good reasoner is learn to identify those cases in which you should not do your own reasoning. Many experts are, in fact, people who we hire to do our reasoning for us. (Of course some--but not all--of their expertise has to do with knowledge that they have and we do not.) Although we can sometimes be of assistance to such experts, that is not usually the case. As an example: suppose a competent engineer is designing an airplane in which you will have to fly. Do you (a) leave him the Hell alone and trust his judgment, or (b) re-draw his plans so that they seem better to you? If the latter: nice knowing ya.

Many people are now arguing that the new documents concerning Bush's performance in the Texas ANG are forgeries, and they are doing so by, for example, superimposing the documents on MS Word documents and arguing that the documents are identical and therefore forged. First and less importantly: these superimpositions seem to me to be rather fuzzy, suggesting that the documents are similar but not identical. Second and more importantly: since none of us know a goddamn thing about this subject, none of us have any idea what it would show even if the documents were identical. Left to my own devices, I'd guess that this strong similarity is very suspicious. But I also know that I don't know anything about typwriters, nor about forgeries. For all I know, electric typwriters of the appropriate kind used fonts and spacing that were exactly like most laser printers. The documents are aparently in Times New Roman or somesuch, and for all I know that's always absolutely the same everywhere. Furthermore, using MS Word to produce such forgeries may be, basically, the stuff of inside jokes among forgers--that is, the kind of thing that not even a freshman at forgery college would do. Until we get the straight dope from the experts, we don't even know what to make of the evidence that is available to us. So, again, I suggest that everybody just chill out and wait a week.

Look: you wouldn't try to cure yourself of cancer, you'd hire an expert to do the job. I advise the same course of action in the case at hand, and in all similar cases.
AWOL Forgeries?

Well, it's starting to sound like the new documents concerning Bush's guard service might very well be forgeries. Some sites on the right, of course, concluded immediately and with their characteristic absolute certainty that this was so, but offered little by way of convincing evidence. But as you've no doubt already seen, today's WaPo notes that experts they consulted said they looked like forgeries. Unfortunately, we aren't told what percentage of the experts said this; if, for example, all the experts agreed, you'd think they'd explicitly say so. CBS claims to have consulted four experts and suggests that they all agreed that the docs are legit. Two things here: first, it would be very weird if CBS just happend to pick four actual experts on the matter who all failed to detect obvious forgeries; but, second, if you were about to put a story like this on a show as prominent as 60 Minutes, wouldn't you consult, like, ten experts? And make sure that they were the best ones in the country?

As I wrote in a comment to the previous post, if these docs are forgeries, then the AWOL case against Bush is dead. I say this with a heavy heart, given that (a) the legitimate evidence clearly indicates that he probably did go AWOL and (b) I've always thought that this was the issue that would, eventually sink him (in fact I thought it would sink him before the election of 2000). (Of course it isn't the strongest arguments against re-electing him, but I've alwas thought that it would be a particularly efficacious one.) Even if these documents are bogus, it is still true that the preponderance of undisputably legitimate evidence available to us indicates that Bush probably did not fulfill his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard, and thereby failed to fulfill his obligations to his country. The forgery of some other documents does nothing to change that. When I say that forgeries will kill the AWOL case I mean they will kill it politically, not logically. The public will simply never take the case seriously again, (almost) no matter what evidence materializes.

In fact, if Karl Rove and the rest of that gang wanted to kill the AWOL story, the best thing they could do is plant some forgeries that were likely to pass through one level of scrutiny, but certain to be discovered once they were made public. That sentence will make me sound like a conspiracy nut. Perhaps it will mitigate my nuttiness to note that I am not asserting that that's what happened, I'm just noting that it would do the job for them. Well, actually, I also want to note that Rove is known to have done things just as evil as that (passing out flyers to the homeless promising them free beer and girls at the opening of his opponent's campaign headquarters) and strongly suspected of having done other such things (bugging his own campaign office and blaming it on his opponent).

Who else would produce such forgeries? Certainly not the Democrats--it just isn't their style. They're not quite nasty enough to do such things--besides, surely they know themselves well enough to realize that they aren't competent enough to pull off something like this. They're the Democrats, after all. Hmm... On second thought, if the documents do turn out to be bad forgeries, then maybe the Democrats did do it...

More seriously, though, it seems unlikely to me that any forger could expect to produce forgeries that would pass the kind of scrutiny that these documents would surely be subjected to. If that is true, then the only kind of person who would produce such documents would be either someone who didn't care whether the forgeries were discovered or someone who wanted them to be discovered. The case for that conclusion is strengthened if the documents do, in fact, turn out to be artless and obvious forgeries, produced, for example, on MS Word. Perhaps someone who got paid for such documents wouldn't care that they were likely to be discovered so long as this happened after the money changed hands. So this raises the question: did CBS pay anyone for them? Otherwise, kooky as it might sound, artless and obvious forgeries would be more likely to be planted by Republicans than by Democrats.

God, what next? Am I going to have to make myself some tin-foil headgear?

One thing I found amusing in the WaPo story was this quote about Killian from his widow: "I don't think there were any documents. He was not a paper person." That's just about the most absurd thing I've ever heard. A Lieutenant Colonel in charge of that kind of operation who doesn't keep any records? I've never been in the military, but that sounds preposterous to me. The only claims about Killian's records that really matter are those by his commanding officer, Major General Hodges, who says that Killian actually thought exactly the kinds of things in the documents, and said as much to Hodges (who is himself a Republican). It means nothing at all that, as the sites on the right have trumpted, Killian's wife and son don't think he kept good records. No one who was not fishing for reasons would ever accept such claims as evidentially weighty.

At any rate, there is no sense working ourselves into a tizzy over questions about the authenticity of the documents. It's a case for the experts, and it is likely that we'll have some consensus from them within the week.

Sadly, I'm even more worried about this incident than when I started writing this post. If these do turn out to be forgeries and it is not proven that they were planted by Republicans, then not only is the AWOL case politically dead, but I predict a bounce for Bush. This will also strengthen the strange case that the right has been building that some kind of frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Bush insanity has gripped Democrats.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The 'W' is for AWOL: The Press Gets Interested Four Years Late

From today's WaPo:

"Phone call from Bush," Killian recorded in a "memo to file" dated
May 19, 1972. "Discussed options of how Bush can get out of coming to drill from
now through November."

According to "60 Minutes," Killian's personal
files show that he ordered Bush "suspended from flight status" on Aug. 1, 1972.
National Guard documents already released by the White House and the Pentagon
show that Bush was suspended from flight status on that day for "failure to
accomplish annual medical examination" but do not mention his alleged failure to
comply with National Guard and Air Force standards.

In another "memo to
file," dated Aug. 18, 1973, Killian complained that he was under pressure from
his superior, Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, to "sugar coat" Bush's officer
evaluations. "I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job," he
wrote in a memo titled "CYA." "I will not rate."

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Important Distinctions: Morality vs. Sexual Morality

My undergraduate philosophy mentor once said something that immediately illuminated one of the more bizarre corners of American political discourse for me. Here, roughly, is how he put it:

Suppose you turn on the television, and you come in on the middle of a program in which a tele-preacher denouncing the decline of morality in America. Now, even if you haven’t heard any specifics from him, you can be pretty sure what he’s talking about. Is he decrying the fact that many Americans are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but give an absurdly small proportion of that wealth to the needy in this country or the starving abroad? No. Is he concerned about the astronomically high rate of murder or other violence? Not likely. Is he denouncing discrimination against women or racial minorities or homosexuals? Not a chance. Is he worried about the prevalence of lying and cheating in our schools and businesses? No, he isn’t.

Even though our hypothetical tele-preacher purports to be concerned about and discussing morality, he is, in fact, not at all concerned with any of the most important moral problems. He is, rather, concerned with a rather narrow and peripheral set of moral issues that no serious thinker has ever considered central to moral action or moral theorizing. He is concerned only with sexual morality.

Over the years, it has become clear to me just how insightful my undergraduate mentor’s point was. The right sometimes seems to own the words “moral” and “morality” like they sometimes seem to own the flag. But that has happened only because of a confluence of two factors: first, the fact that ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ have come to carry sexual overtones, and second the fact that it is the right that is perversely fixated on other people’s sexuality. The unfortunate result of this is that Republicans can say things like “we are the party of morality” with a straight face, playing on the ambiguity between “we are the party that emphasizes doing what is right” and “we are the party that thinks that sex is dirty.” What they really mean is the latter (even if they wouldn’t put it quite so clearly), and that is the only sense in which they are “the party of morality.” But they of course hope that the other possible interpretation of their words will still, to some extent at least, come through.

So what are liberals to do about this? We clearly can’t cede the morality issue—morality in the good old-fashioned sense of doing what’s right—to Republicans. We could, of course, start sprinkling our speech and writing with ‘moral’ and ‘morality,’ and this would be fine if it weren’t for that fact aforementioned—that outside of academic philosophy, those terms have taken on puritanical connotations. Kerry and Edwards have struck on an excellent solution to the problem, using the term ‘principle.’ Not everyone thinks that morality is a matter of principles (e.g. virtue ethicists don’t), but we can let these theoretical niceties slide. (Especially since morality probably is a matter of principles.) It’s hard to terminologically outflank someone who’s appropriated the very term ‘moral,’ but this seems to do it. It’s especially effective precisely because of the sexual/puritanical connotation that ‘moral’ seems to have acquired, turning the ambiguity against those who would exploit it. The term ‘principle’ has no explicitly sexual connotation. Thus, when it is explicitly juxtaposed with ‘moral’ and its cognates, ‘principle’ seems—to my ear, anyway—to automatically and explicitly take on the more standard, not-explicitly-sexual meaning of ‘moral.’ Thus “the party of principle” is the party that cares about right and wrong—you know, morality in the big sense, the real sense.

It’s never been clear to me how sensible conservatives can get along with the neo-puritans on the religious right. And it’s never been clear to me what weird, perverse views about sex motivate the religious right’s stark, raving phobia of it. What is clear to me, however, is that we can’t continue to let their presupposition that to be moral is to be puritanical go unchallenged. Kerry and Edwards have hit upon a smart terminological strategy for challenging that presupposition quickly and effectively. This terminological move will ultimately need to be backed up with explicit argumentation, but as an opening gambit it's hard to beat.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

More Posts Coming

Sorry for the light posting... I'm trying to get the new semester under control. I'm teaching Intro Philosophy and Philosophy of Science, both for the first time in over five years. My assessments of the central arguments I examine in each of these classes has changed so dramatically in the invervening years that I'm having to do extensive re-writes on the lectures. Anyway, I'm going to try to get on a schedule on which I'll post something at least reasonably substantial every Monday, and maybe some other things here and there.

Thank god I don't have a t.v. during the week, so I missed the entire Republican convention. Don't think I could have tolerated it from what I heard...