Monday, December 31, 2007

Loony Spice vs. the Genocide Against Christmas
Or:
Christmas: the Time When People of All Faiths Can Come Together and Worship Jesus Christ

Whew! These people. Really. Here's Michelle Malkin taking on one of the most crucial issues of our time, the WAR AGAINST CHRISTMAS!!! (cue sinister music)

But really...is 'war' a strong enough term? Isn't it really more like the massacre against Christmas? or the genocide against Christmas?

Really this is just a kind of roundup of some other conservatives whining pointlessly about...well...I think they're whining about the fact that some people refuse to recognize Christianity as the official state religion, but it's isn't clear.

This person goes on at length about the failure of the USPS to offer specifically Christian stamps for Christmas (rejecting without argument the point that if they did it for one religious group, they'd have to do it for all of them). Now, this probably isn't an argument worth getting into, but--more substantial points to the side--why, exactly, is it necessary to have Christian stamps to go on your Christian-themed Christmas cards? Is Christmas really ruined...ruined!...without specifically Christian everything? How about postmarks? Should the USPS adopt specifically Christian postmarks for that time of year as well? How about Christian parking tickets?

Heck, I like Christmas, and I've got absolutely no problem with folks who want to celebrate it as a specifically Christian holiday (though it is really an assimilated pagan holiday, and there's little chance that Jesus--to the extent that there was such a person--was born on December 25th). But it's not the government's job to participate in this. In fact, it's the government's job not to do that.

And this kind of whining really has to stop. The idea seems to be that if the government doesn't privilege Christianity, then this constitutes an attack.


O.k., enough of this silliness.
NYT Editorial: Looking At America

The Times editorial board nails it. It's not that often that I whole-heartedly agree with an editorial all the way through, but this one is, unfortunately, right on the mark.

The whole thing is eminently worth reading, but a few highlights:

"There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country."

"The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed."

Amen, brothers and sisters. Testify.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Back

Behold, I returneth!

You know, it's really good for the soul (note: non-literal use of term 'soul') to be isolated from the news every now and then...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tranny Spice v. Darwin
Or:

Ann Coulter: Missing Link?

So, ever wonder why conservatives will listen to almost any even marginally attractive right-wing female talking head? Some of them are so vapid that you've got to conclude that it's something other than their intellect that gets them attention. You've got to wonder whether somebody like Richard Mellon Scaife isn't recruiting women almost at random and then just coaching them to spew conservative venom.

In the conservative female pantheon you've got your Crazy Spice (a.k.a. Shrieky Spice), Boring Spice (a.k.a. Vanilla Spice), and Tranny Spice (a.k.a. Nazi Spice). Recently Tranny has suspended her ode to Joe McCarthy long enough to turn her mighty intellect against that "discredited mystery religion," evolution. Along the way she points out how vibrators are like crystal meth, and seems to indicate that she believes that our system is one of enumerated rights rather than enumerated governmental powers. Man! I never learned half of this stuff in school! Evolution, she suggests, has no more place in textbooks than sorcery, phrenology or alchemy. So, in case you somehow weren't hip to the fact that she's a complete nut case, there you go.

Actually, I was a little surprised that she didn't just call Darwin a faggot and be done with it.

Now you might ask: "isn't it wrong to make fun of Ms. Coulter for looking like a transexual? Why not make fun of her for being an idiot? It's demonstrably true, and more polite." Yes, it would be easy to make fun of her for being a dumbass, and it's usually not right to make fun of people for their looks. But I make an exception in the case of someone who routinely makes fun of people in viciously hateful ways. Hey, look, I could have made fun of her for being mentally unstable...so I'm actually already pulling my punches here. I saw Tucker Carlson lob her a softball question once that wasn't sufficiently soft, and for a second I really thought she was going to go for his throat. And we all know who'd win that fight...

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it: figure out why so many wingnut males are so hot for a person with such a prominent Adam's apple. Makes you wonder whether our friends across the aisle might, in general, have a slightly wider stance than they'd like us to believe...
Bona Saturnalia, 2007

Ia, Saturnalia, and all that other stuff! Johnny Quest and I are leaving for lovely Jefferson County, MO tomorrow morning, to spend a week with the folks at the enchanting Ranch of the Damned. Ah, nothing like a little fixing fence, splitting wood, and hauling water to make academia look downright pleasant...

So see ya in about a week. Try not to tear the place up.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

SETI And METI: Should We Broadcast Our Existence To The Universe (Without Thinking About It A Bit First)?

Canis Major sends me this extremely interesting piece from the Lifeboat Foundation. Apparently some folks associated with SETI want to move from "passive SETI" to "active SETI" or "METI" (Messages to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)--that is, they want to radically crank up the volume on some of our transmissions into space in the hopes that ET will notice us. Here David Brin makes a very sensible argument that we really ought to at least think about this a bit first--something that the folks behind this effort seem unwilling to do.

I certainly don't have a firm position on this after reading only one piece on it, but it is fairly alarming that the METI folks are seemingly unwilling to even seriously discuss the wisdom of this plan. Perhaps consequential interstellar travel really is impossible--but perhaps not. And there is certainly no reason to presuppose that no advanced civilizations are evil. (Among the more humorous facts contained in the Brin piece: the official position of the USSR was that all advanced extra-terrestrial civilizations must be socialist. The architect of this fascinating doctrine? Our old friend T. D. Lysenko...)

Anyway, fruity though this all might sound, I actually think it kinda warrants our attention. Not as much as, say, diabetes does...but some.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Republican Dirty Tricks, 2002 New Hampshire Edition

At McClatchy:
A former GOP political operative who ran an illegal election-day scheme to jam the phone lines of New Hampshire Democrats during the state's tight 2002 U.S. Senate election said in a new book and an interview that he believes the scandal reaches higher into the Republican Party.
And:
One of his tactics, Raymond said, was angering union households with calls in which people with Latin-sounding voices talked favorably about a rival candidate's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he used the voice of an angry black man, posing as a Democrat, to stir up "fear, racism, bigotry" in white neighborhoods.

Shortly before the November election, New Hampshire Republicans hired his Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm, GOP Marketplace, for $15,600 to barrage Democrats' phone lines on Election Day with 800 hang-up calls per hour amid the tight Senate race between Sununu and Shaheen.

The tactic was aimed at disrupting efforts by five Democratic offices and a firefighters' union in Manchester, N.H., to shuttle voters to the polls. The state Republican Party chairman, John Dowd, halted the calls after the first hour, saying he feared that the operation was illegal.

Among other things, it is obvious that these people do not believe in democracy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why We Torture Kevin Drum posted a message from one of his conservative readers awhile back. Here it is:

I want our side to win. Or maybe more accurately, I don't want our side to lose....As with any other form of violence, motivation is everything. A cop shooting a murderer is not the same as a murderer shooting an innocent victim, although both use guns, and at the end, someone is bleeding and dying.

You'd be amazed at how many people find these things nearly equivalent. A leftist I know sees no difference between a Palestinian child dying from a stray Israeli bullet during a firefight, and an Israeli child dying when a Palestinian terrorist puts the barrel of a gun to the kid's forehead and blows his brains across the back wall of the child's bedroom. In his two-dimensional perception, the only important factor is that both resulted in a dead child. Avoiding true moral analysis and motivations allows him to skirt the concept of "evil," a term which makes many liberals intensely uncomfortable.

John Kiriakou said that waterboarding a terrorist stopped dozens of attacks. Dozens. Not attacks on military targets, but attacks on innocent non-combatants.

That was the motivation.

The terrorists who torture and kill our prisoners (never something as benign as waterboarding) don't do it because they need information to save innocent people. They do it because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone.

At some point you have to decide if a known terrorist having a very bad day (after which he goes back to a hot meal and a cot) is more of a moral problem than allowing a terrorist to blow up a building full of people.

Yes, it's good if we do it, when it's for the right reasons. So far, it's been for the right reasons. And no, it isn't good when it's done to us, for the reasons it has been done to us. Get back to me when some enemy tortures one of our soldiers in order to save innocent lives.

Many of the comments declared this, e.g., the product of a sick mind, or of a brownshirt, and so forth. That seems not so to me. Although I tend to disagree with the position above, I think it's clear that you don't have to be sick, nor a brownshirt, to agree. There are, of course, two main points to be addressed here, the in principle point and the in practice point.

1. In Principle
We've discussed the in-principle permissibility of torture here before, though I blew a lot of the discussions by failing to stipulated enough things about the case. But it seems very, very clear to me that torture is, in principle, permissible in at least some cases. For example:
Suppose that Smith has buried an innocent person alive, planning to let the person die a horrible death. We know Smith has done this. We also know that, by torturing Smith just a little, we can get him to reveal the location of the victim, and that we can get there in time to save him/her.

Now, I don't think that any sane person would deny that we are permitted--in fact, obligated--to torture Smith under those conditions. In this case, we know Smith is guilty--he is, in fact, in the midst of committing the crime--the crime is horrific, and we know that torture will be efficacious in stopping the crime. In fact, it's likely that torture is obligatory under much weaker conditions than this. For example, Smith need not be the actual perpetrator. If Smith knows information that is, in effect, allowing a horrific crime to be committed, then it seems permissible to torture him to obtain the information. Furthermore, we probably don't need to know that the torture will be effective. So, torture is pretty clearly permissible (in fact, obligatory) in some cases.

2. In practice
In practice, however, it's not clear how often the relevant conditions are met. It's usually not clear whether someone is guilty, not clear whether a crime is in the offing, not clear whether the prisoner knows relevant information, and not clear whether torture is likely to be effective. Under these circumstances, it is no longer so clear whether this is a permissible course of action.

Now, in the present special case, there is often no doubt that the prisoner is guilty, nor any doubt that he knows important information--consider, e.g., KSM. No doubts there. But with lower-level functionaries and the poor SOBs who were just picked up by bounty-hunters in Afghanistan...well, apparently we don't even have very good reason for believing them to be guilty. There's little doubt that crimes are being planned by al Qaeda, though it is less clear how many of these plans are serious, as opposed to being in the laser-base-on-the-moon category.
And, of course, there is no consensus with regard to the issue of the efficacy of torture. This is obviously an enormously important point. On the other hand, in the case of known criminals known to be planning horrific crimes, perhaps all that is required is that torture have some non-trivial likelihood of producing information. I mean, who wouldn't torture Hitler if there was a 1% chance that doing so would, say, save Anne Frank?

On the other other hand, once we're down to such wispy considerations, there may be extraneous considerations that outweigh the intrinsic considerations.
Suppose that torture turns out to be only marginally effective, or that its effectiveness remains to be in doubt. Under those circumstances, it is far more than reasonable to argue that the following considerations outweigh the reasons in favor of torturing:

A. There is some chance that it will make our enemies more likely to torture innocent people, including our own soldiers, intelligence operatives, and allies.

B. It will--however illegitimately--give rhetorical cover to evil regimes who use torture against their political enemies.

C. There is a vast difference between persons and nations who are willing to use torture in extraordinary--and possibly never actual--cases in which its effectiveness is guaranteed, and persons and nations who are willing to use torture rather more casually,
just in case the prisoner knows something, and just in case torture will make him divulge it.

3. Conclusion

The author of the message to Drum is right about something very important: torture can be permissible--and even obligatory--if done for the right reasons, under the right conditions. Liberals who deny this need to stop doing so. But the author of the message is also wrong about something very important. In order to make torture permissible, it's not enough that we aim at preventing future murders. Rather, we must have good reason to believe that torture is appreciably more effective at eliciting the relevant information than are other available methods. Among other things, this means that torture must be able to elicit information that other techniques cannot elicit if given sufficient time. This has not been proven, and is, as we all know, in dispute. Furthermore, we have to be fairly sure that the information obtained will be valuable enough to offset whatever increased levels of brutality our soldiers and other innocent people will face as a result of our seeming to have legitimized torture. And finally, we have to be willing to become torturers.

(John Kiriakou, who Drum's correspondent cites, has actually said
both that (a) torture violates American principles and (b) torture has saved lives. Thus we have the makings of a real, genuine moral dilemma.)

Although I'm more than willing to torture an evil person as a last resort to save innocent lives, I'm more against the use of torture in the cases at hand than I am for it. Why? First, because it isn't clear enough that torture is effective enough to offset the costs to be paid, including the corrupting effects of such a policy. But, second, because it has become clear that we cannot have any confidence in the general orientation established by this administration. Administrations set tones, and this administration has set the wrong tone in virtually every way. From its intentional divisiveness to its use of the rhetoric of patriotism as a political weapon to making it clear in the run-up to the war that opposing evidence was not welcome, to the current attitude almost of eagerness to torture prisoners, this administration has revealed its intellectual and moral corruption--a corruption that has infected many who have come in contact with it. Imagine that an honest, intelligent president--a president who had no tendency to put narrow interest before inconvenient principle--had come forward and said "yes, this is torture. But we've tried everything else, and we have good reason to believe that much is at stake. This is a horrific decision, but I see no alternative." Under those conditions, I'd probably support the policy. Contrast that with the present case, in which a president who is a known liar with little or no respect for principle will not even admit that water boarding is torture. No, under these circumstances, I'm afraid we should not support the policy.

But Drum's correspondent is not, contrary to what some said in response to him, evil or a fool. He's just a little short-sighted and insensitive to current political realities. Torture is justifiable in principle, but it isn't clearly justified here and now.
My Sabbatical

I'm done with grading. And I have next semester off. Counting the summer, we're basically talking nine months before I have to teach again. Whew. Good thing. I need a break. Teaching is just not something you can do well when you are burned out.

(Technical detail: we don't actually have real sabbaticals around these parts, only competitive grants for one-semester leaves. Stupid system.)

Of course there is the writing... But no sense in worrying about that just yet. Gonna take it easy until the new year, just catching up on my reading.

Thing is, this stupid book project has been lying dormant for a long time. I had to put it aside when this mind-scrambling insomnia problem started up about eight years ago. In fact, I started this blog up to try to get myself in the habit of writing again.

So, anyway, just as a heads-up, I guess I'll start throttling back on the blog a bit as the scholarly writing picks up. Or so I hope.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

American Principles, Ideals of Convenience, and Conservative Disregard for Human Rights

It frequently strikes me as peculiar that people seldom discuss the fact that, though conservatives frequently wave the flag, proclaim their undying love for America, and deride those of us who sometimes criticize the country, they themselves seem to have only fairly spotty allegiance to American values. In particular, America considers itself to be the defender of the weak. When, for example, we think with pride about our role in WWII, we primarily think of ourselves as having triumphed over evil, not merely as having protected ourselves from danger. But in my lifetime conservatives have consistently argued against using American might and money to help the underdog. "We can't be the world's policeman" was the rejoinder whenever liberals wanted to use our military to help the helpless. They don't even have any oil was, for example, Tom DeLay's response to Clinton's push to stop the slaughter in Yugoslavia.

Although conservatives do invoke human rights in matters of international affairs, they only do so when they have some ulterior motive for using force. Iraq is, obviously, the most salient example here. Appeals to human rights were, of course, an afterthought, and only achieved prominence after it became absolutely undeniable that there was neither any link to al Qaeda nor any WMDs. Now conservatives piously intone the mantra of moral obligation, democracy, and human rights...but this is all post facto rationalization for a strategic calamity. Imagine what would have happened if, for example, Saddam had renounced WMDs, turned himself into an ally of the U.S., and yet continued to oppress his people. Now imagine that liberals had suggested invading for moral reasons. If ten percent of conservatives endorsed such a plan, I would be astonished.

We can actually test the suggestion above in a way, given that conservatives actually went beyond not supporting an invasion of such an imagined Iraq--they actually supported Saddam...so long as he was our ally, of course. When he was on our side, we gave him weapons despite his brutality; when he was no longer on our side, suddenly his brutality was not only wrong, but intolerable according to conservatives. That conservative attitudes toward Saddam changed in the way that they did shows that conservatives were motivated not by the brutality--which stayed constant--but by what they though was in our interest--which changed.

Which brings us to yet another relevant point: conservatives have, over the course of my lifetime, exhibited a willingness (in fact, something very much more like an
eagerness) to support even the most brutal dictators, so long as there was some even some distant possibility that this would be in our narrow national interest. That is: conservatives have been willing to pay even very high costs in blood--other people's blood--to secure even the most inconsequential possible advantage for the U.S. Life and liberty are cheap, so long as they are the life and liberty of others.

When someone professes to value A, but, in fact, he pursues A only when B is present...and, in fact, pursues A only when B is present...and, in fact, pursues B even when A is not present...well, only a fool will believe his profession. Actions speak louder than words. When liberals suggest using our power to do good, they are derided as idealistic fools. Conservatives themselves do often appeal to human rights--but only as a stalking horse. Their real goal is always something else. (And, as we've seen in Iraq, this something else need not even be in our national interest. Something in the ideological interest and fantasies of conservatives will do.)

We see this pattern playing out again now with regard to Russia. When the USSR was a serious military threat to the U.S., we heard much about the evils of the evil empire. And, though the evil empire was, in fact, evil, even casual observers had to wonder whether it was the evilness of the empire that really worried conservatives--or, rather, the fact that it was a threat to us. Now that Russia is no longer a threat, conservatives seem ostentatiously unconcerned about the fact that Putin is a brutal autocrat. (Something our president failed to detect when he looked into his soul.)

Here's a prediction: if Russia again begins to seem like a threat to us, we'll start to hear from conservatives about the problems of human rights in Russia, and about the evils of autocracy.

This merely instrumental use of appeals to human rights is cynical and despicable. And it is one of the many things that keeps most of us who genuinely care about human rights, and who believe that America should, in actual fact, be a force for good in the world, from identifying with conservatism.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Grading Hell

Grading is hell...HELL...

Sometimes it can be interesting to grade papers for upper-division classes...but grading essays or papers for lower-division classes is just about the most mind-numbing mental task I've ever had to perform. Don't get me wrong...I'm not really complaining...it's more like just expressing amazement. My god grading suuuuuucks! SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKS!!!!

I guess it's the punishment for that fact that being a professor is an otherwise fairly sweet gig.

Actually, the awfulness of grading also explains part of the grade inflation problem: if you give everybody 'A's and 'B's, you don't really have to grade. Just a quick glance and a scribble, and the next thing you know you're back to working on that next paper in order to get a better job and climb up the academic ladder...to the point where you basically don't have to teach or grade anymore.

Sigh

O.k. Back to it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bush Worship: Just Waiting For an Excuse to Re-Emerge

Oh, man. Don't even read this. You'll smash your computer...oh, and abandon all faith in human rationality. It's a particularly smug Jules Crittendon (linked to approvingly by--who else?--Instapundit), arguing that Bush IS the most awesomely awesome preznit after all!!!11

But, really, the only question in the minds of folks like this is roughly Bush: merely Churchillian? Or more like the messiah?

At his worst, he was still the awesomest! Anything more is gravy!
The Postmodern Presidency: 9/11 Disinformation Edition

Greetings, reality-based community! Despair, for your "facts" and "logic" cannot defeat the power of propaganda! All your reality are belong to us!

Exhibit A from Rob at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk:

"I have now received three (3) student papers that discuss Iraq's attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. All three papers mention it as an aside to another point. I've had two papers on the virtue of forgiveness that argue that if we had just forgiven Iraq for the 9/11 attacks, we wouldn't be at war right now. I just read a paper on the problem of evil which asked why God allowed "the Iraq's" to attack us on 9/11.

The thing that upsets me most here is that the the students don't just believe that that Iraq was behind 9/11. This is a big fact in their minds, that leaps out at them, whenever they think about the state of the world."
Dowd on Feith

Yep, that's pretty much right...

Some people simply don't seem to be capable of understanding when they are wrong. This is, of course, a fatal disadvantage to the rational inquirer. But to those in more practical fields, it is in a certain sense an incalculable advantage. An advantage insofar as it helps them impose their will, marshal their energies more single-mindedly...but a disadvantage in that they are as likely to do the wrong thing as the right thing.

If I ever screw up 1/1000th of 1% as badly as Feith did, I'll probably die of self-loathing. Feith, however, seems entirely oblivious to his sins. Truly astonishing.

The kind of single-mindedness and immunity from self-criticism on display here are characteristics conservatives have more often than liberals. This is one reason why liberals are right more often than conservatives, but also a reason why conservatives win more often. Liberals have their own characteristic vices, of course, but that's a different story.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Doddmania!

Chris Dodd--almost pulling even with Dennis Kucinich in Iowa! Oh, yeah baby! Breaking 2% in some polls! He's got Chris-mentum!

So anyway, I'm starting to think I might not get my first choice...
OBL: Dumber Than Bush?

Basically everyone who's been paying attention for the last five years laments the fact that blew it so bad after 9/11. Al Qaeda sucker punched us, and we responded by (a) attacking his second-biggest enemy, thereby (b) shooting ourselves in the ass. As I've said several times, al Qaeda has basically no chance against the U.S....but no one could have predicted, on 9/12/01, that they would have fared so well this far into the conflict. Had we pursued virtually any other course of action available to us, OBL would be a smudge on a cave floor in Tora Bora by now. Only the spectacular incompetence of the Bush administration has made it possible for the fight to go on this long.

If you're like me, you've had thoughts like this: sure, we seem to have all the advantages...but we're slow and stupid. We (sort of) elected someone so monumentally incompetent that he's actually managed to make this resemble a close fight! One f*ck-up of Biblical proportions can suddenly turn a sure thing into less than that...and two such f*ck ups might make it into a near thing. And this administration seem eminently capable of f*cking up again in new and disastrous ways.

This touches on my theory of f*cking up. Goes like this: don't do it. Because you do it once, then you just have to hope you don't get unlucky and do it again. One really bad decision plus some slightly-worse-than-average bad breaks, and you can end up in very serious trouble. The best way to avoid this is to avoid that first f*ck-up.

But--if the recent turn of events in Iraq sticks--our fat may have been pulled out of the fire. To some extent this is due to the surge. But it's largely a result of al Qaeda's mistakes--mistakes that were consequences of their own stupidity and blood-thirstiness. Iraqi insurgents finally got fed up with al Qaeda's murderousness, and turned on them. This, by all accounts, was instrumental in bringing about the current decrease in violence.

So al Qaeda had us on the ropes in Iraq--in microcosm, rather like we had them on the ropes at Tora Bora--but their own idiocy and other vices led them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory--rather like...well, you see the point. Had they just throttled back a bit in Iraq, things would be much worse for us today.

So take heart. It looks like our enemy is dopier than we--by which I mean those we (sort of) elected--are.

They may just lose the GWoT faster than we can.
Did Spooks Pressure the Administration to Release the Recent NIE?

Theories vary. One goes like this: the intelligence community saw that the administration was spinning up the war(p) drives for an attack on Iran, employing the same strategy of evidence distortion that it used in the lead-up to Iraq. Alarmed that even this out-of-control administration would do such a thing twice, members of said community made it known that if the relevant parts of the NIE were not revealed by the administration, then those parts would be revealed in some other way. Knowing what a debacle it would be to get busted like that, the administration hastily went public.

Now, although this fit with my view of the administration with absolute perfect precision, I still couldn't believe it. Not even these guys are really, actually that corrupt and dishonest.

Shows what I know.

As it turns out, that may very well have been exactly what happened. Former spook Pat Lang writes:

The "jungle telegraph" in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" if the document's gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media "on the record" to disclose its contents. [via Drum]

Needless to say, we don't currently have enough evidence to conclude that this is true. But if it is true...well... I've said many times that I'm one of those hyper-fallibilistic liberals who walks around all the time plagued with doubts that he's getting everything wrong. If this turns out to be true, those doubts will be banished. It would be an almost flawless confirmation that my view of these guys is basically right on the money. Such confirmation would be just to perfect, too poignant to ignore. And it would be further confirmation that that's what they did the first time: distorted the evidence in front of them to manipulate us into doing what they intended to do the entire time. If our own spooks have to threaten to go public with intelligence to prevent a rogue administration from lying us into a war, we really are in the twilight zone.

If they really were knowingly, willfully, mendaciously pushing us toward yet another war, then by God it would take absolute disregard for the principles of our republic to hold that impeachment should be "off the table."
The "Experimental Philosophy" Fad
Or: Philosophy! Now With Extra Confusion!

Ugh. This is depressing. And UNC's on the forefront of this philosophical silliness. Go Tar Heels! Way to devalue my degree...

I actually have fairly non-standard views about the nature of philosophy...views that are at odds not only with what count as traditional views, but also with standard-issue naturalistic/scientistic views. Influenced by the insidious C. S. Peirce, I'm currently inclined to suspect that philosophy is largely based on observations--but the kind of observations everyone can do. And there may be some sense in which philosophical questions can be answered by experiment--some experiments are relevant to the free will debate, for example. But these "experimental philosophy" folks seem fairly profoundly confused. But these kinds of confusions pop up in philosophy every now and then, so it's no real cause for alarm. Every now and then somebody thinks "hey, let's make philosophy empirical!" And then some really embarrassingly bad philosophy gets done, and refuted, and lots of people get dissertations out of it, and then it goes away. Witness the debacle of logical psychologism.

On a really, really, really modest interpretation of what they are doing, this experimental philosophy stuff is probably harmless and perhaps even moderately interesting. Philosophers tend to appeal to "intuitions" all the time. This isn't an appeal to something spooky or ESP-like...but, unfortunately, most philosophers don't spend much time thinking about what an appeal to intuition is an appeal to. An "intuition" is best conceived of as a premiss that is not itself a conclusion, or, what's close to that, just a natural inclination. So conceived, though, it's not clear what the evidential value of intuitions is. Much analytic philosophy falls into the irritating intuition-counterexample-intuition-counterexample pattern. (E.g. you say utilitarianism is "intuitively" right, I point out that it licenses ten people in the transplant ward to chop up the UPS guy for his organs (ten of them survive for only one death), but that this itself is not intuitive, etc., etc., repeat ad nauseam) By getting people to think about the evidential status of intuitions, and by reminding us that our intuitions are less stable, uniform, universal and authoritative than some presuppose, this experimental philosophy stuff is all to the good. But that's an unusually modest goal, and, as Appiah points out, you don't need experiments to do that. And anyone who thinks they're going to actually solve such philosophical problems with surveys is very, very confused.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"Instant Sex"
Or: David Gelernter Needs to Get Laid


Oh, man, is this ever crap. Crappity-crap-crap. Craaaaap.

Conservatives just keep finding new ways to complain about other people getting laid more than they do. Bad conservatives! Bad! Cut it the #&*$ out you guys! (Thank God for these guys in a way--they keep making us liberals look smart and well-adjusted. And sometimes that's a full-time job, yo...)

Gelernter's point is, basically (though he includes the obligatory denial that this is what he is saying) that if you have too much casual sex (which, we find out, basically means: more than he has) you can't fall in love. Or at least it's prohibitively difficult. So--more-or-less--to make people fall in love more, we should discourage them from having sex. This picture of how love and sex work make me think, once again, that very much of the conservative view about sex really doesn't rise much above the cow/milk analogy...

Look, I do think that one should try to approach the golden mean in such matters. Too much overly-casual sex can make one unhappy. But so can too little sex, or too much commitment. There are lots of ways to go wrong, though for most of us there's a fairly wide margin for error, so there's no sense fretting over fine-tuning. Anyway, something interesting might be written about this. Gelernter, however, has not written it. I might go through and shred what he has written in detail...though, really, why bother? Is there any chance of that doing any good? No, there is not.

And anyway, let me assert that this is an issue on which conservatives have basically lost all credibility. What we know is that there will always be an anti-sex drumbeat (or at least I think that's drums...) coming from the right. However much sex we are having is always too much and its always too much fun according to our friends across the aisle. The dopey, strained, implausible arguments against sex just keep piling up, and, after awhile, one learns not even to waste one's time on them. Which is too bad, because the wanton is no better as an ideal than the puritan. Someone who, ya know, isn't actually a puritan ought to make that case sometime.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Surviving the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse (IZA)

FINALLY people are STARTING to take this THREAT seriously!!!!11!!1

This clip at Videojug is a hoot. These folks are obviously familiar with the classics.

[Thanks to Katie O'K for this]
Reaction to Romney's Speech/Conservatives and Historical Perspective

Ann Romney, on the reaction to Mitt's speech:

"People were saying, 'It was like George Washington,' 'It was the Gettysburg Address,' "

I've never thought that conservatives were any more ignorant of history than liberals, but now I'm beginning to wonder.

Conjoin the claims above with:

Ronald Reagan: the greatest president since Thomas Jefferson

Bush: Churchillian

Opponents of the Iraq invasion: Chamberlanian

al Qaeda: a bigger threat than the Soviet Union

Now, it takes a hefty amount of historical ignorance to assert any of these things. Mitt's speech was to The Gettysburg Address as Deal or No Deal is to Moby Dick. And somebody apparently needs to go back and read Washington's address to the officers at Newburgh, too...

Of course many presidents superior to Reagan managed to come between TJ and Ronny--even if we ignore all others, we might want to remind ourselves of Abe. To call Bush Churchillian is to show that one has never heard nor read Churchill, nor Manchester. To compare invasion opponents to Chamberlain is to show that one is copiously ignorant of the astonishing lengths Chamberlain went to to accommodate the little psychopath Hitler. And to compare al Qaeda to the USSR is like comparing apples to...well, ICBMs.

So straighten up, conservatives, and fly right. This parade of historical hyperbole isn't redounding to your credit.
Robert Maranto: A Conservative's Experience in Academia

This seems pretty much right to me, with the possible exception of the prescription at the end.

I'm (a) in a philosophy department at (b) a non-first-rate university, so I don't really encounter a lot of political bias. Philosophy departments tend to be less fruity/lefty than the rest of the humanities and the social sciences--though they do tend to be made up of mostly liberals. As you move into the weaker reaches of the humanities and social sciences, and as you move up the academic prestige ladder, things seem to get leftier and leftier.

Liberals either don't believe this or don't want to believe it, but it is true. I don't know what the solution is, nor even whether it's a problem that we should attempt to solve. Or, for that matter, whether it's even a problem: one line on all this is just that liberal views are more rational than conservative ones, ergo as people become more well-read and thoughtful about their subject, they tend to move left. Me, I'm somewhat skeptical about that latter line.

One thing to remember here is that much of the bias that does exist in academia is not liberal bias, but well-left-of-liberal lefty bias. Extreme lefties have no more use for you and your thin-gruel liberalism than do extreme righties. So keep that in mind.
Does Amadinejad Need a War in Order to Survive Politically?

At the Guardian.

[via Metafilter]

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Jonathan Rauch on the War and the President

Don't let the title ("The War Was Right, The President Was Wrong") put you off--Rauch doesn't defend or even seem to accept that first bit.

At any rate, this is a an admirably honest essay in which Rauch criticizes his own faulty pre-war positions. In short, he has roughly an HRCesque position: it wasn't stupid to give a president the authority to invade Iraq--it was stupid to give this president the authority to invade Iraq.

Of course I disagree with even this more minimal claim. It might have been sensible to give some president or other the authority to invade Iraq on or before September 10th 2001...and it might have made sense after the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan was completed and OBL and al Qaeda were annihilated. But in early 2003, it simply made no sense.
Inshallah

Cullen Murphy, at The American Scholar.

[via Metafilter]
Drum on the Tapes

I dunno what to think about all this. Here's Drum's take. Plausible speculation at this point, but little more. For any normal administration, I'd say that the real explanation must be less sinister than this...with this administration, however, I'm not going to say that.
Destroying the Tapes

Oh, c'mon, what are the Democrats whining about now? Destroying a few tapes? Since when has anybody every gotten in trouble for doing that?

As it turns out, it may constitute destroying evidence and undermine the trials of terrorists. Man, this is almost as helpful as outing covert CIA agents.

The Dems are pissed. Watch out! You know how tough those guys can be!

Bush says he "doesn't recall" being told about the tapes.

Destroyed tapes...a president who "can't recall" what happened...is this a joke? Or is somebody just replaying the GOP's greatest hits of the '70's and '80's?
Nooners on Romney, the GOP, and the Fundamentalist "Idiot Vote"

Whoa! Things have gotten pretty bad if Magic Dolphin Lady is admitting that the GOP has a problem with fundamentalism.

Firedoglake quotes her:

"Why did Mr. Romney not do the obvious thing and include them? My guess: It would have been reported, and some idiots would have seen it and been offended that this Romney character likes to laud atheists. And he would have lost the idiot vote."

Testify, sister Peggy, testify...
Romney Spokesman Won't Say Whether Romney Sees Any Positive Role For Atheists in America

at TPM:

"A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers, after Election Central inquired about the topic yesterday."

Friday, December 07, 2007

More Romney on Religion

All religions are fine

Only atheists suck

The rejection of all religions is itself a religion

But, um, that religion does suck (See above)


So, if secularism is just a different kind of religion, I'm wondering whether vegetarians are just a different kind of carnivore?

Anyway, if I'm religious all of a sudden in virtue of my atheism, are Christians finally going to get off my back about it?
The Decrease in Iraqi Violence/Democrats and the Surge

Here it is, in words and graphs, at Back Talk.

Engram is pretty rough on liberals and Democrats here, but I think one has to be. Bush and the Republicans got us into this mess. The large majority of the blame for this disaster lies with them. But--as I've been more-or-less delicately trying to point out here for awhile--the leading Democrats completely screwed the pooch in their response. First, of course, they sheepishly authorized the use of force in Iraq, but that's a different issue. Second, instead of pushing the more complicated case against the war, they went for the simplistic case based on actual results--that is, based on the fact that the war wasn't going well. In fact, they even sometimes went beyond that to declare defeat inevitable. But the war would have been--all things considered--unjustified even if it had gone well. So focusing on actual results was an error.

But Democrats in the main were wrong about the surge. The surge was a gamble, but it was worth a try. And it has had good results.

What the Democrats should have said--what was true--was that Bush deserved to be impeached for lying us into a disastrous war that allowed the man behind 9/11 to escape, and that planning for the aftermath of the war had been essentially non-existent, and that that was also the administration's responsibility, and that the surge was unlikely to work, but that it was the best of a bunch of bad options, so we had to try it. And that even if it worked, Bush deserved little credit. If your stupidity, pig-headedness and dishonesty sets us on the road to horrific disaster, and at the last minute you make a desperate gamble that keeps it in the realm of merely awful disasters, you don't deserve any appreciable credit.

But no. What the Democrats did was authorize an incompetent president to undertake an ill-advised war at the worst possible time, and then when things went to hell, they fought against the only strategy that might have kept things from turning into an even bigger bloodbath.

Among all the other more significant grounds for being disgusted with Democratic leaders here is this relatively more trivial reason: they've given Bush a fig leaf behind which to hide his responsibility for this mess. Now, by pointing to the success of the surge, he can make himself out to be the hero of this tragedy. But, again, that's far from the worst thing one can say about them here.

As you know, according to the stereotypes, Republicans tend toward being brainless warmongers and Democrats tend toward being gutless weenies. If one were inclined to try to defend those stereotypes, one would find plenty of ammunition in the sad tale of the invasion of Iraq.
Destruction of Interrogation Tapes

Does anyone believe the CIA's story about why it destroyed the interrogation tapes?

I mean, this is the kind of thing that I would have believed seven years ago. I really would have. But not now.

But also, and among other reasons, I don't buy the reason given: that interrogators might have been identified. Electronic copies could have been made in which faces and voices were distorted or blacked out.

I have to remind myself all the time now to not view things said by the government in the ways that I used to view such things. A heuristic I use goes like this: pretend you've been transported to another country, one with a marginally democratic and marginally trustworthy government. Think about how you'd regard this claim if made by that government. That's how you should regard this claim. Cartoonish as this little game is, I'm so used to having a fair amount of trust in the American government that if I don't do something like this I'm overly credulous.

Sad days.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

O.k., Romney's Out

Mitt Romney: "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."

These claims are almost too vague to rationally assess, but to the extent we can make sense of them, they are clearly false, in both directions. In fact, it's a fairly stupid thing to say in this day and age. You might be able to plead "cultural blinders" on this point in the eighteenth century, but not in the twenty-first.

I suppose Romney is talking about political freedom. Is he saying that one can't have a liberal state without a state religion? That would be absurd. Or without a religious majority? Again, absurd. Or that atheists can't be proponents and defenders of freedom? If anything, even more absurd. Is this guy really that much of a dumbass? Well, presumably he's just pandering. But bullshit is bullshit.

And nothing could be more obvious than that religion does not require freedom. In fact, religion has been one of the greatest violators of freedom throughout human history. Just to pick one particularly salient case, I can't believe that the Republican base is going to buy that our Islamofascist/ Islamosatanic/ Islamovampire /Islamozombie /Islamoeeeevil enemies are actually somehow secretly committed to freedom in virtue of being religious. Imagine a country in which Pat Robertson is king; imagine how much freedom there is there.

For future reference, Mitt: if you can't say something at least minimally intelligent, best not to say anything at all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

McCain, Romney

The Republican candidates that I think I could be more-or-less o.k. with as President if necessary.

Thomson doesn't seem all that bad, but it would just be too humiliating to have another actor as President. It was embarrassing enough the first time. Twice--and twice within 20 years--would be mortifying. The rest of the candidates look to be right out.

I'm not wild about either of these guys. I used to be pretty high on McCain...until he became Bush's lapdog--and did so even after the Bushies smeared him during the campaign! I mean, the business about his daughter...Christ! Before he rushed to lick the hand that shivved him, I liked him more than Gore, and might very well have voted for him had he gotten the Republican nomination in 2000. But not so much now.

Romney...meh. I'm hoping he turns out to be a fairly un-ideological technocrat like Gore or Clinton. Yeah, I know, his religion is even wackier than the standard-issue American religions...but it's a mere difference in degree and not in kind. No matter what, our president is going to accept a metaphysical view that is, so far as I can tell, way false. That's unavoidable. I'm at peace with that. So a it's not going to bother me that much if it's just slightly loopier than it has to be.
August

That's when Bush was told that Iran's nuke program might have been suspended.

I'll bet the fever swamps are already filling with the battle cry of the Bush dead-enders: "not technically a lie!"

If it was good enough for Iraq, might as well recycle it for Iran. In fact, though it doesn't really have the same ring as e pluribus unum, maybe we should just go ahead and put it on the Great Seal or something. I'll bet the Founders would be very proud.
Rightie Blogs: From Bush's Mouth To Your Ear

At TPM:

"Dan Bartlett, on the White House's use of right wing blogs:

I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It’s a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we’ve cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on."
Powerline: the Pravda of our time...

Huckabee, Parole for a Murderer/Rapist, and CDS

This at McClatchy is very interesting.

Mike Huckabee seems to have played a role in the release from prison of a man who had raped a distant cousin of Bill Clinton. That man soon went on to murder two women in Missouri. And, in fact, he already had a record of murder and rape before his assault on Clinton's cousin.

This from the Arkansas Times makes for extremely disturbing reading. Apparently Huckabee was heavily influenced by a couple of characters (Jay Cole and Steve Dunleavy) suffering from severe CDS who claimed that the rape of Clinton's cousin did not happen. In fact, Huckabee himself comes off as rather a nut in this piece.

Among the many astonishing things here is this: that the CDS people--who spend so much of their time fabricating stories about rape and murder by the Clintons--end up aiding and abetting actual murders and rapists.

[Addendum: More at the Huffington Post]
Benjamin Friedman: The Politics of Chicken Littleism

In the Post.

Amazing that so few people are pointing out these fairly obvious facts.

We can't continue to spend like drunken sailors when it comes to defense without making ourselves less safe and less well-off in the long run. By over-stating the extent of current threats and spending accordingly, we waste money that could have been spent improving our lives, helping others and/or making us safer in the long run. The mind-boggling sums spent on the misguided war in Iraq--which has, in effect, made us less safe, the world less stable, and the Iraqi people possibly less well-off--could have been spent to promote the long-term security of the U.S. by, say, investing it in R&D aimed at achieving energy independence. (If only we'd have listened to Carter regarding energy independence, 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq debacle are far less likely to have happened.) Think about how much better off the U.S. would have been in the long run if funds for the trillion-dollar Iraq war had been spent on, say, early-childhood education in the U.S. Or, if we'd have actually had humanitarian goals, think of what that money could have done if it had been used more efficiently, to combat aids in Africa, or to intervene militarily in Darfur or the Congo.

Say it with me now: opportunity costs matter.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Headline Junky: Hold The NIE Euphoria

Drum points us to this at Headline Junkie, which seems to me to be a fairly sound assessment of the situation.

One of the many dangers of this administration is that their hyperbolic bellicosity can make sensible folk underestimate some of the dangers they're shrieking about. They have, as we now know, radically exaggerated the threat of Iran, just as they did in the case of Iraq--but that doesn't mean that the Iran situation isn't worrisome and delicate. There beneath all the chest-pounding, distortions and wild-eyed neo-con fantasies about WWIII (or is it WWIV?) is a genuine problem that we need to address in a clear-eyed and level-headed way. Iran did violate the NPT, and violated in a way (that is, by covertly enriching uranium) that makes it pretty darned clear that their intentions are not laudable. This seems to me just to be one of many situations such that we just have to hope for the best for the next thirteen months until we [cross fingers] get some adults back in charge.

I've long been astonished that the first "pillar" of the NPT has survived at all. I'm surprised there aren't more violations, and I won't be surprised if/when non-nuclear weapons states start simply repudiating the treaty. It seems miraculous to me that there has been such widespread agreement by NNWSs to stick by a treaty that seems, objectively speaking, extremely one-sided (in favor of NWSs, that is). But I'm more than happy to be surprised in this case.
Spinning The NIE

I'm stuck in end-of-semester hell right now, but this is just a quick post to tell you guys not to miss the right-wing wackiness following on the disclosure of the recent NIE. It really is astonishing what you can get yourself to believe if your partisan convictions are strong enough. Just poke around a bit--Instapundit, for example, has been pretty hilarious. By which I mean 'kinda scary.'

Most of the posts take the form of red herrings attempting to distract the reader from the president's dishonesty by claiming, e.g., that this just shows the side benefits we're reaping from the invasion of Iraq. Hew Hewitt even praises the "unpredictability" of our decisions to use military force.

I'd write more on this and link, but just too swamped right now. But check it out--it's easily findable.

What's astonishing to me is that there's not more of an uproar given that this seems to be exactly what happened in Iraq all over again--inexcusable distortions of the evidence in essence constituting outright lies. The president has one set of facts in front of him, but he spins them in a bellicose direction in order to fit his preconceived views.

Seriously: something needs to be done about this. It's time to say no mas in unequivocal terms. Even the most minimal respect for our principles demands it.
[This post removed by its extremely irritated author]

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dictatorial SOBs: Good News, Bad News

The merely annoying one loses. The truly dangerous one makes sure he wins.
The Guy In the Funny Hat Goes After Atheism

Hey, guess what? The Pope doesn't like atheism! Weird, huh?

No time to read the actual encyclical now, but it should be fun. Apparently atheists cannot have hope. Hope? Nope! Not possible! What is the most salient necessary condition for hope? Well, coincidentally, it seems to be...wait for it...belief in the Christian God! WOW! What are the odds?

Oh, also:

Communism: evil and atheistic. Coincidence? I think not.

And also: apparently the pope has a double secret solution to the problem of evil! Gooooo, pope! I can't wait to hear this one... (I'll bet my awesome 2000 Honda Accord against the popemoblie that he hasn't somehow managed to solve the problem of evil. Think he'd take the bet?)

No time to read this no doubt ground-breaking piece of philosophy right now...but I can't wait.
"Mummified" Hadrosaur Discovered

Oh, man, this is so cool.
Iran Not Building Nukes

It sez right here.

Good news!

And thank God the U.S. has been acting like a big psycho over this. It's like this big chunk of conservatives can't stop oscillating between two poles: (a) macho posturing psycho-dom and (b) complete fraidy-cat-dom. As Edwards said in one debate, we're the strongest country on the planet and we really do have to quit acting like we're the weakest one. We've got to stop jumping at our own shadow, threatening to bomb (and sometimes, ya know, actually bombing) everybody who kinda sorta maybe might someday think about associating with somebody who knows a guy who knows a guy who might think about attacking us sometime.

So, anyway: apparently no WMDs in Iran, either...
Midnight Spaghetti and the Chocolate G-Strings

These guys just plain kick ass. I'd say they rock--and they do--though I guess more technically they funk. My music taxonomy is not as nuanced as that of music nerds, but Midnight Spaghetti plays some kind of super-energetic neo-retro-funk...or something. They've got sharp, smart lyrics and a magnetic vibe that virtually forces you to dance. It's like they are simultaneously channeling George Clinton and Frank Zappa. And when they cover "Play That Funky Music," you'll think that an extra-dimensional giant funk robot monster doppleganger of funky, funky death has come to take over the Earth.

In the interest of full disclosure, one of my former students is in the band...but I don't think that's affecting my evaluation here. One thing you kind of get used to as a professor is having students in bands...and they often want you to come see them perform. It's always fun, but, well, not always great. These guys, however, are freaking awesome. They play mostly in VA, the NC coast, and some spots up in PA, I think...but if you get a chance to see 'em, don't pass it up.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Did Bill Clinton Oppose The Iraq Invasion From The Beginning?

Daniel Finkelstein says no, and he seems to be right. As Finkelstein notes, Clinton may have failed to support the invasion from the beginning...and, we might add, he may have opposed it from fairly early on. But it seems that he didn't oppose it from the beginning.

I guess I don't have to keep repeating that I think that the reasons for deposing Saddam were fairly strong, and that my opposition to the invasion was based on two things: (a) the conviction that retribution for 9/11 and elimination of OBL and al Qaeda should take precedence over the entirely unrelated, non-pressing, long-term goal of dealing with Saddam, and (b) an inchoate and rather difficult-to-defend conviction that the obvious and overwhelming dishonesty of the administration's case for invasion should somehow count against that policy, even in the face of certain independent reasons in favor of it.

As I've said before, I think that those who actually favored invasion on moral and 1441-related grounds had an at least marginally defensible position. (It seems fairly clear that those weren't the administration's reasons...though no one has ever been able to figure out what their reasons actually were... But that's not what I'm interested in here.) At least in this piece, Clinton's reasons seem quasi-defensible to me. The obvious response to that claim, however, is to appeal at least to the (a)-type reasons I cite above: it was virtually the stupidest of all possible times to undertake a mission against Saddam (who was, after all, and in addition to whatever else he may have been, an enemy, not an ally, of OBL's). In retrospect it's clear that it was a mistake that contributed to the escape of OBL, the strengthening of al Qaeda, and our failure to conclude the war in Afghanistan, which has led to the resurgence of the Taliban. It probably also contributed to instability in Pakistan, given the complexities associated with OBL's probable presence there. Roughly these consequences (except for the last, more speculative one) were fairly easily foreseeable when Clinton wrote the op-ed in question, so it seems to me to be somewhat either shortsighted or irresponsible to write an editorial of this kind without including any mention of such consequences.

But regardless of the wisdom of the policy in question, the real point here is that we seem to have evidence that Clinton did not, as he has claimed, oppose the invasion from the beginning.
U.S. Claims Right To Seize/"Kidnap" Criminal Suspects In Other Countries

Uh...well, normally I'd suspect that this was some kind of misunderstanding. But these days it sounds all too plausible.

[via Metafilter]

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Carolina-Kentucky

Today!

Here's hoping Lawson's ankle is better. Carolina's still ranked #1, but they haven't really been playing that way. Some--but not all--of that was due to Lawson's absence. Frasor and Q--God love 'em--just can't run the break like Lawson can. And without him we seem to be having even more trouble than normal against the zone.

Fun fact: if I'm not mistaken, we've never won in Rupp arena.


Go Tar Heels!