Sunday, August 30, 2020

Do You Believe in Science in a Young Boy's Heart?

A friend of mine posted this meme on Facebook recently, and I'm afraid it annoyed me more than perhaps it should have.  That's partly because "believing in science" has become a mantra in our culture wars and especially in electoral politics.  Biden supporters, like Obama and Clinton supporters, say that they want a President who believes in Science, just as Trump supporters want a President who honors God.  Of course Trump, like his Republican predecessors, puts God after his donors (just as Democrats do), and Obama put his donors before the science about climate change.  Biden has made it clear he'll do the same. Obama also put his religious beliefs ahead of Constitutional principles about equality in order to block same-sex marriage during his first term; how can you honor God more than that?  But then his deeply held beliefs threatened to get in the way of his re-election, so he ditched them.

On its face I can't disagree with most of what this meme says, though it's disingenuous and ultimately dishonest.  Its account of how scientists work is incomplete: scientists do collect data and are supposed to revise their conclusions in the light of new information.  But scientists also work out hypotheses without working in the laboratory at all.  Einstein and other physicists are the most famous examples of this aspect of science; Einstein did math, published papers, and waited for others to do the experiments that would confirm or disconfirm his theory.  When the first tests failed to confirm his predictions, Einstein didn't go back to the drawing board.  As the physics-trained philosopher Paul Feyerabend tells it, "Einstein's theory of special relativity clashed with evidence produced only one year after its publication. Lorentz, Poincare, and Ehrenfest withdrew to a more classical position. Einstein persisted: his theory, he said, had a wonderful symmetry and should be retained. He gently mocked the widespread urge for a 'verification by little effects.'"  This isn't a bad thing: If scientists threw out promising theories when they encounter obstacles, no theory would last for long.

It's also been argued - I'm not sure how accurately - that many scientists never adopt newer, better theories such as Relativity.  They do their best to cling to what they learned in their youth, and bitterly attack the crazy new ideas that students are wild about.  This suggests that the young scientists aren't necessarily wiser, they just go with the flow, to get jobs and teaching posts and grants - and in their time, become a drag on the field, refusing to adopt whatever comes next.  But again, some conservatism is necessary.  Every theory has holes in it, anomalies it can't explain, and its adherents simply have to have faith that eventually those holes will be patched over.

And you know that joke that compares scientists to a drunk looking for his lost keys under a lamppost instead of looking in the dark where he actually lost them, because the light is better around the lamppost?  Scientists tell that joke on themselves.  There's a similar one that compares scientists to a besieging army that encircles a walled town, and if the walls hold out, the army moves on to the next town, hoping for easier prey.  It's okay for scientists to joke about such things, just as clergy and other professionals do about their respective domains, but the laity had better not.

Scientists are also, let's say, inconsistent about the self-scrutiny they brag about.  Consider this example, from Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (William Morrow, 2016, p. 178). It refers to engineering research, but you'll find similar descriptions of the peer review to which scientific journals subject submissions.
Building an airplane was nothing compared to shepherding research through Langley’s grueling review process. “Present your case, build it, sell it so they believe it”—that was the Langley way. The author of a NACA document—a technical report was the most comprehensive and exacting, a technical memorandum slightly less formal—faced a firing squad of four or five people, chosen for their expertise in the topic. After a presentation of findings, the committee, which had read and analyzed the report in advance, let loose a barrage of questions and comments. The committee was brusque, thorough, and relentless in rooting out inaccuracies, inconsistencies, incomprehensible statements, and illogical conclusions obscured by technical gibberish. And that was before subjecting the report to the style, clarity, grammar, and presentation standards that were Pearl Young’s legacy, before the addition of the charts and fancy graphics that reduced the data sheet to a coherent, visually persuasive point. A final report might be months, even years, in the making.
Even after publication, we're told, scientists, are ruthless in tearing apart each other's work in their dedicated pursuit of truth.  And that's good.

Except when it isn't.  When the entomologist Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, the book inspired controversy and searching criticism from other scientists.  Scientists who were attracted by Wilson's doctrines protested that this wasn't fair, as if a scientific publication wasn't supposed to be scrutinized by colleagues in the field.  In Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior (Oxford, 2002), evolutionary biologist Kevin N. Laland and psychologist Gillian R. Brown complained that even colleagues in Wilson's own department picked on him.
[They] vehemently attacked the book in the popular press as simple-minded and reductionist. Yet most biologists could see the potential of the sociobiological viewpoint, which had paid great dividends in understanding other animals, and many were drawn into using these new tools to interpret humanity. The debate became polarized and highly political, with the sociobiologists accused of bolstering right-wing conservative values and the critics associated with Marxist ideology [5].
Laland and Brown concede that there were a lot of scientific problems with Wilson's book, but they try to explain away the criticisms as politically motivated.  Wilson's highly speculative application of his ideas to human beings in the final chapter, with no real scientific support, were somehow exempt from suspicion of ideology.  Laland and Brown lament what they represent as emotional, "knee-jerk reactions" to Sociobiology, which not only confuses moderation of tone with moderation of substance, it erases the scientific objections that were made.

It's doubtful, though, that pronouncements about human beings and the societies we live in can ever be free of politics.  Consider BiDil, a blood-pressure drug that the FDA approved for use by "patients who identity as black".*  NitroMed, the company that owned BiDil, "funded the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Medical Association, the Association of Black Cardiologists, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, all of whom encouraged the FDA to approve the drug."  Critics "described BiDil as a cynical effort to exploit race and loopholes in patent law and FDA policy to extend patent protection on an old drug ... Defenders of the drug went so far as to accuse social scientists of trying to kill black people by sowing controversy about BiDil and misrepresenting it as a racial drug, even though it was Cohn [the cardiologist who had patented the drug] and NitroMed who had pursued the race-specific approvals in the first place" (164).

However:
BiDil did not turn out as expected. Despite projections of a billion-dollar bonanza, the drug proved to be a commercial failure. NitroMed lost $108 million in the first year after FDA approval. It is not clear which of several factors contributed most to its demise. NitroMed priced the drug high—$1.80 per pill, or $10.60 per day for a common dose. Since BiDil was simply a fixed-dose combination of two existing drugs, each of which was available as a cheaper generic, many insurers simply substituted the generics whenever physicians did prescribe BiDil. Moreover, the controversy over the “black drug” was read in many ways by patients and doctors. While some saw it as something valuable, others saw the “special treatment” as uncomfortably reminiscent of Tuskegee. Whatever the causes of its failure, NitroMed laid off most of its workforce and stopped marketing BiDil in January 2008 [165].
After discussing some other examples of "racial differences in drug response, Jones notes that "in every study, however, the amount of variation within each racial group was far larger than the differences between the between the groups ... As a result, 80 to 95 percent of all black and white patients will likely have indistinguishable responses to each medication.  Although racial differences might exist, they are irrelevant for the majority of patients" (167).

Several years after NitroMed stopped marketing BiDil, however, I heard it touted on an NPR science program as a casualty of 'politically correct' hostility to race as a scientific concept.  The popular complaint that the Left has politicized the science of racial difference and made it professionally dangerous to study it, reverses the facts.  Despite the ongoing and consistent failure to find meaningful racial differences, scientists still pursue that Holy Grail, and have no evident difficulty getting funding to do so.  Even if science weren't political, funding for science always will be.  The same thing goes for sexual differences, which male scientists continue to assert while claiming to be not only Scientists but Feminists.  Is this Science to believe in?

Scientists and their apologists do admit their fallibility - but usually only after they've been caught in some egregious error.  Before that happens, they demand that you respect their authoritah, else you are (gasp) Anti-Science.  The more loudly they demand it, the more skeptical I become.  (I lost a lot of respect for the philosopher John Searle when he referred to the historians Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend as "anti-science," and hinted darkly that the difference between them and the "pro-science" Karl Popper wasn't "as great as many philosophers and scientists think.") **  It's a lot like religious authorities admitting their human fallibility when they're confronted with some issue on which they have proven embarrassingly wrong - race, for example.  Or the question of wearing masks in this pandemic: early on, Scientists brushed aside their value for protection.  This was primarily because they wanted them to be reserved for front-line healthcare workers, but if they weren't effective, why would the doctors and nurses need them?  The severe shortages of PPE made it reasonable to give priority to health care workers, but Anthony Fauci and others waffled and confused the issue.  "Waffled" is too kind, since they knew very well that masks are effective.  I think it's fair to suspect that they are so used to asserting authority, instead of treating the public as adults who can understand what's at stake if it's explained seriously rather than condescendingly, that they simply saw no reason to bother.  Is that Science to believe in?

(Some will probably reply that all the idiots and morons out there have no Faith in Science and are too stupid to understand it anyway.  They should remember that Fauci was addressing them, the wise sheep with true Faith, no less than the morons.  Maybe they do consider themselves stupid, and want to be lied to for their own good if Science is doing it.  The concept of the Holy Lie is familiar in religion, too.  But such people are in no position to cast the first stone.)

As an atheist, I insist on remembering human fallibility in science, religion, politics, and any other area.  I also insist that dissent must be informed and rational.  But then, so should assent, and I find that most people who wave around their faith in Science don't know much about the Science they believe in.  Think of the LGBT people and allies who continued to talk about the Gay Gene long after the scientists they relied on had abandoned the concept for vague talk of "epigenetic factors" and "genetic predisposition."  Trans people have taken up the claim that trans identity is genetic, totally without evidence.  Home DNA testing has become popular among African-Americans, although it doesn't really reveal the Roots they're hoping to find -- just as racially-specific drugs were pushed by prominent African-Americans who, it's safe to say, had no idea whether the Science was valid or not.

Faith in Science can't be reconciled with recognizing its limits.  If you recognize that scientists can be wrong, then you won't and shouldn't have faith in them.  You should take their claims seriously, but skeptically, and skepticism is the opposite of faith.  As the examples I've given show (and they can be multiplied), scientists don't welcome skepticism, especially from outsiders no matter how well informed.  It's my position that science is not something anyone should have faith in, and those who say we should have faith in it don't understand science.

----------------------
* David Jones, "The Prospects of Personalized Medicine," in Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense, ed. Sheldon Krimsky & Jeremy Gruber (Harvard, 2013), p. 163.  Future page numbers refer to this article.

** "Twenty-One Years in the Chinese Room."  In Views into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence, ed. John Preston & Mark Bishop (Oxford UP, 2002), Kindle edition loc 914.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

But We've Got to Do Something!

I imagine you've heard that a couple of protesters against police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were shot to death, allegedly (but pretty certainly) by Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old armed with an AR-15.  He was arrested in his hometown, a half-hour drive from Kenosha in Illinois. There are numerous infuriating aspects to the case, such as that he was welcomed by police on the scene, and then allowed by them to walk away unhindered after the shooting.  But he's in custody now, charged with first-degree homicide.

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived and worked for many years, there was a "Defend the Police" rally last Saturday, which was countered by Black Lives Matter supporters.  According to an interview I heard with the mayor, some people on both sides were armed, but though there were some scuffles that produced minor injuries, no one was seriously hurt.  In the days before that rally, I saw some people I knew and others I didn't vowing that they would stop those Nazis from using Bloomington as a platform for their hate.  It appears that they failed.  I can't understand why - don't these middle fingers kill fascists?
I guess they were canceled out by these hippie-stomping middle fingers:
Ghod, I feel so inspired.  (The above photos were taken by Zachary Kaufman for The Bloomingtonian and appear in this gallery.  Credit where it's due.)

What I want to discuss is the reaction the killings in Kenosha have gotten from the antifa / BLM left.  Two days ago almost all such people I see online were talking up fighting in the streets, Enough Is Enough, burn it to the ground, etc., and scorning anyone who questioned their wisdom, and the wisdom of The People.  Oh, and guillotines.  And that hasn't gone away:
Oh no, someone did a bad optics. Time to stop criticizing police departments that are brutalizing protests so we can shame this powerless protesters and play into the hands for the far-right.
As I've said many times in many contexts, struggle is not a zero-sum game, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, and I can attack the police while criticizing the stupid tactics of those who oppose the police. Just as I can, say, attack Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

 Another one:
The Left is going to have to realize that there is no justice.

The Right is going to have to be shown that leftists have firearms too.

That's the course we're on and it's likely inevitable at this point given there is no leadership seeking any other course of action.
Exactly: there is no leadership, except perhaps for some white kids who fantasize that they are Che Guevara or Robespierre.  I've seen a lot of talk about how Kyle Rittenhouse was acting out various media soldier fantasies, but less about Antifa's media fantasies.  Can't one pure girl take down a brutal dictatorship with a hunting bow?  Or destroy Him Who Must Not Be Named with their, uh, wands?  Oh, and video war games are part of the common cultural heritage of testosterone-poisoned nitwits on all sides.

I'm not a pacifist, I think; I don't rule out violent response to state violence a priori.  But I don't think the left should resort to violence, especially armed violence, without a lot of thought and planning.  Which I'm not seeing now.

So, for example:
Please allow me a moment to break down this wicked conflation that folks are engaging in, Lisa Goodman ran this today. It is horrible and it is not helpful. These folks constantly and purposefully conflate the intent of rage, rioting and looting with the intent of protesting or advocating for systems change. They are both forms of action, direct action. but so are voting and rioting actions if you use that reductionist mind. Intent ( that is absent of any moral judgement argument) just factually don’t put them in the same sentence.
The thread continues, but doesn't get any more coherent or honest.  Many of the ACAB supporters of BLM have constantly and purposefully conflated the intent of rage, etc. with the intent of protesting or advocating for systems change.  Rioting, burning small businesses, property damage have been confused deliberately with direct action aimed at systemic change -- even after we have seen repeatedly that much of the violence has been the work of police agents provocateurs and/or white supremacists aiming to escalate the conflict and draw more police repression.  Someone (I've lost the tweet) jeered that when you're a poor black person rebelling against the cops, thinking coldly about strategy is a luxury and it's white privilege to criticize them.  That's pretty obviously racist, but it also overlooks that the protests and the riots have been going on for months, the heat of the moment has had time to pass, and serious thought about tactics and methods is not only possible but necessary.  Also, a lot of dubious action has been done by some privileged-looking white kids who always seem shocked when the police they purport to hate fail to protect them from the Nazis.

One exception: Benjamin Dixon, a black writer and activist I see on Twitter, declared a few weeks ago that he appreciated Antifa, because they put their bodies on the line between police and BLM protesters.  That certainly deserves appreciation, but it's not what I've been seeing lately.  I see people claiming to be antifa because they are opposed to fascism, which is kind of like pointing triumphantly to the "socialism" in "National Socialism", but these people's activism consists entirely of posting memes to Facebook.  As many have pointed out, "antifa" is not a centralized organization, so you have a lot people operating under that rubric: some doubtless courageous and principled, others who think that wearing a pink pussy hat or giving rednecks the finger is the kind of antifascism that won World War II.

This obfuscation has been with us for a long time, and it's getting worse.  I'd add that armed rebellion doesn't have a great record of success in this country.  From Daniel Shays' rebellion to the Civil War to the Bonus Marchers to the Black Panthers to the Branch Davidians, rebels have come up against the vastly greater firepower of the American state, and ended up dead or in prison, with a lot of collateral damage, but in the struggle against the Man you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.  Or, as one Black Panther purred to a student audience during my first year at Indiana University fifty years ago, "We must be cruel, so that others can be kind."  But the time for kindness, like the time for criticizing Democratic politicians, never seems to come.

There is leadership by black people in BLM, but the white leftists I see online aren't deferring much to them.  They are more aware of what's at stake.  The mother of Jacob Blake, the man shot in the back by Kenosha police, has condemned the violence there, but what does she know compared to the wise revolutionaries?

By the way, I noticed that for about a day after the shooting, numerous people on Twitter were reporting that Jacob Blake was dead.  It is, as they say, a mercy that he is not dead; but their eagerness to have more martyrs -- not themselves, of course, someone else - shows how much they really think Black Lives Matter.

It was a relief to encounter the writing of this woman:
1994, the women in my village created underground tunnel for every1 to live in. I was born in that same tunnel in 1995. The day I was born was the day Charles Taylor came to slaughter my people but instead he was met by an empty village not realizing we where all underground.

Im saying this to say that people who have never fought in wars need to actually start talking to the Black people here that know what a civil war looks like and the strategize we used back home.

My mom came here in 2018 and she went through an escape plan with me. My sister didn’t take it seriously bc she doesn’t remember seeing our older brother being hit by a rocket but I do. She doesn’t remember our mom getting shot five times but I do. I’m grateful for her

My mom really had me go through everything over and over again until I could remember how to get to each place without my phone or my car. You could see the sadness in her eyes. Can you imagine saving your child from war just for her to be planning for another one?
This is worlds away from the macho posturing, the giggly excitement at being bad and rebellious, that I've seen seeing online.  Things are getting bad in the US, probably worse than they have ever been before, but only refugees from US wars know what it's like to have search-and-destroy missions slaughtering whole families, bombs and other anti-personnel weapons dropping on your town for months and years.  Some have said that the right-wing militias are like the death squads the US has trained and supported in other countries for over a century.  Probably true, but not nearly as bad -- yet.  I don't see any reason to believe that these people have begun to think about what it would mean to live in a real war, or they wouldn't be so eager to start one.  I see them as being like the planners of Bush's invasion of Iraq; it'll be a cakewalk, over in a few weeks, maybe we don't have the people or equipment we should, but you work with the army you have.  Besides, the uprising will pay for itself, and antifa will be welcomed as liberators.

I was going to leave it there, but this tweet sums up for me how serious our young revolutionaries are: "I was outside by my house with my roommate for about 5 minutes and OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE 20 bike cops rolled up and yelled at us about curfew."  So, you're living in a fascist police state, but you're surprised that they mean it?  Good thing you weren't living in Liberia when Charles Taylor came calling.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Just Say "Noh"

In the interest of full disclosure, let me inform you that as I write this, I'm dressed in women's clothes.  That is, I'm wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  Got it?  Here we go, then.

The other day someone reposted this meme, which they'd found circulating in right-wing circles.

The best comment in the ensuing thread was that what we need nowadays are firearms-safety classes taught by drag queens.  But few reached that level.  Most were as mindless as the meme itself.

A recurrent theme was that drag queens break gender stereotypes.  For example: "ahhhh gender inclusivitiy [Loudly crying face] [Loudly crying face] [Loudly crying face]  how dare we teach our kids that going against societal norms is ok".

Most obviously, if schools teach children to go against societal norms, then going against societal norms is a societal norm and obeying societal norms is therefore going against societal norms...  But there's nothing more complicit with societal norms than a drag queen. Drag queens are the loyal opposition of the dominant gender system: the whole rationale, as expressed here, is that there are men's clothes and women's clothes, and it's a big deal if you wear the "wrong" outfit, but it's a completely conformist way of "going against the societal norms."  Theatrical cross-dressing is ancient and can be found in many cultures, from ancient Greece to China and Japan to Elizabethan England to single-sex schools in England and the US to music halls and vaudeville to Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck doing Carmen Miranda.  As those latter examples show, it's considered perfectly appropriate for entertaining children, and it's totally compatible with homophobia and extreme gender conservatism.  Cross-dressing has many meanings and drag is only one of them, but they are almost all reactionary.  They are a feature of Carnival for example, as in Mardi Gras: roles are flipped, but only to affirm them.  That's what drag is: I look like a woman but I'm not, and when I take off the gown, the headdress and the layers of pancake makeup I'm a man again.

Drag performance in the US, however, is adult entertainment -- not because of the gender play, but because traditionally it features venomous misogyny and a lot of expletives.  When I first heard of drag-queen story hours I admit I was taken aback for just that reason, though I didn't suppose that the performers waltz into an elementary-school classroom and gaily shriek "Suck my pussy, bitchez!" as an intro.  But maybe not; the Bloomington Pride Fest featured a performer who cheerfully sang ditties about sucking cock on an outdoor stage in front of young children. Two years in a row.  I don't suppose their young minds were permanently traumatized or warped by such antics, but the event was advertised as "family friendly." I wouldn't have thought that singing about dick size qualified, but I'm out of the loop these days.

And then there's Rudy Giuliani.  You can't tell me he's any kind of rebel.

One of my favorite responses in the thread was "Teach both. Kids should be able to strip and clean a firearm AND read at a high school level by age 6, don't @ me".  I quite agree: kids should be able to strip and clean a firearm AND a drag queen by age 6.  Alas, such essential traditional skills have been tossed by the wayside.

But many of the comments were incoherent, such as "Oh no, someone is dressed strange and reading to kids, maybe it'll teach kids to have confidence to be who they want to be."  How would this "teach children to have confidence to be who they want to be"?  Or: "Traditional values are children being instructed in the culture of their tribe by a shaman, as opposed to cold modernity where children are taught to operate machinery as preparation for becoming part of the social machine."  That reads like parody, but I'm afraid it is probably serious.  I wonder if it was meant to suggest that a drag queen is a shaman, instructing children in the culture of their tribe?  I do wish people wouldn't post when they're high.

Or "as a queer person this is great! but my problem is when the education system teaches them the different sexualities and like.. it's super complicated, and there's different ways of combining the sexualities. So I say just teach kids the frame work, and they'll figure it out!"  As a queer person myself: how does a drag queen story hour in elementary school "teach them the different sexualities" -- any more than watching Bugs Bunny do drag did when I was a kid? It's not even supposed to. "Combining the sexualities"?  They lost lost me there.  It's strange that we hear a lot of griping from gender radicals about "media stereotypes" confusing children and leading them astray, but drag is part of that stereotyping system, not a remedy for it.

Drag has little or nothing to do with real women.  Look at the costume that fellow in the photograph is wearing.  It may say "five-horned demon Queen," but it doesn't say "woman," any more than a guy in a Superman costume says "man."  It's a theatrical caricature of gender.  Which is fine, because exaggeration and caricature are routine parts of theatrical performance.  But it's not a model for living gender, doing gender, in one's life.

Friday, August 21, 2020

O Fickle Democrats!

This just in: George W. Bush has endorsed Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, for re-election.  Collins has been a frequent target for Democratic ire, because despite the occasional lapse she has been a reliable supporter of Donald Trump's agenda.  This is, The Hill reports, Bush's "first endorsement of the 2020 cycle."  I presume this means there are more to come, and for the first time I'm genuinely curious to see what will happen next.

I'm also looking forward to reactions from the Democrats who've rehabilitated Dubya these past few years.  Already on Twitter there's been some consternation.  The word "disappointment" recurs.  So do versions of "I was just praising Ol' W. this morning. Well.... so much for that." Why were they praising a war criminal who killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, made refugees of millions more, crashed the world economy, and fiddled while New Orleans drowned?  You might well ask.  Of course, it's because he gave Michelle Obama a cough drop, she declared him her "partner in crime" who shares her values, and Ellen DeGeneres is his good friend and you don't have to agree with someone on every little thing to be their friend.  (They may have more in common than some of us thought.)  But never mind all that, they'll throw him under the bus now.  Cancel culture is real.

Another person remarked that Bush is "only reminding us what a disaster his presidency was."  Funny how many Democrats have forgotten.  But as I suggested recently, Democrats seem to have cheesecloth memories, and if you don't reminding them, they forget things.  I therefore have to hope that Bush will come up with more disappointing endorsements to keep their memories refreshed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Orange Cheetoh Man Bad, Pale Gropey Man Good!


Someone linked to video of Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention, and I listened to a minute or two before I thought: Huh -- Democrats must be pretty slow.  At least their leaders think so, because they find it necessary to repeat, over and over, how bad Donald Trump is, lest Democratic voters forget between now and November, and accidentally vote for the wrong guy.  It reminds me of the private sessions Squealer, the pig's propaganda chief in Animal Farm, has with the sheep to teach them new loyalty chants.  The sheep aren't very bright, so a lot of drill is necessary to get them to remember such complex cheers as "Four legs good, two legs better!"

I made the above meme in 2016, and it has occurred to me that one reason people would keep making anti-Trump memes could be that it's a way to cope with Trump's omnipresence in the media, to scratch the itch.  But they just add to his omnipresence, making things worse, which impels them to repeat the old ones even more, and create new ones.  Ostensibly part of the idea is to win over the fabled independent voters, but do they watch the Convention?  I'm technically an independent, and I sure as hell don't.

Then too, Democrats do have bad memories, as do Republicans.  They remember an Obama administration that never was, a Bush administration of empathy and care, a Bill Clinton who lied but nobody died, a statesmanlike Bush I, a decent Ronald Reagan, and so on.  (Someone said that Michelle Obama invoked Reagan in her speech; I'm not going to try to verify it, but it would be no surprise.)  That's one function of the Convention, to celebrate that imaginary past and promise an imaginary future.  Even so, is it really likely that Democrats will forget to hate Donald Trump and vote for Joe Biden?  I don't believe it.  But if it is, no wonder we're in trouble.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Le Peuple, C'est Moi


It happened that when this meme was posted on Facebook today I was listening to the left economist Richard Wolff's radio program, and in comparing feudalism, capitalism, and communism Wolff kept referring to what a communist society "is" like. But there are no existing communist societies, are there? It's like talking about a unicorn society/economy.

I agree with Michael Parenti on that point. Any real-world socialist or communist society will be tainted by reality. Which probably explains why the "No True Scotsman" move is as popular among socialists and communists as it is among Christians and scientists: confronted with serious problems, they just say "But that's not real socialism!" And maybe they're right.

I haven't read much Parenti. But if he's excusing real crimes and atrocities by real-world socialist governments, that won't do either. I've often talked to people who do that, and they too point to an ideal, pie-in-the-sky socialism that won't and can't ever exist. We have to criticize the crimes of socialist regimes as doggedly as (I hope) we criticize the crimes of capitalist regimes. I support the Cuban Revolution, for example, but I'm critical of the imprisonment of homosexuals there. One important difficulty, of course, is getting accurate information about those places when the air is full of propaganda. The same is true of Venezuela: I'm perfectly willing to criticize Maduro, but in order to do that I have to have accurate information about what he's doing, and the US corporate media publish an endless stream of lies about him and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.  Some of the accusations might turn out to be accurate, but many are certainly false. 

I also know that the US government, not only Trump but Obama and Bush before him, care nothing about the rights and freedoms of Venezuelans, so I know that their attempts to remove Maduro aren't motivated by concern for human rights.  For that reason I'm not interested in criticizing Maduro until the US and their clients stop trying to strangle Venezuela, and that is not likely to happen.  Since any criticisms I could make of Maduro could only serve to justify further US violence in Venezuela, I'm not particularly interested in trying to evaluate the accusations against him, let alone join the chorus of toadies denouncing him.

In the economist Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom (Knopf, 1999, 151), he wrote:
Are the citizens of third world countries indifferent to political and democratic rights? This claim, which is often made, is again based on too little empirical evidence ... The only way of verifying this would be to put the matter to democratic testing in free elections with freedom of opposition and expression -- precisely the things that the supporters of authoritarianism do not allow to happen. It is not clear at all how this proposition can be checked when the ordinary citizens are given little political opportunity to express their views on this and even less to dispute the claims made by the authorities in office. The downgrading of these rights and freedoms is certainly part of the value system of the government leaders in many third world countries, but to take that to be the view of the people is to beg a very big question.
Indeed, Sen continues:
It is thus of some interest to note that when the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, tried out a similar argument in India, to justify the “emergency” she had misguidedly declared in the mid-1970s, an election was called that divided the voters precisely on this issue. In that fateful election, fought largely on the acceptability of the “emergency,” the suppression of basic political and civil rights was firmly rejected, and the Indian electorate—one of the poorest in the world—showed itself to be no less keen on protesting against the denial of basic liberties and rights than it was in complaining about economic poverty. To the extent that there has been any testing of the proposition that poor people in general do not care about civil and political rights, the evidence is entirely against that claim. Similar points can be made by observing the struggle for democratic freedoms in South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (or Myanmar) and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, while political freedom is widely denied in Africa, there have been movements and protests about that fact whenever circumstances have permitted, even though military dictators have given few opportunities in this respect.
In principle, existing self-identified socialist governments are valid targets for criticism just as existing capitalist governments are, and anyone who claims otherwise is arguing in bad faith. It seems to me that apologists for socialist regimes oscillate between "Those reports are false - imperialist, counterrevolutionary propaganda!" and "Those reports are true, but the comrades don't want your bourgeois human rights! They're happy to sacrifice themselves [and others] for the Revolution!" And that's a giveaway.  To repeat: mainstream news media promulgate US propaganda against official enemies, which makes it hard to criticize their abuses fairly.  When someone agrees that abuses are happening and justifies them in the name of the Revolution, however, then the question of the reliability of the reports has already been set aside by the revolutionary apologists. 

I don't know where Parenti comes down on this question.  His basic point seems valid if I understand it correctly: a real-world socialist government will be flawed.  But that's exactly why it would be necessary to criticize it.  Many criticisms will be invalid, in bad faith, unrealistic.  There's no way to decide which are bad in advance, so the hard work of informing ourselves and making judgments, with full awareness of our own limitations, can't be shirked.

Anyone who treats criticism as improper in principle might as well work for the US government or its subordinate states: the playbook is the same.  Noam Chomsky likes to point out that when US media talk about the "national interest," they are referring to the interests of the richest people, a tiny minority of the population.  Likewise, when many socialists (I'm not going to judge whether they're "real" socialists or not) speak of "the people," what they mean are small groups of revolutionary elites.  So be it; but let's be clear about it.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Light Your Faith

There's a lot of weird religious stuff in my Twitter feed tonight.  I swear they're just doing it to drive me crazy.  I have no idea what "incendiary apologetics" is supposed to mean.

Then there was this one.  Elizabeth Breunig, along with Daniel Larison, is one of the less tiresome Christians on Twitter.  (The historian Kevin M. Kruse, alas, is becoming a bit more tiresome as time passes, but I'll go into that some other time; tomorrow is another day.)

I sympathize with her on the hatemail thing; that shouldn't be happening to her.  But hate is just Christian love.  And why isn't she anti-Catholic?  If the rapists "hate the faith," why did the faith protect them for so long?

By contrast, the SF writer Cory Doctorow (who isn't a Christian as far as I know), posted some good news.  I knew that the Satanic Temple has been doing good work against religious fascism in America, which Doctorow sums up in that thread.  I've noticed before the 1984 Equal Access Act, which was intended to give Christian groups access to spaces in public schools, ended up as a lever to force schools to allow Gay-Straight Alliances to form and meet in the schools.  I'd hoped that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would boomerang in the same way, and the Satanic Temple has found a way:

"A Satanic Abortion," Doctorow explains, "is a religious ritual that is totally indistinguishable from a normal, medical abortion, except that the participant says a few self-affirming words about her bodily autonomy.  Oh, also: the ritual absolutely forbids, as a bedrock matter of religous conviction, any waiting periods, the withholding of medically necessary advice, mandatory counseling, required readings, and unnecessary sonograms. Also forbidden: mandatory fetal heartbeat listening sessions and compulsory fetal burials. If you want an abortion and the doctor tries this bullshit, hand them one of these exemption letters explaining how the law doesn't apply thanks to the RFRA."

As a result, Doctorow says, "Now, the religious right could fight this. But if they win...they overturn the RFRA, and Hobby Lobby has to provide its employees with contraception and all the other theocratic exemptions go poof, too."  I don't know if it would work out so neatly, but it should.  This is what happens when instead of resorting to the preferred liberal tactic of throwing tantrums about the wickedness of the religious Right, you turn their methods against them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders: The Latest Episode

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, posted a thread on Twitter yesterday in which he blasted Donald Trump for botching the coup in Venezuela.  That's right: he doesn't object to the coup itself, or to interfering in the elections of other countries, he is just pissed that Trump failed to bring it off.  He doesn't seem to recognize the Venezuelan opposition's failure in the job; like them, he presumably thought the US would do the heavy lifting and hand the country over to them.  It's a remarkably petulant performance, and would be amusing if real people's lives weren't at stake.

Aside from calling coup frontman Juan Guaidó "charismatic," and thereby continuing the tradition of American male elites going all moist over brown-skinned strongmen, Murphy made an interesting admission:
Then, it got real embarrassing. In April 2019, we tried to organize a kind of coup, but it became a debacle. Everyone who told us they’d rally to Guaido got cold feet and the plan failed publicly and spectacularly, making America look foolish and weak.
It's remarkable because respectable US media have been working hard to deny that there was, or had been a coup against Maduro -- as they also have about the later coup in Boliva.  Mainstream US coverage of Venezuela has been dishonest and anti-democratic for years, so this is no surprise.

I'd like to know who Murphy had in mind as the "we" who "tried to organize a kind of coup."  Bipartisan support for a coup in Venezuela is not exactly a surprise.  Most senior Congressional Democrats were onboard for removing Maduro with Guaidó while distancing themselves from overt military action, and even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hesitated to speak out against American interference with other countries' politics.  By making a big deal of their opposition to an invasion, they could distract from their acceptance of the US' right to control other countries in other ways.  But Murphy has let the cat out of the bag: whoever "we" were, he's one of them.

Murphy tries to put all the blame on Trump, but some of it has to fall on "we," including him.  And he's no angel: he's been agitating for the overthrow of the Bolivarian government for some time, as in this January 2019 op-ed for the Washington Post, co-authored with the former Obama flunky Ben Rhodes.

It's no surprise that there was a lot of pushback to Murphy's thread.  Notable to me were the number of people who believed that if Biden is elected, everything will be okay.  In some cases they made it clear that they wanted to overthrow Maduro and were just angry that Trump had failed to do it because of Putin.  (Murphy also blamed Putin for Trump's failure to bring off the coup, though it's more likely, given Trump's notoriously evanescent attention span, that when Maduro didn't fall right away, he just lost interest in the game.)  Some were sure that Biden would be better in some undefined way, but this isn't likely: Biden also wants Maduro removed by any means feasible.  He has differences with Trump on Venezuela, but they're minor and technical.  A Biden administration will continue the strangulation of Venezuela; it's what Barack would wantCorporate media also have faith.

The corporate media covered the hearings Murphy referred to in this thread, but not his talk about his "kind of coup."  I suppose it's not news.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ah, Yes! I Remember It Well

Here we go again.

A woman who won the primary to become the Democratic nominee for the Westchester NY District Attorney posted yesterday:



(Incidentally, she corrected her typos in a followup tweet.)  I'm glad she won, and I can believe that men told her to wait her turn and told her she was too ambitious.  I suppose she was alluding to recent harping over Kamala Harris's political ambitions and whether she should become Joe Biden's Vice-Presidential choice.  Of course she shouldn't, for reasons that have nothing to do with her political ambitions.

Among the comments Rocah received was this:

Aside from posting authentic Twitter gibberish, Ms. Walker remembers 2016 differently than I do.  What I saw in 2016 was that it was Clinton's turn to be president, that it was women's turn. That's not how it ought to go. I said then and I say now: we don't need a woman President or VP; we don't need another black President; we don't need a gay President. What we need is a good President. Those who say this now are told to wait, it's too soon for a good president, we have to be patient and vote tactically, we have to be incremental and accept a bad one who's not quite as bad as Trump.

Okay, I get it.  Cynical though I am, though, I don't quite understand why so many people can't just say that Biden's not Trump and leave it there.  They can't resist walking it back and trying to explain why he's good and decent and the president we need; when you point out that he's none of these things, they dig in harder.  Or better, here's how you win over undecided voters: