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.

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.

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.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

First World Problems

Bernie Sanders is probably one of the better members of the Senate, though it should never be forgotten how low the bar is.  A lot of my liberal Democratic friends post fiery quotations from him, like the one above, or from Elizabeth Warren, which apparently make them feel good but show the limitations of their politics.

It happened that I noticed the meme above while I'm reading David J. Blacker's The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Regime (Zero Books, 2013).  Blacker is a philosopher, and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Delaware.  I hadn't heard of him until this book was mentioned in connection with the University of Illinois' firing of Professor Steven Salaita.  I ordered an e-book copy, and so far (about 60 pages in) I'm enjoying it.  The technical language might put off some readers, and I admit that at first I wasn't sure Blacker was going to deliver the goods of substantial analysis, but that changed quickly.
Let us stipulate, say, that there is greed on Wall Street.  There "greed is good," in fact, as says Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in 1987's Wall Street.  But bankers and people in general have always been greedy.  Did they suddenly get more greedy in the 1990s when the subprime housing crisis was brewing and the many "innovative" speculative strategies were being rolled out?  It is logically possible that there was some mass alteration of human nature a couple of decades ago but this possibility seems so remote that it serves as a reductio ad absurdum of the "greed" hypothesis  [5*]...

A precondition for any Marxist [or, I would add, systemic and structural - DM] analysis of the financial crisis is that it is not ultimately caused by individual bad actors such that we could punish the culprits and/or re-regulate the banks and all will be well again ...  While deregulation certainly hastened the crisis and so is highly germane to any analysis of the late domination of the economy by the financial sector, it still begs the question, why?   Why the neoliberal zeal for deregulation or, perhaps one should say, why did this simple market idolatry suddenly become so appealing to so many? ... Why the rise of the neoliberal matrix in the first place? [59] ...

But humility also requires one to recognize the inadequacy of system-preserving proposed remedies like reining in personal greed, merely re-calibrating the regulatory parameters on finance or even redistributing corporate profits.  All of these may be fine things to do and defensible ad hoc in context, but piecemeal melioristic approaches share the unfortunate assumption that the extant underlying forces of production are static and legitimate [60].
The tendency of wealth of concentrate upwards isn't a bug, it's a feature of capitalism, along with the business cycle, bubbles and crises of the kind we saw in 2008.  My only quibble with Blacker is that he doesn't mention (I assume he knows) that these are also features of state-capitalist industrialization in nominally socialist countries like the former Soviet Union and present-day China.  The passages I quoted from Raymond Williams in these posts, along with Chris Harman's analysis in Zombie Capitalism (which Blacker cites, so he knows), pointed me in he right direction.

Bernie Sanders is a socialist, but he's the kind of socialist that Obama Democrats can get behind.  Like Warren (but also like Rand Paul from another political position), he's isolated.  He can safely denounce the corruption of the plutocrats, but if he looked to be making any real progress toward structural change, Obama himself (or Hillary Clinton, or whoever succeeds Obama) would attack him and try to bring him down, and Obama's devotees would regard him as they regard someone like Michael Moore.

*I'm not sure about the accuracy of page numbers; I'm quoting from an e-book that supposedly has "real" page numbers, so I hope that anyone who refers to a print copy will be able to find the passages I'm quoting.