Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Weak Arguments for the Language Determines Thought Hypothesis
Lera Boroditsky Edition

The hypothesis that language determines thought seems irresistible to people...especially people who work largely with words rather than things.

So far as I can tell, the standard view about the relationship between language and thought goes roughly like this:
What language we speak has some influence on thought, but it certainly doesn't determine it. Facts about your language can spin or color certain aspects of your thought, make certain concepts more easily available to you, and so forth. But it doesn't perfectly determine what you will think, it doesn't determine the big things, and it doesn't make any concepts obligatory, nor does it make any perfectly inaccessible to you.
However, the lure of flashy, cool-sounding theories like the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis seems irresistible.

Here's something by Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford. Her conclusion is big, big, big!:
I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people's minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.
However, this conclusion is hyperbolic. The evidence professor Boroditsky offers simply doesn't support such claims. And this is the way these discussions usually go: strong claims about powerful and pervasive influence of language on thought, supported only by meager (though often still interesting) evidence showing only rather weak and inclining effects.

Consider the evidence she offers for language affecting how we think about time:
People's ideas of time differ across languages in other ways. For example, English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors (e.g., "The best is ahead of us," "The worst is behind us"), whereas Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time (e.g., the next month is the "down month" and the last month is the "up month").
This is interesting, but--as usual in these cases--it doesn't come close to being astonishing or terribly important. It takes very little thought to realize that our common convention of representing time as flowing from left to right is mere convention. We have to represent it some way, representing it in that way works fine, there's nothing sacrosanct about it, end of story. It's perfectly reasonable to think that there's some link between this convention and our convention (again: mere convention) of writing from left to right. But this is not the kind of thing that must be shown to prove that there are astonishing effects of language on thought. It's the kind of small, innocuous, inclining effect that one could pretty much predict without even doing empirical research. But nothing here shows the kinds of profound effects that are advertised. We easily slip into representing time differently if necessary--e.g. along the y axis of Cartesian coordinates--if that becomes convenient.

And the other evidence presented here is no more compelling.

For example, she considers a famed example in this context: the fact that people who speak different languages sometimes carve up the color spectrum in different ways. However, again, we know that colors are a notoriously difficult and odd case. It takes little thought to recognize that colors can be divided up in many ways, and e.g. that it can sometimes be handy to lump two varieties of blue together, sometimes to distinguish between them. The color spectrum can be divided equally well in many different ways, and it's no surprise to find that languages have somewhat different (though note: not radically different) ways of categorizing colors. And in cases where there's much arbitrariness involved, one would expect the predictable influences of language on thought to come to the forefront. E.g., if my language contains a prominent way to distinguish color 1 from color 2--e.g. if different names for them are common--I'll probably be more likely to notice differences between color 1 and color 2. Again, this is not a point that is without interest, it simply isn't earth-shattering. (We also know that different humans--e.g. males and females--have different capacities for color discrimination; so to get a complete picture of what's going on here, we'd have to check to make sure that different ethnic groups don't also have different powers of color discrimination.)

One thing it's important to keep in mind here is that the influence of thought on language is certainly more important here than the influence of language on thought. We develop new terminology because we need it to clearly express new thoughts--not the other way around.

It is also worth noting that the world has its say here, too, though folks on the Whorf side of the debate tend to get that backwards. Eskimos have several words for snow and related phenomena (though not the thirty or more distinct terms that is sometimes claimed),* but so do we (snow, slush, powder, sleet, snain, etc.). Eskimos have a couple of different words for snow, ice and similar things for the same reason we do--because they live in an environment in which snow and ice are salient. Skiers also have many words for snow, and for the exact same reasons. Meteorologists have the most different words for snow, ice, etc., again because of the way the world is and because of what they are interested in and need to do. In the most ordinary cases, the world shapes the inquiring mind, then thinkers craft words to express important thoughts. Language is usually at the end of the line, not at the beginning of it.

Professor Boroditsky also claims that if you speak a gendered language, this tends to have some effect on your thinking--in particular, there is some tendency to think of objects which have masculine names as being more masculine. Of course, we need to point out here that the causal arrow may go the other way, and doubtlessly does in many cases--that is, more masculine-seeming things will probably be more likely to get names with masculine gender. Guns and swords will likely (but not necessarily...think of Vera...) be referred to via masculine-gendered words, for example. So we'd have to control for that. But, more importantly: this is another smallish and predictable kind of effect, not a huge and astonishing one. This is, again, a case of language nudging us in a direction in the absence of any facts. Most things don't actually have genders, of course; so there aren't any facts here to push back against such influences. Things are different in cases in which language urges us to think a certain way, but the world pushes back. Language may have some force in such cases, but it can't match the force of the facts.

Finally, let's consider Boroditsky's claim that:
In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.
Again, were we'd want to know which ways the causal arrows go here, but I'd certainly be inclined to think that they went from language to art in cases like this. But, again, it seems that the important thing to point out is that the effect is not astonishing. Again, we're dealing with wispy, peripheral, conventional and impressionistic things here. How on Earth do you represent death, anyway? And if you personify it, what sex does it have? (Perhaps more interestingly: why any sex at all?) That in cases like this, people should more often than not (though note: not always!) get nudged here or there by their language should come as no surprise...and it cannot support any sweeping, astonishing claims about how language influences thought.

I should note that I have little doubt that language exerts some influence on thought. And I find research like Professor Boroditsky's interesting and important. Although it is likely that language influences thought only in rather subtle and peripheral ways, e.g. when conventions or metaphors are prominent, such effects might still be important in certain ways, and the sum total of such effects could still be significant.

However, it's important that we avoid hyperbole here. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof--but the available evidence for stronger versions of the hypothesis that language influences thought clearly remain unproven.

* We have Benjamin Lee Whorf to thank for the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, too...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Swedish Parents Keep Child's Sex Secret Because of Commitment to "Feminist Philosophy" And The Proposition That "Gender Is a Social Construction"

Here, via Metafilter (with discussion in comments).

Where, oh where, to begin?

1. If you want to avoid a good bit of patent silliness, dump the phrase "social construction" from your vocabulary. There are too many confusions packed into it from the get-go. If someone seriously uses the term "socially constructed," it's a good bet that you can just move on to something else, and your intellectual energies will be better spent. It's one of those phrases people use to try to sound smart, but it leads people almost invariably to logical perdition.

There are a subset of cases for which the meaning is clear enough, though, and this seems to be one of them: here they apparently mean that "gender" is something unreal or non-natural, a kind of myth made up by humans. Like, say, caste in India. So let's go with that.

2. Thanks to certain lefty academicians who decided that 'gender' sounded cooler and more like a technical term than 'sex,' we now don't know whether people are talking about sex or gender when they use the word 'gender.' Liberal feminists of yore used to press the very excellent point that sex and gender are two different things. If you're talking about the male/female distinction, you're talking about sex, i.e. something patently natural. If you're talking about the masculine/feminine distinction, you're talking about gender, i.e. something rather odder and perhaps somewhat more a product of cultural convention and human imagination.

3. Sex is not made up. In the deplorable lingo, it's not "socially constructed."

4. How about gender?

Is it (shudder) "socially constructed"? Probably not. Masculinity and femininity are probably at least to some extent real things. They may very well be something like homeostatic property clusters--clusters of properties that naturally tend to exist together and so forth. But I don't know.

5. However, to talk about the significant point at issue with any precision, we--as usually--need to just drop the "social construction" silliness entirely.

Poor Pop's parent's point is probably this one (familiar from old-style liberal feminism):

The proposition that male humans ought to be masculine (and are defective otherwise) and that female humans ought to be feminine (and are defective otherwise) is something that was simply made up by humans...and something that is almost certainly false. The good old liberal feminist point was just that people ought, in this respect, be left to be who they are. This is one kind of case in which it's all good. Males have a tendency to be more masculine, but atypical ones that are more feminine are not ipso facto inferior; females have a tendency to be feminine, but ones atypical in this respect are not ipso facto inferior. This is all a matter of statistics, and not morality.

Though being male inclines one to be more masculine, and being female inclines one to be more feminine, there's nothing morally wrong with being a more feminine male or a more masculine female. It's common for people to believe that there is--it's traditional to disdain and even punish those who don't have the statistically average gender for their sex. But that's bararic, and morally indefensible.

(Footnote: see how the point is made much more clearly without the "social construction" hogwash?)

6. The point I really want to make:
Seems like folks who are really outraged by Pop's plight hold two conflicting points, as they often do in such cases. To wit:
(a) This is horrific and you are abusing "Pop"

(b) Sex and gender are so strongly naturally corellated that the kid will soon enough become more masculine if male, more feminine if female.
As should be clear, though, you can't affirm both points without embarrassment.

7. I am not a parent and, God willing, I never will be. I'm the last person in the world to take parenting advice from. However, were I to give any in this context, it would go a little something like this:

Do not experiment with your child on the basis of intellectual-lefty/PoMo/social constructionist nonsense, nor on the basis of the leftier bits of feminism. Just don't do it. This is too important; the stakes are too high, and the theories are too loony. To do so would be, roughly the lefty equivalent of denying your kid medical care because you think that the space ghost is going to cure him.

Why not do what tons of liberal academicians I know do: raise the kid without pushing it to be either masculine or feminine, but without bending over backwards to be perfectly neutral in the matter? That seems to work pretty well, and the kids are among the most well-adjusted I've ever known.

8. But look: if this is really all the parents are doing, my guess is that there won't be any long-term harm to the kid. We know that if he's male, he'll probably end up more masculine, and if she's female, she'll probably end up more feminine, but that the correlations are far from perfect.

The worry, of course, is that the parents are actually loons who really buy into these kinds of lefty intellectual fads, and that they won't actually let nature take its course, but will try to push some kind of gender neutrality on the kid. I mean...did they contact the newspaper about this, or what? Why is this something we even know about? Sounds like a bit of PoMo performance art or something... But let's hope not. They might be sane and sincere.

9. One response here would be that society has been relentlessly experimenting on kids for ages, turning the mere (and possibly rather weak) statistical correllations between maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity into a moral obligation. So, one might say, the danger associated with Pop's parent's worrisome little experiment pales in comparison to the danger of the status quo, in which people are forced to adopt mannerisms which may be completely unnatural to them. In the cosmic scheme of things, it simply doesn't matter whether you speak more softly or more loudly or whatever. And even if Pop's parents do turn out to represent the loony fringe, that won't change the fact that there's something that they're right about, even if they might be taking it a bit too far.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson?

So...uh...WTF is with all the jabbering about Michael Jackson? I mean, first of all, it's not like we're talking about, say, Kurt Cobain here. But that point aside...is there any possible way the death of any entertainer is important enough to warrant this much space and time on the news channels and in the papers?

What am I missing here?

(And P.S: so we've all decided not to care about the fact that the guy was apparently a pedophile?)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hike Pic

Here's a blurry pic from my hike today (the Rocky Mount hike in the Shenandoah National Park). I heard one bear but didn't see it, and had three bear glimpses--probably one bear glimpsed three times, but possibly two or even three distinct animals.

The pic isn't good, obviously, but it's the best one I've ever managed to get of a bear in the backcountry of the SNP--those suckers really light out when they see you. I was using my brand new Sigma 70-300 lens on my Canon digital rebel XT, and the light was too low and the bear was too fast for the autofocus + big lens. I got to see the bear sitting on his butt scratching his ears before he heard the shutter click and decided to take off, but--damn cute as it was--there was no way to get a decent pic of it.
Straw Man Watch
Leverett, Leverett and Marandi Edition

Sullivan directs our attention to this by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett and Seyed Mohammed Marandi at Politico. They make some points worth taking seriously, but their lead-off claim is:
The proposition that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not possibly have defeated his principal challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has become a sacred cow for virtually all mainstream commentary about Iran in the United States.
Personally, I haven't heard anyone say that Ahmadinejad "could not possibly have defeated...Mousavi." Far from being a "sacred cow," this claim is not even on the screen so far as I can tell. I thought the conventional wisdom was that Ahmadinejad probably did get more votes, but that there are anomalies in the data that suggest "electoral irregularities." I was under the impression that the issue wasn't so much who got more (legitimate) votes, but, rather, whether there was fraud. Someone can get more legitimate votes, and still pull shenanigans--some of which can make an election illegitimate. (Too bad we didn't care as much about fair process during the recount (or almost-recount) debacle of 2000; if we had, the world would might very well have been spared the disaster of the Bush years. But we were happy to allow ourselves to be railroaded into a Bush presidency. On most ways of counting ballots, he won. But it's not clear that the election was legitimate, given that the recount was stopped on the basis of patently fallacious arguments by the SCOTUS majority.)

The authors go on to make some interesting points, for example offering the following explanation for the fact that in 50 towns there were more ballots than legal voters:
But this is not unusual: Iranian citizens may vote in presidential elections anywhere in the country. Since the election took place on the Iranian weekend, many people had left their homes for their hometowns and villages and cast their votes there. Thus, in some places, the number of votes exceeded the number of resident, eligible voters.
So that's interesting.

Too bad, though, that the piece leads off with a straw man and ignores what I take to be the real issue.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten Truly Terrible Tattoos


I really do not know what to say about these (at Nerve, and ergo slightly NSFW). Some of them...well, I'm not even sure what they are, exactly. I find it kinda hard to believe that even (a) someone with the worst taste in the world could (b) want one of these even temporarily, even (c) just for the kitsch value. And WTF is going on here, anyway?

I mean...the mind, she reeleth...

[Bonus: what your tattoo locations say about you.]
Khamenei: Iran "Will Not Yield" To Protesters

At al Jazeera.

Translation: our illegitimate "government" does not care that the election was an obvious fraud, and will continue to kill innocent people exercising their inalienable right to free speech.

Shorter translation: We are a gang of thugs, and will kill you if you do not accede to our irrational and unjust demands.

I've got nothing interesting to say. I think what you think, and what every reasonable person thinks about this. But in the absence of any special knowledge, or any way to help the protesters, all I can really do is sit back and keep my fingers crossed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mark Steyn: Why The Fascists Are Winning In Europe

According to me, this is worth a read.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Buffy vs. That Twilight Ponce

20/20's Anti-Self-Defense Propaganda:
The Stupidest "Experiment" in Human History?
Or: Diane Sawyer's Own Kobayashi Maru


Just wow.

Have you seen this incredible nonsense? (Youtube: part 1; part 2. Watch it if you can, but it's so nauseatingly moronic you may not be able to make it all the way through.)

Diane Sawyer on 20/20 carefully constructs a piece of pure anti-self-defense, anti-firearm propaganda. No one who is even vaguely objective about this issue could possibly believe that this constitutes anything like a decent experiment to test...well...what the hypothesis is, exactly is never made clear. But apparently the conclusion is supposed to be something like:
Guns in the hands of criminals are so effective--yet in the hands of victims they are so ineffective--that even if you are cornered by a gun-wielding maniac, you are better off being unarmed than armed.
Here's how the "experiment" was set up:

A student with virtually no firearms training was put into a room full of experimental confederates. He was armed with a Glock firing paint ball cartridges, and not aware that there would be a mock attack. He was outfitted with bulky, unfamiliar equipment--a helmet, gloves, and a long white t-shirt. Without warning, a police firearms instructor pretending to be an attacker burst into the room. He fires two shots at the instructor, and then shoots the student/subject, who was always seated front row center.

Now, as you can clearly see, this is a Kobayashi Maru scenario. It's set up so that there is no way for the student to win. What's actually surprising is that the students did as well as they did--at least one of them shooting the attacker in the groin.

This "experiment," of course, shows us exactly nothing...except that the people who produced this segment are either extraordinarily stupid or extraordinarily biased.

Perhaps my favorite part comes when 20/20 adds a second attacker, concealed among the students, who also leaps up and shoots the subject. And then we have the super-duper Kobayashi Maru.

I mean, hell, why not just arm everybody in the room and have them all draw on the subject at once? Or send in the 82nd Airborne? I can hear it now, Diane Sawyer, in pious tones: even the armed students was not able to defend herself against these crack troops...and the follow-up airstrikes would have taken her out anyway...

There's a fallacy at work here that I've seen committed by many academic liberals when the topic of firearms arises. Goes like this:
Oh, yeah? Well suppose someone breaks into your house and comes into your bedroom and puts a gun to your head? What good does it do to have a gun of your own then?
Now, imagine someone--someone with a Ph.D. no less--making the following argument:
Oh, yeah? Well suppose that a fire starts in your house and the flames engulf the entire thing and you wake up just as you are engulfed by impenetrable walls of fire? What good does it do to have a fire extinguisher then?
But, believe it or not, it was one of my colleagues who first told me about the "experiment"...and he cited it as evidence against allowing CCW on campus. That is, he thought it was a good experiment. But no one seriously thinks that firearms--or fire extinguishers--make you invincible. They cannot miraculously save you from the worst possible situations. All they can do is skew the odds in your favor. Which is all you can ask of anything, from vaccines to seat belts. No one would accept such arguments unless they were biased on the subject to the point of blindness.

What would a real experiment look like here?

Something like this:

(1) The student/subject would get a bit of real training, and have familiar equipment.

(2) The "attacker" would not have extraordinary training--and would certainly not be a police firearms instructor.

(3) The attacker would not know that there was an armed subject in the room.

(4) The attacker would not know where the armed subject was seated (this, of course, follows from (3))

In some cases the attacker would go from classroom to classroom--then, of course, students after the first classroom would know he was coming and have the advantage. These simulations would be run twenty or thirty times, and we'd compare the number of innocent victims in two different kinds of scenarios:

(A) Those in which there was at least one armed student/subject.

(B) Those in which there were no armed student/subjects.

Of course we already know what the outcome would be without running the experiments--there will be fewer innocent casualties in A-type scenarios. Because you are better able to defend yourself against an armed attacker if you yourself are armed. And everyone not blinded by bias realizes this. If guns worked as Sawyer and 20/20 seem to believe, we'd be better off not arming our troops. After all, they're more likely to shoot each other than the bad guys.

I'd be nauseated by this blatant propaganda even if I were on the other side of this issue. And, heck, as a matter of fact, I don't even have a fixed position on the issue of CCW on campus. Though it's hard to resist the urge to allow this 20/20 drivel to push me farther to the pro-CCW side of the debate.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No Blogging for a Week or So

Off the the ranch. No web access. Back in a week or so.
Fox and the Crazies

Via Sullivan.

Here's Shepard Smith talking about the deluge of insane e-mails Fox gets "every day."

Sullivan's right that Smith deserves some props for bringing this up and calling it what it is...but what surprises me is that it surprises him...or anyone else. I mean, it seemed fairly obvious to me that fanning the flames of crazy on the right was part of Fox's "marketing strategy." I mean, that can't all be accidental, can it? They can't be oblivious to what they're doing, right? I mean, as far as I can tell, it's not a bug, it's a feature. They're feeding raw meat to one of the most irrational segments of the population...how could they possibly be surprised that it makes them crazier? They're spinning things in a way that encourages the crazies to tune in, get out their tinfoil hats, and start frothing.

If Shepard Smith really wants to do some good, he'll start explicitly calling bullshit on Faux News. That doesn't mean he has to abandon conservatism. You don't have to be a liberal to be able to see what's going on there, and you don't have to be a liberal to criticize it. Hell, I'm a liberal and I can't tolerate MSNBC, and it's significantly less biased and irrational than Fox.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My Sea Turtle Adventure

So last week JQ and I were camping on Bear Island, NC. I went for a run on the beach one morning, got about 1.5 miles into it, and notice a big brown lump on the beach up ahead of me. As I'm running up to it, I keep trying to figure out what it is--you know how it is when you see something really unfamiliar...you keep trying to fit your perception to some hypothesis about what it is. (That's a really interesting experience, incidentally, somewhere between something involuntary and perceptual and conscious and theoretical.) Anyway, when I finally get up on it, I see that it's a dead loggerhead sea turtle. Damn, this thing is in nasty shape. Every inch of it, including every inch of its head, covered in barnacles. Sea weed growing on its shell. One front flipper gone, the back two chewed up. There was no way it was alive, but I realized I'd better make sure, so I chugged my water, filled the bottle with seawater, and poured it on the turtle's head...and I'll be damned if the thing didn't raise its head up! I couldn't believe it. It looked way past dead.

Anyway, I ran back to camp, called the rangers, got a big water bottle, and ran back. By the time I got back, the sea gulls were already crowding in around it, and had to be chased away. Anyway, I kept pouring water on it, and it kept raising up its head...but it took a long time for the ranger to show (it turns out they were short-handed). Though I'd run less than five miles, I'd run it fast, hadn't had breakfast, and had been standing in the sun trying to shade this turtle for well over an hour in extremely hot sun...and I was actually starting to feel kinda woozy by the time the ranger showed up. At first he thought it was dead, and had to be convinced otherwise--it was so bloated he thought it was rotting. Anyway, we lifted into the back of his Gator, and drove it up to his boat, and he took it back across the sound, and then it was taken to the Sea Turtle Hospital on Topsail beach. I got an e-mail from the director saying that the turtle was a female, and a juvenile, about 30 years old. They've been pumping it full of vitamins and antibiotics and trying to get it to eat. They're calling her Hammock (II), and here's a picture of her from the day she was found...though she's a pretty grisly sight.

So that was my sea turtle adventure.
Po-Mo Wingnut Watch:
"Alternate Reality" Edition


You just simply cannot make this stuff up.

Crazy Chuck Krauthammer writes:
What Fox did is not just create a venue for alternative opinion. It created an alternate reality.
Take that, reality-based community.
Humans Prefer Cockiness to Expertise

From the New Scientist.

No surprise here. This is a very, very dangerous cognitive glitch. It'd be interesting to find out how hard it is for humans to train themselves out of this (many of us clearly do so, ergo it's possible). It'd also be interesting to find out whether there are any good techniques for doing so, other than the obvious ones.

The terrain here is obviously more complicated than this, of course. Certain degrees and types of confidence are often off-putting and so forth. And, of course, psychology is one of those shaky (quasi-?)sciences that deliver conclusions that must ordinarily be taken with a grain or so of salt...but this conclusion seems to cohere with ordinary experience, so I'm inclined to take it seriously.
Torture and Surrender: Which Way Does the Causal Arrow Go?

So here's the story I always heard about the Japanese in WWII: they brutalized their prisoners of war because they believed that surrendering was dishonorable, ergo that those who surrendered in battle did not deserve humane treatment.

But here's a hypothesis: perhaps the causal arrow really went in the other direction. That is, perhaps the Japanese tendency to brutalize their prisoners came first, and their aversion to surrender was a consequence. They knew what they'd be in for.

People who know about Japanese history might be able to judge the plausibility of the competing hypotheses...though, of course, we'd have to keep an eye out for the academic tendency to try to explain away brutality in other cultures. The second hypothesis would begin life with a kind of dialectical disadvantage...but waddaya gonna do?

The causal arrows often fly in both directions in cases like this, and you might get a kind of bootstrapping effect. But any element of the second hypothesis would be interesting...and relevant to us given the fact that the U.S. lately belonged to the brotherhood of torturous nations...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Reading: Wastelands and The Living Dead
Two Anthologies Ed. John Joseph Adams

Weird that I'd pick these up so close to each other. I don't know any thing about the editor, and I didn't even realize that the same guy had edited both anthologies until I sat down to write this. Especially weird since I rather enjoyed Wastelands, and I really didn't like The Living Dead at all.

There's nothing spectacular in the vicinity, of course. These are both basically just beach reads. But Wastelands (subtitle: Tales of the Apocalypse) was, I thought, fairly good for that sort of thing. It starts with a Stephen King story you've probably already read, then moves through some Mormosity by Orson Scott Card. It seems a little heavy on the women-having-a-hard-time-finding-men-after-the-apocalypse angle to me, but, hey, I only finish about 1 in 5 sci fi books that I start, and I read all the stories in this one, so that maybe says something. I like sci fi/horror/etc., but find almost all of it entirely unreadable. So anyway: me like this book pretty good.

The Living Dead I did not enjoy at all. See here's the thing: if I'm going to read a book about zombies, I want zombie stuff in it--horrible, murderous corpses rising from the grave, a Romero scenario or two with desperate survivors holed up in an old house, large-caliber firearms, that sort of thing. This anthology seemed to be composed entirely of attempts to write literary or quasi-literary zombie stories. There's one in which the dead rise to vote. There's one in which zombies rise to follow you around if you aren't green enough--figuratively, that is. It's quite an embarrassment for good yuppies. I dunno. I just didn't like it at all.

Oh--except for one story, "Deadman's Road" by Joe R. Lansdale That one was o.k., though I'm not sure it's unequivocally a zombie story per se.

So, um, anyway, there are two entirely uneducated and unsupported opinions about two bits of beachy reading you might be interested in.

Er, that is all.
Primary Day in the OD

I'm tentatively pro-Deeds (though even I don't like the idea of people carrying in bars...), pretty firmly anti-McAuliffe.

A wee voter guide from the Times-Dispatch, in case you're (a) here and (b) still undecided.
Double-Standard Watch
Gingrich: Obama Has "Already Failed"
(Bush Awaits The Judgment of History...)

Well, there's this.

I know, I know. These are not matters for serious people to fret over. But remember: a blog is largely a substitute for yelling at the t.v...

The basic point of all this: we are apparently to suspend judgment about Bush's monumental f*ck-ups, perpetually awaiting the judgment of future history, Obama can immediately be judged a failure if he fails to clean up Bush's f*ck-ups in a few months.

Get it?

Then there's the John Voight business, which I actually found pretty amusing, in part because I think it's good for liberals to see how annoying it is for mindless Hollywood types to share with us their political mindlessness. It's generally instructive to have the tables turned, I think. Barbara Streisand & co. already nauseate me, and still I find the Voight business instructive in some way.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Marc Thiessen: Shameless Sophist

Let me begin by saying that 'shameless sophist' is the very nicest and most charitable way of describing Thiessen that I could think of. What he really ought to be called is about twenty notches down the civility scale from that.

Here's the latest.

Unfortunately, Michael Ware didn't do a very good job of responding to Thiessen, who could (and should) have been absolutely humiliated.

IMO the most despicable of all the fallacious talking points of the Bush era was the Died In Vain fallacy, which was extremely popular with Bushies for a year or so. It was used as a generic response to anyone who pointed out that the war was unjustified. Went like this:
A: The Iraq war was unjustified.

B: So you think all those brave Americans who have died there have died in vain!
Now, even many liberals failed to recognize the rhetorical power of this bit of sophistry, brushing it off as inconsequential--but it's fiendishly clever (fiendish and clever in approximately equal measures). I wrote on this extensively when the fallacy was in vogue, so I won't do so again now. But Thiessen's sophistry is in the same general ballpark. Both tricks turn on the fact that administrations create policies that must be implemented by soldiers. In both cases, the GOP sophists endeavor to convince the audience that by criticizing the policy, critics were denigrating the troops, spooks, and whatnot who implemented that policy. It acts as a kind of suppressed premise in the argument that one should not say anything negative about the troops (even if it entails no error on their part). So what we get is a generic defense-of-Bush argument that looks roughly like this:
(1) Bush implemented policy X, which was implemented by the troops.

(2) If you criticize policy X, then you are denigrating/criticizing the troops.

(3) Anyone who denigrates/criticises the troops is wrong/loses the argument/is a bad person.
(4) Any critic of any such policy is wrong/loses the argument/is a bad person.
So, you see, it was permissible to send the troops into an unjustified war--but is not permissible to point out that that war was unjustified. To actually order American troops to unnecessary deaths is quit alright; but to point out that this is what has been done is not alright. To order our troops and spooks to do something immoral, or to mislead them into doing so with legal trickery is perfectly fine; to (truly) say that this is what was done is not.

Marc Thiessen is either a bad person or a stupid person or some bit of both. Admitting that America--actually, the Bush administration--made errors does entail that some of our troops carried out erroneous policies. But it is evil and despicable to pretend what any sane person can see is false--that this should preclude us from acknowledging the error.

The bad people here are not those who are pointing out our errors. Those are not the people who are disrespecting the troops. The people who are disrespecting the troops are those like Thiessen who use patently sophistical arguments to pretend that any criticism of the Bush/Cheney administration is criticism of the troops. It is people like Thiessen who use the troops as stalking-horses and pawns in their despicable and self-interested political games. Those who point out the errors generally have, as one of their main goals, lowering the likelihood that similar mistakes will be made again in the future. Those who use Thiessen's sophistical responses have little or no genuine concern for the troops--their primary goals are to defend Bush and Cheney or to undermine Obama. Their goals are purely political.

If there's a logical hell, Thiessen and his ilk are as good as there.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Admitting America's Imperfections
The Myth of Liberal Grovelling
Conservative Americamania

This has to be short today, though the subject eventually deserves something longer. But it seems to me that many people recognize the points I'm about to make. They're no secret.

I began my political life rather more sympathetic to conservatives than to liberals. In part that was because it seemed to me that conservatives took the threat of communist totalitarianism more seriously than did liberals. But my political sympathies soon shifted. They were still driven primarily by foreign policy rather than domestic, but as soon as I began to actually understand the world a bit, I came to believe that conservatives generally just made things worse. For all their flag-waving and ostentatiously weepy Americaphilia, they were only too happy to abandon even our deepest principles if there was even the slightest chance of buying ourselves a bit more security. (That is: they identified America with its prudential interests, not with its moral foundations.) And, in fact, it needn't even be security that was purchased at the price of our principles--it was sometimes just some lesser prudential advantage...and sometimes the putative advantages only accrued to certain wealthy special interests. Dole, for example, or the oil companies.

If the choice between our principles and our security were a real one, I can understand how the decision might be difficult. And I understand that it's easy for someone like me to plump for principle from the security of my study. But it soon became clear to me, even as a teenager, that the choice was rarely real. Conservatives rarely bought us greater security at the price of our principles; rather, they generally and fairly clearly made us less safe in the long run. It was pure loss all around--the only winners were the GOP, politically speaking, and, perhaps, the military-industrial complex.

This was shocking to me. I was raised a rather level-headed centrist by largely apolitical parents. I naturally (or seemingly naturally) grew up recognizing the stupidity of bigotry, seeing the moral equality of males and females, admiring the military, recognizing the evil of the USSR (though my mother was careful to emphasize to me that their history made a certain paranoia on their part excusable), and being skeptical of most people who used phrases like "the military-industrial complex." (Learning only later in life where the phrase originated...)

I mention all of this again now because, as soon as Obama has begun to speak the truth about our history and our policies-noting, for example, that we are largely responsible for illegally overthrowing Mossadegh and installing the brutal Shah in Iran--conservatives have begun to pule and whine that we are prostrating ourselves before our enemies. This is the kind of idiocy that makes it impossible for rational people to sympathize with them. We acted wrongly, and as a result, we plunged Iran into a brutal autocracy. Compared to our actions, their act of taking hostages during the Carter administration is so inconsequential as to not warrant mentioning. And that's just a fact, which should be clear to anyone capable of even the smallest measure of objectivity.

But the dominant conservative approach to foreign policy involves putting even minor American interests above even the most important interests of almost everyone else (except, apparently, and for reasons I'll never understand, Israel). This approach seems largely to be an outgrowth of a certain intellectual failing--a truly astonishing inability to view the world and history at all objectively, but, rather, always through red, white and blue glasses. For all their defense of objectivity in the abstract (as in the debate about Sotomayor), they seem utterly incapable of actually being objective. (And by 'they' I do not, of course, mean all conservatives; but you know who I'm talking about.) That is, they are incapable of seeing disagreements from a roughly neutral perspective, rather than from the perspective of lawyer defending the U.S. from any criticism.

If Republican America were a person, he would be approximately the biggest assh*le you'd ever met. According to him, he is the greatest person who has ever lived; he is perfect in every way; he has never made a mistake; every conflict into which he has ever entered has been 100% the fault of evil on the part of others; he is entitled to stride through the world as he pleases, and all others must step aside or face his wrath. Sadly, it is not hard to understand why people can be disgusted by and even hate the Republican version of America. I'm deeply pro-American, and it disgusts me.

The conservative defense of these indefensible attitudes and actions involves the assertion that any admission of imperfection constitutes grovelling before our enemies; any criticism, no matter how modest, warranted and slow to develop constitutes "blaming America first." America, you see, can only be criticized for being too liberal; any other criticism is illegitimate, probably insane, and reveals a visceral hatred of the nation in particular and freedom in general. Criticizing Bill Clinton and military action in Yugoslavia is fine; criticizing George Bush and military action in Iraq is "objectively pro-terrorist."

Obama's approach to these matters has, thus far, been exactly right in my book. But, then, there has been nothing particularly difficult about them. Admitting what is clear to every even minimally well-informed and objective person should not be an astonishing act of moral and intellectual rectitude. It is, perhaps, inspiring only when viewed against the backdrop of the narcissistic, megalomaniacal attitudes about America that grip conservatives. Unfortunately, they are so firmly in the grip of their delusions on this score that being even minimally reasonable seems like insanity to them. Why they are gripped by the delusion I do not know; but that they are can hardly be controversial.

So, once again, Obama looks like a genius, but largely only by comparison to his conservative opponents. In the world in which I live, saying obviously true things is not remarkable; you don't get any credit for it, it's expected of you. It's astonishing and rather frightening that it is so remarkable in the world of American politics and foreign policy, and that Obama deserves so much credit for doing what ought to be a matter of course.

Monday, June 01, 2009

No Blogging 'til Friday

Off to Chapel Hill, with a side-trip to Bear Island, NC. Back Friday.

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