Sunday, May 30, 2004

Cosby the Curmudgeon

The Jackson Sun News - Cosby's words spark debate among blacks

Bill Cosby was being honored in Washington's Constitution Hall commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that cleared the way for desegregation.... The following are Cosby's comments, according to The Washington Post and The Associated Press, at Howard University. The university will not release a video tape of Cosby's speech.

'People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around. The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids - $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.'

'I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is' ... you can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.'

Cosby then talked about incarcerated criminals.

'These are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake'

It's been a long hard struggle and the end is not in sight but at least we've reached the stage where black people can be curmudgeons. And even though, predictably conservatives have tried to turn his comments to their ends their success has been at best mixed.

Adversity ruins people's character. Poverty is the root of most evil and, in general, it is powerlessness rather than power that corrupts. "Lower economic people"--some, as Cosby later noted, not all--are lousy people because their lives are lousy. If they are lousy people, it doesn't follow that it's their fault rather than the fault of economic arrangements and discriminatory practices that perpetuate poverty and powerlessness--it only shows all the more strongly how these arrangements and practices damage people.

When, I wonder, did liberals get the idea that in order to make the case that members of minority groups were disadvantaged they had to pretend that the attitudes and behavior of the most damaged was ok--and even beyond that to castigate those who survived to become decent, educated people as inauthentic? Discrimination is a fact, not a speculative hypothesis that has to be proven. When black people go to buy cars or apply for mortgages, they get lousy deals--and it doesn't matter whether they're well-dressed and well-credentialed, or whether they have excellent credit histories. When the black female president of an Ivy League college shops in an upscale store, security guards tail her. You don't need to make the case there there is discrimination any more than you need to make the case that there are tables and chairs and calling substand English "Ebonics" or making out petty criminals to be political prisoners isn't helping anyone.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The New York Times > Week in Review > The 'Hypermodern' Foe: How the Evangelicals and Catholics Joined Forces

Coalitions of Catholics and evangelicals form the backbone in the fights against gay marriage, stem-cell research and euthanasia, and for religious school vouchers. Catholic and evangelical leaders who forged relationships in the anti-abortion movement, which the Baptist theologian Timothy George has called "the ecumenism of the trenches," are now working side by side in campaigns on other culture war issues, and for Republican candidates...

Now conservatives in both groups share the sense that they are fighting a losing battle against secularism, relativism and a trend that the Christianity Today editorial brands "hypermodern individualism." Though miles apart on salvation, they find common ground in the language of moral absolutes.

When will the Muslims get a piece of the action? I'll give it 10 years at the outside. Islam, after all, is "Calvinism on steroids" and when Muslims achieve critical mass in the US they will be perfectly positioned not only to join the conservative coalition but to lead it. Once the war in Iraq is over and Al Qaida is contained, Muslims will become as clean, wholesome and cuddly as Mormons: we will view women in hajibs in the way we regard Mormon missionaries on bicycles and commend Muslims on their family values.

Secularism has arrived. Even if they are "miles apart on salvation"--not to mention Papal infallability, the interrancy of Scripture, the Real Presence, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception--conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals agree on what matters to both of them: the rules of conduct, the importance of following them and the mechanisms for enforcing them. Theology does not matter because both have taken the liberal cliche "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right" and run with it. Religion is over.

I'm sitting here revising my paper on the Filioque Clause. I'm against it--but no one else seems to care about it or any other fine points of theology these days. Even as recently as 35 years ago, Episcopalians fought about liturgical revision--and I was there duking it out. Now the foes of secular humanism are primarily concerned with who screws whom, with cleanliness, politness and discipline, with controlling their kids, preventing access to recreational drugs and maintaining their fantasy of the "traditional family." I can't imagine why they want the kind of world they're promoting--the puritanism, lack of options, absence of emotion, the arbitrary, restrictive rules--or they're afraid will happen if this world collapses, as it will. But find it even harder to understand why they are so concerned about these secular matters and so utterly indifferent to central theological concerns.

If you believe in God, if you seriously believe that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being and that enjoying him in this world and the next is the summum bonum then knowing what he is like, even down to the Filioque Clause or its denial, is infinitely more important than any of these "lifestyle issues." If you believe, seriously believe, that there is a God and not merely a mechanism for dispensing reward and punishment, then holy things, holy places and holy actions matter: church buildings matter, liturgy matters, everything that's conducive to piety and the experience of God's presence matters--and the essentially secular concerns of the religious right, as well as the religious left, are all straw.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Sopranos - Family Values

Being an insufferable pedant I've been reading Sopranos criticism online, including this piece which comes from a book that purports to be a philosophical reflection on the Sopranos repleat with a discourse on Plato's views about the corrupting influence of art. This essay is especially obtuse as well as inflated, but much of the criticism seems to me to get it wrong in suggesting that there's something surprising about the bifurcation of Tony's life as mob boss and family man and that his roles exist in a tension that has driven him to panic attacks, therapy and will likely result in some sort of breakdown.

Nonsense. We all do it. And the real philosophical issue that the author of the linked essay has completely missed is that it is a consequence of the conceptual bifurcation between "private morality" and "professional ethics."

We asked students once, in our Women and Work class, whether there was a difference between "morality" and "ethics" and, if there was, to explain what it was. After about half an hour of discussion eliciting student's linguistic intuitions, we came up with the following picture:

Morality is essentially sentimentality, an "ethic of care." It's not rational and can't be argued about: it's a matter of feelings--not either utility calculations or duty. You should be moral with your family and friends. But morality is impractical and out of place in work situtions--after all, you can't hire someone just because they need the work. In the real world you have to follow "professional ethics," the particular codes of conduct for various occupations. Morality is also not realistic in public life--you can't just give away money, it has to come from somewhere. Liberals just don't realize that businesses can't afford to give away products to people who need them or keep incompetent employees on because they need work; they don' t realize that if you tax the rich to provide handouts so that everyone will be exactly equal there will be no incentives. More generally, they don't realize that you have to be rational in work and politics so you can't afford morality.

Tony is just following the standard program: morality at home; professional ethics on the job. It just happens that the code of conduct for his particular line of work licenses extortion, drug-dealing, whoring and murder. All his troubles come about when the wall of seperation between the domestic sphere and his professional life thin--when, e.g. his gumuhs make contact with Carmella.

On Sunday, Adriana was whacked. The FBI was blackmailing her after one of the drug dealers that frequented the club killed a buy in her office and she became involved in the coverup. She confessed that she'd been an informer to Chris on the promise that the FBI would get them into the witness protection program. Chris told Tony who had her executed.

This was inevitable once Chrissy set up Adriana with a business that would become a venue for mob activities, breeching the wall of separation. The system only works when women, children and other contacts in the "civilian" world are strictly segregated from professional activities. Chris brought it on himself. He could have married Adriana and installed her in a suburban mini-mansion in North Caldwell, or set her up with a boutique or some other safe, legitimate business. But he drew her into the margin of his professional world and made her, unwillingly, subject to its code of professional ethics, so she ends up dead and he ends up in mourning and back on drugs. Tsk, tsk.

Now compare this to Tony who, at the end of the same episode moves back in with Carmella for a happy ending after promising in effect that he will not allow his professional activities, in this case whoring, interfere with domestic life. Tony has played it right, setting up Carmella in North Caldwell, far from the Bada Boom Club, and he shall have his reward. So will Carmella.

Is Carmella as badly off as most critics think--or as one suggests, an expensive whore? Not in the least. For all her intermittent Catholic guilt she is not doing anything wrong by living off of what her shrink calls "blood money." Nothing she does can make any difference to Tony's professional activities and, as Tony reminded her in an earlier episode, she knew what she was getting into. She might as well enjoy it.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

The New York Times > National > Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy: "Bill Schambra, director of the Bradley Center at the Hudson Institute and a former director of the Bradley Foundation, one of the biggest conservative donors, said the foundations' supported the institute as part of a broader effort to build a conservative infrastructure after decades of liberal ascendancy had shut out the right.

'The I.R.D. is a kind of parallel universe that upholds the conservative standpoint in the world of religion,' Mr. Schambra said. 'It is no different in that sense from what the National Association of Scholars is for University Professors or the Federalist Society is for lawyers,' he said, referring to two other groups backed by the same foundations.

James Piereson, executive director of the Olin Foundation, said his foundation saw the institute as a Protestant counterpart to the conservative magazine Commentary for Jews or the Father Neuhaus's journal First Things for Catholics. 'If no one commented on and criticized the churches' political activities, it would appear that this was an unobjectionable religious position that was being brought to bear instead of a controversial position,' he said, adding that 'the sexuality issues and the liturgical issues in the churches have never been of great interest to us.'"

Friday, May 21, 2004


Middle East Online

We can't win. We went into the Iraqi misadvanture on the basis of misinformation provided by Chalabi with the intention of installing him as a friendly US puppet. A protege of Cheney who hadn't lived in Iraq for 30 years, it would be hard to imagine anyone whom Iraqis could find more objectionable than this quintessential carpetbagger.

But now that his offices have been raided and vandalized he seems set to become another culture hero

I have nothing interesting to say in this post--just trying to articulate my own churning ambivalence. This affair suggests that there is nothing that the US could do that would even count as a friendly gesture much less contribute to improving conditions. The only solution is to get out. And forget about any multilateral alternative, UN peacekeepers or whatever: what real chance is it that Iraqis would take more kindly to any occupying force?

These are primitive tribal people. Only a ruthless authoritarian regime could keep the lid on and provide minimally decent conditions for a small educated class. We lifted the lid: the only thing left is to let them duke it out amongst themselves and create the squalid, violent, supersitious hellhole they want to live in--their indigenous culture.

Sunday, May 16, 2004


David Reimer was hailed by scientists as a triumph of nurture over nature. But as his suicide shows, this was a terrible mistake

Yes we'd all like to think that wouldn't we--so now this story of a boy who had his penis chopped off in a botched circumcision, whose parents were persuaded to have him castrated and raised as a girl, was a feminist experiment that failed. But let's consider the facts:

(1) As an experiment is was a botch. There was no double blind--the parents knew he was really a boy and soon the David (a.k.a. Brenda) discovered what happened. It wasn't part of an extensive study of twins where one was sex changed and the other wasn't--which would have been grossly unethical but a gratuitous intervention in one case that couldn't have had any scientific value anyway.

(2) Dr John Money, at Johns Hopkins Medical school when I was there as a grad student in Arts and Sciences, was not a feminist ideologue aiming to show that nurture would trump nature. On the contrary: his aim was to justify his program of sex change operations on the grounds that psychological gender was innate and unchangeable, that it usually matched physiological sex, but that in those rare cases where it didn't transsexual surgery was the best option. If anything his aim would have been to show that in a case where the surgery was performed on an individual who showed no signs of sex-gender mismatch it would have resulted in exactly this sort of disaster.

Scientists never hailed this case as a triumph of nurture over nature. In fact Dr. Money was asked by the administration at the Johns Hopkins Medical School to stop doing these operations

(3) The spin on the story was that David's suicide showed that the experiment was a failure--nature triumphed. But later in the article we read that he was depressed because his non-sex-changed twin brother had committed suicide 2 years earlier. If we can infer anything from one case it should be that it wasn't the sex-gender mismatch he had to cope with as a child that resulted in his suicide. Either both twins were genetically predisposed to depression and that resulted in both suicides or, more likely, that the stress of dealing with the aftermath of this experiment botched things for everyone involved.

(4) David, we read, didn't like being brought up as a girl. But lots of physiologically normal girls don't like being brought up as girls--that's why there are feminists.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

It's Democracy, Stupid

The New York Times > International > Asia Pacific > In Huge Upset, Gandhi's Party Wins Election in India:

"Unlike in the United States, where the most prosperous also vote the most, in India it is the poor who turn out in greatest numbers. That means that the very voters for whom India has been shining — urbanites from the middle and upper classes who benefited from globalization and reforms — are also least likely to vote. The B.J.P. also seemed to suffer from its association with the Hindu nationalism that had powered its rise. Muslims, still repelled by the anti-Muslim carnage in the B.J.P.-controlled state of Gujarat in 2002, resisted the party's efforts to woo them, as did many Indians concerned about the weakening of the country's secular identity"

Meanwhile in the US as the underclass sinks we watch for our investments in prison stocks boom.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Are prison stocks a secure pick? - Apr. 30, 2004: "Attracted by an expanding prison population and an overcrowded penal system, investors have sent shares of Corrections Corp. of America and Geo Group soaring over the last year. Both stocks now trade at or near multi-year highs.

'The prison population really never stops growing,' said Irving Lingo, chief financial officer with Corrections Corp. 'Even if the growth rate slows, the real issue is that inmates are coming into systems that are already overcrowded.'

Throughout the last decade, the U.S. prison population has grown by 3.6 percent annually to 2.2 million people -- or one in every 143 residents -- at the end of 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

That may be a scary statistic if you're a student of sociology, but it points to a nice 'customer base' if you're Corrections Corp. or Geo Group."

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

OK, shoot me...

Did American soldiers treat the Iraqi prisoners they "humiliated" any worse than the Iraqi prisoners routinely treated their wives?

Innocent people shouldn't be imprisoned and no one should be beaten or raped but the routine treatment of women in the Arab world, South Asia and other "traditional societies" doesn't occasion this level of outrage. To be fair, it's largely because it's routine, and the commonplace isn't news. But there's also the pervasive sense that, even if the more egregious acts of brutality--honor killing, dowery murder and stoning for adultry are deplorable, women can't be "humiliated" because they're accostomed to subservience. Young Arab males are another thing--humiliating a macho man constitutes a grievous harm. No one worries about women--they're used to it.

One of our part-timers, with an MA in philosophy and no prospects, got a job xeroxing. Within 3 months he was put on the management track, not because he showed great promise in collating and stapling reports but because management a manager passing by saw him and thought he would be bored at his job. No one ever worries that women who xerox, staple and collate get bored. Women are used to it--it's just routine.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'Acquainted With the Night': Troubled Children and Troubled Parents: "Could there be an incoherent rebellion under way against the relentless pressure to achieve, which kicks in now at the preschool stage? It may be a clue that the symptoms of many childhood psychiatric disorders seem to preclude schoolwork and attendance. Maybe the only problem with the kids is that they have been watching their own high-achieving parents, and they have seen where all that leads."

After Nickled and Dimed in America Barbara Erenreich should know better. If you don't get the credentials to make it into the talented tenth, you'll be kicking around between Walmart and the miscellaney of other jobs in the service sector that she describes in vivid detail.

Every year we have a session for academic advisors at which we are fed the usual pious sentiments about the value of a liberal education and eschewing narrowly vocational goals in favor of critical reasoning and self cultuvation. This would be fine if students were independently wealthy or sufficiently privileged to walk into sinecures on graduation. Realistically it is B.S.: students need to be trained in technical skills and credentialed. High achieving is a prerequsite for the good life--students are merely worried that they won't be able to make it in a viciously competitive environment where without the grades and credentials life will not be worth living.

Playing Tough

From Crooked Timber: Previous convictions: "I’ve just been over to Electrolite, where Patrick Nielsen Hayden has posted this stunning excerpt from the New York Times :

"… the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time. The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq as part of a team of prison officials, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to rebuild the country’s criminal justice system"

Why should we be surprised? For the past quarter century or so most Americans have been convinced that tough will solve all out problems--if only in the long run when we're all dead. The hypothesis isn't falsifiable: if we get tough and things don't get fixed it shows that we haven't been tough enough; if things get worse it shows that have to stay the course to recoup sunk costs. Anyone who leaps off the tough train will get ground under the wheels because if things don't improve immediately--and they can't after years of destructive get-tough policies--he'll be blamed for derailing a get-tough policy that was just about to start working.

I don't think that Bush or his American supporters are really bothered by prison brutality as such--it's the kinky fun and games, prisoners on leashes, sodomized, made to simulate homosexual group sex that gets up their noses. I doubt that they would seriously object to a little sleep deprivation or good, clean flogging, in Iraq, Gitmo or in prisons stateside.

We got into this mess because liberals made no serious attempt to offer the America people a viable alternative. Home on the range there are only cowboys and wimps. The only alternative middle Americas see to get tough policies is the program of the "helping professions"--therapists, social workers, liberal ministers and the education profession.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Clash of Civilizations

The year: 2043. The EU (since admitting Japan, the “Eurasian Union”) has become the world’s only HyperPower. The US, along with China, has been demoted to mere SuperPower status.

Within the EU there is growing concern about America's weapons of mass destruction as well as its ongoing human rights violations. In addition to stubbornly retaining the death penalty and allowing its citizens virtually unrestricted access to fire arms, the US remains one of the last nations on earth to resist the establishment of a socialist-democratic welfare state. While all nations in the EU have achieved 100% adult literacy and fund higher education, through the graduate level, for all citizens who qualify, the US continues to regard effective education as a luxury item for the elite--the majority of children are warehoused and, in the better public schools, entertained.

As a consequence, productivity has steadily declined in the US and the economy remains stagnant while the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. In short, the US has joined the "Third World": a small group of technocrats and families of the hereditary plutocracy enjoy lives of fabulous opulence in gated communities while the greater part of the population, without hereditary wealth or the education to participate in a labor market that requires a high level of technical skills, are locked out. Each year an increasing percentage of the GDP goes to fund security--police, private security guards, increasingly high tech surveillance equipment and prisons.

Sigrid Eriksdottir, Prime Manager of the EU, in consultation with her advisors, has finally made the decision to invade the US in order to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction and initiate regime change. "We're going to disable their nukes, take out that cowboy George Bush III, liberate the American people and make the world safe for Democratic Socialism," she says, in the perfect English which all citizens of EU nations speak as their second language. "Americans will welcome our forces as liberators."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, George Bush III holds a war council with his advisors in a reinforced, lead-lined bunker a mile underground, fitted with shocks and McPherson struts to absorb the vibration of falling bombs. Bush's staff sociologists have assured him that, contrary to Eriksdottir's predictions, Americans will not welcome EU forces as liberators; indeed, they predict that the majority will fight to the death to preserve the American Way of Life. He has also been advised that the US may get military support from the UK, Canada, Australia and even a number of nations in Anglophone Africa if he plays his cards right.

Above ground, ordinary citizens prepare for war: most have no interest in being "liberated" by the EU and do not understand why Eriksdottir has decided to invade. Stubbornly monoglot, with little interest in the world outside the US, they get all their information about "Old Europe" from the American media, which portrays Europeans as decadent sissies who spend most of their time participating in bi-sexual orgies.

Inflamed by the preaching of fundamentalist Protestant televangelists and Muslim mullahs (Islam has become a major force in the US), the masses vow to resist. Most have little interest in issues or ideologies—they just want to defend their homeland. A sizeable minority however are concerned, with good reason, that an EU invasion and subsequent occupation will undermine their culture and take away what they hold dear: the right to buy guns, to have their kids taught Creationism in the public schools, to eat junk food and to drive SUVs.

By contrast, most members of the elite outside of the President's small coterie are eager for the invasion. They wish the US had joined the EU years ago and established a humane welfare state. They do not own guns or want their children taught Creationism and, privileged though they are, would prefer to live like citizens of other affluent nations, without gates, bars, security guards and beggars in the streets.

Eriksdottir is shocked when her sociological reconnaissance team reports that there will be resistance from the very Americans who would benefit most from liberation--the masses who get least from the conservative economic policies that are locked into place in the US and who are least able to isolate themselves from the violence, crime and public disorder that are pervasive. This isn't the way Marx said it was supposed to be.

Neo-liberals in the US, looking forward to the invasion and occupation, are not surprised. They have known for decades that the real "clash of civilizations" is not between the East and West, as it had been during the Cold war, between the North and South or between Christendom and Islam. It is between the Enlightenment and Traditional Societies, between the educated, cosmopolitan upper middle class around the world and the tribal masses in the US as well as elsewhere.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Sopranos: Carmella and Tony, Meadow and Finn

Tony and Carmella slept together, and enjoyed it but Tony left before Carmella woke up to "avoid sending the wrong message" as he told Dr. Malfi, and Carmella got on the phone to her lawyer to get divorce proceedings going in earnest.

Meadow and Finn were having problems too: Finn wanted to go back to his parents in San Diego for the summer. Meadow, afraid he'll bail, becomes demanding and difficult. So Finn proposes--at least he got it right. End of show: Meadow on the phone to Carmella to announce her engagement while Carmella looks out to the pool where Tony is floating like a bloated marine mammal.

Why do people behave this way? Why didn't Tony stay the night? Why doesn't Carmella just put a stop to the whole thing? Why did Meadow make more demands because she was afraid that Finn was cooling towards her? Why is it that when we want someone's favor, dread the loss of their friendship and feel insecure in the relationship, instead of extending ourselves to secure it, we undermine it?

Why aren't we rational self-interested choosers?

Of course one can read it as a Prisoner's Dilemma. Tony, Carmella and Meadow are betting that their partners will defect and playing the D strategy to counter. But it isn't a Prisoner's Dilemma strictly speaking because there are feedback effects: a player's countering a predicted defection makes the defection more likely. The rational play, I think is the leap of faith

Whether it's rational though depends on how heavily you weight avoiding rejection and failure, and that should be a matter of taste about which there is no disputing. But it still seems irrational to weight the avoidance of failure heavily if there are no opportunity costs.