Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon Style

Things have been hectic lately, and they don't promise to be any less so.  I hope to have some more time to write this week while I'm traveling.

Right now I'm rereading May Sarton's Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (Norton, 1993).  Sarton's later journals have a certain amount of intrinsic interest insofar as they describe her struggle with bad health and her reflections on aging.  She had a relatively easy time of it nevertheless, with a large and faithful support network, who enabled her to live at home and by herself (more or less, if you overlook the many people passing through with food and entertainment, assisting with cleaning and gardening and transcribing the journals (after her stroke she began dictating them): most never-married old people don't have that.  And even so, the later journals often read like thank-you notes to her friends and helpers and caretakers and other people she interacted with, as if she unconsciously feared that failing to name every benefactor and helper would result in a loss of their support.  But maybe I'm just imagining that.

She also discusses art, politics, and culture, and as often as not I disagree with her.  One of her correspondents
had the kindness to copy out, from a book by Piero Ferrucci called Inevitable Grace, something which goes right to the state of myself, my health and my life, in a marvelous way.  The beginning of the quotation from Ferrucci is "Empathy, however, is no solitary event.  On the contrary, it is that which permits artists to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains and dreams  of a whole society.  The aim of the poet, says Pablo Neruda, is to embody hope for the people, to be one leaf in the great tree of humanity."  Then Ferrucci quotes from Neruda: "'My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of a coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight and the fiery nitrate field as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his work, his eyes inflamed by the dust and, stretching his rough hands out to me, a hand whose callouses and lines traced the map of the pampas.  He said to me, his eyes shining, "I have known you for a long time, my brother!" That is the laurel crown of my poetry, that opening in the bleak pampas from which a worker emerges, who has been told often by the wind in the night and the stars of Chile: you are not alone, there is a poet whose thoughts are with you in your suffering.'"  And back to Ferrucci: "Empathy then is an expansion of consciousness.  Through the faculty we are able to become one with trees and ants and elephants, birds, rivers and seas, children and old people, men and women, suffering and joyful people, rainbows and galaxies.  Thus we become able to breathe and live in other things or to find them within ourselves, as in a living microcosm in the most unlikely face, in the strangest of situations, in the remotest places, we discover ourselves and once we reach this point there need never again be the feeling that we are strangers in a strange land."  It is a good Sunday sermon, isn't it?  [24-25]
It's a sermon, all right, but I don't think it's a good one.  I suspect the trouble may lie partly in the translation, as I presume Ferrucci writes in Italian.  (He's a philosopher and psychotherapist who's evidently lived all his life in Italy.)  So it might be that "Empathy, however, is no solitary event" should be something like "no isolated event", in the sense of being a process rather than a one-time event.  Whatever.  Of course empathy is a relation between two or more people, so it could hardly be solitary.

I don't believe that writers are necessarily particularly empathetic as writers -- many of us are ferociously egoistic, which is necessary to find the time to be solitary and construct our faery castles of words.  (Sarton herself doesn't seem very empathetic.)  Nor do I believe that the response of their readers has much to do with empathy, from either end.  When a reader feels directly addressed by a work, is that because the author empathized with him or her?  Or did the writer dig into him or herself, and find feelings and traits that he or she turns out to have in common with others?  I vote for the latter.  I'm no Neruda, but my experience is that when I've written most personally and idiosyncratically, that's when other people tell me they felt addressed by my work.  For that reason I don't suppose that when I feel that something could have been written about me, the author must have been thinking about me.  That experience has improved my own capacity for empathy, I think, when it took the next step and realized that feelings that I thought were unique to me, that isolated me, were really feelings I share with much or most of humanity.

Did that miner really know Neruda?  I doubt it.  Is that conviction that a stranger (maybe a long-dead stranger, or one in another country writing in another language) knows you, really about empathy?  Sarton and other writers have had reason to complain about readers who showed up at their doorstep without advance notice, demanding personal attention and mothering, because they felt that the work was about and for them, commanding them to make an appearance.  (A recurring theme in Sarton's journals is her guilt at not being able to answer all the letters she receives from fans.)  Sometimes these fans were indignant when the writer had a schedule of his or her own, needs of his or her own, and couldn't give them what they thought they were entitled to.  Is that knowing?  Is it empathy?  I don't believe so.  It looks like self-absorption to me, and like a child's insistence that his mother give him all her attention.  That's understandable in children, not in adults.  Sarton also complained that many of her readers misunderstand her journals as celebrations of her own strength, self-sufficiency, and tranquility, even though she worked hard to describe her anger, depression, loneliness, and anguish when the Muse failed her.

Can I, as a writer or as a reader, really empathize with rainbows and galaxies?  Not, it seems to me, without doing violence to the word empathy.  A rainbow can't empathize with us; it has no mind.  We have enough to be getting on with just empathizing with other human beings.

Sarton said in her journals and in her interviews that she thought her work had value because it had affected the lives of her readers, and I'll go along with that.  I read her myself, after all, for insights into aging, the single life, and other topics that matter to me personally; not for her prose style or her formal brilliance.  That's true for other writers I'm fond of too.  But I look for other things in art as well.  One of Marge Piercy's characters says in Woman on the Edge of Time that no single work can tell all truth -- that's for the whole culture to try to do.  Some writers I read for the beauty of their sentences, for example, though I'm also glad when those beautiful sentences move me and seem to speak about my life.  As a writer I hope to convey something to my readers, but I don't know what it will be; sometimes they find something in what I've written that I didn't intend, or didn't know I was putting into it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Therefore Do the Virgins Love Thee

So, I'm reading this rather charming book, Sixpence House: Life in a Town of Books, by Paul Collins, a Pennsylvanian-American writer who moved with his wife Jennifer and toddler son Morgan to live in Hay, a Welsh town full of bookstores.  It has its longeurs, but on the whole I'm enjoying it.  Collins won me over by telling how,
Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people.  This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1.  It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for [7*].
As Collins recognizes, "Readers always seem scarce."  I'm pleased that he's not one of those people who claim that Americans used to be big readers but were de-booked by the movies, TV, rock'n'roll, rap, whatever.

On the other hand, I have my disagreements with him, as when he contrasts postal delivery in Britain with its American counterpart.  Britons, he says, don't have the kind of mailboxes you'll find in rural areas in the US, the shoebox-sized container with a door on the end and a flag on the side, set on a post at the right height for a carrier to reach through a car window.
But it is indeed true that in America you can go months without seeing anything more of your postman than a bronzed arm reaching out of a white Jeep, stuffing a ration of advertising circulars into your box. Here people have a rather more personal relation with postal carriers.  You see them; they see you ... In the deepest rural areas, hitching rides with the local postman is not altogether unknown; his may be the only public vehicle for the area.  In America, trying to climb into any mailman's car will get you zapped with a Taser [155].
Some of this is probably true in rural America, that three-thousand-mile swath that has no real counterpart in Britain.  I wouldn't be surprised if people do sometimes hitch rides with carriers in rural areas where everyone knows each other, but given American hostility to freeloaders I wouldn't be surprised if the Postal Service has strong regulations against it.  I live in a mid-sized city, however, and I see my postal carriers, they see me.  Before moving to Wales, Collins and his family lived in the Haight, in San Francisco, so he must have seen his postal carriers there.

An enjoyable aspect of Sixpence House for me is Collins's enthusiasm for forgotten old books, such as Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Mercy Philbrick's Choice, based on Jackson's friendship with Emily Dicksinson and "published while the poet was still alive, and still unknown" (44).  I frequently interrupted my reading to look these up on Project Gutenberg.

Collins also recounts seeing his first book through the press, fretting over the dust-jacket design and the title.
Every part of every nursery rhyme is now accounted for: there is a book called Row Row Row Your Boat, another called Gently Down the Stream, one called Merrily Merrily Merrily, and several laying claim to Life Is But a Dream ... [T]he Bible was gutted long ago, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Do not even think about using anything from the Song of Solomon.  Nor, for that matter, can you use Song of Solomon itself as a title [158-9].
Gee, really?  True, that was thirty-seven years ago; maybe you just can't use it anymore.

These quibbles don't keep me from recommending Sixpence House, though.  I'm glad I happened on it.

*I'm reading an e-book copy of Sixpence House, so I don't know how well the page numbers correspond to those in the print edition.  If you refer to the latter, I hope they'll at least be in the ballpark.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Illegal Looks Like

I was leaving a Latin dance party last night when a young Latina grabbed me and asked me why I was wearing that shirt.  Though I was sober, it was 3 a.m. and I wasn't at my sharpest.  On top of that, I had never really thought through why I wear this t-shirt: I just thought it was funny.  I'd seen a photo of a Latino-but-native-born-American baseball player wearing such a shirt, so I looked online, found a source, and ordered myself one.  So I told her that, and that I wear it out of solidarity with the undocumented, which is true enough, but not the whole story.

Why it's funny is obvious enough: I'm an old gabacho, so not many people would say I "look illegal."  From what I see and hear, I'd guess that if you asked most people what it means to "look illegal," they'd come up with a stereotyped Mexican: brown-skinned, black hair, brown eyes, maybe a mustache and a gold tooth, speaking little English and that with an accent.  But that would describe many legal immigrants.  (I've accompanied a few friends to immigration court over the past few years, and noticed that quite a few people who've run afoul of our immigration laws are not only not from Latin America, they could pass for white Americans on the street.  So, though not many people would agree that I "look illegal," there are probably undocumented immigrants who look like me, and many (most?) people who fit the stereotype I just sketched are not only legal, but citizens.

It's likely, I suppose, given the proximity of Mexico and the US, that the majority of undocumented immigrants in America today come from Latin America, and a good many of them "look Mexican" according to various stereotypes.  But as I've pointed out before, the real problem is that many American racists don't consider any immigrants to be legal.  They assume that anyone with brown skin, black hair, brown eyes, a Mayan nose, and so on is undocumented, which is not the case.  (Often the targets of their hysteria turn out to be native-born US citizens.)  I doubt that anyone has tried to find out just how many immigrants from Latin America have that indio look, but remember how the policy analyst Jason Richwine, possessor of a Ph.D. from Harvard, simply assumed that "Hispanics" are a distinct race.  In the US, Hispanics -- that is, Spanish-speakers -- include not only "Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid)," as Jon Wiener put it, but black people from the Dominican Republican and elsewhere.  In Latin America, there are native Spanish and Portuguese speakers of East and South Asian descent.  The Nation published Wiener's article asking how Harvard could have granted a doctorate based on such "a discredited approach to race and IQ," but I think that question answers itself. Scientific racism is alive and well, and survives all attempts to discredit it. 

So that's why I think it's not only funny and cool for me to wear this t-shirt, it's also useful.  It challenges stereotypes of what illegal immigrants look like, stereotypes which are most malign when held by white American racists, but aren't limited to them -- as witness the young woman who buttonholed me last night.  Funny, cool, and useful: works for me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Quick One While I'm Here

Roy Edroso quoted "this choice tantrum-fragment" from a rightblogger in his latest post at alicublog:
Leftist players sacrifice their egos for the larger messianic call of destroying Republicans, obliterating conservatives, and ultimately gutting the Constitution.
I thought this was pretty funny, because it's the exact mirror image of what a lot of leftists complain: we keep losing because the left is riven by sectarian squabbling!  The right hangs together, and that's why they're so successful at gutting the Constitution!

When I notice that opposing sides are both saying basically the same thing, I get suspicious.  It usually means that what they're saying is a prepackaged slogan whose relation to the real world is at best tenuous.  In this case, I must bear in mind that by "leftist players" the rightblogger in question means everyone to the left of Sarah Palin, because by any halfway realistic standard the political right in the US and elsewhere is doing just fine.  They only get into trouble when they actually get to run things for a while, as witness the Bush and Obama administrations, but good luck dislodging them from power.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pay No Attention to the Racist Under the Bedsheet

Last week sometime I saw something odd somewhere on the Intertoobz.  I thought I remembered which blog it was, but now I can't find it.  At any rate, the topic was prejudice, and someone wrote: "Nobody wants to be a racist, but" ... and blah blah blah.

I did a search for that phrase, and found that it doesn't occur very often.  Usually someone says that nobody wants to be thought of as a racist, or called a racist.  It's a significant difference, but it's not really that important, because if there's one thing that should be obvious, it's that many people want to be racists -- they just don't want to think of themselves as racists, or be called racists, or thought of as racists.

I wonder why that is.  A lot of men have been, and as far as I can tell still are, perversely proud to call themselves Male Chauvinist Pigs, or Sexists.  A lot of people are perversely proud of being Politically Incorrect.  (If anything, not many people will admit to being Politically Correct: it's an accusation to be leveled at someone else, not a position many seem to want to claim.)  Yet a lot of people, no matter how blatantly racist their public pronouncements or behavior, insist that they aren't racist.  If someone calls them racist, they freak out.  (The same is true of accusations of homophobia or antigay bigotry.)  It's especially odd to me that, in a ferociously racist country like the United States, racists should claim that being called a racist is too horrible to contemplate.  Maybe it makes some kind of sense that because white racism is prevalent, white people would want to pretend it's not there -- but again, why, since they are so attached to and invested in white supremacy?

Part of it may be the enduring legacy of American anti-intellectualism: we're attached to certain principles or fantasies about principles, of treating everyone the same, of judging every man by his merits and not by his birth, etc., and the cognitive dissonance of recognizing that we're violating those principles is painful.  If so, gee, that's too bad.  But it cuts no ice.

Anyway, it's quite clear, given the pleasure white racists take in being racist, saying racist things, when they think no potential critics are listening, that the cognitive dissonance isn't really that strong for them.  Evidently it's being recognized publicly as racists that bothers them, but again, why?  Americans are also prone to pretend to be no-nonsense, forthright, outspoken individualists, unafraid of standing alone against the crowd, ready to say the unpopular thing if they think it's right.  This is also a fantasy, of course.  I guess I'm just surprised that they are such cowards, so willing to cry "unfair!" at the slightest criticism -- though not willing to change their views.  If racism is wrong, then don't be racist.  But they've got a lot of defenses against admitting that they are racist.

In saying that racists ought to own their racism, I'm not taking the line one sometimes encounters, that I'd prefer bigots declare themselves honestly, because honesty is better than hypocrisy, etc.  To the extent I agree with this, it's not because I don't intend to attack openly declared bigots.  I do intend to attack them.  Given American anti-intellectualism and hostility to critical thinking all over the political spectrum, it's not surprising that they can't defend themselves very well.  But they are perfectly happy to attack the defenseless themselves, so too bad.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today I Am Saying "Yes!" to Life

By the way, my Facebook meme project, Kim Jong Un Affirms You, finally petered out this weekend as I ran out of ideas.  It was fun while it lasted, and I got a lot of positive responses to it, so I'm happy.  And to add to the fun, one person posted this "poem shared by a Facebook acquaintance," who apparently had missed my irony and satirical intent:
Doubting the trustworthiness
Of Nth Korea's Kim Jung In
He claimed to be "affirming us"
Which is a form of mind control
And warlockery and has not been doing America and her allies any good
The outbreak of wars and pessimism and economic crisis at this time
May be caused by Americas
Be cautious of that man
And good luck to all of us!
God bless us all!
But then, maybe this poem was meant ironically too.  Satire is always a tricky business, so I never expected that everyone would get the joke.  An old friend of mine didn't think the memes were funny at all, but she has an admitted blind spot where satire is concerned.  Another told me they reliably made her laugh aloud.  Satire is as subjective as any other kind of entertainment, and it's actually meant to be ambiguous: Is he (or she) serious or not?  But I must say I'm flattered by that poem.  Should I submit it to Literally Unbelievable, I wonder?

I'm Sure I'm Not the Only Person Who Saw This Coming ...

Michael Moore told an interviewer for The Hollywood Reporter that in a hundred years, Barack Obama will be remembered only as America's first black president, and that his administration has been a "big disappointment."

That's right: a disappointment, the typical regretful liberal concession that Barack has turned out to be a very good man, but a very bad wizard.  Moore's been doing his best to give Obama the benefit of the doubt all along, so I suppose I must recognize just how disillusioned he must be, to make a disapproving face and give vent to that epithet.  A disappointment.

As I wrote about this before: If your favored football or basketball team loses a game or even a championship, that is a disappointment.   If George Lucas sells his production company and its prime properties to Disney, that is a disappointment.   If the President of the United States prosecutes whistleblowers to an unprecedented extent, kills American citizens without due process, demands the power of indefinite detainment, prolongs the wars he inherited and starts several more, and gives priority to the interests of the top one-tenth of one percent of the citizenry over the interests of the other ninety and nine, he's a murderous thug and a corporate enforcer.

Of course, Moore's very cautious criticism is thoughtcrime, and Obama fans responded in comments at the Hollywood Reporter site: Oh yeah?  Well, Moore is fat.  And not only that, he's fat.  Did I mention that he's fat?  And besides, he's fat.  And Obama killed Osama, you fat f*ck!  Elsewhere, Moore is a lard ass.  And a communist.  But mostly fat.

I don't take Moore's prediction very seriously, any more than I take the true believers' predictions about Obama's legacy.  Neither they nor I will be around in a century to see how they pan out.  But Moore's verdict was so very predictable.

In other news, this quotation from John Waters (via):
My idea of rich is that you can buy every book you ever want without looking at the price and you're never around assholes.  That's the two things to really fight for in life.
I'm certainly in sympathy with that first clause, though I don't think it really describes being rich.  I'm not rich, but I am a compulsive book buyer and I'm able to buy more books than I can read; that seems like satiation to me.  If I had more money, I'd probably buy more books, but then I'd get even farther behind in my reading.  I remember Gore Vidal once saying something similar, to the effect that he felt comfortable financially because he could buy new books in hardcover.  But that too is a different kettle of fish.  When I think about it, I'd say that for me, being rich would mean I could afford the space to have all my books on shelves where I live, not packed in storage -- but I think I could do that without enough money to put me in the One Percent.

As for the second clause, I don't see how being rich would keep assholes away.  Maybe Waters meant "rich" metaphorically, like your life is rich, spiritually speaking, if you're never around assholes?  The only difference I can imagine that would come from having lots of money is that the assholes around you would predominantly be rich assholes, and I'm not sure how much different that would be.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Seeing What the Church Will Do Unbullied, There's No Occasion To

I'm not sure what to make of Conor Friedersdorf's latest venture into the turmoil over same-sex marriage.  The title and opening are especially problematic: "Will Christians Ever Bless Gay Marriage?", with the subhead "Some writers think that even as society changes, orthodox believers will stick to traditional beliefs."

Insofar as the title and subhead seem to equate "Christians" and "orthodox believers," they depend on a faulty assumption, albeit one often used by reactionary believers when convenient: "Christianity" means only those who fit a narrow and unrepresentative range of what I'll call the spectrum of Christianities, except when it doesn't.  (So, for example, fundamentalists will point to the fact that the vast majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians in order to advance their theocratic agenda, even though they don't consider the vast majority of Americans to be real Christians and will denounce them as apostates, etc.  Reactionary writers like Rod Dreher have drifted toward the label "traditional" Christians instead, but as Dreher himself admitted in one of his better pieces, it's surprisingly difficult to define what a "traditional" Christian believes.  In practice, at least for people like Dreher, it mainly seems to boil down to opposition to same-sex marriage.  But Dreher also is willing to recognize that "traditional" Christians as he imagines them are a dwindling minority among American Christians, though he exaggerates slightly so as to indulge the traditional paranoid delight in persecution -- or rather, the fantasy of persecution -- that so many Christians cherish.

Friedersdorf himself, to judge from this article, doesn't subscribe to this confusion.  He recognizes the range of beliefs and values held by Christians, and does a good job answering a writer, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who argues against the "false premise" that Christianity does change its values and will abandon its opposition to same-sex marriage.  I will concede that some Christians never will accept it, just as some Christians cling to theologically based anti-Semitism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.  Hell, there are some Christians who still want the Catholic Mass to be celebrated in Latin only.  There's no reason why all believers, or all churches, should agree on any issue.  And it might bear reiterating that the legal recognition of civil marriage between same-sex couples in no way obliges a denomination to recognize them, any more than it must sanctify heterosexual civil marriages involving spouses of different denominations, or a divorced spouse in denominations that don't recognize divorce, or any number of other pairings.  Catholic churches are not, as far as I know, being burned down or priests lynched or jailed for refusing to marry such couples in church.

I'll add something to Friedersdorf's discussion, though.  He quotes the writer he's rebutting, who's much given to straw men and false antitheses:
"Christianity's view of sexuality isn't some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for."
It's interesting to me that Gobry qualifies his claim somewhat by referring to Christianity's "understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for."   That concedes the debate right off the bat.  I'd expect a traditionalist Christian to insist that he is enumerating God's understanding.  From there I need only point out that "some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era" and "its understanding of what who God is and what human beings are exist for" are not mutually exclusive -- indeed, that it's quite thinkable that a traditional Christian understanding could also be an encrusted holdover from a patriarchal era, etc.  I think the burden of argument lies on Gobry to show why it isn't, and he doesn't do so.

Gobry also whines that the proponents of same-sex marriage believe that "if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality ..."  Like many traditionalists, he assumes that advocates of same-sex marriage are not Christians (see the confusion I addressed above), though as Friedersdorf points out, the pressure to change Christian understandings of homosexuality (and of sex generally) has mostly come from within the churches, from Christians rather than unbelievers.  If it were up to me as an atheist, I would resist putting any external pressure on religious believers in this regard at all, if only because external pressure only gets believers' backs up.  But again, I think it will be mostly Christian or other religious GLBs who'll be having tantrums when their churches refuse to bless their marriages, and will want to throw out the First Amendment in the interests of their God-given right to have a church wedding.

I have my disagreements with Friedersdorf on many aspects of this controversy, but he did a good job this time in answering Gobry, and he quotes some useful arguments from comments under a Rod Dreher post that cited Gobry.  Even so, I object to his conclusion: "It's hard to imagine that Jesus wouldn't prefer that to the previous arrangement."  I think that anyone who reads Jesus' many antisexual teachings in the gospels should find it easy to imagine that Jesus would not accept same-sex marriage or openly gay followers.  Friedersdorf talks a lot in this piece about "love" as a reason for accepting same-sex marriage, but any conception of Christian love that appeals to Jesus as a model must account for such dominical teachings as "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."  As an atheist I don't have to reconcile Love and Hellfire, but Christians do.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

D'Oh, Re, Mi ...

An old IU friend of mine (a musician, natch) posted a link to this article about a study of the effect of ongoing after-school music education on "at-risk" children's brains.  On Facebook it showed up as "Could Music Education Be the Key to Ending the Achievement Gap?", which I suppose is meant to be clickbait.  If you click through, the Huffington Post's title is "Study: Music Education Could Help Close the Achievement Gap Between Poor and Affluent Students" -- a very different claim.  But the opening words of the article are "Closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students could be as simple as do-re-mi."  No, it couldn't.  The article itself quotes the director of the research institute involved:
“These findings are a testament that it’s a mistake to think of music education as a quick fix, but that if it’s an ongoing part of children’s education, making music can have a profound and lifelong impact on listening and learning.”
At least this time the movement was away from an inflated claim to a more cautious one; typically it's the other way around.

Last week I got into an online squabble with a liberal acquaintance about this very issue.  He'd linked to another research project that was touted as showing that children's early drawing ability "may predict future intelligence."  We'd argued about "may" and "suggest" in these contexts just a day before, and he posted this one to try to bait me.  I didn't bite, but one of his other friends made a critical comment on it.  Again, the study doesn't actually do any such thing.  According to the post he linked to (at a site for freelance artists, like the friend who posted the link, so there's an agenda at work), the researchers found
a "moderate" association between higher scores and intelligence test results, first at the age of four, and then later at the age of 14... However, [lead authorj] Arden was also quick to point out that parents of children with bad drawing skills shouldn’t be worried, as there are "countless factors" that affect intelligence.
A "moderate" association means not only that a four-year-old with poor drawing skills may turn out to be "intelligent" after all, but a child with good drawing skills may turn out not to be "intelligent."  Without looking at the study itself (and I can't be arsed to do so, frankly), there's no telling how strong the correlation is, but "moderate" isn't world-shaking.  So while the study's results are not without interest (though they're also not particularly surprising), it doesn't seem that early drawing ability is a particularly good predictor of intelligence in adolescence.  I'd imagine that motor skills, which are notoriously variable in young children, are also a factor.   And then there's the question of how well "intelligence" can be measured, unless you go along with the claim that intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.

And then another friend, for whose judgment I have more respect, wrote something about a former student who wanted to "write her thesis on the 'economics of happiness,'" which I agree could be interesting, though I don't know how you'd approach it, and linked to a TED talk on "the surprising science of happiness."  It should come as no surprise that I'm skeptical of that.  One of my friend's friends commented: "the fairly new idea in law & economics movement is that laws shouldn't be trying to maximize utility measured using willingness to pay, but rather turn to measuring happiness directly and maximizing that."  I asked how one measures happiness directly.  He replied, "you measure self-reported happiness on the scale 1 to something. Turns out, it's quite a good estimate." 

Perhaps so, but "quite a good estimate" is not a direct measure.  A researcher might invite a subject to self-report his or her height or weight or body temperature or, come to that, IQ.  But all those things can also be measured directly.  It might be interesting to compare the self-reports with the direct measurements, since it's known how unreliable such self-reports often are when they can be compared.  When they can't be compared, it's not a good idea to put much store by the self-reports.  (Which doesn't stop many researchers from doing so anyway, of course.)

The point here is that the liberals and progressives I know, who love to jeer at the scientific illiteracy of Rethugs and Bible thumpers, post a lot of this kind of thing, much of which turns up on a Facebook page called "I fucking love science."  They may love it, but they don't know much about it, and they do get pissy when their own scientific and mathematical illiteracy is pointed out.  They react exactly the same way the Christian right-wingers do when their fond fantasies are debunked: I like to believe this, it makes me feel good, so I'm going to believe no matter what you mean old skeptics say -- and besides, who knows -- it might turn out to be true after all!

This isn't an innocent error either.  I wonder what the consequences of these studies are supposed to be.  All kids should be getting a good education anyway, and we know that a richer environment -- not just musical and artistic but literary and more narrowly intellectually stimulating -- is good for them.  The problem in the US is not that we don't know what children need and why: we know that perfectly well.  It's that many adults don't want to provide it.  Many others can't, for lack of time and other resources.  The most interesting finding of the music-education project was that its effects didn't show until the second year, meaning that there is no quick fix here; but again, we already know that.  Education, serious education of the kind that is piously talked about, takes years.  We know that.  Maybe someone should study the excuses that are made for not doing what we know needs to be done?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Low-Hanging Fruit, Fish in a Barrel, and Roosting Chickens

It's another one of those days.  Roy Edroso's latest post at alicublog promotes his Village Voice column collecting right-wing nutbaggery, which of course is easy work provided you wear protective apparel against the flying spittle.  He sums it up as follows:
The brethren's current fist-shaking reminds me that, had Al Gore been elected President -- excuse me, had he been inaugurated President -- we might not have had the clusterfuck we wound up with in Iraq; and if Romney had been elected in 2012, we might already be running back there full-strength. I know what George Wallace said, but to paraphrase Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib, hurrah for that dime's worth of difference. 
At least Edroso allows that Al Gore might not have invaded Iraq -- most Democrats I know are quite sure that he wouldn't have, that 9/11 wouldn't have happened, the 2008 financial crash wouldn't have happened, etc.  All of this is speculation at best, a declaration of faith at worst.  Gore was hawkish on Iraq while he was vice-president, and wouldn't have needed the cover of the September 11 attacks to invade had he become President.  (Neither did Bush, really.)  The Clinton-Gore regime waged a low-intensity war against Iraq throughout its course, with almost daily bombings and sanctions that killed at least half a million Iraqis with hunger and disease.  And that was just one of Clinton-Gore's wars.  There was very little domestic opposition to any of these adventures, least of all from Democrats.  They'd have celebrated President Gore's invasion of Iraq as joyously as most of them did President Bush's at first, and defended it as they defended Clinton's wars.

The comments by Edroso's brethren are more of the same.  This except from one regular is especially entertaining, in its own perverse way:
3.) If only we'd listened to John McCain and Lindsey Graham, we would now have troops on the ground and fighting in:
And probably China and Korea as well.
Look at that list, and remember Obama's record.  We already have troops on the ground in several of those countries -- including South Korea, where 28,500 are currently stationed, and the government is building a major naval base which will be used by the US navy to threaten China.  Obama has initiated hostilities in several others.  And Afghanistan?  The true believer will of course forget that Obama escalated US combat there, and tried to extend our occupation of Iraq.  Mostly, like any prudent American executive, he's preferred to keep American troops off the ground, relying on air power to keep US casualties low.  He wanted military action against Assad in Syria but had to back off, and now he's siding with Assad.   (Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.)  US belligerence has not diminished under Obama, whose repellent embrace of war as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize was typical American deceit and hypocrisy.  But when you're defending your team and its coach, facts are inconvenient and dispensable.  And surely, comrades, you don't want Bush back?

I looked again at then-Senator Obama's 2007 op-ed piece on Iran, and noticed this amusing bit: "the Bush administration's policy has been tough talk with little action and even fewer results."  This is what now-President Obama's hawkish critics are saying about him, to the great indignation of the faithful.