Saturday, June 30, 2007

The World Clock

Shows world population, number of species gone extinct, barrels of oil produced, prison population, cars produced, and other stuff. Interesting and scary. (via Metafilter)

I know that being concerned about overpopulation now makes you a racist according to the left, but I'm still concerned with it, so #&$@ 'em. I'm now officially old enough to have seen several issues switch valence on the left, from 'if you don't believe that p, then you are evil' to 'if you do believe that p, then you are evil.' So whatever.

Other sidebar:
Also: re: prison population: I don't take a large prison population to be necessarily a bad thing. Having lots of bad people in jail is what's largely responsible for the drop in crime in the '90's. Of course the composition of the prison population in e.g. China is quite different than in the U.S., so a large world prison population has to give one pause. Also, of course, very many folks in our prisons are non-violent drug offenders, and that is insane.
Now the NYT is Tokyo Rose

Check out this post (linked-to approvingly by Instapundit).

Here we are told that "
U.S. troops have been mystified at how differently the war they fight in Iraq is portrayed by the U.S. media back home." (Extended sidebar: Note the absence of a quantifier--one of my favorite tricks. How many U.S. troops are so mystified? Of course it wouldn't be legitimate to ask for a specific number...but what's the claim just roughly? All? Most? Many? Some? 'Most' would make the claim interesting...'some' would make it uninteresting. As stated, the claim is consistent with a claim containing any of those quantifiers, however. But we can't add 'all' or even 'almost all', because that would be false. In face, many U.S. troops are mystified that the coverage of the war is so absurdly positive.)

But the real point: Strategypage goes on to note that Tokyo Rose et. al. used to hammer away at three points:

"1 Your President (Franklin D Roosevelt) is lying to you.

2 This war is illegal.

3 You cannot win the war."

SP proceeds:
"The troops are perplexed and somewhat amused that their own media is now sending out this message. Fighting the enemy in Iraq is simple, compared to figuring out what news editors are thinking back home. A few times, the mass media has been bold, or foolish, enough to confront the troops about this divergence of perceptions. The result is usually a surreal exchange, with the troops giving the journalist a "what planet are YOU from" look."

(Here, incidentally, we do get a needed quantifier, i.e. usually. Thus probably making the claim false.)

But the mere fact that bad people once said such things falsely does not make them false in all cases. The Axis also told their citizens that they were in danger from external threats. But I don't know of anyone who has stooped low enough to suggest that Bush is like Tojo or Hitler because he, too, says that we are in such danger. Nor has anyone suggested that we are NOT in such danger on the grounds that the Axis once made such claims about themselves. In general, the fact that some bad person said x once doesn't mean that x isn't true. This is not a difficult point to understand.

Questions about the truth of such claims have to be investigated like any other questions. So let's address the claims at issue:

1. Your president is lying to you: uncontroversially true, so it's good when the media point it out--which, IMHO, they don't do nearly enough.
There's no serious discussion about this one anymore. And, again, the fact that Tokyo Rose falsely said it about Roosevelt doesn't somehow magically mean that it's false about Bush. If that were so, then T. Rose's false claim about Roosevelt would guarantee that all future U.S. presidents were always honest (!).

2. The war is illegal: unclear, but probably false. But hardly any serious person claims this.
Many do point out that the war is immoral--or, to be more precise, it was started on immoral grounds. But that's a different point.

3. You cannot win the war: The only really interesting claim here...
We don't know whether it's true or not...though even Dick Lugar seems to believe it now. On the other hand, some on the left, and in the media, seemed to be pushing this line long before we had evidence that it was true. So this point has some chance of sticking.

These kinds of comparisons don't surprise me, though. It's this kind of bullshit that Godwin's Law is aimed at

I'm waiting for the more overt "stabbed in the back" claims myself. Thing's'll really get fun then.

That is all.
Shut Up About "Godwin's Law" Already

"Godwin's Law" is not a very interesting law, and those who harp on it and use t as a trump card probably do at least as much harm as good. Hitler comes up in philosophical discussions all the time--which discussions, let me add, are in general far more enlightening and reasonable than well over 90% of what gets said on blogs. Why does this happen? Because Hitler provides a clean, uncontroversial touchstone of moral and political badness, and, consequently, a case about which even two disputants should be able to agree if they can agree about anything. So, for example, when friends of mine express disapproval of the death penalty, it's usually profitable for me to ask something like "But you recognize that Hitler deserved the death penalty, right?" Most acknowledge that. This shows that they aren't opposed to the death penalty in principle, but rather (like me) simply concerned about errors in its application or some similar merely practical point. On the other hand, someone who thinks that even Hitler should not have been executed had he been captured probably is opposed to the death penalty in all possible cases, thus in principle. (I'm not sure whether they think he deserved community service or what...but that's a different issue...) This is one small trick that makes at least some progress possible in philosophical discussions. Try that on the internets, however, and some dumbass will shout "Godwin's Law!" and everything goes downhill from there.

The idea behind talk of Godwin's Law is, I suppose, that people have a tendency to try to compare their opponents to Hitler, and that this tendency is particularly bad on the internet where the quality of most political discussion is pretty low and tempers run pretty high. So, to the extent that it's supposed to just remind people that accusing your opponent of being like Hitler is usually easy and misguided, it's o.k. by me. But this is very different from using Hitler as an uncontroversial case in discussion.

And appeals to this law simply muck up the gears of discussion when legitimate an enlightening references to Hitler generate cries of "Godwin's Law!" and the attendant presupposition that the person who made the reference has "lost" the argument.

Of course, the very view that political discussion should be more like argument than inquiry, and that there are winners and losers is an even bigger problem.

But that's a different point.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tour de Corn, East Prarie, MO

Incidentally, Big Oak Tree State Park is located near East Prarie (or "EP" as it's sometimes called). We weren't able to stick around for the Tour de Corn, but if you like cycling and sweet corn--and who doesn't?--it sounds like fun.

Big Oak Tree State Park
In the Great State of Missouri

Small, but packed with old-growth, including many state champion trees, Big Oak Tree State Park is worth a detour if you're ever coming up through Missouri's bootheel. For several reasons (wrong lens, bad photographer, etc.) I didn't get any really good pics of the fantastic trees.

Here's a consolation pic, though. Does anybody know whether this is a yellow-bellied water snake? (Note: yellow belly confirmed) Or what?
Libertarians Are Wrong, Episode 2:
National Parks

We're in Missouri now, visiting the folks at the Ranch of the Damned, but on the way here we did some hiking and camping in the awesome Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our exit route took us through Gatlinburg and Pidgeon Forge [Footnote 1]. As is so often the case, the tourist traps push right up against the entrance to the park. Thus, when you leave, you can't help but be struck by the fact that, if the government hadn't protected the parks, they'd be filled with McDonald's and convenience stores, too. Hell, there'd be a waterslide on Clingman's Dome and a golf course in Cades Cove.

I have strong libertarian inclinations myself--in fact, as I've noted many times, that's why I tend to be a liberal. Liberals take the most important human and civil rights more seriously than conservatives do (though they do need to sober up about the Second Amendment). Though I have much sympathy with libertarian principles, I don't share their deluded fantasies about the infallibility of the free market. (One very intelligent friend of mine--with a Ph.D. in philosophy--once said to me that he thought that it was logically impossible for the market to go wrong; that is, roughly, the market is always necessarily right. I was speechless.)

It's obvious that the market doesn't always make the right "decision," and clear that it can't be trusted in certain cases. I've gone on about antibiotics in this context many times. It would be a very, very bad idea to allow people to buy all antibiotics over the counter. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are already on the rampage. Similarly, it would be foolish to trust the market to make good enviornmental decisions. The market tends to favor short-term financial profit over longer-term values of a more important kind. Like the environment. And the continuation of the species.

(Incidentally, my best professor ever was a weird, complex kind of liberal Burkean conservative who (though non-religious himself) thought that social institutions like churches were crucially important because they helped the family resist the ravages of the free market. It always puzzled him that conservatives didn't recognize that the market had done more than anything else to undermine the family, and still posed the biggest threat to it.)

Hiking through the huge old-growth oaks and tulip poplars, I thought about what would have happened if the market had been given free reign here. I realized that the great huge trees would be entertainment centers by now, and we'd have been walking through the parking lot of a Motel 6. The thought sent a cold chill up my spine.

"Is the free market a good thing?" my professor, aforementioned, once asked me. "Is fire a good thing?" he replied to his own question. It depends. No unqualified answer is possible. Fire is almost unbelievably useful when properly controlled, almost unimaginably destructive when uncontrolled. Similarly the market.

Governments are extremely dangerous things, too, but at least in this case we're lucky that ours checked the power of the market in this regard. Too bad it didn't happen before most of the country's forests had been clear-cut. But better late than never.

Footnote 1:
Blue state types could probably learn a lot about the red state psyche by just driving through these two towns, which are tourist traps for the red of heart. If Pigeon Forge really is a good indicator of such things, red staters love the following things in this order:

1. Pancakes
2. Air-brushed t-shirts
3. Jesus
4. Air-brushed t-shirts about Jesus
5. Go-carts

Part red-neck, I seem to have inherited a love for 1 and 5 at least.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm under the impression that Naomi Wolfe is considered to be a fairly reasonable feminist, but you can't tell it by this piece on Paris Hilton in today's Post.

Wolfe's point seems to be that "we" are fascinated by the Hilton story because we're uncomfortable with the fact that women have become so strong and self-sufficient. Consequently, the culture starts producing images of helpless, out of control women, like that of Hilton sobbing the back of a police car.

Wolfe writes:
What value is there in such countervailing images -- the shadow to women's increasingly bright reality? The first is psychological. On some deep level, there's a generalized feeling that women's vulnerability equals the guarantee of receiving a reliable supply of their love and care. There's an anxiety that if women become too strong, too independent, we won't be able to count on them to nurture and they won't need love. Because men, children and (not to put too fine a point upon it) the whole edifice of human civilization depend on women's willingness to nurture, it's scary to take a step into the unknown -- to see if women will continue to love if they're really free to choose whether to do so. (We will, of course, but it will take a generation or so of proof for everyone to calm down about it.)

This seems like fairly patent BS to me. Nobody thinks they're ever going to get a "reliable supply of love and care" from a self-absorbed, egoistic (and egotistic) moron like Hilton. So Wolfe's explanation of the public's fascination with Hilton seems to fail. (And, furthermore, given the American public's fascination with vapid celebrities of all types, the fact that Wolfe can point to two or three who happen to be helpless, out-of-control and female can't support her case.)

Why are people fascinated with Hilton?

Well, first I challenge the presupposition. I don't give a damn about her, and neither does anybody I know. If Wolf's op-ed hadn't appeared in the Post, I'd certainly never be writing this. But why are those who are interested in Hilton interested in her? Well, in all probability it's because Hilton is a loathsome and eminently hatable character. A paradigm example of the spoiled, rotten rich girl, dripping with cash she didn't earn and doesn't come close to deserving. Such a person might better be ignored than hated, but that she is hated is simply no mystery. There's a natural desire to see such people brought low(er) in a very obvious way.

As is the case with so much cultural criticism in general and feminist cultural criticism in particular, Wolfe's essay seems to turn on a set of explanations that are overly baroque and ideologically-driven. The phenomenon in question is fairly innocuous and easily explained, and no feminist theoretical apparatus is required to do so.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The 2006 Election: What's a Liberal Centrist To Do?
Or: Yellow-Dog Non-Republicans?

Lucky for you our departure was delayed by storms. Now you get to read this gem of wisdom..

I normally try hard to avoid partisanship. (The Democrats, incidentally, make this easy...) So, though I realize that, odds are, I'll support the Democratic candidate for president in the vast majority of cases, I usually try to think hard about the possibility of voting for the Republican candidate. This sometimes makes me feel like a tool in retrospect. For example, I spent untold hours agonizing over the Gore/Bush decision in 2000. It seemed like an easy choice, but, I wondered, was I just being partisan? What about the torrent of accusations against Gore? Surely they couldn't all be fabricated. Right? With so many seemingly well-informed and reasonably intelligent people absolutely insisting that there was something indefinably yet seriously defective about Gore, surely there must be something there that I was just missing. Right?

Well, wrong. As it turned out, it was, in fact, the no-brainer that it seemed to be.

But anyway.

The point here is that I've been considering a kind of mini, personal protest in response to the disaster that has been the Bush presidency. Goes like this: next election, I won't even consider the Republican candidate. Even if it's Dennis Kucinich vs. ....uh...well...[insert name of reasonable Republican here (use'ta would've been John McCain, but not anymore.)], it's still the Democrats for me.

I mean, trying to steal an election is bad enough...but trying to steal it for an incompetent, mendacious nimrod is...well, come to think of it, the attempted theft is really the worst part. But the other part's damn bad, too.

So the question is something like this: should people like me be yellow-dog Democrats at least for the 2008 presidential election? Or at least yellow-dog non-Republicans?

I was inclined to answer 'yes' until about a month ago. Then it hit me that Bush and company have screwed things up so severely that it might be absolutely imperative to elect the best candidate in '08, even if that candidate turns out to be from the party that screwed everything up. That is, it seems that Bush's presidency has been such a disaster that people like me can't even risk lodging a protest vote next time around. The Republicans have put the country--and, consequently, the world--in such a precarious position that we may not even be able to afford to punish them for it. Rather, we have to simply treat this election like any other, simply voting for the best candidate so far as we can tell.

Am I missing something here?
What Caused the USSR to Collapse?

Though no Reagan fan, I do get a bit choked up when I hear the "tear down this wall" speech. Although wrong about too many things to list here, I do think Reagan was right about the nature of the USSR. But so far as I can tell, he was not responsible for bringing it down. More evidence to that effect articulated by Yegor Geidar, summarized by Drum here.

Reaganophiles, of course, are quasi-religious in their fervor, though, and usually not particularly interested in the evidence. They're desperate to have a great modern Republican president to balance out FDR. Reagan is their favorite uncle, who used to tell them bed-time stories about bears in the woods and all that, and they fervently want him to be great as well as likable.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Return to Oz

Heading out tomorrow for the lovely Missouri Ozarks in general and the Ranch of the Damned in particular. Found out this morning that a car wreck took out 1500 feet of fence at my folks' place.

Looks like there's a substantial amount of fence fixing in my immediate future...

Try not to tear the place up while I'm gone.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Welcome To the Decidership

Other possible descriptors:



But really I guess it's just a plain old plutocracy.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Death of Richard Rorty
Philosophy Buries Another Of Its Undertakers

Richard Rorty died on Friday. Here's a link to a story. [via Metafilter]

I had a few discussions with Rorty when he was at UVa and I was teaching at William and Mary and living in Charlottesville. I disagreed with him about as much as you can disagree with someone, but he struck me as being an extremely nice man. I was just finishing my dissertation at the time, and I was a rather captious and aggressive little analytic philosopher, hell-bent on defending a version of meat-axe realism that I didn't really even understand. He was more patient with me than he was, strictly speaking, obligated to be.

(Incidentally, I don't read much Rorty, really, but happen to have been re-reading his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, finishing it, oddly enough, on Friday.)

None of that is to suggest that he wasn't wrong about a lot of things, because, so far as I can tell, he was. But there's a lot of that going around in philosophy, so it's probably not the kind of thing to hold against somebody.

He's one of the few contemporary American academic philosophers whose thought seeped out into the world. Unfortunately lots of it was probably wrong in a way that fanned the flames of various types of common confusions. (The comments here at Metafilter is fairly typical--a tangle of confusions based on only the wispiest understanding of the issues. (My favorite: if we disagree about things, then truth is socially constructed. Even Rorty didn't think that.)) But that's a different story for a different time.

I think Rorty pushed certain themes in a certain kind of analytic philosophy (e.g. the thought of Quine and Sellars) farther than most others had done before him. Lots of analytics didn't like where he ended up, but I have to say, I often think that the only difference between Rorty and those analytics is that he was a bit more consistent than they. He took a certain kind of meat-axe naturalism and physicalism to heart, and concluded (among other things) that they were fatal to the philosophical enterprise as classically conceived. So he concluded that a different conception of philosophy was called for. I didn't agree with him, but that's in part because I'm skeptical of his versions of naturalism and physicalism. I had rather more respect for Rorty than I have for those who want to have their cake and eat it too by embracing naturalism and physicalism while ignoring what seem to be their more radical consequences.

Rest in peace, Professor Rorty.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Screw Politics. More Novels

Today's impressionistic book review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

Since I don't know anything about literature, and since I'm the last person in the country to read this book anyway, let me just say: I liked it.

Maybe you have to have an insane family for this to really resonate, though, so it may not be for everybody.

Anyway, am I the only person currently hiding from politics? Hell, I just can't deal with it anymore. And presidential debates! In June! A year and a frickin' half before the election!

Somebody shoot me.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Most Teens' Mental Health Not Adversely Affected By Non-Marital Sex

Says a report from the University of Minnesota.

As a matter of fact, I can tell you for sure that it act improved the mental health of at least one teenager...

Another blow to the sex is evil theory so beloved by our friends on the extreme right.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

We Are OBL's Bitches

From John Mueller, Overblown:

That the costs of terrorism chiefly arise from fear and from overwrought responses holds even from the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which constituted by far the most destructive set of terrorist acts in history and resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. The economic costs of reaction have been much higher than those inflicted by the terrorists even in that record-shattering episode, and considerably more than 3,000 Americans have died since 9/11 because, out of fear, they drove in cars rather than flew in airplanes, or because they were swept into wars made politically possible by the terrorist events.

Moreover, as terrorist kingpin and devil du jour Osama bin Laden has gleefully noted, fear, alarmism, and overreaction suit the terrorists' agenda just fine because they create the damaging consequences the terrorsts seek but are unable to perpetrate on their own. As he put it mockingly in a videotaped message in 2004, it is "easy for us to provoke and bait...All that we have to do is to send two raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." His policy, he extravagantly believes, is one of "bleeding American to the point of bankruptcy," and it is one that depeds on overreaction by the target: he triumphally points to the fact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks cost al-Qaeda $500,000, while the attack and its aftermath inflicted, he claims, a cost of more than $500 billion on the United States. Shortly after 9/11, he crowed, "America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that." (p. 3)
College Students Study Far Less Than Those 20, 40 Years Ago


Sunday, June 03, 2007

G8 Riots

Almost a thousand people injured...with luck, many of those are those instigating the violence.

It's almost certain that the instigators here come from the fairly radical left, correct?

I mention this only because I sometimes worry that liberals forget that the radical left is just as insane as the radical right.

That is all.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Arguments I Love: The "Support Our Troops" Argument
Kinsley on the Right's Associated Web of Sophistries

I've complained a lot about the "support our troops" argument. Stripped of its finer points, it goes like this:

Even if you don't support the war, you must support our troops. Supporting our troops means supporting the war. Therefore you must support the war.

Tarted up just a bit, it goes like this:

Even if you didn't support getting into the war, you must support our troops. Supporting our troops means supporting the war now that it's started. So you must support the war now that it's started.

This argument is a beautiful piece of sophistry for a couple of reasons.

First, because it equates supporting the troops with sending them to war--even if that war is unjustified or unnecessary.

Second, because it entails that we are obligated to support any war once it is started, no matter how misguided or disastrous.

As Kinsley puts it, this argument is "not war-specific." It has roughly the form:

For any x, if x is a war, then, once x is started, you must support x.

This is an extremely dangerous and irrational argument. If the patent absurdity of this argument isn't enough to allow you to see through it, you should at least be able to recognize that some wars, though begun, should not have been continued. But this argument entails that all citizens--including, e.g., the unfortunate citizens of the Third Reich--are always obligated to support a war once it has begun.

In today's Post, Michael Kinsley explores the complex web of sophistries that has grown up around this argument, including arguments about funding the troops. Republican talking-points go like this: if Democrats seriously think that this war is misguided, then they should de-fund it. If they don't, then they are hypocrites. If they do, they hate our troops. So they'd better fall in and start admitting that this war is a great idea.

As Kinsley points out, if they really expect us to accept all these arguments, they'd better hope that every war that this country ever starts from here on out is a good idea, as they seem to believe that we are obligated to support them all.

Er, unlike Kosovo, of course...

Of course in reality Republicans don't really accept the general principles they are committed to here. They rather want the public to support the war, and they flailed about until they found a vaguely plausible argument for the conclusion they already held. Two seconds' thought would demonstrate to them that this argument is fallacious. When a Democrat some day takes us into a war with which they disagree, they'll immediately drop this argument--as well they should. Well, of course, they actually should never have accepted it at all, of course.

But is a smidgen of intellectual honesty too much to ask for? Given that no advocates of these arguments will stick by them when the tables are turned, one might hope they'd admit this and quit using them now. But, of course, they won't. Honesty in general--and intellectual honesty in particular--is just not the forte of this group.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Inevitability of Bush's "Vindication"

I'm fairly sure I've harped on this before...but you do realize that Bush will inevitably be declared to have been vindicated, right?

Let's say that things miraculously turn around in a week or a year or...five years. At that point, conservatives will proclaim that Bush was right all along, and that the invasion was sage policy. No matter how torturous and unpredictable the route that eventually leads the Iraqis out of chaos, Bush's supporters will claim that that's what he meant to do all along. Like the kid on the playground whose wildly errant shot takes three wild bounces off nearby buildings and cars and then, miraculously, drops through the hoop, the Bushies will claim that Bush meant to do that all along.

It may even take ten, twenty, thirty may involve factors and mechanisms that no one even dreamt of taking into account in 2002...but no matter when or how it happens, they'll claim credit for it.

Though, of course, accepting none of the associated--and well-deserved--blame.

I just want you to be ready when this happens so you don't have an aneurism.

Because I care.