Saturday, November 22, 2003

Brooks on Same-Sex Marriage
The Perils of Agreeing With Someone Because You Like His Conclusion

In todays NYT, David Brooks makes a conservative argument for same-sex marriage based on premisses to the effect that relatively casual sex is inherently bad. He writes:

“Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.”

But this is false. And not just a little bit false, but a lot false. Rather like:

Any woman who lets more than one man she is not related to see her face is committing spiritual suicide. She is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in herself and pulverizing it in… Well, you get the idea.

Sex is one of those things that tends to seem so important that we often have difficulty understanding how others could possibly view it differently than we do without error. If you’re not careful, for example, you can find yourself automatically thinking that anyone who has more (or more varieties of) sex than you do is a slut and anybody who has less is a prude. But one need not be a fuzzy-headed relativist to conclude that (a) sex and (b) the rest of human life are sufficiently complicated and mysterious so as to leave open several different plausible guesses about the nature and role of (a) in (b).

Liberals and conservatives both have a tendency to fall into confusion on this issue. Conservatives like Brooks spin myths about the inevitable destructiveness of relatively casual sex. Liberals, on the other hand, frequently say things that seem to translate as “if it feels good, do it,” when what they should be saying is “if it feels good and it doesn’t violate any moral obligations, do it.” Liberals who respond to Brooks with a vapid “anything goes!” are simply trading one error for its opposite. What they ought to point out is that conservatives tend to exaggerate the moral risks associated with sex while ignoring its intrinsic goodness.

Sexual conservatives can’t understand how someone can live a good life without limiting their number of sexual partners to approximately one, whereas I must confess that such a life seems decidedly stultifying to me. It seems relatively clear that there are excesses on both ends of the spectrum, with puritanism on one end and wanton hedonism on the other. But those aren’t the only two options. You don’t have to be some air-headed moral relativist to think that sex is a wonderful thing, and there’s a hell of a lot of space between the puritan restrictions of recent European traditions and Global Thermonuclear Sexual Nihilism. In order to reject puritanism, you don’t have to think that pleasure is the most important thing in life (in fact, that’s an extremely silly thing to think). And you don’t have to think that everything that is fun is morally permissible. Sex, like anything else, can be engaged in responsibly or irresponsibly. Sexual actions can be self-destructive or harmful to self or others. Sexual wantonness has destroyed many lives, but probably no more than sexual puritanism. Erring in either direction is erring, after all.

But in order to make Brooks’s thesis a serious one, need to know what the symptoms of having committed spiritual suicide are. This is important, because, on the face of it, a certain amount of sexual freedom and experimentation seems to be good, at least for very many people. For example, very many of the happiest, smartest, most accomplished, most well-adjusted and most humane people I know have had more than “several” sexual partners in a year, myself included. I am in no way seeking to deride the spiritual; in fact, properly construed, I am inclined to take it very seriously. Seriously enough that I would expect some detectable sign that a spiritual suicide has been committed.

The puritans are inclined to pull out the false dichotomies at this point. It’s about now that they start saying things that translate as “it’s traditional morality or nihilism!” “Traditional,” of course, means relatively recent European traditions, and if we give those up…well, of course, its earthquakes…tidal waves…dogs and cats living together—total chaos. But this just isn’t so, and it’s overwhelmingly obvious that this isn’t so. Not to Brooks, however:

“Today, individual choice is held up as the highest value: choice of lifestyles, choice of identities, choice of cellphone rate plans. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract.”

Yes, well…cell phones… I suppose I haven’t really thought enough about telecommunications-related monogamy; but so far as the other kind of monogamy goes, I do think that if you promise to stay in a monogamous relationship with another person forever, you have a very strong obligation to fulfill that promise. And a sensible person will not make such a profound promise lightly. But that is an entirely different point. One can reasonably hold that marriage is not the only route to human fulfillment without thinking that it is permissible to break solemn promises. In fact, it seems to me that the best way to increase our respect for marriage is to make it clear that it isn’t for everyone, and that it should be entered into only after careful consideration. The best way to destroy the institution is to misrepresent it as the only morally permissible venue for love and sex. If you want to decrease the divorce rate, be honest with people about the nature of marriage, and be honest with them about the alternatives.

David Brooks is doing the right thing by trying to bring conservatives around on the same-sex marriage issue, but he’s doing it in the wrong way. And by accepting an argument based on fallacious reasons, we thereby mistakenly commit ourselves to the truth of those reasons, and thereby do more harm than good in the long term. Brooks’s argument helps same-sex couples who want to marry by harming those of us—heterosexual and homosexual—who recognize that marriage and monogamy are not the only routes to a good human life.

Friday, November 21, 2003

This doesn't make any sense: reports that the government is warning us about the possibility of terrorist attacks as Ramadan comes to an end (early next week, apparently):

"The statement, issued by the Department of Homeland Security, says recent terrorist bombings overseas have prompted concern for potential terrorist threats 'to the United States and abroad.' "

(uh, did they really say "threats to the United States and abroad"?)

They are warning that al Qaeda is particuarly interested in using cargo planes to attack dams, bridges, natural gas facilities....

But what's up with this:

"The national terrorism alert level will remain at yellow, signifying an "elevated" threat. "

How can they possibly release a warning like this but not raise the threat level past yellow?????

What the heck is this color system for, anyway? Do they need another color in there to distinguish between be afraid and be very afraid? Since the colors don't really go in order, they could stick anything they want in there. Maybe purple.
The Pax/Lileks/Reynolds/Not-Really-Drezner-Because-He's-Sort-of-Right Mess
See, now this is the kind of b#!!$%!t I'm talkin' about

Oh, crap. Go look at the whole depressing mess over at Drezner's page if you must.

Left as an exercise for the reader:

Re-write Pax's letter with 75% less sarcasm. How might this have altered the dispute? Discuss.

Oh and:
Pax's letter was in the Guardian, so here's a vicious dispute that started outside the web. But, of course, I didn't mean to deny that that happens all the time. But the Guardian prints some pretty intemperate stuff. Check out some of the letters they published. I, to say the least, do not think very highly of George W. Bush. But Harold Pinter can go to...ah...oh... heh heh...almost slipped off the wagon there. What I meant to say was: Pinter's letter is way over the top.

Oh and:
In all the shouting, nobody even tried to seriously consider the following assertion by Pax:

"You have spilled a glass full of tomato juice on an already dirty carpet and now you have to clean up the whole room. Not all of the mess is your fault but you volunteered to clean it up."

Ugh. I guess this wasn't meant to be taken seriously (so why'd he say it then?), but:
No, if you spill a glass of tomato juice on an already dirty rug, you aren't thereby obligated to clean the whole thing up.
No, the U.S. didn't volunteer to clean it all up (Iraq, see? There's not really any rug. It's like one a them 'nalogies)

So what ARE we obligated to do in Iraq? Maybe: make them at least as well off as they were before the war?

(No, that's got to be wrong. More than that. Some of this might actually depend on what we promised them in those B-52 leafletts... We also have to make ameds for supporting Saddam in the past. And for abandoning them after we encouraged them to rise up against him.)

Rant Rant? (No: Rant Non-Rant)

So re: the civility or lack thereof of our political discourse in general and that on the web in particular, some conjectures:

There's no doubt in my mind that people have said this all before, but who has time to go searching through the Library of Babel to look for it? Even with Google...

Something about the 'net seems to encourage incivility. I guess it's the fact that anonymity is so easy to come by, and responses can be almost instantaneous. Also, of course, there's seldom any real contact nor even proximity between communicants on the web, and maybe:

“Far off, men swell, bully, and threaten; bring them hand to hand, and they are feeble folk.”

(Or so saith Emerson at any rate.)

But whatever the causes, it seems pretty clear that rants, flame wars, and the like are more common on the web than are their non-web analogs in the non-web part of the world. But it seems reasonably clear that rants breed rants and so forth. It's almost irresistable to engage in those activities--but almost irresistable doesn't mean irresistable. So here's what I'm thinking: when you feel like ranting or flaming, at least you should force yourself to answer this question: will whatever good this rant/flame/etc. will accomplish outweight whatever harm it will do to the overall level of civlity and reasonableness (in this discussion in particular and on the web in general (and in society in general))?

Not that I think that unloading on someone is never justified. I've done it myself on occasion, for better or worse. Sometimes flaming is justified, but I'm suggesting that it's not justified as often as it's done. Perhaps it's a kind of tragedy of the electronic commons: people want to blow off steam, get their two cents in, get noticed, and one way to accomplish these things is by being snide, derisive, and verbally aggressive. But every hostile communication adds--perhaps imperceptibly--to the incivility of the atmosphere. The very fact that the "rant" has become a popular form of expression is a bad sign. Hey, look:

"Why one contradicts. One often contradicts an opinion when it is really only the tone in which it has been presented that is unsympathetic." -- Neitzsche

I think that's true. At least I seem to detect such reactions on my own part with some frequency. If it is true, and if you are communicating with someone in hopes of arriving at some kind of agreement, and if you can say what you want to say in either a more hostile or a less hostile way, then the route of least hostility seems to be indicated.

I have a couple of friends who are pacifists, and I've learned something important from them despite the fact that I am convinced that pacifism in its extreme form is immoral. At any rate, according to my pacifist friends, pacifists believe roughly two things: (1) all violence is wrong and (2) one has an obligation to work to ramp down the ambient level of hostility in the world. Oddly, (1) gets all the attention, but (2) is the reasonable thesis. (1) is rather clearly false, since sometimes respect for persons and for human life requires the use of violence. If pacifism holds that it would be wrong to kill Mohammed Atta as he makes his way to the cockpit, then pacifism is false. But (2) is extremely reasonable, especially given the nature of human psychology. The trick is to work to avoid and diffuse hostility as soon as possible. The farther the conversation degenerates and the madder people get, the harder it is for them to return to reason. And, of course, once the fists (or the bullets) start flying, it's almost impossible to stop them until the people involved are dead or hurt, or until they wear themselves out. But even if we're just talking about words, the farther one progresses down that road, the harder it is to turn back.

You might say that hostility on the web has no effect on hostility elsewhere, and this could of course be true, but I doubt that it is. Our thoughts and words are connected to the rest of our lives, and the thoughts we express and the words we write on the web almost undoubtedly have effects on our other thoughts and words, and on the thoughts and words of others. And thoughts and words are connected to actions in rather well-known ways. These are empirical questions, but we can make some good guesses about their answers even in the absence of formal scientific investigation. The mistake here is to think that the web is its own world, unconnected to the non-web world. But if I'm wrong about that, another problem arises, a problem of irrelevance: if the hostility of what we say on the web has so little effect on the rest of the world, why think that what we say has much effect on the world in other ways? And if we're not having any effect on the rest of the world, on the world outside the web, then we're mostly wasting our time here anyway.
More on the memo

Yesterday I guessed that the Feith memo was leaked in order to circumvent the experts and score some points with the public, but Matthew Yglesias said the same thing five days earlier, as I just discovered. Maybe it's more obvious than I thought. Or maybe we're all gettng paranoid.
This is absurd:

"President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Thursday that the invasion of Iraq was not to blame for the recent wave of terrorist violence..." (from today's Washington Post)

There is absolutely no reason to believe that this is true. The best bet is that it's false. Why is it o.k. for these guys to assert things they know are likely to be false?

Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Feith Memo: The Weekly Standard Strikes Again
(1) Been trying to make sense of the leaked Fieth memo as reported in the Weekly Standard. It certainly does look impressive at first glance, but (a) if Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball are right in their Newsweek column, then the memo is pretty much worthless, and (b) Newsweek is far more trustworthy than The Weekly Standard. The DoD's more trustworthy, too, and they've weighed in as well.

(2) It really is extremely important to know your limitations, and it's pretty clear to me that I'm not qualified to evaluate the evidence in the memo as reported in the Standard. You wouldn't try to do your own reasoning about a complex health problem, nor about a complex engineering problem. In a very large percentage of cases, the smart thing to do is to hire an expert to do your reasoning for you. That's why we have the CIA for example. I haven't the foggiest idea whether the sources cited in the memo are reliable, nor whether most of the the kinds of contacts alleged between Saddam's people and Osama's people indicate likely collaboration or just ordinary contact among international bad guys. To analysts in the CIA, this may look like a strong case or it may look like total BS. Josh Marshall gets it right:

"...I am, needless to say, not a trained analyst. I'll be commenting on various points in the piece that I know something about. But there's really little point in my speculating on the meaning of the various data points raised in this memo. Much of the value of this evidence rests on the reliability of the sources and methods used to find it. And we on the outside have little way of knowing who the sources were or how reliable they are. Also, you'd want people who could put the data points into their proper context."

(3) Marshall also notes, however, that, given the source of the memo in Feith's shop, we need to be skeptical:

"More to the point, there's now a record. These are the folks, remember, who had the most outlandish reads on the extent of Iraq's WMD capacities and the most roseate predictions about the ease of the post-war reconstruction. So their record of interpreting raw intelligence is, shall we say, objectively poor."

Isikoff and Hosenball summarize their piece like so:

"A leaked Defense Department memo claiming new evidence of an “operational relationship” between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein’s former regime is mostly based on unverified claims that were first advanced by some top Bush administration officials more than a year ago—and were largely discounted at the time by the U.S. intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials."

(4) Given all of this, I have to say I find it immensely irritating that the Weekly Standard had the gall to call their summary of the memo "Case Closed" and to end it with this sentence:

"But there can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to plot against Americans."

The MOST this memo could possibly do is add another chapter to the investigation into whether Saddam and OBL were in cahoots--though it is not clear that it even adds anything at all. I simply do not see how anyone could reasonably think that this memo could justify the claim that the case is closed and the link between Osama and Saddam proven.

(5) Here's my guess as to why the memo was leaked: the strategy here is analogous to the administration's recent strategy of circumventing the major news organizations like the Post and the Times in favor of smaller, regional news organizations. One reason they did so was because those smaller organizations are likely to be less well-equipped to subject the administration's message to rigorous analysis. In the case of the Feith memo, the information therein has already been rejected by the professionals--but, as I noted, it looks impressive to non-experts. Consequently, my guess is that the administration leaked it in order to get out of it whatever mileage they could with the public.

Perhaps they also realized that their strategy would, in a sense, be unopposed: it is unlikely that anyone on the other side of the issue will leak the information and analysis that led the CIA to reject the allegations in the Feith memo.

Monday, November 17, 2003

:Philosoraptor: Not Smart:
Wait a second. What exactly is Rall's point in that column? I was walking down the hall when it hit me that I didn't really understand what he was trying to say. Is he, perhaps, making the following excellent point?

Here's what it would look like from the other side if they allowed themselves to--like the Bush Administration--frantically spin all the evidence (but in the opposite direction, of course). Here's what it would look like if they allowed themselves to see everything they did, and all of their motives, in the best possible light.

Wouldn't that have to be the point? He can't seriously be suggesting that the Ba'athists are the good guys, right? Would I try so hard to be charitable to the Instapundit?

Let yourself spin every piece of evidence you get 10 degrees to the left, the lefties end up looking like they're right about most everything. Spin every piece of evidence 10 degrees to the right, the righties end up looking like they are right about most everything. Because the truth is hard to figure out, and that 10 degrees can usually make the difference.

It's easy to do. In fact, it's hard not to do.

Hear a piece of evidence that contradicts what you are inclined to believe? Feel that little tightening in your chest? Feel yourself steeling yourself against the evidence? Kind of like bracing yourself against the wind. Hear yourself making excuses, flailing about for explanations, fumbling around for the interpretation you find most amenable?

Feel yourself trying to prevent Reason from working itself out in the world?
:Ted Rall: Not Smart:
This is a really stupid column. I thought it was a joke at first, but then I remembered the other absurd things I'd read from this guy. I've never taken him seriously; I sort of thought no one did. But go check out the Right-wing sites (e.g. Instapundit); they can't quit talking about him. I think there are elements here relevant to some of my conjectures about civility in political discourse. (Maybe 2, 4, and 6? 6 because Rall is mostly a cartoonist, so, at least to some extent, an entertainer.)

An obvious strategic point: if liberals embrace Rall, then they open themselves up to attacks from the right.

The important point: If liberals embrace Rall, then they embrace a nut.

Clark Supports Anti-Flag-Burning Amendment to the Constitution:
This is very, very, very,..., very disappointing. Despite some errors he's made and some remaining questions about him, I've been getting more and more excited about Clark. He's extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and accomplished, he beats everybody else hands-down in terms of credibility on national defense, and he's the one Democratic candidate who seems basically guaranteed to beat Bush if he can get the nomination. And I find him to be extremely inspiring. I don't just mean as a speaker; I find him inspiring in many different ways. He comes across--or so it seems to me--as a person of good character who really gets it--really gets the idea of America. But here he is making a terrible mistake. Morally and intellectually, I mean, not politically. I don't know and don't really care about the political part.

This is an issue that seems minor to some people, or seems like a close call, but I disagree. I am inclined to think that this issue divides the people who get it from the people who don't. That is, it divides those who have a more-or-less confused or superficial commitment to the principles that underlie the constitution from those who really understand those principles and feel the force of them in their guts.

The flag burning issue is the political equivalent of crucial experiment in science. It's often the case that two incompatible theories make many of the same predictions. To separate the theories, to tell which one is true (or at least remains a candidate for truth) and which one is false, you often have to go to extraordinary lengths. A famous case like this happened in 1919 when Arthur Eddington went to Principe in the Gulf of Guinea to conduct an observation that would pull Newtonian physics apart from General Relativity. You know the story: the two theories make mostly the same predictions under normal conditions on Earth (ignore messy details here please), but General Relativity predicts that light will bend as it passes close to a massive body. So Eddington went off to Principe when and where there would be a total eclipse. Under those conditions, he could determine whether there was any change in the apparent position of stars when their light passed close to the sun. There was. Einstein vindicated.

Somebody who didn't understand what was at stake in that case might ask "Well, who cares whether starlight seems to move a little bit on Principe during an eclipse? That's trivial!" But of course nobody really cares about the change of apparent position per se. What they care about is that this tiny difference indicates which of two radically different theories about the world is true.

Similarly, how one comes down on the flag-burning case--let me suggest--indicates which of two radically different views of America and the idea of liberal government one has. If, like Madison, you think that freedom of conscience is the fundamental right, then you are committed to being more-or-less an absolutist about the freedom of expression, holding that this right is protected even when it involves the desecration of revered symbols. The principle trumps the symbol. And you hold that it's not even a tough case. The alternative seems to be to hold that freedom of conscience and expression can be trumped when the expression involved is sufficiently upsetting to enough people. But that's not minor difference of opinion, that involves a completely different conception of the legitimate powers of government. As in the case of Newtonian physics and General Relativity, these two different conceptions of government entail the same consequences under most conditions. But the flag-burning question is the political analog of starlight passing near the sun--a case that can seem trivial or esoteric, but which has profound implications, indicating which of two radically different views of America someone holds.

I'm inclined to think that Clark just failed a crucial experiment.

Needless to say, there's a good chance that I'm wrong about some or all of this.

(Oh, and: yes, I realize that time, place, and manner restrictions are justified. And I don't need any e-mails about "yelling fire in a crowded theater." That was a terrible analogy when Holmes used it in Schenck v. U.S., and its almost always misused. It's certainly a bad analogy in most cases of flag burning. Alan Dershowitz has a short paper on this. Yes, 'more-or-less an absolutist' is a funny thing to say. See comment on time, place, and manner restrictions.)

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Iraqi blogger(?)
I don't see any reason to think this isn't legit (er...except for the fact that an unknown, yet extraordinarily large percentage of stuff on the web is BS, of course...). I urge you to check it out and send Zeyad some e-mails. Dude deserves support.
[Hat tip TVA]
More on (Un)Civil Discourse
David Brooks has something relevant in the NYT.
[Hat tip Statisticasaurus Rex]

Friday, November 14, 2003

Sign of the Apocalypso?

Well, Wheaton may have caved, but there'll be none of this kind of tomfoolery around this blog... over there...cut it out! Stand still I say!

Maybe they're trying to make sure their campus is never used as the setting for Footloose II: the College Years...
Unsubstantiated conjectures about decreased civility in American political discourse.
What follows is almost pure conjecture. Don't believe any of it. It's also hurriedly-written. Sorry.
American political discourse today is marked by a notable lack of civility. This is more than merely unpleasant; it has a substantive effect on policy decisions and on the health of the democracy. This is a correctable situation. Understanding the sources of the problem might help us correct it.

Below I list some (at least semi-testable) conjectures about the problem and its origins. I have no doubt that somebody somewhere (probably lots of people in lots of places) has (have) thought about this problem far, far more carefully than I have. If any of this seems interesting, go ye forth and find those people and read what they have to say. And if you have a spare minute, e-mail me and let me know what you find out and what I should be reading.

1. The ends of the American political spectrum have become more radicalized

On the Left: PC in academia. I conjecture that on the left this more or less began with (or was at least exacerbated by) the “political correctness” movement on American campuses, with its links to postmodernist political thought. The excesses of these movements have been documented, for example, in Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education.

On the Right: Talk radio. I conjecture that on the Right this more or less began with (or was at least exacerbated by) talk radio. I am under the impression that the right-wing talk radio phenomenon began with Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s excesses are well-known and well-documented (by Al Franken for example).

2. In the minds of many people on the Right, the radical parts of the Left half of the spectrum have come to represent the entire Left half of the spectrum; in the minds of many people on the Left half of the spectrum, the radical parts of the Right half of the spectrum have come to represent the entire Right half of the spectrum.

This might not have happened to the Left if liberals had been more active in opposing radical Leftist excesses on campuses, e.g. speech codes. Although liberals did oppose PC in academia to some extent, their opposition seemed (to me at least) to be less energetic and vociferous than it should have been. This might not have happened to the Right if centrist conservatives would be more energetic in decrying the excesses of right-wing radicals e.g. on talk radio.

3. Fragmentaion/multiplication of news and opinion sources/the rise of the internet have contributed to the problem.

As one of my former professors has pointed out to me, the internet was initially heralded as a medium that would bring people together in a world-wide community of thought. Instead, just the reverse has happened. The internet in general and the blogosphere in particular has fragmented into virtually self-contained communities of thought that impinge on each other only at the fringes. Conservatives and liberals need never talk to each other anymore. There is even a cable news network that caters to conservatives. As others have noted, it has become far easier for individuals to pick news sources and opinion fora that will do nothing but confirm (in some sense of 'confirm'…) the opinions they already have.

4. Polarization breeds more polarization.

Once discourse begins to polarize, pressures develop to exacerbate the process of polarization. (Now I’m REALLY just making things up. Remember: do not believe any of this.) As those on pole A of the spectrum become more radicalized, the distance between poles A and B widens, and those on pole A harden their positions in response. As positions harden, discussion between the two poles becomes more difficult and rarer. As discussion between groups becomes rarer, members of each group become less familiar with flesh-and-blood denizens of the other end of the spectrum, and, consequently, their representations of them become more like caricatures (the effete, elitist academic snob; the knuckle-dragging superstitious troglodyte or the money-grubbing, criminal corporate philistine). As we being to think of our political opponents in terms of such caricatures, they come to seem as if they merit nothing but contempt, and the problem is exacerbated. And as we become exposed to more and more hyperbolic rhetoric from the other end of the spectrum, our own positions begin to harden.

5. These problems are all exacerbated by misology in America.

There is insufficient respect for reason in America in general and in American political discourse in particular. Perhaps this is related as effect or cause of the fact that children receive absolutely no training in reasoning in primary or secondary school. Contempt for reason manifests itself differently on the Right and on the Left. The extreme Left of the spectrum, influenced by postmodernism, tends to denigrate truth, reason, and objectivity on (preposterously shaky) theoretical grounds and reject them even as ideals. Consequently, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism are common on the Left. On the right, it is common to pay lip service to the ideals of truth, reason, and objectivity, while in fact blatantly flaunting those ideals. One of the most baffling things about radically irrational right-wing authors like Ann Coulter is that they take great pains to represent themselves as paragons and defenders of reason. The fuzzy-headed relativism of radical Leftists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Left, and the radical dogmatism of radical Rightists exerts at least some influence on less radical sectors of the Right.

6. The distinction between inquiry and debate has been blurred, as has the distinction between debate and entertainment.

Many people think that questions about value in general and politics in particular cannot be settled by reasoning about them. Many people who think that think it because the examples of political discussion most readily available to them are, in fact, primarily intended to entertain rather than to inform or to stimulate cooperative thought. Crossfire is not a serious forum for discussion; it is entertainment. The same must be said of Rush Limbaugh. Reasoning that aims at actually discovering answers is inquiry. Pseudo-reasoning, reasoning that aims at making the strongest possible case for an arbitrarily selected “conclusion” (arbitrarily selected from the perspective of reason, that is) is not inquiry, it is, rather, debate. Debate is bad enough, since, as a contest, it encourages participants to refuse to admit when they are in error, thus basically eliminating any possibility of progress. Debate as entertainment is even worse, since it tends to exaggerate the worst aspects of debate. It encourages conflict and incivility and discourages the kind of extended, calm give-and-take that is required by real political inquiry. Entertainment shows like Crossfire and Rush Limbaugh do more harm than good.

Not a conclusion:

Everything above is more-or-less conjectural. It’s all intended to stimulate thought and send interested parties off to find people who actually know what they are talking about. There has to be empirical evidence available that bears strongly on many of the points above. Probably nothing here is exactly right, and it’s likely that much of it is exactly wrong. Actual empirical studies often show that our intuitions about this sort of thing are wrong. For example, there’s evidence that negative campaign advertisements do, in fact, serve to inform people about the issues.

For God’s sake, quit reading this piece-of-crap blog and go find somebody who knows what he’s talking about! And let me know who they are when you find them, if you think of it and are so inclined.

The only thing I am relatively certain about here is that this problem CAN be solved.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Here's why I am an idiot: I keep perusing the right-wing sites trying to convince myself that the right only seems nutty because I'm locked into a liberal way of looking at things. But I have to admit, it's getting harder and harder for me to believe that's true. Here's one thing: compare the pervasive spin at Instapundit to the much more even-handed approach you get from The Agonist (or even CalPundit). For example, today Reynolds posts this:

"GHOSTS OF OCCUPATIONS PAST: Here are some fascinating clippings about resistance to the American occupation in Germany, including the murder and mutilation of American soldiers and clashes with German gangs.

Meanwhile, Justin Katz comments on war critics' ignorance of history."

But if you actually follow the links, you find that the information at the other end of the links doesn't say what Reynolds says it says. In the case of the clippings, allegedly about "the murder of American soldiers and clashes with gangs," what they really say is that there are more clashes between American soldiers and Germans because of increased fraternization between said soldiers and German women. A summary of the rest of the clipping that says (quote) "It goes on to note that there are rumors that 'a gang of Germans attacked and mutilated three American soldiers.' " So it's one RUMOR about a mutilation by gangs. If you just read Reynolds's synopsis, you'll think its several actual incidents, several gang-related and one mutilation-related. This is ridiculous. It could be a mistake, but it probably isn't. Such mistakes permeate that page.

The other link is more interesting, and bears on my previous discussion of Werewolves (one of our who's more full of it, the right or the left? test cases) That link doesn't provide much real information either, and wastes a lot of time on stuff like the murder of the mayor of Aachen. But, anyway, the info on the page does challenge a RAND corporation study on this, saying that "Not only does RAND begin the clock after the complete surrender of the enemy, but it apparently leaves out 45 deaths that a 1953 Pentagon report listed "as a result of enemy action" for 1945 and '46." This is really interesting, but doesn't even come close to settling the question. First, it is in no way clear when we should "start the clock," so it isn't clear that the Mayor of Aachen (murdered in March of '45) should count. And we'd have to when in '45 and '46 these deaths occurred. The piece here doesn't make it clear that these were post-surrender or occupation deaths, but, if they are, then the righties are right about that one. I think we have to be a little skeptical about their claims about this stuff by now, though.
[Note: sorry about the virtual incoherence of this post...wrote it fast when I was 3/4 asleep last night. But let me clarify this last bit: 'there were 53 deaths in '45 and '46' is consistent with them all happening in pre-VE-day '45; it'd be a weird thing to say if that were the case, and it's not the most likely interpretation, but, given the way this info has been spun in the last 9 mos., you can't be too careful. -ws]

But also, the spin/gratuitous insults about this dispute resulting from "ignorance of history" on the part of the anti-war folks is preposterous. These facts, if facts they be, have taken a long time to uncover, and have turned out to be extremely hard to get to. The only ignorance was on the part of the right, which squawked about the Werewolves for months. THAT betrays ignorance, since the evidence that shows that they were basically non-existent was easy to come by.

Cut the Insta-Sophist some slack on this, you say? O.k., well, scroll down (up?) a bit from this stuff on his page and check out the stunningly ridiculous claims about George Soros that he links to.

O.k., look, I'm about to give up on this try-to-raise-the-level-of-discourse-stuff. We're all doomed. doomed...doomed...doomed...
[Note: no, we're not. - ws]

Now 99% less ugly!
And with 42.77% less false precision.
It serves me right that the du Toit post got so much attention, given that it or two rhetorical excesses, and given that one of the things that I'm really interested in doing is raising the level of public discourse, in particular by working to make it more civil. Needless to say, I have a plethora of fascinating thoughts on that subject, but they're not ready to be posted yet. But the Estimable Statisticasaurus Rex has pointed out to me that Nicholas Kristof speaks truth on the subject in today's NYT.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

"When, however, someone who delights in annoying and vexing peace loving folk receives at last a right good beating, the beating is certainly a bad thing, but everyone approves of it and considers it good in itself even if nothing further results from it; nay, even he who gets the beating must acknowledge, in his reason, that justice has been done to him, because he sees the connection between well-being and well-doing, which reason inevitably holds before him, here put into practice."

(Kant, Critique of Practical Reason)

Sunday, November 09, 2003

The duToitification of the Western Conservative

I’m torn about Kim du Toit’s essay about, as I’ll put it, avoiding his gratuitous crudity, the wimpification of the Western male. I’m inclined to ignore it, since it’s unlikely that anyone who found the essay insightful will listen to anything I have to say about it; but du Toit is full of shit, and that, combined with the apparent popularity of the essay on the right wing of the web makes it hard to ignore. I’m torn about it also because there is, in fact, an important and true point in the essay. I’d put the point this way: we’re in danger of undervaluing virtues like courage and self-reliance that are traditionally thought of as masculine. Now, I’d add—though du Toit might not--that for almost all of human history we’ve done just the reverse, undervaluing virtues like kindness and cooperation that are traditionally thought of as feminine. So I see the problem of wimpification as a relatively minor, relatively recent and eminently correctable phenomenon, a predictable case of the pendulum swinging a bit too far in the other direction as we try to correct a bigger and more long-term problem. But I do agree with du Toit to some extent, and I do think that the threat of wimpification is worth discussing. That’s why it’s too bad that du Toit’s essay is such a piece of crap--the wimpification point gets lost in a torrent of bigotry, falsehoods, and right-wing fantasies.

But du Toit’s essay is brilliant in a way he probably never intended—it’s a masterpiece of self-confirmation. His main thesis is that Western males are becoming wimps, and his essay itself proves that there is at least some truth in the thesis; never before in human history has there been so much puling and whining about such inconsequential irritations. Du Toit’s groundless blubbering is, in the end, itself a partial confirmation of his point. In fact, du Toit’s essay probably deserves to spawn a neologism: duToitification and its cognates. You become duToitified when you’ve got it so good that you lose all perspective on the world and as a result exaggerate minor unpleasantries into vexations of Biblican proportions. That is, you become an insufferable weenie.

What duToit’s essay proves is that the more important problem we face is the duToitification of the Western conservative. Conservatism is currently the Colossus of American politics. Extremist conservatives control the Presidency and both houses of Congress, and conservatives exercise virtually unchallenged control of the political agenda; conservatives control their own massive network of media outlets (talk radio, Fox news, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc.); they have convinced most other media outlets to shift their message to the right by relentlessly repeating the “liberal bias” mantra; they have established a massive and incredibly well-funded network of think-tanks and institutions to develop, distribute, and defend their message; and they have underway a long-term plan to take control of the judiciary. Never in my lifetime has one end of the political spectrum so dominated American public life. And yet, even given their almost unchallenged hegemony, they just can’t seem to stop their damn whining. To make this all even more insufferable, their whining often has a bizarre, self-reflexive nature. What they whine about is the fact that they are too masculine, too stoical, too heroic for this imagined age of liberalism. Picture one of those movies in which, through time-lapse photography, a character seems to physically regress farther and farther through less and less highly-evolved forms—but in this case, the character simultaneously becomes emotionally more dainty and easily offended until what remains is a kind of effete caveman. A Neanderthal crybaby. This process of political devolution and moral sissification is the duToitification of the Western conservative.

Again, I want to make it clear that I actually agree with a certain idea buried in du Toit’s screed: certain parts of our culture undervalue virtues traditionally thought of as masculine--values like courage and self-reliance--and overvalue virtues traditionally thought of as feminine—values like kindness and cooperation. But it’s important to remember that certain other sectors do just the reverse. If we were rational, of course, we’d value them all to the right degree, which might be equally or might not; but these issues are shrouded in mystery. It’s important to get this right, lest we turn boys and girls into either louts or sissies. Strangely, we’ve always recognized that it’s bad to be a loutish woman or a sissified man—in fact, we’ve traditionally exaggerated the badness of those things. But to this day some people still think that it’s o.k. to be a loutish man or a sissified woman. It isn’t. Everybody should be at least moderately self-reliant and courageous, and everybody should be at least moderately kind and cooperative. Du Toit claims that he doesn’t want to defend caricatures of masculinity, but that, as we’ll see, doesn’t really seem to be true.

In the end, the essay does promote a caricature of masculinity, a caricature that’s tied up with disrespect for both women and homosexuals (raising the question: who’s left for this guy to have sex with, anyway?). And, to top it all off, du Toit apparently lives in some weird, right-wing dream world in which Republicans are upstanding defenders of the good and the true, Democrats are pansies, and liberal women are just waiting around to be ravished by Donald Rumsfeld. No, I’m not making this up. Read on, reader; you are about to be amazed. You are about to enter…The DuToit-light Zone…

Let’s start with the obvious. The very title of du Toit’s essay contains a word that most women find insulting. No, this is not some kind of PC hyper-sensitivity; it pisses them off and it’s not exactly hard to understand why. du Toit might not have intended it that way, but words have meanings, and there’s no doubt that the use of ‘pussification’ and its cognates to denigrate carries with it an overt or implied slight against women. Some people deny that we should make too much out of the use of terms that offend, and I’m willing to give du Toit the benefit of the doubt on this one. But even so, du Toit’s language makes certain conclusions about him inevitable: in particular that he thinks rather less of women than he does of men. When he writes that “We have become a nation of women” he makes it pretty clear that this is a Very Bad Thing, this being a woman. And when he writes that “women own lapdogs,” the italics are a sneer. I mean, take two seconds out of your busy day, Kim, and think about it. What if I told you that I thought it would be the worst thing in the bloody world if I turned black? What would you conclude about me if I said “you shouldn’t do that; blacks do that”? What would that tell you? It would tell you that I was an asshole is what it would tell you. The conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.

So, we’re becoming a nation of (insert sneer here) women; but, du Toit writes, it wasn’t always thus:

"There was a time when men went to their certain death, with expressions like "You all can go to hell. I'm going to Texas." (Davy Crockett, to the House of Representatives, before going to the Alamo.)"

Whatever else you can say about du Toit, he’s got this part right. Stories like that rightly inspire us, and it would be tragic indeed if the age of true grit were behind us. (Again--wimpification: bad.) But here’s some good news: Crockettian acts of élan aren’t exclusively things of the past. Here’s a true story of the recent past that redounds to the credit of our age:

In 1990, during Gulf War Episode I, Ambassador Joseph Wilson was protecting more than a hundred American citizens in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. After the nefarious Saddam Hussein threatened to execute anyone who sheltered foreigners, Wilson wore a hangman’s noose around his neck as he briefed reporters about the situation. As Wilson himself put it, the message he was sending to Saddam was "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own fucking rope."

Now that’s cool. There’s something Crockett himself would have admired.

Oh, interesting footnote: Wilson is, in fact, twice a hero, having also revealed to the American public that the Bush administration lied to us about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Niger. It was one of many documented lies the administration told to trick the American people into supporting a war on Iraq. (Note: I’m torn about the war, but I’m against lying.) To punish him for this second act of patriotism, an as-yet unnamed administration official outted Wilson’s wife as a CIA operative. I guess that unnamed official is a kind of Santa Anna of our time. One lesson here is that, although heroism is alive and well, so is craven back-stabbing. So it’s a kind of good news/bad news story, I guess.

Still on the same general theme, du Toit notes that:

"There was a time when men went to war, sometimes against their own families, so that other men could be free. And there was a time when men went to war because we recognized evil when we saw it, and knew that it had to be stamped out."

Again I whole-heartedly agree—it would be a tragedy if the time of heroism in the name of righteousness were ended. But, unlike du Toit, I don’t think it is. The defense of human rights has always been a pretty rare kind of reason for going to war--far more wars have been initiated for prudential reasons or simply because of testosterone poisoning than have ever been initiated for purely moral reasons. The current war in Iraq, for example, was not initiated for moral reasons, as the Bush administration has made abundantly clear. The goal of freeing the Iraqi people was always a secondary one at best, and probably never more than a rhetorical flying buttress--though human rights were pushed to center stage when it started to become clear that there were no WMDs to be found. But we have recently initiated a purely moral war, a war waged only to protect the innocent. We waged that war in the former Yugoslavia. In two of America’s proudest moments, we stopped Milosevic’s genocide in Bosnia and in Kosovo--not because it was in our narrow national interest to do so, and not because it was the macho thing to do, but, rather, because it was the right thing to do. The Clinton administration defied the United Nations and most of the rest of the world in undertaking the war, but through masterly diplomacy, and because it was clear that our cause was just, the world eventually came to back us.

There’s an interesting footnote to this story, too, however, and, again, it is one that again puts du Toit’s homage to heroism at odds with his right-wing politics: Republicans vociferously opposed the war. Tom De Lay was particularly apoplectic, claiming that “President Clinton has never
explained to the American people why he was involving the U.S. military in a civil war in a sovereign nation, other than to say it is for humanitarian reasons…” Egad--none but (insert sneer here) humanitarian reasons... This was in contrast to Kuwait, because there “our national interest in the Middle East was clear. In the gulf we had a country that was invaded [Kuwait], and an oil interest to defend.” But since du Toit recognizes that we should stamp out evil when we see it—and not just in order to get more oil--I guess he’ll be voting Democratic next time around.

Du Toit is also sorely disappointed that most of us didn’t get all weak in the knees and happy in the pants about W’s carefully choreographed performance on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln:

"…our President, who happens to have been a qualified fighter pilot, lands on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit, and is immediately dismissed with words like "swaggering", "macho" and the favorite epithet of Euro girly-men, "cowboy". Of course he was bound to get that reaction -- and most especially from the Press in Europe, because the process of male pussification Over There is almost complete."

First off, being a cowboy: cool; pretending to be a cowboy: lame (somebody getting busted for pretending to be a cowboy: priceless.) And, furthermore, there are fighter pilots and fighter pilots. The President did, at one time, know how to fly F-102s, it’s true. But du Toit has here committed the fallacy (note: sounds like a French word but isn't) of suppressed evidence. Although Bush did learn to fly, he never saw combat. In fact, he actively avoided combat. In fact, he cheated in order avoid combat. In fact, the available evidence indicates that our Commander-in-Chief is a deserter from the Unites States armed forces. Bush got a place in the Air National Guard in order to avoid service in Vietnam, which seems fine if we stop right there. But let’s not. He got this assignment despite low aptitude scores because his father was rich and powerful. Not very heroic, that. The U.S. spent a lot of resources training him, but he quit flying early, apparently in order to avoid taking a drug test. About a year to eighteen months before his stint in the Guard was over, he apparently just quit showing up for duty. General William Turnipseed himself, who commanded the Alabama base where Bush was supposed to be stationed, says he never showed up. That is, he’s a deserter. See, although conservatives like to think of themselves as being somehow more heroic than liberals, it’s just a kind of tall tale they tell each other around the campfire. Or, rather, around the fireplace at the country club.

Interesting footnote: my dad was in the Guard, but he got in fair and square, and learned to fix tanks. (He’s basically a mechanical genius, actually). Once he was coming home on a weekend pass and his engine blew up. My grandparents and my mom had to drive a long way to get him, and they had to have the car towed home. When they got back, they were exhausted. Then the phone rang. It was a friend of my dad’s telling him that there had been a paperwork SNAFU, and that he was officially AWOL. He had six hours to get back to base, so he borrowed a car and high-tailed it back to Fort Knox. So they gave my dad six hours; they gave W a year and a half. Wonder what would have happened to my dad had he decided that he preferred the year-and-a-half plan? Probably would have been o.k., right?

But, anyway, prancing around in a rented flight suit doesn’t make you heroic. And, in fact, W is actually far, far wimpier than any of the guys to which he is ordinarily compared. (du Toit: “I want a real man as President -- not Al Gore, who had to hire a consultant to show him how to be an Alpha male, and french-kiss his wife on live TV to "prove" to the world that he was a man…”) Gore, may be wimpy when it comes to haberdashery, but instead of dodging service in Vietnam, voluntarily signed up to go. Oh, and, though it doesn’t matter to me, it might to conservatives: Gore was a football player; Bush was a cheerleader. Or compare Bush to his father, frequently called a wimp because he lacked the proper macho demeanor, and didn’t mosey around talkin’ faux (note: actual French word) Texan. Bush the Elder was a dive bomber pilot in WWII. He really saw action. He was shot down in the Pacific. That makes him not a wimp in my book, and it should in yours, too. Or how about Bill Clinton. When Clinton was about thirteen, he started standing up to his large, drunken, abusive stepfather in order to protect his mother from being beaten. If you’ve never been in a situation like that, you probably can’t understand how impossibly scary that is. If du Toit had any idea how hard it is to do something like that, he’d show a little more respect for Clinton. Here’s the closest W ever came to doing this: he came home one night after driving around drunk with his 15-year-old brother in the car, crashed into the trash cans, and then tried to start a fight with his father, saying “I hear you’re looking for me. You want to go mano a mano right here?” Yeah, apparently he actually said “mano a mano.” Another “youthful indiscretion?” Not exactly. Bush was in his 30’s at the time (which would put his father, the war hero, well into his 50’s.) So you can see that it takes some pretty serious RPMs to spin Bush as a hero. Or compare him to John McCain. Whereas McCain is an actual combat pilot, Bush only plays one on t.v. While McCain was in the Hanoi Hilton, Bush was staying in the regular kind of Hilton. So if conservatives really did value honor and courage so much more than liberals, you’d think they’d have backed McCain. Instead of torpedoing his candidacy by push-polling lies about him in South Carolina, and spreading the apparently-intended-to-be-vicious rumor that he had fathered a black child.

But oh, God, there’s He writes:

"How did we get to this?

In the first instance, what we have to understand is that America is first and foremost, a culture dominated by one figure: Mother. It wasn't always so: there was a time when it was Father who ruled the home, worked at his job, and voted. But in the twentieth century, women became more and more involved in the body politic, and in industry, and in the media -- and mostly, this has not been a good thing. When women got the vote, it was inevitable that government was going to become more powerful, more intrusive, and more "protective" (ie. more coddling), because women are hard-wired to treasure security more than uncertainty and danger. It was therefore inevitable that their feminine influence on politics was going to emphasize (lowercase "s") social security."

Here’s another textbook fallacy (note: sounds like “phallus,” but means something different. And, although I know you think that using a phallus makes you smart, using a fallacy does the opposite.) This fallacy is called the “post hoc fallacy” from post hoc ergo propter hoc. That’s Latin, which is an old language that smart people used to use. It means after this, therefore because of this. See, what you are saying is that government got bad after we foolishly started treating women as if they were human beings, letting them vote and suchlike. So, since it happened after women got the vote, it must have been women’s voting that caused it. Textbook fallacy. Oops...I meant: textbook fallacy, dumbass. First, government has probably gotten less intrusive since women got the vote. The government has, since then, become less likely to interfere with sex acts between adults, abortion, and contraceptive use. It was, until recently, less likely to tell us what we could and couldn’t read. But, far more importantly, the country has become far more just and fair since women got the vote—think about the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the early ‘60’s. Since these were passed after women got the vote, should women get the credit for them? You know, men did have al little something to do with ‘em. Especially Lyndon Johnson. You should like Johnson—he’s a little like W. He’s from Texas, and he lied to get us into a war. But he cared about civil rights, so he's different, too.

As for the nostalgia about "Father who ruled the home"....I'm going to rule that that's more likely to be some weird kind of extended typo than it is to mean what it seems to mean.

Anyway, as I keep saying, I actually agree that we should be a little worried about nannification. Somebody should write a sensible essay about it sometime. But du Toit was too busy saying stupid things to really address anything serious. Though he does finally get around to discussing the thing that’s really bothering him: t.v. Yes, the fulcrum of American culture, The God Box. Du Toit’s Exhibit A is—now remember, I am not making this up—a Cheerios commercial. This is of such importance to du Toit that you’ll have to forgive me for quoting him at length:

"The scene opens at the morning breakfast table, where the two kids are sitting with Dad at the table, while Mom prepares stuff on the kitchen counter. The dialogue goes something like this:

Little girl (note, not little boy): Daddy, why do we eat Cheerios?
Dad: Because they contain fiber, and all sorts of stuff that's good for the heart. I eat it now, because of that.
LG: Did you always eat stuff that was bad for your heart, Daddy?
Dad (humorously): I did, until I met your mother.
Mother (not humorously): Daddy did a lot of stupid things before he met your mother.

Now, every time I see that TV ad, I have to be restrained from shooting the TV with a .45 Colt. If you want a microcosm of how men have become less than men, this is the perfect example.

What Dad should have replied to Mommy's little dig: Yes, Sally, that's true: I did do a lot of stupid things before I met your mother. I even slept with your Aunt Ruth a few times, before I met your mother.

That's what I would have said, anyway, if my wife had ever attempted to castrate me in front of the kids like that. But that's not what men do, of course. What this guy is going to do is smile ruefully, finish his cereal, and then go and fuck his secretary, who doesn't try to cut his balls off on a daily basis. Then, when the affair is discovered, people are going to rally around the castrating bitch called his wife, and call him all sorts of names. He'll lose custody of his kids, and they will be brought up by our ultimate modern-day figure of sympathy: The Single Mom."

Here’s where du Toit’s duToitification starts to become really clear. Now, I don’t own a t.v., because (with the exception of C-SPAN and PBS and the History Channel and maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sometimes American Shooter) there’s nothing on it but drivel. (Well, there’s also Carolina basketball and Mail Call and Frontline…damn, maybe I do need a t.v. again…) But even just from du Toit’s description of the commercial, it’s easy to guess what’s really going on there. This is the well-known “boys will be boys” trope. Sure, dad’s upright and responsible now, doing the right thing by his family by taking care of his health; but back in the day, he was a wild man, a rebel, a Real Man. Whatever. This is the kind of corporate drivel that makes t.v. insufferably vapid. But to a great extent such things are a Rorschach test, and their interpretation tells you as much about the interpreter as that which is interpreted. And what it tells us about du Toit—as if it weren’t already clear already--is that he is a world-class asshole. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anybody being this psychologically fragile. An innocuous comment like that could only “castrate” somebody who had ‘nads the size of leptons to begin with. Jesus, man, get a grip. It was a joke, for crying out loud. If that’s supposed to be a justification for (a) saying—in front of your kids—that you had sex with your sister-in-law and (b) infidelity, then I guess you get to shoot your wife if she asks you to take out the trash. What a bunch of asinine macho hogwash.

(And about the .45: I guess you’re kidding, Kim, but on the off chance that you really do get the urge to pull out firearms over something like this, you really shouldn’t own any. Firearms aren’t toys. There are two stupid ways to think about firearms (1) as scary evil things that turn sane people into monsters and (2) as toys or props or substitute penises. They aren’t any of those things. They’re tools—somewhat dangerous tools—and they ought to be treated with caution and respect. Besides, shooting the t.v. would make you like Elvis. And not the young, cool Elvis, either; the old, fat, pathetic Elvis. So my advice is: avoid Elvisification. Don’t shoot the t.v.)

But here's the heart of the matter, du Toit's Exhibit B:

"Finally, we come to the TV show which to my mind epitomizes everything bad about what we have become: Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Playing on the homo Bravo Channel, this piece of excrement has taken over the popular culture by storm…

I'm sorry, but the premise of the show nauseates me. A bunch of homosexuals trying to "improve" ordinary men into something "better" (ie. more acceptable to women): changing the guy's clothes, his home decor, his music -- for fuck's sake, what kind of girly-man would allow these simpering butt-bandits to change his life around?"

You know, I kinda think that people should avoid the word “butt-bandit.” Likewise for “décor.” And here’s a hint: really, really try not to use them in the same sentence. And so far as the simpering part goes, let me remind you of the adage about glass houses. But anyway. Making fun of people because of things they can’t change, like their sex or their sexual orientation, is mean. Didn't your folks ever teach you that? It’s like making fun of someone because they have a wimpy, French-sounding last name. But that would be stupid, because having a wimpy, French-sounding last name doesn’t make you a bad person. Being a fucking bigot, that makes you a bad person.

So, anyway, like I said I don’t actually have a television, and I haven’t seen this show, and it doesn’t even sound interesting to me, but I’ve been told that what happens is that a bunch of guys who are gay--so, let's face it, they know what chicks dig--come to your apartment and get rid of all your old crappy stuff, like the couch with a stack of books under one corner instead of a leg and that rug that smells funny, and the cinderblock bookcases, and then they just give you a bunch of good new stuff. Apparently they also give you new clothes of the kind that increase your probability of meeting cool girls. Now, as I said, I haven’t seen this show, but it sounds like an unbelievably good deal to me, and I just want to say: what kind of girly-man would let these guys change his life around? Me! I would! I’m that kind of girly-man! And, in case the folks who make that show happen to be reading this, I will be on your show in case it is still on t.v. and you guys need more straight guys who are big slobs! Not like I expect there to be a big shortage or anything. I don’t know for sure, but I have a pretty good idea that these sweat pants, for example, are not exactly working in my favor, female-wise. Now, see, maybe du Toit thinks that these guys expect you to have sex with them or something in exchange for the new couch and stuff, in which case it’s not as great a deal as it originally sounds like. I mean, that’d have to be a really good couch. But, anyway, nobody is forcing these guys to take a new couch, right? And nobody is saying “look, you are a loser if you don’t get a new couch,” right? So what I’m thinking is that consenting adults should be able to give couches to whomever they like, and that the government has no business telling us who we can exchange furniture with. But anyway, back to the other point: I don’t think you have to worry about these guys wanting to have sex with you, Kim. You see, you are probably a slob like me, and they probably aren’t interested.

But one thing most guys never think about, especially the duToitified conservative, is that women get this kind of bullshit all the time, except instead of “would you like a new couch?” it’s more like “you are worthless because you don’t have bigger boobs.” That is, real pressure about really personal stuff of the kind people already tend to be self-conscious about. The kind of pressure that would bother anybody after awhile, and the kind of pressure that ultimately causes lots of women real, serious, long-term psychological harm. So, by comparison, see, it seems pretty spineless to complain about the fact that some guys that you don’t even know gave another guy you don’t know a free couch.

There’s more, but I don’t have the stomach to go through it all in detail. There’s some whining about Annika Sorenstam getting to play golf with the boys, and an homage (note: this is a French word, but I think it counts as an English word, too) to the golfers who objected. I don’t know what’s so bad about competing against women. I like it actually, and in my life I’ve been bested by women at least once in each of the following activities: basketball, tennis, ping-pong, chess, mountain biking, racquetball. But not in Judo, and anybody who tells you different is LYING. Maybe the duToitified conservative is afraid of losing, or maybe he’s afraid of getting cooties, which is silly, because (a) girls don’t really have cooties, you morons, and (b) you can protect yourself just by keeping your fingers crossed, anyway, which would be hard in some sports but you could do it in others. What you should be worried about is the fact that you're playing GOLF instead of an actual sport.

Then there’s the part where du Toit compares his noble struggle against the Cheerios commercial to Omaha beach. (Yeah, I know. It's embarrasing to even have to type that.) Then there’s the part about how we should be able to get in fistfights, which I sort of agree with, except that he thinks it’s o.k. to get in fistfights over women, which I think is inevitable on occasion and not only o.k. but mandatory if you are defending her honor (probably from some Neanderthal conservative aspiring-to-be-tough guy). But stupid for any other reason. Anyway, nobody says you can't fight over women; all they do is toss your ass in jail for a night. Real men shouldn't have a problem with spending a night in jail, and for God's sake they do not whine about it. And then there's the part about how we should be able to shoot criminals, which I agree with under some conditions but not others. But then comes the part where he enumerates the Heroes For Our time, which enumeration includes (a) John Wayne and (b) Bruce Willis and (c) Clint Eastwood but excludes (d) Sylvester Stalone and (e) Schwartzengropper, which would be sensible except for the fact that these guys are all just actors. They are not really tough, see? They are getting paid to pretend to be tough. They win all their fights because the other actors are paid to fall down. Now, I know that it has been hard for right-wingers to tell reality from fiction ever since that "Morning in America" commercial, so let me try to clarify things a little: See Dirty Harry and Rooster Cogburn are just made up people. They aren't really who they seem to be. But other people, like, say, George W. Bush are....hmmm....wait a second...this IS kind of a hard distinction to make out sometimes, isn't it? Well, look, some things are just play acting. Like Hamlet, say. But other stuff, like, say, when Bush landed on the Abraham Lincoln, see, that was... Jeez, what was that, anyway?

So anyway, as I was saying, when I think of heroes, I tend to think of real people. Like Madison or Pericles or Thomas More or Henry Knox. Or Danel Morgan at Cowpens rallying his militia to turn and unleash one last volley into the teeth of Tarleton’s Redcoats. Or McAuliffe at Bastogne, telling Jerry—in effect, anyway—to bring that weak shit you pathetic Nazi sons of bitches.

But if you don’t want to talk about real people, and if you want to skip over literature entirely and you insist on talking about movies, then let me put it like my friend Beth does: the righties, their paradigm is maybe Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (of whom du Toit writes approvingly). The liberals’ paradigm is Garry Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon. We’d rather not have any trouble; we’d rather everybody lived together in harmony and made nice. We’d certainly rather not have to start breaking things and hurting people. But we will bring the hammer down if absolutely necessary. In the end, we’re with Kane when he says Don’t shove me, Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.

Then there’s some REALLY weird stuff about how “only the strong men propagate”:

"And women know it. You want to know why I know this to be true? Because powerful men still attract women. Women, even liberal women, swooned over George Bush in a naval aviator's uniform. Donald Trump still gets access to some of the most beautiful pussy available, despite looking like a medieval gargoyle. Donald Rumsfeld, if he wanted to, could fuck 90% of all women over 50 if he wanted to, and a goodly portion of younger ones too."

Now, I thought this was pretty interesting, so I asked around a bit, but I couldn’t find even one woman I knew who views George Bush or Donald Trump or Donald Rumsfeld with anything but, well, obvious and obviously genuine disgust. Not a single one. I guess in right-wing fantasy land beautiful, intelligent, well-educated, self-possessed liberal women—women who are, in the real world of actual facts, forever unavailable to the conservative troglodyte—swoon over money and power, finally admitting that their independence and self-reliance were just a show, and that all they wanted all along was a macho man to put ‘em in their place. Perhaps it’s a gratifying fantasy, but it just ain’t so, Kim, not in the real world. Only in the fevered dream world of said conservative troglodytes. Of course some women DO go for that caveman crap, go for the guy with the big car and the small vocabulary (and the leeetle beeety wee-wee… But I digress…). Some women go for the macho man desperately insisting on his heterosexuality and virility—and that includes du Toit's “three-piece suit” crowd (here’s a big tie to compensate for my leeetle beeety… oops... Digressing again.) But some women go, instead, for the guy who actually has the occasional thought in his head, who read a book at least once, who is interesting or funny, and who treats women like human beings because he actually likes them (and who, incidentally, can usually kick the shit out of the macho caveman asshole when push comes to shove). I like the latter kind of woman, unsurprisingly. You might like the former, which is none of my business, but it takes a considerable degree of ignorance to think that that’s the only kind of woman there is. Donald Trump is about as alluring to the women I know as I am to Ivana (or she is to me, for that matter). Here’s a news flash for you: women are people, just like men! Weird, huh? They even have different, individual personalities, just like men! Some women like the caveman conservative and some women like the quiet guy who writes poetry and some women like the guy in the John Deere hat who knows how to run a combine, and some women like sensitive guy who’ll make an excellent dad, and some women like the macho girl in the corner...and so on and so forth. These and many other discoveries of modern science can be obtained by actually talking to some women, an activity that I can whole-heartedly recommend on account of its being not only informative but also enjoyable.

O.k., that’s enough. In fact, that’s way too much. Du Toit’s essay really wasn’t worth the effort. It is, as my dad would say, not worth the powder to blow to hell. Or the electrons in this case. Which is too bad, as I said, because I think that wimpification is a problem we should think about. And I wish somebody would write a sensible essay about it. But that’s not what du Toit did. Instead, du Toit just made the problem worse. For all its glorification of the masculine, the essay is really just a bunch of puling and whining, something I guess we should expect from duToitified conservatives. I have to say, I’ve never spent as much time in my whole life wringing my hands about my masculinity as du Toit spends in this plaintive yawp. Given all that human beings have gone through in the history of the world, the very idea of blubbering at such length about how hard it is to be a man in twenty-first century America is just about the most embarrassingly weinerly thing I can imagine. C’mon, Kim, buck up. Could you articulate your complaints with a straight face to Leonidas at Thermopylae? Or to General Washington and the boys at Valley Forge? (Look, I know you guys are cold, but this stuff hurts my feelings) If these petty irritiations elicit such a gnashing of teeth, God help us if you all ever have to endure something really difficult. Like, say, childbirth.

So, though men have ruled the world for all of recorded history, and though conservatism is everywhere ascendant, the duToitified conservative castrati wail and screech; self-proclaimed paragons of maleness emasculated by a Cheerios commercial and four episodes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, thus, in the end, confirming their own fears about the decline of man.

Christ, what a bunch of pantywaists.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

The Democratic Memo
If you haven't read the actual text of the memo from the Democratic member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then go do it here. I first heard Republican outrage about this, and only later read the actual memo. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely nothing nefarious about it. It seems to outline a strategy for responding to Republican attempts to hide intelligence data. I guess it's ridiculous, but I continue to be stunned by the mendacity of the current Republican leadership (and their corporate media cronies). I'm trying really, really hard to see things from their perspective, and I'm pretty good at that sort of thing, but I'm starting to think that those guys really are completely out of control. This memo business should, I guess, count as another test case. In which case, yet more bullshit points for the right wing...

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Test Case: Werewolves

A few posts back I noted that the lefties are tending to argue that things are going badly in Iraq, and the righties are tending to argue that they are going well. But, unsurprisingly perhaps, it isn't clear who's right. What's worse, not only do we not know whether things are going well or badly in Iraq, but we--ordinary folk--don't even have a very clear idea of what counts as going well and what counts as going badly in such cases. One way to get a fix on this, however, is to compare this occupation to other occupations--and there's been a good bit of comparison with the Allied occupation of Germany after WWII. This is probably not a perfect comparison, but it's probably better than nothing.

I've poked around a bit and have a few suggestions about this dispute:

1. There is a tendency on the right to emphasize the difficulty of the occupation of Germany, and there is something like a contrary tendency on the left. This needs clarification. No one denies that Germany was in complete ruins, and that the task of rebuilding was a massive one. What the right and the left have been disagreeing about is the ferocity of armed German resistance to occupation, in particular the "werewolves." (You can find lots of claims about havoc wrought by the werewolves at, which I won't link to because they are nuts over there; Rice also made some widely-quoted claims about them.)

2. As I noted in my earlier post, this disagreement turns on an answerable historical question. I also suggested that, by answering this question, we might get a tinly little bit of evidence on our way to answering the burning question "who's more full of shit, the righties or the lefties?" Even if this is right, however, it would give us only the tiniest bit of evidence, of course.

3. As it turns out, the left is right and the right is wrong. On this question, anyway. And it turns out that this information has been out there for awhile. Nobody ever tells me anything... Jeffrey Herf sets the record straight at the History News Network, and Slate had an article on this way back in August.

4. One consequence is that the right gets a few full of shit points.

But this is a pretty inconsequential case, I think.

But it does inspire me to start actually tracking down the information required to resolve some of the resolvable disputes between the right and the left. For example, on the nature of the Wellstone memorial. I've just been listening to Al Franken's new book, and his version of the memorial is very different from that of the right. And the Weekly Standard has just dredged that old dispute up. But this dispute is pretty easy to resolve: we just need to watch the memorial--something I haven't done. I think it's about 4 hours long, so this is a non-negligible undertaking. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find it online yet. Of course there's a certain amount of vagueness associated with descerning the "tone" of events, but that doesn't mean that this issue is unresolvable. It might be clearly partisan and awful, as the righties are claiming, it might be pure as the driven snow (which I haven't heard anybody say), or it might be basically good with a few partisan excesses (which is the way Franken represents it). So I'm going to track this thing down and watch it. And you should, too. It's another test case.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Not "Why We Went to War"

I recently decided to assign something on the Iraq situation to a couple of my classes and had to make a decision about what it would be rather quickly. I decided to get something more-or-less from leftward and something more-or-less from rightward. For the former reading, I found a recent piece from The New Republic, John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman?s ?The Selling of the Iraq War: The First Casualty.? For the latter, I found a recent piece from The Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan and William Kristol?s ?Why We Went to War.? Although the Judis/Ackerman piece turned out, on a more careful reading, to be incisive and reasonable, the Kagan/Kristol piece?well, didn?t. Much could be written about this article, but I?ll try to keep this brief.


Kagan and Kristol spend five pages building a case for the war based on information other than that which was used by the Bush administration to make its case for the war. They quote Bill Clinton at length about the threat that Iraq posed to the region, and enumerate all the WMDs that Iraq admitted to having by 1998. The list is impressive, including among other things 8.500 liters of anthrax and at least 3.9 tons of VX. They also quote reports by Hans Blix from March and May of 2003 in which he notes that the anthrax and VX remain unaccounted for and that “little progress was made” toward compliance with Resolution 1441. If Kagan and Kristol had stopped at page five, they would have produced a mostly sensible article. (Aside from their gratuitous shots at Bill Clinton, and aside from the fact that they seem willing to grant credibility to Clinton and Blix only when they find their conclusions congenial.)

It turns out, however, that the main conclusion of their article is that it was this evidence, the evidence admitted by Iraq and the evidence cited by Clinton and Blix, that constituted the Administration’s reasons for going to war. Kagan and Kristol’s intention is to show that the administration was justified in deciding to attack despite its lies, distortions, misdirection, and pressuring of the CIA to distort evidence. In their own words, their conclusion is:

(1) “…This [ is why George W. Bush and Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar led their governments and a host of others to war to remove the Saddam Hussein regime in March 2003.”

However, none of their arguments support this conclusion. The conclusion that their arguments lend support to is this one:

(2) There were reasons to go to war to remove the Saddam Hussein regime.

That is, their arguments only show, if anything, that such reasons were available. This is, however and rather obviously, very different from their actual conclusion, (1). (1) is equivalent to the following, but (2) is not:

(1’) These were the reasons that actually motivated George Bush (and Tony Blair) to go to war to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Obviously showing that there are reasons for performing some action does not prove that someone who performed that action did so for those reasons. There were, for example, many morally sound reasons for opposing Hitler, but enumerating them will not show that those were the reasons that actually motivated, say, Stalin. (Note that this is not to compare Bush to Stalin in any significant way, it’s just an illustrative example.) It is hard to resist the conclusion that Kagan and Kristol are unsatisfied with merely showing that the war was justifiable; rather, they seek to prove that the Administration’s decision was reasonable and that it’s dealings with the American public were honest. This, however, their argument simply does not and cannot do. Even if the reasons Kagan and Kristol cite were good reasons for going to war, that in no way shows that those were the reasons that the Administration acted on. But even if they Administration had good reasons but inexplicably kept those reasons from us and gave us different ones, then they are guilty of misleading us into supporting the war. Though it may not be completely clear whether there was sufficient reason to go to war, and though there is some small possibility that the Administration secretly acted on good reasons (perhaps even the ones Kagan and Kristol cite), there is little doubt that the Administration lied to us about either (a) which reasons they thought were good reasons or (b) which reasons they were really acting on. That is: either (i) the administration acted rationally but lied to us about their reasons, in which case they tricked us into supporting the war or (ii) the Administration was honest with us about their reasons, in which case they acted on the basis of patent untruths that they had mostly made up themselves. Since the latter would border on the insane, it is likely that the former is true.


I want to say one more thing about the puzzling question of the Administration’s true motives. They generally gave two kinds of reasons for taking us to war. Their main reason, of course, was the imminent threat/WMD argument. They did, however, also mention humanitarian reasons for invading. Neither of these is likely to be their real reason. Since (as noted above) they knew that most of the imminent threat/WMD evidence they cited publicly was falsified, exaggerated, or “cherry-picked” out of a mass of conflicting data, it is unreasonable to think that that evidence could have provided their actual motivation. And, since so many influential members of the Administration are from the foreign policy “Realist” camp, they believe that we should never make foreign policy for any reason other than promoting the narrow national interest of the United States. In particular, they do not believe that we should use our military to protect the rights of non-Americans. So it is unlikely that the human rights arguments actually motivated the Administration as a whole.
Consequently, we are left to wonder what their actual reasons were. I consider this one of the biggest puzzles associated with the invasion. One could conceivably construe Kagan and Kristol’s article as an attempt to solve this puzzle. That is, one might see them as trying to generate a hypothesis about what the Administration’s real reasons for invading were, since the Administration’s stated reasons are unlikely to be its real reasons. This interpretation seems unduly charitable to me, but it is worth mentioning. It also strikes me as a bad hypothesis—it seems that, if these really were the Administration’s reasons, then they would have used them in their attempt to “sell” us the idea of the war. They aren’t particularly bad reasons, after all, and they are certainly better than the flimsy tissue of lies and half-truths that they did offer as their reasons.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about this article is that Kagan and Kristol could possibly think that they had proven what they claim to have proven. Unless I’m missing something big, it’s a shoddy piece of work that comes off as all the more shoddy when compared, say, to Judis and Ackerman’s careful and reasonable piece on the selling of the war. But, then, The Weekly Standard and The New Republic are not really comparable publications. Whereas the former is more a propaganda organ of the right, the latter is committed to serious analysis of policy and politics. Though I don’t always agree with what I read in The New Republic, at least I rarely feel--as I often do after having read The Weekly Standard--that I have wasted my time.