Thursday, November 29, 2012

Down the Primrose Path

Roy Edroso has another interesting RightWing-watch post at alicublog today, about J. R. Dunn, a rightblogger who blames the excesses and prominence of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter (and their ilk) on liberals.
...the third major class of response, that of embracing the stereotype, of taking it on as a kind of costume, and even pushing it farther than the left themselves. I knew a noted spokesman for one of the major conservative media organizations who used to appear at public lectures with two heavy-set young men standing at either side of the lectern wearing camo fatigues and sunglasses, thus turning himself from conservative spokesman into Benito Mussolini. This same kind of behavior can be found at all levels of the movement from comment threads all the way to the top. Rush indulges in it all too often. Ann Coulter has made a career of it. While definitely a crowd-pleaser, it is, in the end, self-defeating. These stereotypes were constructed by the left for a reason -- to manipulate the public at large, ignorant of political subtleties and unfamiliar with doctrine, into certain visceral reactions to conservatives and their ideas. They were created to destroy conservatives. Why play along with them?
I dunno, maybe because it's fun?  Or, as Edroso proposes, because it sells?  If either Limbaugh or Coulter were to, you know, moderate their shtick, their audiences would dry up.  And it's what they know how to do.  (The Left has had its own clowns, after all; and while I might agree that the Right and the corporate media enjoyed using them as bugaboos to alarm the marks, I don't think they were "constructed by the" right, not even for a reason.)

Roy supplies another quotation from the same posting:
Calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" merely generated sympathy for her. Turning her into a clown uncertain what to do with a condom if one was handed to her would have shut the whole campaign down in short order. (How about the Facebook "Sandra Fluke Condom Support Group"?)
This sort of thing is always handy when someone on the right (my own RWA1 for example) tries to paint himself as a reasonable, sensible, moderate kind of conservative as opposed to all those crazy extremists who are hurting the cause.  Just when you start to sympathize with them a little, they let slip that they're just as bigoted and irrational as the clowns they're denouncing; they just want to keep their wack under cover, for PR purposes.

But then, in comments, the discussion took an interesting turn from the liberal-Democratic side.  Someone wrote:
Its a good example of how conservatives think contraception is ONLY for slutty women to use, and only for the purpose of not getting preggers. They are completely ignorant of its other uses and benefits, like preventing disease, treating cysts, fibroids, etc. etc. and so on. To them, anyone using a contraceptive can only be a: SLUT!!!11!
This is a good example of how liberals let the Right frame the debate.  So what if contraception has other uses?   Right-wing males in general, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in particular, don't care about that.  The Church is quite willing to let women die in the service of doctrine.  But this commenter seems to equate "contraception" with the Pill.  There are other methods of contraception, like the IUD, the condom, the diaphragm, that don't necessarily prevent disease and have no effect on cysts, fibroids, "etc. etc. and so on."  She also seems to agree (or at least concedes) that "anyone using a contraceptive" for its primary purpose, i.e. preventing conception, "can only be a: SLUT!!!11!"

Another commenter answered her:
I continue to believe that one of the biggest missed opportunities in L'Affair Fluke was the - repeated - failure of anyone in the debate who had a megaphone to point out that the majority of all the "sluts" who use contraception are, in fact, married women.
Yeah, exactly.  I've written about this myself in the past.  The pay-no-attention-to-the-dick-behind-the-curtain approach doesn't work anyhow.  The right-wing males on the committee before which Fluke testified, aren't particularly concerned with women's health (eeuuw, ladyparts!), and neither is their constituency.  Remember the flap over the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood?  They were willing to cut off the breast cancer screenings that PP also provides because PP, among other services, provides abortions.  (Also contraceptives, but I don't know if that was a factor.  No matter, it would have also been affected.)  Even women who weren't interested in having an abortion would have lost access to cancer screening.  But who (in the "pro-life" movement, anyway) cares about women dying of breast cancer?  What about the innocent babies?

Of course the corporate media loved the fuss over Sandra Fluke, since the corporate media are mostly owned and run by straight or straight-identified males and reflects their attitudes and hangups; they also prefer spectacle and personalities to issues.  Outside that echo chamber, there was some useful discussion, but it's interesting that the first commenter I quoted fell back on the Right's framing of the subject.  The Right, contrary to J. R. Dunn, is very good at manipulating the public discussion, and manipulating the mainstream into debating issues on their terms.  Most often liberals let them do it.  Instead of arguing that a woman should not have to have a fibroid tumor to have contraception covered by her insurance policy, liberals let Limbaugh frame the debate: Was Sandra Fluke a slut or not?  No, they chorused, she's a nice girl.  And I don't doubt that she is. But even girls who aren't nice -- yes, even "sluts" -- should be covered by their insurance, whether they have cysts or not.

The same thing happened during the controversy over Todd Akin's and Richard Mourdock's remarks about rape later in the year: liberal feminists and their male allies let the debate be about the definition of rape, instead of whether a woman should be able to get an abortion even if she wasn't raped.  Too many feminists -- again, forgetting that most women who seek abortions are married and already mothers -- focused on whether draconian laws restricting abortion should have a rape exception.  Thus they were willing to sell out women who hadn't been raped by letting the Right divert the debate from women's reproductive autonomy to rape.  It is, of course, possible to cover both issues, but as it turned out, Akin and Mourdock managed to channel the controversy into just one channel, and as it turned out, one in which they were more vulnerable.  (Both lost their election campaigns.)  In the process, the question of abortion and women's choices was left untouched, in favor of the forced-birthers' stance.  And it confirmed once again that liberals don't possess the steely rationalism and dedication to reality that they like to imagine they do.  They are, in fact, easily distracted from the central issues in the issues they take on.  In the short run they may win small victories -- Akin and Mourdock were defeated -- but in the long run, I don't think either rape victims or women's access to abortion was helped at all.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I Don't Want a Pickle

Democrats have been indulging in a lot of chest-thumping since the election, so I've been seeing more stuff like this on Facebook lately.

You know, the self-congratulatory "I'm a liberal so I'm like Jesus and JFK!" stuff.  These people have a rather odd notion of what a liberal is.  Even leaving aside the fact that we have no idea what Jesus looked like, and that there's reason to doubt he had long hair, bleeding-heart, peace-loving, anti-establishment hippie freaks were not liberals.  Liberals didn't like hippies, didn't like peace freaks, and the disdain was returned.  Liberals are not anti-establishment, they're part of the establishment.

As for Jesus, while he may have been peace-loving and anti-establishment (though it's hard to be more establishment than the Son of God), he was also a faith healer and exorcist who preached that The End Is Near, taught his followers to leave their families and normal lives to trek around Galilee and Judea with him, and picked fights with the reasonable, respectable religious leaders of his day.  The Sadducees were roughly comparable to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chaplain of Harvard University; the Pharisees were liberals compared to them, if a bit hard-core -- think modern Congregationalists or Presbyterians.  But if you want to put Jesus into a contemporary box, he was a radical, not a liberal.  Within a few years of his death, his followers were speaking in tongues, like modern Pentecostals.  That's not connected to Jesus in the gospels (except for a stray verse or two of doubtful authenticity), so we don't know where it came from.

Liberals don't like radicals.  Radicals don't usually like liberals.  They mock them for their readiness to sell out their fine principles as soon as the going gets rocky. It's a fair bet that if today's liberals had to deal with someone like the historical Jesus, they wouldn't actually call for his execution, but they'd find reasons not to work very hard to save his life either.  As with Martin Luther King Jr., only after he was safely dead would liberals start squabbling with conservatives over who got to claim him for their side.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We're All Dumb Here

I got email from a regular reader about this post, praising it and including a link to this post at another blog covering the same topic.  That blogger, Dave Cohen, had come up independently with some of the same criticisms I had, especially on the untestability of Gerald Crabtree's speculations, but I disagree with him on enough points that I thought I'd do an encore.

My main complaint is that while Dave Cohen quibbles with Crabtree's assumption that human beings are becoming less intelligent, he declares that "contemporary humans [are] more out of touch with Reality than they used to be", from which he draws the conclusion that we/they are "crazier than they used to be."
Technological "improvements" in mass media have created a situation in which the consensual Reality is now almost wholly defined by other humans whose conscious or unconscious agenda constantly shapes our perceptions of what's going on. In that sense, for contemporary humans, physical and psychological Reality can hardly be said to exist. Thousands of years ago, humans could perceive directly what was happening around them and to them. That's not the case anymore. Now there are layers and layers of obfuscation separating humans from direct apprehension of events. In Crabtree's terms, direct evolutionary selection pressures no longer exist. You are usually not killed off by the person right in front of you (although that still happens). Now you are screwed by a sociopathic banker on Wall Street who you don't know and who doesn't know you.
Wow.  Where do I begin to say what is wrong with this passage? The "consensual Reality" is only consensual if we give our consent; and even the most plugged-in person still has to fill his or her belly, keep his or her body warm, evacuate waste, and deal with fleshly morbidity and mortality.   Those "other humans whose conscious or unconscious agenda constantly shape our perceptions" don't necessarily, or even probably, know what they're doing, but anyhow human beings have been 'shaping our perceptions' with language for tens of thousands of years now.  One might well say that having "layers and layers of obfuscation separating from direct apprehension of events" through language and cognition is exactly what makes us different from other species, the core of human nature.  But Hurricane Sandy is a reminder of how fragile our cognitive bubble is, and we still manage to function when things break down.  The "consensual Reality" includes the measures that kept the death toll from Sandy comparatively low in the US, and that's pretty real.

It's significant how the nature of the evolutionary pressures "you" used to face have altered as the game of Telephone proceeds.  Crabtree thought that our distant ancestors had to survive in a hostile environment ("a hunter gatherer that did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter"), the Bizjournals writer wrote in terms of keeping a jump ahead of saber-toothed tigers, and Cohen selects "the person right in front of you" as an example of "direct evolutionary selection pressures [that no] longer exist," though in fact homicide not only still happens but is still a significant cause of death for human beings.  All three could be examples of selection pressure, but they're all largely secondary.  In fact we don't usually know what selection pressures lead to the extinction of a species.  (What killed off the dinosaurs is still debated, for example, as is what happened to the Neanderthals.  A lot of the explanations one hears are wishful fantasy.  The more we learn, the less we know.)

Cohen claims:
For example, polling reveals that Americans have no clue about the extent to which this society has been divided into Haves and Have-Nots. And last week, 120 million Americans voted for Democrats or Republicans, pretending all the while that it matters whether one political party or the other holds power, although the relatively low voter turnout was encouraging. Both political parties have sold them down the river over the last 30 years. Generally speaking, social realities have been nearly obliterated.
Really?  Polls reveal that Americans have no clue about the class divide?  Polls are tricky things, but his claim is debatable, to put it gently.  Por ejemplo (via):
Roughly three-quarters of the public (77%) say that they think there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States. In a 1941 Gallup poll, six-in-ten (60%) Americans expressed this view. About nine-in-ten (91%) Democrats and eight-in-ten (80%) of independents assert that power is too concentrated among the rich and large corporations, but this view is shared by a much narrower majority (53%) of Republicans.
Reflecting a parallel sentiment, 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and just 36% say the system is generally fair to most Americans. About three-quarters (76%) of Democrats and 61% of independents say the economic system is tilted in favor of the wealthy; a majority (58%) of Republicans say that the system is generally fair to most Americans.
I'll concede that our rulers and corporate media elites are out of touch with reality in many areas, but most Americans?  There's evidence pointing in the opposite direction.  The real problem is that the voting system is so set up that we have no one to vote for.  (I remember with pleasure Barbara Ehrenreich's satirical piece on the heartbreak of whiteness, when she pointed out that African-Americans had shown their superior intelligence because 90% of them had voted against Ronald Reagan.  It's hard to argue with that.)

Cohen's assertion that direct evolutionary pressures no longer exist is hogwash.  Such pressures do exist, but they affect us differently than they did a million years or even a couple of centuries ago.  Yes, human beings have changed our environment, but that began with the invention of tools and even more, with control of fire.  Fire and clothing enabled us to live in conditions we never could have survived otherwise.  We did this, not by changing our biology, but by creating an artificial environment through culture. If you want to worry about our distancing ourselves from "reality," our ability to live in frigid climates is the original sin.  Culture, which enables us to pass along what we've learned in a Lamarckian transmission of acquired traits, is the bubble that protects us from the "natural" world, but is itself a product of the natural world.

Our cultural bubble doesn't protect us from "selection pressures."  We've overcome many of the diseases that used to shorten our lives, but new ones keep turning up.  Did there used to be so many children with cancer?  But in evolutionary terms it doesn't matter: if the environment wasn't congenial for one reason or another, no species would "succeed."  When the environment becomes less congenial, any species will "fail."  We can't know in advance what will kill us off, but at present, despite climate change and its attendant disasters, with seven billion human beings on this planet we're far from extinct.  It doesn't matter whether we are becoming less intelligent: we're still here.  As I said in my previous post on Crabtree, intelligence is not a prerequisite for evolutionary success anyway.

Cohen proclaims:
Technologically clever, yes, but generally intelligent? No! The fundamental irrationality, the tendency to believe in invisible beings who watch over them, the belief in magic, the unwarranted optimism, the stubborn, false Hope which flies in the face of Reality, the tragic lack of self-knowledge—these, and a thousand other flaws have always been there.
No one knows what "generally intelligent" would mean.  Our "irrationality" hasn't kept us from flooding the planet with ourselves, so it's not entirely unreasonable to suppose that it contributed to our evolutionary success; "the tendency to believe in invisible beings" produced science as well as magic -- the two aren't as different as science cultists would have you believe.  Like many other people, Cohen fantasizes about a presumably unflawed intelligence, and while I don't mean to be complacent, no one has any idea what unflawed intelligence would be.  It's one of those invisible, imaginary beings Cohen dislikes.  Then there's the fantasy of an intelligence unemcumbered by a body of flesh, a intelligence free of irrationality, an intelligence without -- "Hope"?  Beware of wishing for "self-knowledge": you might get it.

I've long been baffled by this misanthropic dismissal of human intelligence.  The most extreme case I can think of was someone on the first computer BBS I frequented, back in the mid-1980s.  He said that he didn't think there was such a thing as human intelligence; there might, he allowed, be such a thing as real intelligence somewhere else in the universe, but not among Homo Sap, and not on this planet.  That was interesting in so many ways.  First off, since he wasn't intelligent by his own assumption, why should anyone take him seriously?  We're all dumb here -- you're dumb too, or you wouldn't be here.  Second, "intelligence" is something that most of us ascribe to human beings, and to a lesser extent to other animals.  It has no meaning except as a trait human beings have, and until we actually encounter "intelligent" extraterrestrial organisms, we won't have a basis for comparison anyway.  It's sort of like saying that there's no such thing as human beauty, except that we human beings do perceive beauty in other animals, in plants, in inorganic things (from quartz crystals to the Grand Canyon), in natural phenomena like sunsets or the night sky.  I suppose that a human being could decide that no human beings are beautiful, that only seal-point Siamese cats or the Andromeda galaxy are really beautiful; but I would reply that while it's fine for him, I (like many other people) do find many human beings beautiful.  Beauty, like intelligence or goodness, is in the eye of the beholder.  If everybody is ugly, then nobody's beautiful; if everybody's dumb, then nobody's dumb.  Or at least, some are dumber than others.

Finally, a good many people (usually male, I think) believe that computers are intelligent, and fantasize that machine intelligence will be the next evolutionary step in the ascent to Godhead.  The superintelligent computers will take care of us, or at least those of us who devoted ourselves to their service and support. Since there is no ascent, and no Godhead, this is just another one of the irrational fantasies Cohen derides.  I'm not claiming that humans have the best of all possible brains.  What I am claiming is that we don't know and can't know what a better brain than ours would be.  At this point, our sample for intelligence as Cohen conceives it is precisely one: us.  Just to say that is to see how pitifully self-aggrandizing it is.  Right now we have no grounds at all to declare what superior intelligence would look like, even if "superior" has any meaning.  But even if Crabtree were correct about the decline of human intelligence (and to repeat, he doesn't seem to have any evidence at all for that claim), it could easily be that the decline is the result of selection pressure, and the next step up the Great Chain of Being, Homo Doofus, is waiting in the evolutionary wings, waiting for his moment to come.  It's what Nature wants!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Deoksu Style

Good old Hankyoreh.  Dear, dear, Korean people.  Yes, they disappoint and frustrate me sometimes.  But stories like this one renew and confirm my love.

Now that I think about it, though, there were similar stories about Occupy in the US.  The libraries, for instance, which the police took delight in destroying.  The kitchens.

Right now South Korea is gearing up for its presidential elections.  I'd hoped to be there during this time to get a feel for the peak period of South Korean politics, but no go.  Maybe next time.

Somewhere Over the Reagan

I understand the anguish that produced this meme, and I sympathize with it.  But it happens to be false.  Which doesn't affect its claim that racism is behind a lot of the vilification of Barack Obama; of course it is.  It's not necessary to falsify history to make and defend that claim, however.

In order: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was attacked by the Far Right as the Jew Franklin Delano Rosenfeld: far from the Episcopalian Christian he pretended to be, they alleged, Roosevelt was descended from Dutch Jews, "surrounded himself with socialist Jews even when he was Governor of New York, and many were appointed to top jobs in the Roosevelt administration".  The source of that quote claims that there's nothing necessarily anti-Semitic about tracing Roosevelt's allegedly Jewish ancestry.  That's trivially true, but in historical context there was no other reason to dwell on it even if were true.  For example:
From the viewpoint of eugenics, it [FDR’s Jewish background] explains his natural bent toward radicalism … and proves unmistakably, that the Roosevelt administration offers a biological, as well as a political problem. It is therefore as natural to him to be radical as it is for others to be true Americans … HE IS NOT ONE OF US!”
- Gerald Winrod, Defender magazine, 1935
A major propagator of the "Jew Rosenfeld" claim was the notorious Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who gained a radio audience of millions in the 1930s with a venomous spew of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.  Coughlin
drew 40 million listeners in the early thirties to his Sunday afternoon program, double the 20 million that Rush Limbaugh has claimed for his audience. But he didn’t just talk; he urged action—illegal and terrifying. By1938, increasingly unhinged and openly anti-Semitic, Coughlin was using his radio pulpit and his 200,000-circulation newspaper, Social Justice, to advocate for the creation of a violent hate group, the Christian Front. The group soon boasted members numbering in the thousands throughout the cities of Northeast. It has largely been forgotten that Coughlin’s “platoons,” as he called them, were responsible for a months-long campaign of low-level mayhem in New York City: They attacked Jews with fists and sometimes knifes. They boycotted Jewish-owned businesses (guided by a “Christian index” of shopkeepers) and sometimes smashed their windows in the German fashion. This ugly episode culminated when 17 Coughlinites were arrested by the FBI in January 1940 and charged with planning acts of terrorism against Jewish individuals and institutions (and those deemed their allies). 

Although he didn’t have a role in orchestrating the plan, Coughlin, after a brief hesitation, gave his full-throated support to the “Brooklyn Boys,” saying in a January 21,1940, broadcast that “I take my stand beside the Christian Fronters … [and] … reaffirm every word which I have said in advocating [the Front’s] formation.”
Coughlin operated with the indulgence of his superiors in the Church; they took no action against him until after the US went to war against Germany.
He left the radio airwaves of his own volition in 1940, but he continued to publish Nazi propaganda in Social Justice until the spring of 1942, when the U.S. government suspended his second-class mailing permit, charging that the paper obstructed the war effort in violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. Coughlin’s boss, Detroit Archbishop Edward Mooney, was roused to put his foot down and demand that Coughlin not fight the government’s action in court. He bowed to ecclesiastical authority. At least, that’s been the standard story for decades. Author Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written several books about the sexuality of Catholic priests, offers evidence that Coughlin stayed silent only after Hoover called him up and threatened to go public with “proof of Coughlin’s homosexuality.”
Despite all this, Coughlin maintained "his pastorship until his retirement in 1966"; he died in 1979.  Of FDR he said as late as 1970:
Roosevelt is Jewish. Rosenfeld was the first name and he wasn’t regarded as one of the first founders of Jewry in this country, either. I have a book out there with the pedigree of all the Jews in it written by a Jew which I can show you ...some of them more famous Jews than he.
I first heard about the "Jew Rosenfeld" canard in the 1970s, from Gore Vidal's recollections of some
West Point generals who took some pleasure in denouncing that Jew Franklin D. Rosenfeld who had got us into the war on the wrong side.  We ought to be fighting the Commies not Hitler.  But then FDR was not only a kike, he was sick in the head -- and not from polio but from syphilis.  Anyway, everything could be straightened out -- with just one infantry brigade they would surround the White House, the Capitol, remove the Jew ...
So, as you can see, Obama is not the only President to have been denounced in such terms.  The kind of anti-Semitism described above is not dead yet, it's still alive on the Web and elsewhere, but for the most part its sentiments and rhetoric have been transferred to Muslims.

Of the other presidents in the meme, Dwight Eisenhower has been accused of being of Jewish descent, but on this level, who hasn't?  Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, claimed that Eisenhower was "'a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy, and that the government of the United States was 'under operational control of the Communist party.' It was, he said in the summer of 1961, '50-70 percent' Communist-controlled."  But by that time the new Right wing, people like William Buckley, were anxious to establish themselves as sane, rational extremists, so they attacked Welch.  He held a place somewhere in the American political imaginary comparable to that of the Westboro Christian Church: such an extreme, virulent nutjob that less extreme, slightly less virulent nutjobs could use him to make themselves look more moderate.  In this period, Red-baiting was standard political procedure, and Richard Nixon built his career on it.  But again, Obama is neither the first nor the only American President to have been the target of such smears.

As for Ronald Reagan, he was a right-wing Red-baiter himself.  His political support came from the same part of the political spectrum whose rightward margins were defined by groups like the Birch Society, though he too used the Birchers as an extreme to make himself look more moderate.  Democrats called Reagan an extremist, which was true for what little the label is worth.  But Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed him for the governorship of California.  In any case, nobody was going to call Reagan a Red, or a Jew (hell, he bought a house under a "racial covenant" to keep it out of Jews' hands), or un-American; like Nixon, he was the one who did that to other politicians.

Reagan, then, is the one President listed of whom this meme's claim is true.  Whoever came up with it is evidently very ignorant of twentieth-century American political history.  But history isn't really its purpose, is it?  It's primarily another case of liberals crying "Oh, how can you say such awful things?" in response to right-wing smears, instead of buckling down, doing their homework, and fighting back in an informed, halfway rational way.

One more bit about Father Coughlin: the New Republic writer I quoted above discusses Coughlin's 1938 defense of Kristallnacht, the massive, organized Nazi attack on German Jews that outraged many people around the world:
Coughlin argued ... that the atrocity was merely a “defense mechanism against communism,” which was the product of “atheistic Jews.” He sneered at the attendant publicity, “attributable to the fact that Jews, through their native ability, have risen to such high places in radio and in press and in finance.”
As rhetoric, this is very similar to defenses of Israel's current attack on Gaza (now ended by a truce and ceasefire).  The "defense mechanism" should be obvious enough, but I've also seen numerous defenders of Israel claim that critics of the attack have been "brainwashed by the media" -- which is funny when you consider that the US corporate media have been uniformly supportive of Israel, now as always.  Am I comparing Israel to the Nazis?  No; I'm comparing Israel to the Roman Catholic Church.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Poly Wanna ... ?

Dan Savage, by contrast, gave me the giggles last week.  His latest column includes a letter from a " 30-year-old straight man who has always known that he is a poly."  ("Poly" being short for "polyamorous.")  This man is romantically involved with a woman who "is a monogamous person."  His question: "Can someone who is poly be happy with someone who isn't?"

Dan got into a big huff.
You are not “a poly.”

Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it’s not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do. There’s no such thing as a person who is “a poly,” just as there’s no such thing as a person who is “a monogamous.” Polyamorous and monogamous are adjectives, not nouns. There are only people—gay, straight, bi—and some people are in monogamous relationships, some are in open relationships, some are in polyamorous relationships, some are in monogamish relationships, some are in four-star-general relationships. These are relationship models, PP, not sexual identities.
He was partially right.  Polyamory is not a sexual identity, because "sexual identity" means your sense of yourself as male or female.  (Which is not the same as being male or female.)  Nor is it a sexual orientation, since "sexual orientation" refers to the sex of the persons you are erotically interested in.  But both of these words get thrown around carelessly in ways that chips away at their actual meaning.  "Sexual orientation," for example, has been incorrectly applied to pedophilia, although children are not a sex.  "Sexual identity" is routinely confused with "sexual orientation."  This happens partly because of the ambiguity of "sex" and "sexual" in English, an ambiguity which many people seem bent on muddying even more than it already is.

But Savage is wrong that there's no such a thing as a person who is a "poly": he's answering a question from such a person.  The distinction between adjectives and nouns in English is vague, as is the difference between a person who does something and a person who is something.  There is no reason why a person who prefers non-monogamous relationships shouldn't "identify" as a poly, or just as polyamorous.

Savage's declarations can just as easily be applied to gay people, and have been.  For example, a homosexual relationship is a relationship (usually erotic) between two people of the same sex; you might say, and probably should say that "homosexual" is a relationship model, not a kind of person.  A homosexual, or bisexual, or heterosexual, is not a kind of person, any more than a Protestant or a Catholic is a kind of person. Gore Vidal insisted that this was the case for decades, as did Alfred Kinsey.  Indeed, one of the enduring claims of human sexual behavior and stigma-avoidance is that only one person in a homosexual act is "homosexual": the other, if male, is "trade," "normal," a "real man."  Just because you've, you know, experimented once or twice or a hundred times with gay sex, that doesn't mean you're gay; maybe you're just bi-curious.  Two male homosexuals fooling around together is "lesbianism."  This assumption also underlies most current scientific research on "sexual orientation."

Given the way language works, though, I don't see how it is unreasonable for people to refer to themselves by nouns or adjectives that refer to their relationship models, to the work they do, the religion they practice, the country they were born in, the language they speak, the hand they favor for writing, and so on.  This only becomes a problem when a person starts to believe that claiming an identity is evidence of the "kind of person they are."  It doesn't prove that you were born that way, or that your identity is your nature, or anything like that.  Many gay people, including Dan Savage, do make this mistake, but it is still a mistake.  He can see that when his poly reader makes it, but not when he makes it.

And yet, it doesn't seem implausible to me that a person might prefer non-monogamous relationships, or monogamous ones, as a matter of temperament.  This aspect of temperament might be influenced by biological factors, even (gasp!) by one's genes.  I'm sure that an enterprising psychologist would be able to generate plenty of meaningless correlations that would be used to argue just that, a genetic basis for nonmonogamy.  (Indeed, Dan himself enthusiastically endorsed a book which argued that human beings, especially males, are 'naturally' nonmonogamous.  How soon we forget... )  In which case it's not going very far at all to claim polyamory as a temperament, an essence, a kind of person.  Kinds of person are defined in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with biology: language, place of national origin, marital status, religion, occupation.  And once you've opened the door to the idea that gay people could claim same-sex desire as a basis for identity, why not accept "poly" as an identity?  You have to give good reasons why not, but Dan Savage only offers ex cathedra pronouncements.  Why does he react so strongly against the idea?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pride and Prejudice

I'm in the middle of reading Knowledge of Angels (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) by Jill Paton Walsh, a quasi-historical novel set, the author says, "in a time somewhat like 1450 but not 1450."  And she adds, "A fiction is always, however obliquely, about the time and place in which it was written."  So far I'm very impressed by it, though I worry a bit about how it will end.  I learned about it from someone's comment on a story at the Onion AV Club, as a novel about atheism, and it's that, but it seems to be something more; or maybe atheism will turn out to enfold everything that happens in it.

One of the main streams of the story involves Palinor, a man washed up on the shore of the island where Knowledge of Angels is set.  He tells the fishermen who rescue him that he fell accidentally of the ship he was on.  No one has ever heard of the country he claims as his origin. One of the first questions that arises, then, is where he should stay: among the Christians, among the Jews, or among the Saracens.  Unselfconsciously Palinor says that he is none of the above -- he believes in no god or gods, and in Aclar, where he comes from, while there are Jews and Christians and Saracens, there is no pressure to choose any sect.  Atheism is a capital offense in this time and place, however; but Palinor is able to appeal to the learned prince cardinal of the island, Severo, who decides to call in his old teacher and mentor Beneditx to try and reason with Palinor, to persuade him to be at least a theist and thereby save his life.  Beneditx is well-versed in philosophical debate, and knows his Anselm and his Aquinas, but Palinor makes short work of his arguments and proofs: an architect and engineer, he is well educated, and has heard these arguments before, without the outcome being predetermined by the Inquisition.

The debate is still in progress at this point in my reading, but I liked this passage dealing with Benedikt's reaction to his inability to sway his charge.
In the depths of the night Beneditx struggled with panic and anger.  The anger reminded him of his mother, a poor hard-working woman who had kept body and soul together by plying her needle around the lonely farms.  His father had been a fisherman who was lost one day without reason, his boat sinking far out in a flat calm.  Left to support her son, Beneditx's mother led a wandering life.  In return for food and shelter for them both, she would stay a week or more, mending linen and making clothes.  It was a hard existence; but Beneditx remembered her angry only at two things in life -- blunt needles, and poor thread that snapped as she worked.  Untimely death, poor harvests, sickness, poverty -- about all these things the people of the island were fatalists; bad tools provoked them to rage.  As now Beneditx's failed arguments, his blunted points and broken threads, left him angry.

Of course he was angry with Palinor.  And he knew the name of his own sin -- the sin of pride.  Since the day his mother found him writing, scratching with a stick, copying the inscription over the church door at Santanya in the dust of the little square, Beneditx had always excelled.  His mother had taken him at once to the Galilea and presented him to the oblate master, saying simply that she could not cope with a child who could write.  He had always known that being the cleverest man on Grandinsula was not the same as being the cleverest in the world -- that somewhere there was a man who could match him in argument; in that sense he was well prepared for Palinor.

But since he had never before experienced it, he was unprepared for the sharp pain of defeat in argument -- for the indignity of it -- and repentant in retrospect, he accused himself of insufficient tenderness toward all those he had defeated or instructed in debate.  And that the triumphant adversary should be not a wiser doctor, but a disbeliever!  How could God, whom he had served so long, so diligently, have allowed this to happen?  Why had God given him blunt tools?  In a spasm of self-disgust, Beneditx knew shame for not having seen the flaws in the argument.  For not seeing, now, the correct answer to Palinor's objections.  That there was an answer -- somewhere on the board a winning move --  he did not doubt.  Or rather, suppressing panic, he told himself he did not doubt it; and rising, he went early to pray, to ask for help [153-54].
There's irony in "insufficient tenderness toward all those he had defeated or instructed in debate," for we've been told earlier that Beneditx was a beloved teacher because of his infinite patience and tenderness with the slowest students.  And his frustration is understandable, even if he doesn't quite understand it himself: in the Western philosophical tradition, the "right" conclusions were declared by the Church and enforced by the threat of punishment, up to and including death.  When a conclusion doesn't have the Inquisition behind it, long-resolved questions have turned out to be unresolved after the threat was removed.

Knowledge of Angels reminds me of Rebecca Goldstein's Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God, which deals with some of the same questions, though it's a very different book.  I hope to reread Goldstein's novel before year's end.  So far, I think Knowledge of Angels is much the better of the two, but I'll have to see how it turns out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Slight Detour

I had a couple of ideas for posts today, which I still hope to get to, but I got sidetracked when my liberal law professor friend shared this on Facebook.

"Love it," she commented.  Not too surprisingly, I didn't, and told her so as directly as I could without descending to rhetorical homophobia.

My main point was that if Maddow's that smart, why she's so dumb?  She may well be more intelligent than those boys, but that only brings to mind Molly Ivins' deathless epithet, "smarter than a box of rocks."  (Or, to borrow Mim Udovich's evaluation of Camille Paglia, I think it's safe to say she's smarter than mayonnaise.)  She's a militarist jingo, and even on gay issues she doesn't bother to inform herself.  I wrote her off entirely when she shilled for Obama at Netroots Nation in 2010.  No doubt she did so entirely voluntarily.  (You cannot hope to bribe or twist / Thank God! the lib'rul journalist / But seeing what the woman'll do / Unbribed, there's no occasion to.)  But it discredits her as a professional journalist.

Plenty of right-wingers have college degrees.  Ronald Reagan got his bachelor's in economics and sociology.  As an undergraduate Bill O'Reilly was an honors student in history, and got an MA in broadcast journalism at Boston University.  I could go on, but why bother?

I could also point to Gore Vidal, who never went to college at all: he went from Philips Exeter Academy into the Navy, and then became a professional writer.  After prep school he educated himself.  And how about I.F. Stone, who started his own newspaper after he graduated from high school?  Oh, he did go back to college and earned a bachelor's degree (in Classical Languages) after he retired at the age of 63, but his real work was done without a BA.  He was worth a dozen government shills like Maddow.

My friend admitted that Maddow rants, but declared that Maddow didn't annoy her the way Limbaugh does.  Of course: and Limbaugh doesn't annoy a right-wing listener the way Maddow does.  My friend is a partisan, for all she denies it.  She said that at least Maddow hasn't shut herself off from learning, as she claimed Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh have; but that's not obvious to me.  She kept insisting that Maddow was smarter than the others -- that box of rocks again -- and that she detected no intelligence in them.  It's odd, but I've learned not to trust the subjective judgments of partisans very much.  It must be because I'm an ignorant college dropout who has shut himself off from learning.

I mentioned in passing my own lack of a BA, though of course my friend knew about that already.  "It didn't refer to you," she protested.  "You're not a newscaster." Well, yes it did refer to me, actually, even though she didn't have me in mind when she linked to it, because I am a dropout.  Remember the running gag in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, where the World War II aerial gunner Yossarian refuses to go on any more bombing missions?  "They're trying to kill me," he explains when pressed.  "They're trying to kill everybody," another gunner yells indignantly.  "What different does that make?" Yossarian counters.  The meme is just a smear of anyone who doesn't have a college degree, on the assumption that they are necessarily dumber than a Stanford alum and Oxonian like Rachel Maddow.  The existence of equally dishonest and irrational conservatives with degrees is ignored.  And since so many equally dishonest and irrational liberals also have degrees -- which was rubbed in my face many times this past election season -- it follows that the deciding factor is not a BA.  The meme, and my friend's love for it, is offensive, but more important, it's stupid.  It's a contemptible exercise in class snobbery.  And I hate being reminded that intelligent, highly-educated people can be that stupid and vicious.

Oh yeah, the headline of that meme refers to the importance of education, doesn't it?  I think that education is important and that everyone should have access to it.  But I'm also aware of its limitations, and the threat that educated people pose to the rulers of any society.  The more schooled people are, the more likely they are to identify with the ruling elites and their view of the world, however: Noam Chomsky likes to point out that people with more years of schooling were more likely than people with less schooling to support the Vietnam War, and to accept the US government line that we were defending South Vietnam against Communist aggression.  A major purpose of higher education is to acculturate students to elite values and perspectives, though this purpose took a hit after World War II when large numbers of non-elites used the GI Bill to go to college; many of those non-elites clung to their working-class, non-Anglo-Saxon perspective, so they've been under attack ever since.  But I admit, I begin to question the value of a college education when I see so many college graduates show themselves basically unaffected by it.

P.S. It's probably relevant to mention also the recent, much-touted poll which showed that while NPR listeners were better-informed than Fox News viewers, they still were nothing to write home about: NPR regulars correctly answered 38 percent of questions they were asked about US politics, compared to 25 percent for Fox fans.  Previous studies, before Fox News even existed, showed that the more people relied on broadcast news, the less they knew.  I'm sure all the CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS anchors were properly educated -- oops, no, Walter Cronkite was a college dropout, but Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, and Chet Huntley graduated.  David Brinkley and Harry Reasoner went to college but I can't find whether they graduated; perhaps they were anti-education moles in the media.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Too Too Takei

There's been a fair amount of justified criticism of several big-box stores -- Walmart, Target, others -- for starting their post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" promotions on Thanksgiving itself, requiring their employees to come in late in the day to deal with hordes of demented holiday shoppers.  Some people are pledging not to shop on Black Friday. 

But I haven't seen any criticism of Old Navy, whose Black Friday will begin at midnight as Thursday turns into Friday.  That's certainly going to eat into the quality time their employees might otherwise spend with their families.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that Old Navy hired Star Trek icon and social media celebrity George Takei to front the promotion.  I'm not going to link to the Cheermageddon site because I don't want to send any traffic their way, but here's a celebratory blog post with links to the TV spots.

I wonder how many of the critics will be able to resist the temptation of all those great bargains, especially since George has granted them dispensation.  And while they're in the mall in the wee small hours, why not look to see what's left at Walmart or Target or Toys R Us?  It's not like they went in on Thursday, after all...

Monday, November 19, 2012

'Cause He's the One

Though the election is now behind us, the Cute Obama Pictures juggernaut grinds on.  It won't end until all resistance has been crushed, and every knee is bowed and every tongue has confessed that he is Lord.

I mean, c'mon, would a war criminal allow a picture like this to be released?

Sure he would, and he did.  But it's so cute!  You have to be a total hater not to love him.

Then there was this one, which came my way from my liberal law-professor friend:

This is a really vile distortion of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and of race in America.  Rosa Parks "sat" -- that is, she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama -- as a first step to break through Jim Crow segregation, and the ensuing bus boycott was for all African-Americans, not just to give Martin Luther King a leg up.  The Civil Rights Movement itself didn't just consist of a few charismatic individuals: there were thousands of courageous people who put their lives on the line in that cause.  This is important to stress because of the American tendency to ignore or vilify organization and solidarity in favor of the Hero who smashes injustice single-handed, and then passes the torch to his or her successor.

Likewise, Martin Luther King was a spokesman for a movement much greater than he, and without which he'd have been nothing.  Sometimes he had to run just to keep up with it himself.  No doubt he was interested in African-Americans' being elected to political office, and he wouldn't have objected to an African-American president, though it's fair to wonder what he'd have thought about the African-American president we in fact got, who used the occasion of winning a wholly unmerited Nobel Peace Prize to jeer at everything King stood for.  (Very neatly, and savagely, dissected here.)

As for Barack Obama, well, he doesn't really give a damn about anyone else's children, leaving aside his penchant for killing them.  (And cheering on other leaders who kill them.)  I've always been critical of the tendency to turn him into a Civil Rights hero, because although he stands on that movement's shoulders he clearly views it as his footstool, to be used for his own advancement and then tossed aside.  As Shirley Sherrod, whom he fired in a vain attempt to appease the racist Republican right, tells it (via):
[Ta-Nehisi Coates] asked [Shirley] Sherrod if she thought the president had a grasp of the specific history of the region and of the fights waged and the sacrifices made in order to make his political journey possible. “I don’t think he does,” Sherrod said. “When he called me [shortly after the incident], he kept saying he understood our struggle and all we’d fought for. He said, ‘Read my book and you’ll see.’ But I had read his book.” ...
In her new memoir, The Courage to Hope, she writes about a different kind of tears: when she discussed her firing with her family, her mother, who’d spent her life facing down racism at its most lethal, simply wept. “What will my babies say?,” Sherrod cried to her husband, referring to their four small granddaughters. “How can I explain to my children that I got fired by the first black president?”
And fired not because she'd done anything wrong, mind you.  The basis for her ejection was a falsified videotape, edited by the unlamented Andrew Breitbart to make her look bad.  She was barely out the door when the hoax was exposed.  Her boss had the resources to see if she deserved to be dismissed, but he couldn't be bothered.

Meanwhile he's working to extend the War on Terror indefinitely, so that "our children can fly" predator drones, forever.  What's appalling about stuff like this is that Obama cultists aren't content merely to insist that Obama is preferable to, say, Mitt Romney: they feel that they must exalt him as a hero and very nearly a saint -- which he isn't.

The Girl Can't Help It

I love oral histories, so I'm currently reading Alison Owings's Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray (University of California Press, 2002).  Most of the book is derived from interviews with thirty-five women who've worked on that side of the tray, and it's fascinating.  But then I tripped over something that bugged me a little -- not enough to make me want to stop reading, but enough that I'm taking time out to write about it.

In the 1970s Cathryn Anita Smith broke through the sex barrier at La Côte Basque, a celebrated French restaurant in New York City. It took a protracted legal battle, but she succeeded, and her story is a delight.  As usual, Smith had to make herself much more competent than most of her male co-workers to be considered half as good, but she managed it.  (Luckily, as the old joke has it, it wasn't that difficult.)
"In the period when they refused to work with me, they hired another waiter to work with me.  He hit me once.  We were having a little confrontation about a check.  I told him the table needed a check, and he hadn't put it down.  We were in the stairwell, and I had a tray, and he went like ..."  She mimed a smash to her stomach.  "He hit me right here. It so happened that one Italian waiter saw it.  He stood up for me.  I ran to the men's locker room, and they were trying to get him to say he hadn't seen it.  But, 'I'm sick of it.  I saw it.  He hit her'" [80].
Stories like this are interesting because it's official lore that Men Don't Hit Women.  But they do anyway, and they always have, especially when a woman refuses to stay in her place.  I once had a curious online exchange with a guy who was claiming that a woman couldn't play football with men, because the men have been conditioned not to hit women, so they won't be able to bring themselves to tackle her.  Maybe not, but football players of the highest calibre (we'll never know just how many) have been able to break that conditioning to beat the shit out of the women they love.  Masculine solidarity then requires that they cover for each other.

But I digress.  On the legal basis for Smith's case, Owings explains (75):
One of the best-known parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VII essentially says employers cannot refuse jobs to people based on matters not of their choosing, such as sex or skin color.
Le sigh.  I've been through this beforeTitle VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also forbids jobs discrimination based on religion, which is a matter of one's choosing.  As far as I can tell, the Civil Rights Act doesn't explain the basis for its prohibition of discrimination, but I always had the impression that what was at issue was whether a given trait or condition affected one's ability to do the job.  This is why it's okay for the NBA to discriminate, as I presume it does, on the basis of height.  There must a religious exemption in there somewhere, though, because the Roman Catholic Church need not ordain women as priests, nor even non-Catholic males.

As I said, this minor issue doesn't make me want to stop reading Hey, Waitress!  But it does bother me.  When did it become common sense that civil rights laws were meant to protect people who didn't choose their disgusting condition, it's not their fault, they can't help themselves, they were born this way?  Given the general level of ignorance and misinformation about civil rights and discrimination, plus continuing racism and other kinds of bigotry, I suspect this lore was invented by people who didn't know what it was all about and didn't really want to know.  That's obviously the case with affirmative action.  But I'm still surprised and dispirited when someone who's clearly smart enough to know better doesn't get it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dumb Humans Think Humans Getting Dumber

Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me referred today to a study that claims human beings aren't as intelligent as they used to be.  I'd seen it mentioned once last week, but forgot about it; after an online search I realized that it was getting a fair amount of attention, so I read some of the articles and decided it was something I wanted to write about.

First, though, go back to this unrelated (or is it?) story from last March.
Work by Cornell University psychologist David Dunning and then-colleague Justin Kruger found that “incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas,” according to a report by Life’s Little Mysteries on the blog LiveScience.
“Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is,” Dunning told Life’s Little Mysteries.
What’s worse is that with incompetence comes the illusion of superiority.
The irony in that last sentence sails over the researchers' heads, of course.  Hold that thought as I proceed.

Back to the articles (two so far) published by Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree on diminishing human intelligence.  I did some looking around for more information; tried to find Crabtree's articles themselves, but though I found the journal online through the university, I couldn't find the articles themselves.  I'll keep looking.

But for now, none of the reports indicate that Crabtree presented any evidence that human intelligence is in fact decreasing. Here's a summary of his argument from the Daily Mail:
Based on calculations of the frequency with which deleterious mutations appear in the human genome and the assumption that 2,000 to 5,000 genes are required for intellectual ability, Dr Crabtree estimates that within 3,000 years, about 120 generations, we have all sustained two or more mutations harmful to our intellectual or emotional stability.

Also, recent findings from neuroscience suggest that genes involved in brain function are uniquely susceptible to mutations.

Dr Crabtree argues that the combination of less selective pressure and the large number of easily affected genes is eroding our intellectual and emotional capabilities.
There is, I admit, no evidence Crabtree could present on human intelligence in history, because we have no good measure of intelligence for humans today (or any definition of intelligence that would enable us to measure it), and even if we did, we are unable to apply those measures to people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.  So what Crabtree has here is at best a hypothesis that he can't test, nor has he any prospect of being able to test it.  (Readers who take IQ tests seriously might want to recall the Flynn Effect, a documented rise in IQ scores that has been observed since the beginning of IQ testing.  But again, there's no way to administer IQ tests to our cavedwelling forerunners.)  According to a New York Daily News story, "Crabtree estimated that within 3,000 years, humans will endure two or more mutations harmful to our intellectual and emotional stability." Now, there's a testable prediction -- all we have to do is wait three thousand years, and then Dr Crabtree can collect his Nobel Prize!

So how does Crabtree argue for a decline in human intelligence?  He uses a well-worn canard, that human beings have gone soft over the millennia because we don't have to dodge saber-tooth tigers anymore.  As this writer quotes him:
"Needless to say a hunter gatherer that did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died along with their progeny, while a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus," Crabtree explains.
Crabtree gets a point or two for mocking the people who think they're the smart ones, but that may be why this blogger -- Web Editor for the San Francisco Business Times -- isn't all that impressed.  Still, he does a good job on a much quoted passage from the paper:
"I would be willing to wager that if an average citizen of Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions," writes Crabtree (whose knowledge of Athenian history may not be quite as good as his obvious expertise in genetics -- he's chosen a date from the Dark Age in Greece, when writing was forgotten and "citizen" was a bit of a stretch, centuries before democracy, Pericles and his ilk -- ah, but I digress; read on, perhaps that's his point after all).

"We would be surprised by our time-visitor's memory, broad range of ideas and clear-sighted view of important issues. I would also guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues," he goes on.
He adds, "I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2,000 to 6,000 years ago."  So that's all right then.

I really must track down a copy of the paper, because I find it hard to believe that this drivel was published in a professional, peer-reviewed journal of genetics.  There's no science here, just speculation and fabulation: "I would be willing to wager ... We would be surprised ... I would also guess ..."  That and $2.50 will get you on the Metro.  It might fly on an Op-Ed page somewhere, but a scientist is supposed to give support for speculations, not just toss them out and treat them as fact.

It appears that Crabtree and his colleagues got their chronology mixed up in more serious ways. They place the peak of human intelligence before humans emerged from Africa, about 2 million years ago, with the long downhill slide following.  By two to six thousand years ago, most of those damaging mutations would have done their work.  There's no reason to believe that people who lived no more than six thousand years ago would be that different from people today -- but they would, on Crabtree's assumptions, be much more like us than they'd be like our shared African ancestors on the savannah.

The Daily Mail continued:
But the loss is quite slow, and judging by society's rapid pace of discovery and advancement, future technologies are bound to reveal solutions to the problem, Dr Crabtree believes.

He said: 'I think we will know each of the millions of human mutations that can compromise our intellectual function and how each of these mutations interact with each other and other processes as well as environmental influences.

'At that time, we may be able to magically correct any mutation that has occurred in all cells of any organism at any developmental stage.

'Thus, the brutish process of natural selection will be unnecessary.'

There is a lot of question-begging going on here: one is that "intelligence" was a crucial factor in human survival.  It doesn't take a lot of intelligence to escape from saber-toothed tigers; many non-human species have done at least as well as we have in that area.  According to the San Francisco Business Times writer, Crabtree considers "building a house, washing the dishes and putting them away (yes, that's one of his examples), or surviving in the jungle" to be examples of high human intelligence in action.  He has an odd concept of intelligence.  Did our ancestors two million years ago wash dishes?  But again, surviving in the jungle and building shelter are not specifically human abilities.

The only criterion that really matters in natural selection is reproductive success, and human beings have done quite well at that -- too well, in many people's view.  Maybe "intelligence" isn't as vital to human evolution as we like to think.  The canard on which Crabtree builds his case, that Homo Sapiens spread all over the planet, in all kinds of hostile environments, by somehow escaping selective pressure, is an absurd misunderstanding of the theory of natural selection.  But it's a popular one. Someone posted this, linking to the Daily Mail article: "There's no longer survival of the fittest. Intelligence isn't necessary to simply survive."  Like many people this person misunderstands "survival of the fittest."  It doesn't mean fitness according to an abstract conception of superiority; it means fitness in a given environment, and has no meaning outside that environment.  In an environment where intelligence hindered reproductive success, less intelligence would be fitter and the environment would select for it.  If Crabtree were right, that would be exactly what has happened: as human beings became less intelligent, we became more successful.  (It wouldn't necessarily follow that lower intelligence was being selected for, of course.)  But whatever role intelligence played in human evolution -- and we don't really know what role it was -- intelligence of the same kind and level wasn't necessary for reproductive (and therefore evolutionary) success in most species.  This is so basic that I feel foolish spelling it out like this, but there it is.  Insofar as human activity has changed the environment, we have affected natural selection -- but we haven't bypassed it, let alone eliminated it or triumphed over it.  (For example, if our invention and use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of resistant strains of microbes, that's natural selection in action.  Scientists weren't trying to produce resistant strains; they were an unintended and unwelcome outcome of their work.)

The Independent quoted a grumpy geneticist on Crabtree's papers:
“At first sight this is a classic case of Arts Faculty science. Never mind the hypothesis, give me the data, and there aren’t any,” said Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London.

“I could just as well argue that mutations have reduced our aggression, our depression and our penis length but no journal would publish that. Why do they publish this?” Professor Jones said.
Notice that, contrary to Professor Jones, Crabtree isn't "Arts Faculty."  Like Jones, he's a geneticist, the head of a laboratory at Stanford Medical School that studies Developmental Genetics, Chemical Biology, and Chromatin Regulation. In fact it's usually faculty in the humanities who criticize this kind of biological reductionism.  As Mary Midgley wrote in Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985): 

The effect [of specialization] is to leave many of today’s physical scientists rather unpracticed in general thinking, and therefore somewhat naïve and undefended against superstitions which dress themselves up as science.  Creationism, for instance, cuts no ice at all with humanists and social scientists.  Nobody trained to think historically is in any danger of taking it seriously, least of all theologians.  It makes its academic converts  among chemists and physicists – sometimes, alarmingly enough, even among biologists [24].
But Jones is right that Crabtree doesn't seem to have any data aside from some irrelevant (at least, their relevance isn't evident) calculations of the frequency of malign but unknown mutations that might affect human intelligence.  There's nothing necessarily wrong with putting out untestable speculations, but they don't constitute confirmation or proof of anything.

So why do "they" publish this?  I wonder that myself.  But it's easy to see why it got so much attention.  The thesis is a popular one among social Darwinists, who like to think that the race has gone soft due to luxurious living, and the Stupid are inheriting the earth, instead of their own superior selves. Which takes me back to the quotation above: With incompetence comes the illusion of superiority.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My Brother's Keeper III

In view of the current Israeli attack on Gaza, it has become increasingly untenable to try to cast Israel's conduct as self-defense.  (Which doesn't keep the Only President We've Got from trying, of course.)  Once again Israeli broke a ceasefire to kill a few people in Gaza, which led to retaliatory missiles aimed at Israel, which led to the Israeli assassination of a Hamas official and then to the Israeli blitzkrieg.  It needs to be stressed again that it is usually Israel that breaks the ceasefires, and that if Israeli leaders really wanted to stop missiles from Gaza, they need only to stop their own attacks.  If any further evidence were needed, it is clear that contrary to its protestations, it is Israel that doesn't want peace, except the peace of the conqueror.

I was quite surprised to see that the Washington Post had put on their front page a picture of a Palestinian father grieving for his 11-month-old baby killed by Israeli violence.  Ordinarily only Israeli suffering gets this treatment in corporate US media.  But of course, most other US coverage of the attacks on Gaza has followed the Israeli/US line.  That means lying, but what else is new?

An interesting trope emerged in comments to Glenn Greenwald's post on the subject today:
Missing is some good literature about what would happen to the Israelis if the Arabs won. What would happen to the Jewish and Christian Arab children, women and older men if the IDF is defeated? How would the Arabs treat the Israelis that are left alive? How would they divide up the country among the victorious parties? A good thought piece for a novel, and one that many people don't ever think about.

But what would happen if the people of Gaza won, and were able to rush out of Gaza and take over Israel. Would they be nicer to the Jews than the Israeils were to them?
This is a rather daring move, comparable to Obama apologists who admit that their POTUS has been something of a disappointment.  This commenter admits, at least rhetorically, that the Israelis have not been "nice" to the people of Gaza, which is pretty bold since all decent people know that the Arabs have only gotten what they deserved for wanting to drive the Jews into the sea.  We are constantly dunned with celebrations of the moral superiority of Israel not only to the Arabs but to all other nations. (The commenter also makes an interesting flipflop from "Jews" to "Israelis.")  Given what the commenter admitted, could Israelis and their American apologists really complain if a defeated Israel suffered the same treatment it has inflicted on its enemies?  If the conquering "Arabs" were no "nicer" to the defeated Israelis than the Israelis have been to the Palestinians and Lebanese, consistency would require the world (or at least the US) to marvel at the conquerors' very great indulgence and mercy, and to hail them as a moral example to the rest of the world.

But as with Obamabots, the concession is in the service of a greater lie.  It's a breathtaking diversion, but one I've seen before, sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit.  No doubt many people in the Middle East would like to see Israel vanish into thin air, but Hamas has declared that it accepts a two-state solution on the 1967 borders.  Perhaps this declaration is as disingenuous as Israel's own claims to want peace, but it should be tested.  It won't, of course, because both the US and Israel reject it, in defiance of the international consensus. And it would not mean that the Palestinians had won and were ready to take over Israel.  (The commenter's echo of traditional anti-Semitic rhetoric is, I presume, unconscious.)  It's unlikely that Palestine would ever have the military might that Israel has, which includes a nuclear arsenal of dubious legality, nor would it receive military aid on the scale Israel receives.  Maybe what the commenter is proposing is a worthwhile thought experiment, but I don't see why.  It's really irrelevant, but I think it lurks beneath the surface of a lot of Israeli and pro-Israeli propaganda, so it's worth noticing.

What I and probably most thoughtful critics of Israel favor is not an Israeli defeat. What we favor is that Israel should stop its terrorist violence against the Palestinians and others. (A good parallel would be the US "defeat" in Vietnam, which only meant that the US had to withdraw its forces; it did not mean US surrender to the Vietnamese people, who did not then occupy Washington and take over the US government.)  The Israelis need not surrender, contrary to what the commenter and others assume. All they need to do is stop their abuse of human rights, their violation of every humane concern that arose after the obscenity of World War II and the Nazi crimes. There are more alternatives than the status quo and the obliteration of Israel.

As the political philosopher Michael Neumann wrote in his 2005 book The Case Against Israel (Counterpunch/AK Press), no one is morally required to compromise with an invasion, and "having renounced all of pre-1967 Israel, the Palestinians have already compromised enormously when they demand total withdrawal from the Occupied Territories" (146). What comparable compromise can the Israelis offer?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mother Nature Never Really Loved Me

Today there was an interview on Democracy Now with the photographer James Balog, who appears in a new documentary by Jeff Orllowski on climate change, Chasing Ice.  Toward the end or the interview Balog mentioned that he has two daughters and "I’m very concerned about the stability and security and safety of the world that my kids will be in."

This fits in with other things I've seen climate-change activists and pundits say.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, Jim Naureckas wrote at the FAIR blog:
Without climate change, [Hurricane] Sandy wouldn't be weaker or have a smaller storm surge or strike somewhere else; there would be an entirely different weather pattern, most likely an entirely unremarkable one ...

I would note that if we're talking about a weather phenomenon that's never been seen before, we should be more skeptical of claims that such things happen naturally on hypothetical Earth X. And people who have been predicting that one of the things to expect from increasing climate change is an increase in the severity of storms should be listened to seriously when a storm of unprecedented severity occurs–just as people who recognized the housing bubble early on should have been listened to for advice on what to do after it popped.

But the one thing we can say for sure is that Sandy would not have occurred here and now without climate change. Is that a useful thing to say? Here's a thought experiment: Imagine we live in that world with no climate change. (Maybe the industrial revolution developed with wind and water power until a Thomas Edison analogue invented the solar panel.)
Naureckas concludes by referring to "the real-world experiment we call global warming."

Of course, everybody knows that by "climate change" we mean "human-accelerated climate change", and by "global warming" we mean "human-accelerated global warming."  Everybody knows that the climate would change by itself, because we know that it changed -- often drastically -- long before human beings invented the internal combustion engine, long before human beings existed.  There have been ice ages for millions of years.  The glaciers began receding after the last glacial maximum, which ended about 20,000 years ago.  There was what climatologists call a Little Ice Age from 1550 to 1850, when world temperatures dropped and then slowly began rising again.  It was during this period that England was hit by its worst recorded storm, in 1703, which killed thousands and devastated large areas of southern England.  Other highly destructive natural disasters, such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, have occurred throughout and before recorded history; we even know of extraterrestrial volcanoes.  The Permian-Triassic extinction event of 250 million years ago also happened without human assistance, as did the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event of 65 million years ago; many scientists believe that asteroid impacts were involved.

Please note that I'm not saying that human activity has not affected world temperatures or the climate; that's not in dispute by me.  Nor do I disagree that in a human-free world there would be different weather, Hurricane Sandy would probably not have taken place.  (I almost wrote "we would have different weather" there, even though I know full well that in human-free world, there would be no "we.")  What I am saying is that it's absurd to speak of a world without human-accelerated climate change as stable and secure and safe.  A couple of years ago I noticed the same belief in an article by Orville Schell, who wrote of glaciers as "something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal, something that has unexpectedly become vulnerable and perishable as it has slipped into irreversible decline."  I haven't thought of glaciers as immovable, immutable, or eternal since sixth grade, when I read popular science books about the Ice Age that described how they moved and changed over time.  If Schell imagined them as eternal, he is scientifically illiterate.

The underlying assumption I see here is that the world is essentially a place like a modern home that is designed for human comfort and safety, probably by Nature, who is our loving nurturing mother, so whom we can run when we stub our knees and she'll kiss it and make it well.  This belief has its mirror image in the notion of Nature or the Earth as a vindictive mother, who's going to open a can of whoop-ass on us because we failed to clean our room or wash behind our ears, or worse yet, didn't appreciate her for all the volcanoes and plagues and hurricanes and earthquakes she's given us.

Neither of these metaphors is true.  Neither the earth nor Nature is a sentient being, nurturing or punishing.  Human beings are one species on a smallish planet circulating a smaller star, and the universe is not a sentient being either.  (It felt odd to write that sentence, since scientists and lay believers like to dote on science's humbling of human pride.)  When the human race dies out and the sun goes nova and the universe goes into heat death, this will not be because we were bad and didn't eat our Brussels sprouts, and the universe will neither gloat nor mourn, because the universe is not a person.  Mary Midgley wrote in Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985) about the physicist Steven Weinberg and the biologist Jacque Monod (both Nobel laureates, by the way), of
the tone of personal aggrievement and disillusion, which seems to depend both in him and Monod, on failure to get rid of the animism or personification which they officially denounce. An inanimate universe cannot be hostile. To call it that is to reproach it for not being the divine parent of earlier belief. Only in a real, conscious human parent could uncaringness equal hostility. Weinberg’s mention of farce seems meant to imply the malicious callousness of such a parent, perhaps of one who leads a child on to expect affection and then rejects it. Monod seems to express the same unreasonable disappointment when he says that man lives “on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes”. Certainly if we expect the non-human world around us to respond to us as a friendly human would, we shall be disappointed. But this does not put it in the position of a callously indifferent human. … And because the natural world is not a person, neither is it an enemy whom we can heroically resist. The drama of Ajax defying the lightning falls flat once we have demystified electric charges as modern physics tells us to [87; emphasis added].
An inanimate universe cannot be hostile.  It's interesting that these fantasies of intention and attitude are projected onto the world by distinguished scientists, as well as by laypersons who scorn religious believers as slaves to "primitive," "tribal," wishful magical thinking.  Getting rid of magical thinking isn't as easy as disavowing it and putting a red atheist A on your blog; quite often it simply reappears under different names and guises.

Now, to repeat: I don't deny that human-accelerated global warming is going on.  I am skeptical of people who think that if only we'd invented the solar panel a century ago, Mom Earth wouldn't be giving us a licking with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.  The climate would be changing even if we still lived in caves; we just wouldn't be affecting it as much.  This blogger, a physicist, has written,
As long as we want to use the energy to drive, build, light, heat, cool, or whatever, the end result is heat. Perhaps this deserves a post of its own, because it may not be an obvious statement. But the short answer is that any technology: real; future; or imagined that provides a source of energy for our activities will necessarily run into the limits explored in the galactic scale energy post.
He has numbers and arguments to support that claim too, in the post he linked.  (Notice, by the way, that I said "support," not "prove" or "demonstrate.")  Because of this, I'm skeptical of claims that human beings can reverse or even stop the progress of global warming.  Maybe we can, and I'd be happy to be proved wrong in the event.  But I suspect that this claim is more magical thinking, akin to scientists' fantasies of dominating and controlling Nature.  Which is what's wrong with Naureckas's reference to human-accelerated global warming as an "experiment."  Human beings didn't develop technology or start exploiting fossil fuels as an experiment, to see what the effects of releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide and infrared radiation would be.  We did it as we've done most things: because we lived in a world that didn't provide the support we needed, and we had the brains and hands to find ways to provide it ourselves.  It wasn't only modern technology that has affected the environment -- the environment is always and inherently unstable, insecure, and unsafe.  These people must surely know of Darwin's theory of evolution as an account of the "struggle for existence," yet they talk as though they believed it would be a cakewalk if we would just improve our attitude and buy hybrid cars.  I understand their fear, I feel it myself, but that's not the world we live in.