Saturday, May 31, 2014

Laying Layers and the Lays They Tell

Throw Grammar from the Train's post for May argues that the distinction between lie (as in lie down, not as in tell a lie) and lay, is being lost, because it's just too confusing.  Only a few anal compulsive grammar obsessives (like me) ever learned it anyway, and:
That's not because we're a nation of semiliterate texting addicts; lay and lie have never been easy to distinguish.  In fact, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the verbs were not well differentiated until the 18th-century usage juggernaut got rolling. From 1300 to 1800, “the usage was unmarked: Sir Francis Bacon used [lay for lie] in the final and most polished edition of his essays in 1625.”
This doesn't bother me, because as Jan (the blogger) indicates, the distinction between lie and lay was not a genuine feature of the language but a distinction invented and imposed by people who didn't really understand grammar.  But it does make me wonder about the other sense of lie, the sense of deliberately saying something that isn't true.  I suppose people don't confuse it because the meaning is obviously different. Though have you noticed how many people, when they found they made a mistake, will say brightly -- semi-ironically, I think -- I lied!  Even some of my Mexican friends do it, saying Miento, miento (I lie, I lie) when they realize they misspoke.  It's not a grammatical issue, it's one of semantics, but because lying and truthtelling are also moral issues, it's that as well.

So a friend shared (in the Facebook sense) this meme today.

She didn't actually endorse it.  She added a remark to the effect that she was rushed and would read it later, so presumably she shared it so she'd be able to find it when she had time to read it.  (I often do this, but by "liking" rather than sharing.)  I did some looking around on the Internet and found that the information in the image has been debunked numerous times.  I put those links into a comment to her, and after a moment's thought added another comment, linking to the Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:16) at a Bible site: "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor."

My friend is the daughter of a minister, and remains devoutly (though not too obnoxiously) Christian.  Unlike some other people I know, she doesn't get all pissy when I post corrections to disinformational memes she passes along.  But it still never seems to occur to her to check those memes herself.  And you'd think, wouldn't you, that people who take their religion seriously, would be concerned that what they send out into the Intertoobz would be true?  According to very old canons of truth and falsehood, it's not enough just to refrain from saying something you know to be false, hard as that standard is to meet.  You also must try to make sure that what you are saying is true.  This means, among other things, that you have to evaluate what you get from other people and want to pass along. This, evidently, is even harder.  Yet the religious believers I know, be they conservative or liberal, seem to give it little thought, and that was true long before Facebook or the Internet.

I wrote last week about the Tasteful Jesus Lady, who despite her flaunted faith also doesn't care much whether what she's saying is true or not.  But I reached a personal tipping point about this during the 2012 election season, and the worst offenders were ostensibly secular Obama supporters like my liberal law professor friend.  (To be scrupulous, the avowed conservatives were just as bad, but I expected no better from them.  My bias.)  Then there's my fictive nephew, who often shares village-atheist memes on Facebook, like this one yesterday, from something called "The Free-Thinking Society":

This meme has the dubious distinction of being false in almost every particular, from the number of translators who worked on the New Testament to the claim that the KJV was "edited" from "previous translations" rather than translated directly from the original languages, and more.  Some of the errors are insultingly trivial, such as the reference to "scrolls": all New Testament manuscripts, including the earliest, are codices, not scrolls; but whether a document was written on a scroll or a codex tells you nothing about its truthfulness or lack thereof.  (The motive, I think, is to insinuate that because scrolls are totally primitive, what was written in them needn't be taken seriously by enlightened Free Thinkers.)  Since none of these facts are that hard to track down, whoever made this meme should be regarded as, if not a liar, then at least someone who doesn't care whether he or she is telling the truth.  If "Free Thinking" means freedom to make stuff up, I could get that in a church.

Speaking of lies, my friend got the meme about charities from a page called WorldTruth.TV.  When I went to download the meme to repost it here I found this one next to it, a cartoon of a crowd of white adults (weirdly enough; not only all middle-aged adults but all male) in multicolored clothing walking through a portal labeled PUBLIC SCHOOL and emerging all in gray, with this caption:
The public school system: Usually a twelve year sentence of mind control. Crushing creativity, smashing individualism, encouraging collectivism and compromise, destroying the exercise of intellectual inquiry, twisting it instead into meek subservience to authority.
There's a lot to criticize about the public school system, of course.  But I know of no indication that private schools are any different.  There's always been a divide between people who think schools should teach children to think and people who think schools should teach children to obey, and in general the latter group has usually gotten their way.  One of the reasons for religious schools is to make sure that the students are indoctrinated with a given cult's dogmas.  I get the impression that many people who complain that schools indoctrinate children really just want kids indoctrinated with their propaganda, not someone else's.

A friend of the friend who posted the Free Thinking meme attacked me for correcting it.  Significantly, he attacked me personally, not bothering to address the factual issues.  That's what most people think debate means, I suspect.  And then think again about the people who, realizing they said something untrue, say I lied.  Their tone of voice indicates they're joking, kind of, but I wonder.  The difference between making a mistake and deliberately telling a falsehood seems to be as difficult for many people to grasp as the difference between lie and lay, and it's a lot more important.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Each to His or Her Own

Funny -- I would rather the exact opposite.

One person who liked and shared this meme on Facebook is a coworker who loves to go camping.  But she doesn't go out into the wild, the real nature.  She and her husband take their camper to campsites that provide electricity and other amenities, where they're surrounded by many other like-minded nature fans.  (She's often remarked on the difficulty of getting a good spot, which must be reserved in advance.)  And of course, they don't go out during the winter.  Communing with nature has its season.

I like green grass, living water, and fresh air myself, but on the whole I prefer to be amongst city traffic and the noise of "man."  I live in a small (though growing) city, and my idea of fun is to travel to a city -- San Francisco, Chicago, Seoul, Incheon.  It's a bit ironic, given my loner tendencies, but even as I live alone I'm glad to know that there are people handy, and I like interacting with other people.  That kind of interaction is a benefit of city life.

Yes, cities have their dangers, but so does Nature.  Before "Man" wiped out many predators, a sojourn in the forest would likely bring you into the proximity of critters that would view you not as Man, but as Lunch.  It seems, in fact, that this cultivated nostalgia for a carefully modified-and-tamed-by-humans Nature is an artifact of modernity.  It's a luxury we moderns can indulge because we can keep Nature at bay.  (Most of the time, anyway.)

Ah well, each to his or her own.  The difference between a city-lover like me and a nature-lover like my coworker is a matter of degree rather than kind, I think.  I wouldn't want to live in a place where there was no greenery, but well-maintained cities should and do have plenty of plant life within reach; parks aren't "nature" in the sense meant by the meme, they're human creations.  Nor would my coworker want to abandon the technology of Man that she and her husband cart along with them into the greenwood.  I'm just a bit bothered by the contempt expressed in that meme for those comforts -- since the speaker in the meme is a human being himself, there's self-hatred in it too.  That can't be a good thing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You Say "Tomato" and I'll Say "Sequester"

Robert Reich (economist and Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor) posted this on his Facebook page today:
Dinner last night with Alan Simpson (for those of you who don’t remember, he was a senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, during which time he served as Republican whip and Assistant Republican Leader). Alan and I don’t see eye to eye on much of anything – figuratively or literally (he’s 6’7” tall). But he’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s witty, big-hearted, able to listen and willing to change his mind if he thinks he’s wrong, and incredibly generous. (He and his wife Ann trekked from Cody, Wyoming to San Francisco yesterday to help raise money so Jake Kornbluth, who directed "Inequality for All," and I can make more videos and films.)

Simpson and I respect each other’s different points of view, enjoy each other’s company, and laugh a lot. Why is it so impossibly difficult for Democrats and Republicans do this anymore?
This is the kind of thing that gives liberals a bad name. Simpson, for those of you who don't remember, was appointed (along with Democratic Senator Erskine Bowles) by President Obama to co-chair his Catfood Commission, intended to provide a rationale for the destruction of Social Security and other vital social programs in the name of lowering the Federal deficit.  Though on one level it failed -- the Commission couldn't muster the votes needed to ratify the desired conclusions -- on another level it succeeded, for the co-chairs wrote their own report, which President Obama and most other politicians and the corporate media media accepted as the "conclusions" of the Commission.  Despite this, "during the spring of 2012, a Budget Resolution based in part on the Simpson-Bowles plan was voted on in the House of Representatives. The plan was voted down 382-38" (via).  A later consequence was the "sequester," which imposed spending cuts that were deplored by just about everyone, including its chief architect.  As you can see, it's not so impossibly difficult for Democrats and Republicans to laugh together after all, as long as they're laughing at the plight of the general public under their policies.

But enough of the dead past.  Professor Reich is, I must say, confused.  No one is obligated to respect anyone else's point of view, only to respect their right to hold and express their point of view.  As the philosopher Paul Feyerabend put it,
Nor does one become illiberal when denying truth to a Puritan. Liberalism ... is a doctrine about institutions and not about individual beliefs. It does not regulate individual beliefs, it says that nothing may be excluded from the debate. A liberal is not a mealymouthed wishy-washy nobody who understands nothing and forgives everything, he is a man or a woman with occasionally quite strong and dogmatic beliefs among them the belief that ideas must not be removed by institutional means. Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions.
I don't consider myself a liberal except in the limited sense Feyerabend adumbrated here.  (It comes from his reply to criticism from his fellow-philosopher Ernest Gellner, which -- the reply, I mean -- was reprinted in Feyerabend's Science in a Free Society [Verso, 1978].)  Reich, however, does, and as a political scientist he should know better than his remarks indicate.

I myself have friends whose politics are sharply opposed to mine.  I don't pretend to respect their opinions, nor do I expect them to respect mine.  In general we agree to disagree, and if we enjoy each other's company we can agree not to discuss our differences.  This can become tiresome in time, and it has its perils.  The Peck's Bad Boy of academia, Stanley Fish, toured college campuses with the corrupt right-wing political hack Dinesh D'Souza in 1991-1992, debating Political Correctness and similar chimerae.  Fish remarked (I believe it was in the book where his half of the debate was published) that they got along well, to the extent that Fish danced at D'Souza's wedding.  That's touching, I guess, but Fish allowed their bud-ship to compromise his critical judgment, when a decade later he contributed a blurb to one of D'Souza's books, calling it "witty, informed, learned and lively," committing four errors in five words.

There have been quite a few famous odd-couple friendships that crossed political or other divides.  Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Buchanan were drinking buddies.  Need I mention James Carville and Mary Matalin?  The writer Brendan Gill and the academic Joseph Campbell were friends for many years despite Campbell's racism and anti-Semitism, though unlike Reich, Gill didn't feel obligated to respect his friend's point of view:
His bigotry with respect to Jews was of an equal odiousness [equal to the bigotry he displayed toward blacks, which included agitating -- unsuccessfully -- against their admission to the college where he taught] and seemingly uneradicable.  By the time I came to know him, he had learned to conceal a few of its grosser manifestations, but there can be no doubt that it existed ... He avoided manifesting his anti-Semitism in my presence in order to avoid my attacking him, but a friend we had in common told me that Campbell, proud to be a member of the New York Athletic Club, often recounted the tricky means by which Jews were prevented from becoming members.  This was ironic because, apparently unbeknownst to Campbell, the New York Athletic Club in earlier days had been every bit as violently opposed to Irish Catholics as to Jews.  Campbell's father had been in a position to arrange for his son to become a member only because, in the Great Depression, the club had come so close to bankruptcy that its WASP members had grudgingly consented to elect the first of an army of what they called "the Irish swine" [Gill, A New York Life: Of Friends and Others (Poseidon Press, 1990), 48-49; bold type mine].
I've shown insufficient respect to my own racist friends, which they reciprocated.  One, for example, a woman a few years younger than I who attended the same high school, was fond of posting racist memes on Facebook.  I criticized the memes, and her for posting them, to her indignation.  But we continued chatting with each other online, pleasantly enough, mostly about our respective sex lives.  I said I'd take her out to lunch the next time I came up that way.  Last winter she was in a terrible auto accident that nearly killed her, and the posting and the conversations stopped while she was in a coma in the hospital.  But a few weeks later, the racist postings resumed, and after some hesitation I decided that if she'd recovered enough to post this crap, she'd recovered enough to take heat for it.  She was, again, indignant: Why do you have to keep talking about politics? she demanded.  I replied that if she didn't want to talk about politics, she shouldn't post political stuff to her timeline.  She unfriended me, as did a mutual friend who said I was being mean to her and I needed to develop a sense of humor.  I have a sense of humor, but I was being mean to her, just as I'd be mean to anyone who talked about shooting Mexicans for the target practice.  Maybe Robert Reich wouldn't like my attitude, but it seems to me that not being mean is a two-way street.  I suppose that Simpson keeps his politics out of their socializing.  Since my friend refused to do so with me, I saw and see no reason to respect her point of view -- more important, no reason not to disagree with her.

This has some suggestive implications for some recent controversies, such as the protests against Condoleezza Rice's delivering a commencement address at Rutgers, which have engendered an ocean of crocodile tears about freedom of speech among the chattering classes.  (No doubt the same people who declared their intention to protest a commencement address by Eric Holder at a police academy in Oklahoma City, leading Holder to back out.  And no, I hadn't heard about it either, until I read the Los Angeles Times article I just linked to.  RWA1, for one, who was furious about the opposition to Rice's appearance, was silent about that one.)

How much respect am I obliged to give to people whose opinions I not only disagree with but oppose?  As I asked not long ago, must I vote for a Tea Party Republican political candidate just because he happens to be gay?  Are liberal-ish gay political groups required to endorse and support such a person, just because he happens to be gay?  Must I buy Condoleezza Rice's books just to show how even-handed and open I am to differing views?  How about the works of Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter?  Must I subscribe to, say, The National Review?  And if I must, aren't all the right-wingers I know obligated to subscribe to The Nation or In These Times, and to invite Eric Holder or Hillary Clinton to speak at their alma mater's commencement?  No, freedom of speech is all very well, but that would be going too far.

I do business with RWA1, despite his politics; I've even worked, part-time and irregularly, for him from time to time.  But I also disagree with him, as he disagrees with me.  I have no idea whether he respects me or my opinions; I know that I don't respect his.  I suppose there's some mutual personal respect, but that doesn't seem to oblige us to treat each other's politics with kid gloves.

On the other hand, the blogger Ampersand was upset during the Brendan Eich controversy when a new GMO-free grocery was targeted for boycott, because the owners had posted on their Facebook page that they opposed same-sex marriage and "one of the store’s co-owners linked to a libertarian article arguing that stores should have the legal right to refuse to serve gay customers."  It seems to me that since the owners took pains to state their beliefs publicly, it's acceptable for gay and pro-gay potential customers to react to those beliefs.  In particular, if the owners of a business declare publicly that they want the "right" not to serve me, I have the right to take them at their word, and not give them my business.  If they don't want my money, far be it from me to give it to them!

I haven't been able to find the comment by someone who attacked other people for seeking out people with unacceptable views to pick on.  This is a common distracting tactic, I've found.  But no one cornered the owners of that grocery and grilled them about the purity of their politics: they went out of their way to publicize their views.   What do same-sex marriage and sexual orientation have to do with running an organic food mart?  We queers are often accused of dragging our sexuality into everything, usually by people who are obsessed with our sexuality and won't shut up about it.  (We're also often accused of looking for bigotry.  Alas, we don't need to go looking for it -- it comes looking for us.)

Ampersand drew a distinction between choosing not to patronize a business whose owners have views one abhors (which is okay) and making others aware of the owners' abhorrent views and presenting a more or less united front of people who choose not to patronize that business (which is not okay); I'm having trouble grasping where the difference lies.  It's not as if we're talking about someone's personal, privately-held political beliefs; we're talking about someone's beliefs that they publicized on their business's Facebook page, thus advertising their politics along with their business.  It's they who chose to connect their business and their politics. Ampersand argued that a boycott is not a good way to persuade the owners that they're wrong; well, an antigay declaration on Facebook is not a good way to persuade potential customers to patronize one's business. One commenter complained that a boycott isn't meant to persuade but to coerce and punish; I think he's right, but I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.  Again, Ampersand doesn't mind my taking my money elsewhere, and I wouldn't be doing that to persuade them either.

Along the same lines, am I being punitive if I run for office against an incumbent because of his or her policies?  Or even if I work in the campaign of their political opponent, or merely vote for someone else? Wouldn't I do better to try to persuade Alan Simpson or Hillary Clinton to change their views, instead of punishing them by throwing (or keeping) them out of office?  This may seem absurd, but remember the right-wingers who say exactly this about right-wing gay or female candidates: their critics and opponents are hypocrites who don't really believe in diversity, or we'd vote for them!  And it's not that far from the Dems who attacked Obama's left critics by accusing them of racism, of giving aid and comfort to the Rethugs, of not voting and of trying to stop others from voting.  I have no doubt that we'll see the same behavior in 2016 if Hillary Rodham Clinton runs for the Presidency.  The idea that one could vote for a candidate, perhaps as the lesser evil, yet still point out their faults, is unthinkable to party loyalists.  I think Reich is probably coming from a similar place.

I'm not sure there's a correct solution to this, in the same sense as the right answer to an arithmetical sum; we need to think about it, and discuss it, if possible with the people on the other side.  That's why it's bad when a Condoleezza Rice or a Brendan Eich or an Eric Holder refuses to engage in debate, just takes their ball and bat and runs home.  Luckily, the debate goes on anyway, without them.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Minor Occasion

I was out of town last week on the seventh anniversary of this blog, and I forgot to notice it.  I'm gratified that I've kept going this long, and I'm grateful to all those who read my rants and raves, especially to those who have let me know that they like what I'm doing.  I mean to go on doing it as long as I have something to say.  Thanks to my readers!

Every Bookstore's Closing Diminishes Me

Rolling Stone ran a story recently about the closing of Giovanni's Room, a GLBT bookstore in Philadelphia.  I quibble with its characterizing Giovanni's Room as "the oldest gay bookstore in America," since the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City was founded six years earlier than Giovanni's Room, but it closed five years sooner, on 2009. 

Giovanni's Room is only the latest gay-bookstore casualty, as many other such stores around the country have closed.  But so have general-purpose brick-and-mortar bookstores.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I always enjoyed visiting a new city and having the local gay bookstore to check out, and I'd often discover new works there that had been unknown to me, or that I hadn't been able to find before.  The loss of these places saddens me, but I remind myself that it's because I'm a bookworm, and there are plenty of GLBT resources left.  So, on the other hand, I'm glad that books on homosexuality are readily available everywhere, and there are a lot more of them now than there were when I was growing up.  To kids growing up outside of cities even now, a gay bookstore in New York or Chicago or San Francisco isn't that much use; it's much more important that they be able to find resources in their local library.  In the small town where I grew up, population about 8000, the public library -- an excellent one, by the way, which speaks well for the town -- has plenty of books and DVDs on GLBT subjects.  When I was a young fagling, there were none except perhaps for books marketed to the mainstream, like Mary Renault's historical fiction.

The Rolling Stone article stresses the value of Giovanni's Room as a general resource apart from, or in addition to, the products it sells.  The owner, Ed Hermance, told the reporter, "The store has played a critical role in so many people's lives ... Coming in the store can be like coming out to yourself."  It can be, and it's important that such places exist, but there's no reason they need to be bookstores.  (Hermance also told Rolling Stone "sales have been declining since 1992.")  "'With all the money in this community,' says Rita Adessa, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Lesbian and Gay Task Force, 'there's no reason for Giovanni's Room to go down.'"  That's true, too, but I hope that with all the money in that community, there are other resources available for people who need to come out to themselves.

I wish I had a better sense of how young gay kids are coming out these days, even in my own city.  Indiana University's Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Student Support Services is doubtless useful to many, and I'm glad it's there, despite my old gay-liberationist distrust of GLBT professionalism.  It's a niche that some people can relate to, so I'm glad it's there for them.  No single resource will appeal to everyone.  Other people come to IU already out from their high school days, and the main thing they need is finding a social environment.  There is one gay bar in town, but it's of limited use to people under 21.  There have been many attempts to build alternatives in the more than forty years I've been in Bloomington, but they soon falter for lack of support, which also means use.  I've often tried to get people to explain what they are looking for in terms of resources, with little luck.  Many people weren't interested in the dances and coffeehouses of the seventies because they didn't serve alcohol; that was never important to me, but it's noteworthy how many people weren't even interested in places where they could meet other gay people without using alcohol.  Booze is, after all, a social catalyst in American society generally, not just among gay people, so that's not surprising.  There wasn't a specifically gay bar in Bloomington until the late 1970s, and it wouldn't have survived if not for the straight people who also went there for the dance music and the ambience.  Many gay men from Bloomington went to Indianapolis and the bars (and baths) there, so that they wouldn't be seen by people they knew -- unless they were also going to Indianapolis.  Despite all the talk about community, not all gay people are interested in community.  I'd like to know how much this has changed, if it has.
But, along with the lopsided competitive advantage, online retailers, Hermance notes, aren't as attuned to the quality, rather than quantity, of the sales they make. Search on Amazon for "gay fiction" and the first result to come back is Sebastian, a book with a shirtless man in cut-off denim shorts on its cover. A few of the other top-10 book titles showing nearly-naked men included: Feeling No Pain and Naked Hero – The Journey Away. There is no contextual guiding hand nor emotional intelligence to these recommendations. 
A look at the photo of GR's stock in the article shows that this isn't an issue limited to online booksellers, and I wonder how often the "contextual guiding hand" and "emotional intelligence" got a chance to do its job in gay bookstores.  There was always a lot of erotically-oriented material, not to mention porn, in the gay bookstores I had the chance to visit, and I bet such material paid the rent better than the more respectable books and magazines.  (In the same way, heterosexual non-chain "mom and pop" video stores that have survived usually have porn in a back room, and they couldn't survive if they didn't rent such material.)

Again, Rolling Stone reports:
"There was a golden age when feminist and gay bookstores helped elevate the quality of reading," says Phil Tiemeyer, Lambda Literary Finalist this year for Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. "Employees might say, 'Oh, you came in for Sci-Fi but did you also see our Philosophy or History section?"

When Tiemeyer's historical work appeared on the Top Five on the Amazon LGBT nonfiction list, he says it was couched between two sex guides – How to Have Anal Sex and The Ass Book: Staying on Top of Your Bottom. "There's something really problematic about that from an intellectual point of view," he says.
Oooh!  That sets off my bullshit detector.  I'm amazed that Tiemeyer's book -- published by an academic press and not written for a general audience -- appeared in a Top Five bestseller list at all.  As I recall, the best-selling gay male books have always included stuff like The Ass Book.  Lesbian bestsellers have included soft-core porn in the form of romances.  For that matter, the current New York Times nonfiction bestseller list puts Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century at number 1, followed by Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent; the number one fiction bestseller is a mystery by James Patterson with a cowriter.   I wouldn't be surprised if many people who bought Plane Queer hoped for hot parts, and were disappointed to find academic jargon instead; I'd be surprised if most who bought it finished it.  As Mark D. Jordan wrote of John Boswell's famous Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980, it, "and, to a lesser extent, [Boswell's Same-Sex Unions] are talismans more than books. People own them much more often than they read them, because mere possession is enough to allow one to benefit from the results."  Kinsey's Sexual Behavior books were bestsellers too, but how many people actually read them?

I wish more people would read more serious stuff, but that they don't is not news nor a sign of general cultural (or subcultural) decline.  I stress "more" there, because there's no reason why serious books should be all that people read.  I read more academic writing than most non-academics do, often with pleasure, but I also read a lot of lighter work, as do academics themselves.  One reason why feminist scholars began analyzing romance fiction and Gothics was that they were embarrassed by their own fondness for such fare, and then questioned their embarrassment.  But it doesn't work the other way much, and that's too bad.  I believe that people would get a lot out of history and philosophy and political writing, if they'd just give it a chance, but they won't.  I hear a lot of excuses, some of which are probably true enough (not enough time on top of their job, they fall asleep when they read, etc.), but I don't think they're the whole story.  What to do about this, I don't know.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Does This Meme Make Me Look Mean?

Well, better to do it the easy way than to let another day pass without a post.  Besides, this might be amusing.

I'm losing count of my right-wing acquaintances from high school days on Facebook, and the one I have in mind could qualify as the Tasteful Jesus Lady.  Her profile pictures show a rather expensively dressed, coiffed, and made-up person, who (judging from some photos of her with her husband) married money.  She's so tasteful that I feel a bit bad about picking on her, but she's been dumping nasty junk on the Facebook superhighway lately, so here goes.  There was the one about how prayer should be allowed in classrooms.  I and another person pointed out that prayer is already allowed in classrooms -- but public schools aren't allowed to require it.  Children may pray on their own when they wish.  So what, I asked, did she have in mind when she put that meme in her timeline?

One handy thing about memes, of course, is that they give people plausible deniability.  They can (and do) say I didn't mean anything, I'm just passing it along, maybe it'll provoke thought!  The last thing such people are interested in is thought, of course.  The Tasteful Jesus Lady was evasive; very possibly, like many people, she had no idea what the issue was.  A lot of people are quite happy to blur the distinction between a student's personal prayer before class and a school making children pray.  I don't know anything about anything, I just love Jesus!

Last week she posted a meme about how if America would pray, everything would be nice.  I pointed out that America is and has always been a religion-crazed country, more than most nations outside of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and that this was even more true when we were slaughtering Indians and selling slaves south to hellholes.  The Confederacy was an explicitly Christian nation.  But leave ancient history out of it.  Right now the people who talk most about turning America back to God are pushing all kinds of hateful agendas.  Her response: the people in the past were thinking as men think, not as God thinks.  And if more people were on their knees today, "we wouldn't be having this conversation."  Oh, I think we would, though if she were on her knees she wouldn't be posting theocratic bullshit on Facebook, would she?

Which brings me more or less up to date.  Yesterday TJL posted one of those memes with a quizzical-looking baby asking "Why the heck do I have to press 1 for English?  Did America move?"  By the time I saw it, one of her other friends had asked in a comment (all spelling sic; I've replaced TJL's name with my pseudonym for her, to protect the guilty):
I have often wondered if we were traveling in Germany,Russia or spain.Do they have an alternate language besides there native tounge.What is it?English,Spanish,or French.Or are we the only country that caters to a race of people who refuse to speak our native tounge.Should we not cater to other languages.Korean,Japaneese,Philipino,ect.Since you have traveled to other countries. [TJL] do you know what they do there?There are 10 # on the phone.It seems like we should be able to choose . or to speak only English.
TJL replied [also sic]:
A lot of of other countries speak English ,but they don't cater to one language ,if you speak English to them most try to speak it back to you...but they do not use English language first and asked to press 1 for their own language and for the people I know that are Americans that live in other countries, learn that language of that country...
I replied to both of them at some length. They didn't reply, though a couple of other people 'liked' my comments.  Today I did an online search for an image, ran it through a meme editor, and posted it:

 I stumbled on a picture with just the right quizzical facial expression, too.  Having done this I still felt dissatisfied, so I continued:

I suspect that at least some older Koreans must wonder about that.  Which led to this one:

Next I succumbed to Godwin's Law.  I haven't posted this one  to Facebook.  Yet.

P.S.  A different high school friend posted this.  I have no idea of the context, and it doesn't matter.  But one response to the "learn to speak English!" people might be, "Sure, you first."

When???? Will I learn to keep my "BIG" mouth Shut ?????? Another one bites the "Dust" !!!!! 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Magic Gene

Oh, my head hurts.  First my friend A linked to this article from a Canadian magazine decrying the growing anti-intellectualism of American life.  As far as I can tell, the differences between the US and Canada in that area are a matter of degree, not of kind.  And while it's perfectly okay for the People's Republic of Canuckistan to criticize America, the Chomsky/King principle would prioritize criticism of one's own country before lashing out at others.

There's a funny story about that, in fact, from Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (The New Press, 2002):
Now, when I go to Canada, I do get asked onto mainstream national radio and television a lot, as distinct from here -- a lot.  But see, that's because I criticize the United States, and in Canada they like it when people come up and dump on the United States -- because the United States is always pushing them around all the time, so it's nice if somebody comes and says how rotten the United States is once in a while.  On the other hand, I got sick of this a couple of times, and I started talking about Canada -- and I was off so fast you couldn't even see it ...

There's this nationwide talk radio show in Canada which everybody tunes in some time in the morning, and every time I'd go into Toronto they would invite me to come on that show.  So we'd have whatever it is, fifteen minutes, and this guy would ask me some leading questions, I'd tell him how rotten the United States is, big smile.

Well, one time I got really sick of this, and I started talking about Canada ...

Then I said something about Canada and the Vietnam War -- Canada was always denouncing the United States during the Vietnam War for its criminal actions, meanwhile Canada was probably the leading military exporter in the world per capita, enriching itself on the destruction of Indochina.  So I mentioned some of this stuff.  He went off into kind of a tantrum.  I actually thought it was sort of funny, but apparently his listeners didn't -- when I left, about ten minutes of listening to this harangue, the producer, quivering, stopped me and said: "Oh my god, the switchboard's lighting up, we're getting thousands of phone calls from all over Canada."

And apparently the phone calls were just about the fact that this guy Gzowski was being impolite -- I don't know if people agreed with me particularly, but there were a lot of people who were very angry about the way he was going about it.  Like I said, I thought it was comical, it didn't bother me ... 

Anyway, they made a big effort, they called me up in Boston, and we went through another show -- in which Gzowski was very contrite and quiet, just to make it up to the audience.  But that was the last time I ever heard from them; I've never been asked on that show with him again.

And that's happened to me elsewhere in Canada too, I should say -- I mean, I've been invited to universities in Canada where they've literally refused to pay my plane fare after I gave talks in which I denounced Canada.  So you know, Canada's very nice as long as you're criticizing the United States -- try going after Canada and see what happens to you [289-90].
Notice that Chomsky isn't complaining here about people being mean to him; he's just pointing out that "the media system works the same in both countries" (290-1).  You can get on mainstream US television and denounce other countries, especially official enemies, to your heart's content, with no requirement of factual accuracy or rationality.  You can even denounce the US government, if you're a Republican, and you'll get airtime and sympathetic treatment, which tells us something about the actual orientation of our corporate media.  But certain criticisms may not be uttered in their precincts.

This doesn't in itself mean that the criticisms by Jonathan Gatehouse, the article's author, are necessarily inaccurate, only that he's not sticking his neck out.  As far as I can see, some of his accusations are accurate, others are not.  Much of what he complains about has nothing to do with intelligence or the intellect.  For example:
The cost of a simple appendectomy in the United States averages $33,000 and it’s not uncommon for such bills to top six figures. More than 15 per cent of the population has no health insurance whatsoever. Yet efforts to fill that gaping hole via the Affordable Health Care Act—a.k.a. Obamacare—remain distinctly unpopular. Nonsensical myths about the government’s “real” intentions have found so much traction that 30 per cent still believe that there will be official “death panels” to make decisions on end-of-life care.
True, the US health care system is not in good shape.  But it's false that "efforts to fill that gaping hole" are "distinctly unpopular."  As has often been pointed out, the majority of Americans favor a universal single-payer system -- like Canada's -- or a national health service like Britain's, despite a determined propaganda campaign against them.  (And those socialistic systems are themselves under attack, so far unsuccessful but determined and unrelenting, in their own countries.)  The enemies of real health care reform in the US are not the general population, but our elites, like President Obama, who jeer at the idea of turning the US into Canada.  The ACA is basically a negotiated treaty between the American people and the health insurance industry and Big Pharma.  And despite the right's propaganda campaign, the ACA has evidently been pretty successful so far.  This is not exactly news unless you rely for your information on the usual suspects, namely the US corporate media and certain liberal outliers.  It appears that Gatehouse did exactly that, which doesn't speak well for his intellectual capacity.

The rest of the article is more of the same: Oh noes!  Many Americans don't believe in Evolution!  American students are falling behind the rest of the civilized world!  George W. Bush and Sarah Palin drop their G's!  Even Obama does!  The NSA!  Soundbytes!  Twitter!  LOLcats!  Oh noes!  Most of this is either false, dubious, or irrelevant.  Gatehouse has simply gone to the same well as those he criticizes:
Most perplexing, however, is where the stupid is flowing from. As conservative pundit David Frum recently noted, where it was once the least informed who were most vulnerable to inaccuracies, it now seems to be the exact opposite. “More sophisticated news consumers turn out to use this sophistication to do a better job of filtering out what they don’t want to hear,” he blogged.
It should be remembered where David Frum originally flowed from: Canada.  And he's hardly a reliable source, considering his participation in the American Right from the Reagan administration to Bush II.  From time to time he'll pull himself up short and weep great remorseful tears over what he has wrought, such as his 1995 jeremiad Dead Right (Basic Books), but then he goes back and does some more.  And given the history of American wack, I am skeptical of Frum's claim, seconded by Gatehouse, that "it was once the least informed who were most vulnerable to inaccuracies."  Frum may not be aware of American elites' fondness for end-times Christianity (search for Boyer in that post), but he should know about their anti-Semitism, which kept Jewish students and faculty out of Ivy League and other elite institutions.

Then today I got a link to this article at In These Times.  It's more of the same, a review of a recent book that attempts to rehabilitate scientific racism yet again.  But the durability of scientific racism, whatever you can say about it, is simply not a sign of anti-intellectual or anti-science heresy.  Quite the contrary: it means that people like science and respect it and want its support and prestige for their beliefs.  Does Jonathan Marks, the reviewer, realize just how intimately entwined scientific racism has been with Darwinian theory, historically speaking?  It doesn't look like it.

Not too surprisingly, Marks is an anthropologist.  Anthropologists have been among the most consistent critics of scientific racism, from the great Franz Boas onward, so they have been accused by proponents of scientific racism of (what else?) hostility to science, trying to make reality conform to their fuzzy-brained hippy-dippy politically-correct fantasies.  (The very first comment under Marks's review takes this tack, I see.)  This has been such a satisfying tactic that proponents of scientific racism use it even on fellow biologists, geneticists, and other lab-oriented scientists.

This doesn't mean that all humanities-oriented critiques of scientific racism have been well-made.  (The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.)  I wonder what Marks thinks of the attempts to prove a genetic basis for homosexuality, for example.  Many people who vehemently reject scientific racism applied to "race" and gender will embrace it when it "proves" that homosexuality is a biological condition, and those who attack that project mostly content themselves with babble about "social construction," a concept they don't seem to understand.  This isn't always true -- the anthropologist Roger Lancaster did a fine job dismantling scientific racism in The Trouble With Nature: Sex and Science in Popular Culture (California, 2003), for example -- but it seems to be the hegemonic response nowadays.  That's not anti-intellectualism, of course: such people are the very model of a modern intellectual.  They just don't do intellectualism very well.  But few people ever have, and Jonathan Marks and Jonathan Gatehouse aren't exceptions to the rule.

Here's an interesting observation from Lancaster's The Trouble with Nature (196):
Far from providing the occasion for self-evident truths or stable understandings, the question of reproduction actually seems ripe for mythical thinking and magical investments.  (In a place no more exotic than my native North Carolina, for example, I have met many people – some of whom work in hospitals, are familiar with medical models of reproduction, and understand how ultrasound works – who believe that a child’s sex is not fixed until moments before birth, and who thus urge expecting mothers to eat certain foods and to avoid engaging in certain activities so as to influence the sex of the child.)
In other words, magical thinking and scientific training are not mutually exclusive.  Magical thinking is part of our evolutionary heritage, after all, and magic isn't incompatible with the intellect -- indeed, intelligent and intellectual people constructed elaborate systems of magic in all cultures.  You don't achieve intellectual consistency by disavowing magic, crossing your fingers, spitting over your shoulder, and sprinkling salt on a bird's tail.

The weird thing, and another example of magical thinking, is that both Marks and Gatehouse talk as though there was a time when the intellect was universally respected, when all educated people were rigorously logical, and everyone sought a good scientific education.  I don't know of any such time; this frame for their arguments indicates that what drives them is not intellect or science, but a very common, non-rational nostalgia for a Golden Age that never was.  It quickly became clear as I read their diatribes that they called any idea they didn't like "anti-intellectual"; it's hard to imagine a clearer case of anti-intellectualism at work.

Going back to Gatehouse: Are Canadians anti-intellectual or pro-intellectual?  By Gatehouse's standards, it would appear that they're intellectual when their insecurities are being stroked by criticism of the Great Satan to the South, and anti-intellectual when they refuse to countenance criticism of their own country.  Maybe "anti-intellectualism" isn't the right conceptual tool for the job.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Anti Maim

There's nothing wrong with Rubio's boilerplate anti-Obama positioning, but there's nothing especially unique about it, either.
Thus spake (or rather wrote) David Harsanyi for Reason magazine the other day, explaining why he thought Marco Rubio is overrated as a Republican presidential contender.  I'm not a regular reader of Reason, by the way: I came to the post via one by Daniel Larison, in which he also gave Rubio a drubbing.  (Also today from Larison: Chris Christie's recent ridiculous foreign-policy speech, and why so few people take Rick Santorum seriously as a presidential candidate.  Belaboring the obvious, you see.)

Unlike many of the Democrats I know, I'm not rooting for the Republicans to come up with an effective candidate for 2016.  At least, that's how it sounds when they concern-troll over the poor quality of today's Republican presidential hopefuls, in the nearly universal treatment of politics and elections as a horse race, or a WWF match.  An "effective" candidate really means someone who can seduce the corporate media and play them all the way to the end, not someone who thinks about issues and policy.  But then, who cares about issues and policy?  The general belief among political elites and those who work for them is that the voters are stupid, only interested in personalities, and must be fooled into voting for your candidate.  Only the true Gnostics see past the shadows on the cave walls to perceive the Ideal Forms.  And who knows?  That might even be true.  I certainly don't mean to overestimate the sagacity of most voters, but then I don't think much of the elites either, who are nowhere near as smart as they like to think, especially when it comes to personality cults.

The trouble with the Republican candidates, it seems to me (and to other, more knowledgeable observers) is that they appeal only to a very restricted sector of voters, mostly older, white, highly religious, racist, and bellicose.  They can certainly generate excitement among such people, who seem to have the free time to pack the rallies and debate halls on weekdays, and also vote.  But there aren't enough of them to win presidential elections, and without gerrymandering and voter suppression there aren't enough to win elections at other levels.  Hence the GOP's reliance on gerrymandering and voter suppression.  And as candidates that appeal to this demographic start trying to appeal to those outside it, as they must do to win the election, they either make fools of themselves before the outsiders by sounding too wingnut, or disappoint the Republican core (as opposed to base) by sounding too moderate.  That seems to be a large part of what has happened to Rubio, as to his predecessors.

The thing that got me about Harsanyi's comment, quoted at the top of this post, is his claim that there's nothing wrong with reflexive "anti-Obama boilerplate."  Maybe there's nothing wrong with it in campaign speeches, but on the job, in Congress, that mindset brought us, among other wonders, dozens of futile attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, demands for more wars, and two debt-ceiling squabbles, one of which shut down the federal government, with all the bad effects attendant on that adventure.  All of these might have been defensible if they'd really spoken for the majority of citizens, but they didn't.  (One of the signs of the Right's detachment from reality is its fondness for organizing events with ludicrously inflated numbers -- the Million Moms Campaign, Thirty Million Patriots, and the like -- which draw only a few stragglers.)  The reflexive anti-Obama mindset of the Republican party has not just been self-defeating for them (can you see my tears of sympathy?), but very harmful for most of America and much of the rest of the world.

I'm all in favor of harsh criticism of bad policy and bad action.  I have no interest in moderation for its own sake in either tone or content.  But reflexive anti-anything or -anybody boilerplate isn't real extremism; it's just reflex.  A two-year-old yelling "No!" does it as well.  And it's not limited to Republicans: remember the popular line among certain Democrats in 2008, "I'll vote for anybody who's Not Bush" -- even though Bush wasn't running?  A related trope was their fear of a Third Bush Term; alas, that was pretty much what we got.

For all that, I don't want to overstress the anti-Obama thing.  My ambivalent pro-Obama friend posted a meme the other day that began: "When one party can hate one president so much that they're willing to destroy the country, something is very, very wrong."  I'm not trying to minimize the Obama-hatred, but as I commented, the Right wants to destroy the country just for the sake of doing it; look at the agenda of Goldwater and Reagan, and you'll see that it long predates Obama.  Their aim is to strangle the federal government in any area where it might actually promote the general welfare, so that most Americans can be made miserably subservient to ruling elites.  Hating Obama is just an added bonus.

If the Republicans did field a sane, competent presidential candidate, she might get my vote.  But such a person would never get past the primaries, or even to them.  And the Democrats, though their candidates will probably contain their insanity somewhat better, are not going to give us anyone who's any good either.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Single Standard Dept.

Roy Edroso's latest post at alicublog:

Thursday, May 15, 2014


The guys who continue to worship the most senile President in history want you to think Hillary Clinton is too old and feeble to serve
Haw haw haw, those stoopid Rethuglicans!  It occurred to me that this cuts both ways.  The guys (and gals) who made much of Reagan's age back in the day aren't at all concerned about Clinton's age as it might affect her fitness to be President.  She'll be almost exactly the same age in 2016 as Reagan was in 1980.  He was born in 1911, so he was 69 in 1980; she was born in 1947, so she'll be 69 in 2016.  So if Reagan was too old to run, isn't she?  (I noticed during the 2008 campaign that Ralph Nader was older [seventy-four!] than both of them, but no one else, not even those who demonized Nader, seemed to notice or care.)

Reagan was always a flake, so his endless flubs, gaffes, and lies weren't necessarily early warning signals of what turned out to be Alzheimers.  Clinton seems to be more lucid than Reagan was, most of the time, but she's just about as dishonest and evil.  The difference between Reagan's fans and Clinton's fans once again comes down to which party they favor.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

As If I Needed a New Way to Waste Time on Facebook ...

Today I celebrated my re-retirement with a new project.  (I retired three years ago, but went to work part-time last fall; having put some extra money in the bank, I'm through working for the foreseeable future.)

I've often been critical of what I call the Culture of Therapy, the strange mixture of religion, corporate propaganda, self-help, and watered-down psychiatry that emerged, as far as I noticed it, in the 1970s.  Facebook has thrown a lot of that culture in my face, since many of my friends' activity there consists largely of reposting memes based on affirmations.  These disturb me for several reasons.  For one thing, I understand that they don't work very well unless you're already in a positive mood.  But for another, I see that a depressing number of people I know who aren't in a positive mood rely on them anyway.  It's scary to see just how unhappy many people I know are.  So, for another thing, affirmations seem to be habit-forming.  But they've also been parodied and satirized.

Then I began noticing memes composed of affirmations written over images of Skeletor, a comic / cartoon character from years after my time.  Skeletor Is Love has a Facebook presence and a tumblr of its own.  I couldn't, and still can't, quite tell whether they're meant to be satirical, but they gave me an idea: I found a meme generator on the web and began putting some of the affirmations Skeletor used onto images of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.  I'd been thinking about putting one of the archetypal proto-affirmations, Fritz Perls' "Gestalt Prayer," on images of various well-known villains, such as Ayn Rand or Anita Bryant; I still want to do that.  Hell, I might do it with Comrade Kim Jong-Un.  I posted my first Comrade Kim affirmation on Facebook; a friend liked it and encouraged me to start a page devoted to these memes.  So I created Kim Jong Un Affirms You.  It's not much of a joke, and will probably wear thin quickly, but until I get tired of it, it'll be a handy of way of procrastinating when I don't want to read or work on blog posts.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Pink, Pinker, Pinkest: Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Someone posted a link to this 2006 article on Facebook yesterday.  (At first I mistook it for a more recent publication.  You see what happens when you assume.)   It's about a neurobiologist named Ben Barres, who was born female but transitioned to male in the 1990s, and discovered that he and his work were treated very differently than when he was a woman.  When he was an undergraduate at MIT,
An M.I.T. professor accused me of cheating on this test. I was the only one in the class who solved a particular problem, and he said my boyfriend must have solved it for me. One, I did not have a boyfriend. And two, I solved it myself, goddamn it! But it did not occur to me to think of sexism. I was just indignant that I would be accused of cheating.
Years later, after his transition, he gave a presentation at MIT, and, "a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, 'Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.'"  You guessed it: Barres doesn't have a sister -- the work being deprecated was his/her own.  The only thing that had changed was the name attached to it.

What makes the Washington Post article so interesting is that they invited some of the men Barres criticized to respond.  Larry Summers didn't, but Peter Lawrence and Steven Pinker did, and both declared "convincing data show there are differences between men and women in a host of mental abilities."
Pinker, who said he is a feminist, said experiments have shown, on average, that women are better than men at mathematical calculation and verbal fluency, and that men are better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning. It is hardly surprising, he said, that in his own field of language development, the number of women outstrips men, while in mechanical engineering, there are far more men.

"Is it essential to women's progress that women be indistinguishable from men?" he asked. "It confuses the issue of fairness with sameness. Let's say the data shows sex differences. Does it become okay to discriminate against women? The moral issue of treating individuals fairly should be kept separate from the empirical issues."
Well!  If Steven Pinker says he's a feminist, then he couldn't possibly be biased, could he?  Besides, he's a scientist, and an atheist besides, so he's rational and honest by definition; only religious fundamentalists try to keep women down.  His dishonesty and plain foolishness, which I've seen before, surprised even me.  Sure, there is some evidence of "average" differences between men and women in certain domains, though it's disputed.  But average differences don't mean much.  That men, on average, may be "better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning," doesn't tell us the amount of variation among men, or among women.  The amount of difference in the averages also matter.  Many women will be better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning than most men are; if you assume that a woman can't do good scientific or mathematical work because she's a woman -- like the MIT prof who refused to believe that Barbara Barres had solved a difficult math problem, and accused her (nonexistent) boyfriend of doing it for her -- then you're not just biased, you're showing that you don't understand averages in a very basic way.  Either way, you're not competent to teach or evaluate would-be scientists.

By Pinker's logic, men shouldn't teach classes involving "language fluency," meaning not only grammar but probably literature as well.  But men have traditionally dominated higher education in the humanities, including literature classes, and have accorded the writing of men greater value than that of women.  (So do most women, it seems.  But in what other area than gender do the primitive myths and misconceptions of the masses get respect from enlightened scientists?)  To this day they try to rationalize their judgments, but clearly (if Pinker were right) they're just ignoring the science of gender differences.  Contrary to Pinker's protestation, though, the "moral issue of treating individuals fairly" is inseparable from "the empirical issues," because unfair treatment of women is an empirical issue.

The article Barres published in Nature is available online.  It combines anecdotal accounts of bias against women in science and mathematics with references to research that shows how bias works.  There's considerable literature on discrimination against women in the sciences, from women being denied access to laboratories because their ladyparts would affect the accuracy of the delicate scientific equipment to women being denied credit for their work -- often work of considerable importance, like the discovery of nuclear fission.  Lise Meitner, who made crucial contributions to that discovery, was overlooked when it came time to award a Nobel Prize for it.  The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), by Julie Des Jardins, covers Meitner's case, as well as more mundane examples of the barriers female scientists had to contend with; so does Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War (Norton, 1997).  Bias against women may not be "a primary factor" in the lower numbers of women in certain fields, but it's clearly a significant one, and Pinker's denial is not persuasive, since he fails to comprehend the issues involved.

Peter Lawrence is no better:
Lawrence said it is a "utopian" idea that "one fine day, there will be an equal number of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research."

He said a range of cognitive differences could partly account for stark disparities, such as at his own institute, which has 56 male and six female scientists. But even as he played down the role of sexism, Lawrence said the "rat race" in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men.

"We should try and look for the qualities we actually need," he said. "I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive."
The incoherence of his remarks is interesting.  It may be utopian to aim for equal numbers of men and women in all jobs, but I don't think Barres is calling for equal numbers; he's calling for an end to bias that keeps talented and qualified women out of fields they want to enter.  Beyond that, Lawrence goes all mushy and touchy-feely in advocating that "we" (who's "we," by the way? hiring committees?) should "choose more women and more gentle men."  This is a common move by apologists for bias and injustice, by the way.  (Like Barack Obama lauding the work of Gandhi and King in his Nobel Prize address before dismissing it as utopian: "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.")  It's part of the standard defense of the scientific status quo that knowledge is not advanced by mere technical ability, but by a masculine competitiveness -- what Lawrence called the "rat race" -- that drives (male) scientists to obsessive devotion to their work.  That Nobel Prize isn't going to win itself!

There's another aspect to this.  A wide range of scientific ability appears among men as well as among women, yet boys are encouraged to study science and girls aren't, even though most of them will not go on to pursue science as a career, let alone do top-ranking work.  There's no need to expect that every girl in a high-school or college science class will be a Marie Curie or a Lise Meitner, any more than every boy who attends summer basketball camp will be a Michael Jordan.  First, you can't tell in advance who will eventually stand out; second, you need a large population of non-specialists to appreciate and support the very best achievers.  Excellence will largely take care of itself; discouraging those who don't show excellence from day one is self-defeating if you want a culture of self-critical scientific rationalists, of both sexes.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Very Popular Error: Having the Courage of One's Convictions

Bless Rod Dreher.  As soon as I saw the title of today's post, "A Problem With Critical Thinking," I knew it would give me something to play with.

Dreher linked to a complaint by Michael S. Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, about "the knee-jerk critical response of today's college students to the material they're presented".
Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled. It is a sign of sophistication, especially when coupled with an acknowledgment of one’s own “privilege.”

... Of course critical reflection is fundamental to teaching and scholarship, but fetishizing disbelief as a sign of intelligence has contributed to depleting our cultural resources. Creative work, in whatever field, depends upon commitment, the energy of participation and the ability to become absorbed in works of literature, art and science. That type of absorption is becoming an endangered species of cultural life, as our nonstop, increasingly fractured technological existence wears down our receptive capacities.
Roth offers no support for his claim that "our cultural resources" are depleted, unless you count the example he offers in the next paragraph (which I don't):
In my film and philosophy class, for example, I have to insist that students put their devices away while watching movies that don’t immediately engage their senses with explosions, sex or gag lines. At first they see this as some old guy’s failure to grasp their skill at multitasking, but eventually most relearn how to give themselves to an emotional and intellectual experience, one that is deeply engaging partly because it does not pander to their most superficial habits of attention. I usually watch the movies with them (though I’ve seen them more than a dozen times), and together we share an experience that becomes the subject of reflection, interpretation and analysis. We even forget our phones and tablets when we encounter these unexpected sources of inspiration.
One of Dreher's commenters, Franklin Evans, pointed out the major problem with Roth's complaint: he's confusing different meanings of "critical thinking."
To be critical has long had a specific meaning, one that fits well with the pejorative connotations of “deconstructionism”. The parallel concept critical thinking maintained its own specificity, one that is being overshadowed as Roth describes by a key misconception:
Asking questions is automatically denigrating or casting mistrust on that which is being questioned.
This is a fallacy under the simple logic inherent in critical thinking. It is an examination, not a value judgment or demand for justification.
I've pointed out before that many people, even well-educated people, think of criticism and critical thinking simply as destructive criticism, tearing things down for the fun of seeing the fur fly and hearing the anguished cries of the bystanders.  It's depressingly clear that Michael S. Roth is one of these people.  So is Dreher, who replied to Evans's comment: "I think Roth's point is not that we shouldn't think critically, but that we abuse critical thinking when we begin reacting critically before we've fully understood the thing we're examining."  Evans pointed out that Roth's students aren't doing "critical thinking" or "critical reflection" in the first place.

I'm familiar with the phenomenon Roth describes, of movie geeks who've immersed themselves in slasher or action films to the point that they can't watch a film that moves at a slower pace, say, or involves no exploding heads or car crashes.  They imagine themselves to be superior to the gullible, sheeplike masses in the thrall of Hollywood.  But they also are evidence that Roth is wrong about a lack of "absorption" in the young: they happily, eagerly absorb films that conform to their preferred aesthetic, and watch them repeatedly.  They don't approach everything they encounter with the snarky cynicism Roth laments; indeed, they react indignantly to anyone who doesn't share their aesthetic, and gripe that the critic just likes tearing things down out of perversity.  Why can't you just shut off your brain, they implore, and let yourself enjoy it?  I've tried to engage such people in some kind of dialogue, but they aren't interested in critical thinking.  That's their right, of course, but not (at least in principle) in a university setting.  As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, it's important, for all that ít's difficult, to mount an attack on one's own convictions, not just those of others.  That is what critical thinking means, but as I've also noticed before, most people who advocate the project to others don't seem to think they should examine their own beliefs critically.  It's the sheeple who need to be critical, not their own fine enlightened selves.

I've known quite a few undergraduates who fit Roth's stereotype.  They wear "Question Authority" buttons; they aren't impressed by your Dead White Males.  But they have their own generational and/or subcultural canon, and are uncritical of their own arts and authorities.  I remember well the excitement that came from reading, say, Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and watching Heinlein slaughter sacred cows by the herd; it's a valuable experience.  But sooner or later, if you really care about questioning authority, you have to learn to question your Heinlein, your Bernard Shaw, your Rand, your Chomsky, your C. S. Lewis, your Foucault, whoever.  And you don't do this by reeling from one failed hero(ine) to the the next, disappointed when the latest guru turns out to have feet of clay, but still confident that somewhere over the hill is someone who really knows -- eventually you must have no authorities, and make your own decisions while remaining aware of your own fallibility.

This also applies to Dreher's next move:
One more thing: this blog’s frequent commenter Thursday often says that a problem with modernity is that we have more generally lost our receptive capabilities to things numinous, a receptivity that many peoples outside of Western secular modern cultures retain to some degree. Thursday is speaking specifically in spiritual terms; Roth is talking about liberal arts education. But there is a connection, I think.
I find this pretty funny.  Again, I think that "we" moderns have retained our receptive capabilities to things numinous, and not just because so many modern Western secularists I know, gleefully deriding bible-thumpers and Rethuglicans, turn out to have moved to "mindfulness," Soka Gakkai, and the Dalai Lama.  Dreher himself, after all, has no "receptive capabilities" when it comes to perceiving the numinous in a same-sex wedding.  When it comes to competing spiritual paths, let alone the "secular," Dreher and his fellow "traditionalists" are as knee-jerk cynical and snarky as any undergraduate hipster.

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number 3 is probably more typical of lay Christians of my generation than either I or Rod Dreher.  She's middle-class, college-educated (at least a bachelor's degree and perhaps a master's besides), a former elementary school teacher.  She thinks of herself as a bold skeptic because she won't listen to "liberal propaganda."  Conservative propaganda is okay, though; she says that she can't tell which point of view is more truthful, what news reports are accurate, so she just listens to and believes the ones she likes.  Like so many people, she loves memes and snappy stories, like the one about the college student who cleverly one-upped his smarty-pants atheist professor by proving the existence of God -- and that student was Albert Einstein!  When she posted this one to Facebook and some of her friends (including me) called her on it, she said indignantly that she didn't care what some liberal propagandist said -- she liked it, so she believed it, so there!  (This sort of story is the counterpart to secularist mythology about the great debate on Evolution by Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley; that one has also been roundly debunked, so many secularists seek a new hope in Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, or Bill Nye the Science Guy: someone who'll demolish the opposition with a well-turned scientific quip.  That way lies heartbreak, my children.)

Nor is this tendency limited to modern Westerners, secular or not.  Think of the early Christians, who surely were receptive to the numinous as mediated by their own cult but were unreceptive to its manifestations in their competition, from Jesus attacking the Pharisees (and vice versa) to Saint John Chrysostom ordering his mobs to burn down synagogues, preferably with the congregations still inside.  The gods of Rome weren't numinous, they were demons!  And that leaves aside Christians' often violent disagreements with each other.  What I'm talking about is not specific to theists, secularists, scientists, theologians, academics, or ordinary schmucks.  It's a tendency found in people of all stripes, and contrary to Dreher's claim that "the knee-jerk critical response of today’s college students to the material they’re presented has become not an aid to learning, but a barrier to it," it's not critical thinking at all, but the absence of critical thinking.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Taking Responsibility for Your Memes

Great Cthulhu's Ghost, the Stupid is strong in this one.  It was as if a million brain cells cried out in terror and suddenly were silenced.

Begin with the meme itself.  Assume that Col. Ritchie is correct about the numbers; she seems to be.  That doesn't surprise me.  I've known about some suicides that involved alcohol and a gun, and it's true, it wasn't accidental.  The people involved were not regular drinkers.  They wanted to kill themselves, so they acquired a firearm, got drunk deliberately to lower their own inhibitions, and then shot themselves.   The way human-service professionals talked about these cases, it seemed that they believed that the suicide was caused by combining alcohol and a gun, like some kind of chemical reaction, and that's the vibe I get from this meme.

One of the suicides I know about was a conflicted gay man in his mid-twenties.  I don't agree with his decision, but it was influenced much more by having grown up in a ferociously antigay society than by the juxtaposition of alcohol and a shotgun.  He didn't get drunk one night, just happen to find a shotgun at hand (in his dorm room!) and spontaneously stick the barrel in his mouth; those who knew him said he'd been very unhappy for a long time.  Whether he sought other kinds of help I don't know, but I think he had, and they were not able to help him.

Col. Ritchie is evidently talking about suicides among combat veterans, where it should be even more obvious that it isn't only "two things" they "have in common" -- there's at least a third, namely the trauma caused by horrific experiences in combat.  It's a bit disingenuous for her to leave that one out, don't you think?

Now, this meme came into view through a couple of intermediaries.  At the first stage there was a page called Everytown for Gun Safety, who attached this information to the image:
Over the last decade, the U.S. military has endured an epidemic of suicides among active-duty troops, and more than two-thirds of these deaths involved firearms.

Military commanders determined that these suicides could be prevented by talking with soldiers about whether they had personal firearms in their homes and removing guns from those most likely to hurt themselves. Despite this, in 2010 NRA backed a law prohibiting commanders from asking at-risk soldiers even basic questions about service members’ privately owned guns.

Fortunately, the military fought back — and prevailed. Working with suicide prevention advocates and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of retired generals and admirals lobbied Congress to remove the dangerous gag order, and it was rescinded in 2013.
Fair enough, and it's probably a good thing that the gag order was rescinded, though I wonder how effective the intervention really was.  I also remember a young man, a cousin of an old friend, who was nearly killed when his motorcycle went off the road into a barbed-wire fence, injuring and disfiguring him severely.  I don't know if alcohol was involved in that accident, but it definitely was some months after he'd 'recovered' from the first 'accident' and drove himself into a tree.  While I sympathize with the emotional pain that drove him to this extremity, my main reaction was: At least he didn't take anyone else with him.  It has long been suspected that many single-vehicle accidents are really suicides.  I wonder how many veterans, deprived of their guns, will find other ways to escape their combat-induced misery.  The reason why so many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are killing themselves is not that they own guns or are drinking; the third factor must not be ignored. And as with the young gay man who killed himself, I wonder how much can really be done for them, other than hoping the pain will diminish over time if they can be kept alive.

The second stage of transmission was through a page called Armed Democrats, who added this text above the meme:
Armed Democrats supports the 2nd amendment,
We also expect people to be responsible for their actions.

They aren't!

Hence, the need for regulation.

If you stupid son-of-a-bitches would stop shooting people,
including yourselves, we wouldn’t be talking about guns.

If you’re not stupid, you’re sick. The ACA covers that.
If you’re not sure what the ACA is, you must watch Fox.

The ACA covers that too. (same insurance plan)
It was this version that inspired the post I'm writing now.  Addressing miserable, traumatized combat veterans -- hurt in wars that the Armed Democrats may well have supported at the beginning -- as "stupid son-of-a-bitches" and adding, "If you're not stupid, you're sick" is bad politics, as well as inhumane, stupid, and vicious.  "The ACA covers that" -- meaning, the second time, watching Fox News -- boggles my mind.  The ACA isn't an "insurance plan" to start with, any more than it's "health care"; but that's the least of it.  Veterans shouldn't really need the ACA anyway, since as veterans they're entitled to various health benefits, though there are plenty of horror stories about the inadequacy of the services veterans have been able to get, thanks largely to budget cuts enacted by the people who sent them off to be chewed up in the first place.  But is there any effective treatment for PTSD?  The Veterans Administration says yes, but I'm skeptical. The mental health professions have been throwing drugs at their patients for the past thirty years, with inadequate results.  "Talk" therapy has fewer harmful side effects, but its effectiveness is also dubious. 

Telling a traumatized vet to see a shrink is just plain stupid.  Chances are he or she is already doing so, or trying to.  Armed Democrats are playing politics with other people's misery as surely as the Republicans, and with as little real concern for the problems of real people.