Monday, December 17, 2007

Big Table Fantasies - New York Times

Big Table Fantasies - New York Times: "Barack Obama insists that the problem with America is that our politics are so “bitter and partisan,” and insists that he can get things done by ushering in a “different kind of politics...John Edwards blames the power of the wealthy and corporate interests for our problems, and says, in effect, that America needs another F.D.R. — a polarizing figure, the object of much hatred from the right, who nonetheless succeeded in making big changes...I have to say that Mr. Obama comes off looking, well, na├»ve. "

I agree. Like Krugman, who almost always gets it right, I support Edwards and for the same reasons.

What I wonder is why anyone would prefer a vacuous pretty-boy, sponsored by Oprah, to someone who promises to bring about real material improvement. But apparently Oprah has rallied the troops who like Obama for much the same reason that they like Oprah.

I suspect that the reason is that after 30 years of eating shit they don't believe that the conditions of their lives can be improved. Oprah's constituency is almost exclusively female and largely working class. Over half of them have family incomes under $40,000 a year. They spend their days doing dead-end, boring, drudge work without either security or any real chance of advancement. They're uninsured or underinsured and know that one major illness could wipe them out. They're in debt, juggling to make mortgage payments and pay back Pay Day Loans. But they're so used to it, so imbued with peasant-fatalism, that they don't seriously believe that things can be any better. They think that the best they can hope for is niceness and hand-patting.

Oprah is the Opium of the People. When material improvement is impossible, people read self-help books and work on their souls. When they can't get the real goods they revel in smarm, obsess about "relationships," aspire to a "purpose-driven life" and delude themselves into imagining that these cheap intangibles are what make life worthwhile.

Marx was right, though he got the details wrong. He couldn't have anticipated the new secular religion of Oprah, self-help and generic "spirituality"--religion minus the cult, art and metaphysics. It isn't the pie-in-the-sky doctrine or religion in the narrow sense, liturgy and theology, that lulls people into a stupor and induces them to collaborate with their oppressors. It's the religious attitude, the idea that what matter are these intangibles, the search for "meaning," the taste for niceness, the obsession with "relationships" and psychological matters, the drippy sentimentality and self-deception, that block us from achieving the Good Life.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jobs, News and Views for All of Higher Education - Inside Higher Ed :: Academic Freedom and Evolution

Jobs, News and Views for All of Higher Education - Inside Higher Ed :: Academic Freedom and Evolution: "But the groups arguing for freedom of expression of evolution deniers have not been heard agitating for the rights of Richard Colling. He’s a professor at Olivet Nazarene University, in Illinois, who has been barred from teaching general biology or having his book taught at the university that is his alma mater and the place where he has taught for 27 years. A biologist who is very much a person of faith, these punishments followed anger by some religious supporters of the college over the publication of his book in which he argues that it is possible to believe in God and still accept evolution. “I thought I was doing the church a service,” Colling said in an interview. He believes that religious colleges that frame science and faith as incompatible will lose some of their best minds, and that his work has been devoted to helping faithful students maintain their religious devotion while learning science as science should be taught."

I think I've discovered a new informal fallacy. It should have a Latin tag like the rest of them but since my Latin is limited to singing-Latin I'll tentatively tag it the "Means-Ends Flip-Flop Fallacy." It is the fallacy of opposing some practice because it has bad consequences and then opposing the elimination of the bad consequences in order to discourage people from engaging in the practice.

So, Fundamentalists oppose the teaching of evolution because, they believe, it will undermine religious belief. Along comes a biologist--and not the only biologist--who argues that Christianity and the theory of evolution are compatible. Now the Fundamentalists trash him because, presumably, if loss of faith isn't a threat more people will believe in evolution.

A pattern emerges. In the old days, adults tried mightily to dissuade teenage girls from having sex because it could lead to pregnancy, which would seriously mess up their lives. Fair, I suppose. Subsequently things got fixed so that sex wouldn't have those dire consequences. The Pill and other effective birth control methods became available; abortion was legalized; and girls who had babies were no longer automatically expelled from school or stigmatized. Now the puritans are trying mightily to see to it that girls don't have access to effective contraception or abortion and that pregnancy is punished in order to dissuade girls from having sex.

Then there are recreational drugs. We're waging an unwinnable War Against Drugs because we don't want to support the criminal subculture that surrounds their sale and use. If we legalized them, the criminal subculture would evaporate--or, more likely, get into some other line of illegal business. But we won't legalize them because that would remove the penalties for the use of recreational drugs.

Then there are illegal aliens. We don't like them because, we believe, they're dirty, dangerous and live in ditches and because, since they have no legal rights, can't unionize, and so can be exploited by employers, they drive down wages for working class Americans. If we legalized them, provided them with a path to citizenship and enforced anti-discrimination regulations they wouldn't live in ditches or work in the informal sector for sub-minimum wages under the table and so wouldn't drive down wages for working class Americans. But if we legalized them we might end up with more immigrants.

So here is the fallacy. We don't like x because it has y consequences. We become so accustomed to associating x with these bad y consequences that we come to believe that x is bad per se. Then, we oppose disassociating x with its bad consequences because we recognize that if x didn't cause y more people would do x.

I wonder: suppose there were a pill that provided all the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet. I would bet that the puritans would oppose making it available to the public on the grounds that if people could get it they wouldn't bother with exercise or healthy food.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Islam’s Silent Moderates - New York Times: "It is often said that Islam has been “hijacked” by a small extremist group of radical fundamentalists. The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates. But where are the moderates? Where are the Muslim voices raised over the terrible injustice of incidents like these? How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted — and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?...while the incidents in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and India have done more to damage the image of Islamic justice than a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the organizations that lined up to protest the hideous Danish offense to Islam are quiet now."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali suggests that the problem is Islam. But here, I believe, she is dead wrong. The problem is the "Solidarity of the Oppressed" and the valorization of lower class males, the peasants and proles. This is an old story in the West and, in particular, amongst elite leftists.

During the Vietnam Era, we counterculture chickies were supposed to support our men by waitressing so that they could do the important theoretical work of the Revolution--reading Marcuse, drinking beer and singing old union songs. We did our part for the cause by doing the secretarial work while they organized, speechified, and played political games: the position of women in the movement was, as Bobby Seele put it, "prone." Black women were even worse off. There was a remarkable comedy sketch on "In Living Color" years ago, in the form of a monologue by a black woman: "I'm a proud Black woman. I support the Cause. And when my man come home, he beat the crap out of me." This was the Freudian Moynihan Doctrine: to promote the interests of blacks, it was vital to boost the self-esteem of young underclass males by providing them with education, training, jobs and promoting female subordination. The problem, as Moynahan and his successors saw it, was "black matriarchy": women could support themselves--by welfare or menial work--and so undermined fragile male egos. The fix was to see to it that men got education, training, jobs and opportunities and that women didn't get those opportunities or welfare "as we knew it" so that they would be forced to depend on men for financial support.

The progressive/liberal view was that women could wait. And, of course, the conservative view was that they could, and probably should wait, forever. Progressives in any case held that women's concerns weren't a priority. First we needed to combat the oppression of minority males and when that was taken care of there would be time for luxuries like feminism. In the meantime women were supposed to sacrifice their interests to support the cause of minority empowerment, which meant the empowerment of lower class minority males, sacrificing to support the Solidarity of the Oppressed. In the developing world, women's rights could wait. First we had to take down imperialism and neo-colonialism. The priority was the fight against Western hegemony which included Western feminism. Once that was fixed there would be time to attend to women's interests. Women, in any case, could wait: feminism was a luxury, a frill. First fix it for the men and then maybe we could afford the luxury of women's rights.

Hirsi Ali is wrong: Islam is not the problem. The Old Testament is bloody awful: there are plenty of texts that are comparable to the one from the Koran that she cites. But contemporary Jews don't behave like their ancestors did 3 milennia ago. Christians destroyed pagan shrines, killed heretics and unbelievers, conducted crusades and ran inquisitions. Bu they don't do that anymore. The texts are there, and there's ample historical precedent for behaving badly, but no one pays any attention. Religion isn't the issue.

So why don't "moderate Muslims" denounce the brutality of their co-religionists? Because Muslims have been defined as a victim group and the Solidarity of the Oppressed Doctrine dictates that even if privileged members of victim groups find the behavior of their fellow victims stupid, brutal or even just plain silly they mustn't let one and, most particularly, mustn't go public since that would be aiding and supporting the Oppressor. That would be Uncle Tomism of the worst sort. So black women were supposed to stand by their men. And feminists like me are supposed to support other feminists however stupid or pointless their projects. And "moderate Muslims" are not supposed to criticize their fellow Muslims: to do so would be to sell out, to provide aid and comfort to the Oppressor.

It isn't religion. Christians feel free to criticize fellow Christians and to repudiate their views because we aren't defined as a victim group. Mainline Christians, including me, publicly repudiate the doctrines and practices of Fundamentalists, and Fundamentalists publicly denounce us. We squabble in the public square about evolution, sexual ethics, and everything else because as members of a privileged group we don't have any obligation to show solidarity. Muslims, defined as a victim group, don't have that luxury. They're obliged to circle the wagons.

The question is whether this is a good strategy and experience suggests that it is not.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Episcopal Diocese Votes to Secede - New York Times

Episcopal Diocese Votes to Secede - New York Times: "FRESNO, Calif., Dec. 8 — The Diocese of San Joaquin voted on Saturday to cut ties with the Episcopal Church, the first time in the church’s history a diocese has done so over theological issues and the biggest leap so far by dissident Episcopalians hoping to form a rival national church in the United States...

It will be a huge, huge legal battle,” said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. “The costs involved will bleed the Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church, and it will lead only to bad press. You have to wonder why people are wasting money doing this and yet claiming to be Christians.”

You do have to wonder. But I'd say that the national Church and its various local subsidiaries are pouring out this dough because they can. EUCSA is stinking rich and can't even begin to use up those bucks paying denominational bureaucrats, of whom there are many, lavish salaries or maintaining a high-rise on prime Manhattan real estate. "815" (Second Avenue, NY) sucks up money that goes from individuals to parishes, parishes to dioceses, and thence to HQ. Moreover, some dioceses and parishes are flush with endowment and sitting on very expensive real estate themselves.

But the money they spend going at one another full throttle will be chickenfeed compared to the costs of a US presidential campaign. The cost for the 2004 race was 4 billion and the current campaign is expected to be significantly more expensive. So this is how the Market works. Consider the transaction costs in legal fees and advertising: doing business as such costs money. And the cost of doing business seems to be greater than the intrinsic value of the product. It's like they're selling pet rocks, where the only value of the product comes from it's being packaged and marketed. Moreover, when firms that sell pet rocks compete, the only way they can add more value to their products is through better packaging and more extensive advertising. So to compete, since their products are inherently worthless, firms compete by spending more and more on the inherently worthless business of doing business.

This isn't a flaw that comes from the lack of fit between the market model and the real world: it isn't a consequence of irrationality. It's inherent in the very nature of competition. People have a taste for products that are effectively packaged and advertised. That's de gustibus so we can't call them irrational for acting on it. Nevertheless, at least intuitively, advertising and packaging are a waste just as war is a waste. Yet in both cases the costs get cranked up higher and higher just because there is a competition, just because the market is, after a fashion, working.

So here is the Episcopal Church fighting this war which is a war of pure waste. No one dies but nothing material is accomplished. It's simply a matter of pouring out money in legal fees so that lawyers can draw up documents and argue with one another until one side runs out of money and has to say uncle.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

US: Record Numbers for World’s Leading Jailer (Human Rights Watch, 5-12-2007)

US: Record Numbers for World’s Leading Jailer (Human Rights Watch, 5-12-2007):

"the United States is the world’s leading prison nation,” said David Fathi, director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Americans should ask why the US locks up so many more of its citizens than do Canada, Britain, and other democratic countries. The US is even ahead of governments like China that use prisons as a political tool.”"

Easy question. This is the new Jim Crow. A significant number of Americans assume that there's an unsalvageable underclass that can't be educated, made productive or civilized but can only be contained. In the past, in northern cities as well as the South, they were warehoused in no-go areas where they couldn't do damage to the rest of us.

According to the narrative, the end of segregation opened the Gates of Hell: the damned poured out to rape and pillage, and the cities burned. Those were the Long Hot Summers yesteryear. Since then, in place of urban ghettos we've created a mass incarceration system to warehouse them and keep them from doing damage to the rest of us.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Obama the Feminist: No Thanks

Feminist Pitch by a Democrat Named Obama - New York Times

The Obama campaign is, in some ways, subtly marketing its candidate as a postfeminist man, a generation beyond the gender conflicts of the boomers. In the video released this week, Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, says that Mr. Obama understands issues of concern to women “in his gut,” not as “a kind of pandering.” The writer Alice Walker describes Mr. Obama as “someone who honors the feminine values of caring for all.” Obama strategists also highlight his leadership style — his promise of consensus-building and moving beyond the politics of polarization and fear — as especially appealing to women. “His message is about listening, bringing people together, the skills women appreciate,” said Betsy Myers, the campaign’s chief operating officer.

What a bullshitter--and what patronizing, sexist crap: "feminine values of caring for all" and the idea that "consensus-building" is supposed to be "appealing to women." It's good to know that women are still going for tough old Hillary.

There was not a damn thing in this article on Obama's "feminist pitch" about what Obama proposes to do for women, or for anyone else. Is he going to promote equal pay for equal work--or even better, equal work for women? Is he planning to establish universal pre-school? Does he have any views about family leave? Does he have any ideas about training programs for low-income women? Not that I could see.

This man is vacuous. But much, much worse he, or at least his groomers and trainers, are sexists of the worst sort, imagining that even though he isn't offering women anything, women will vote for him because he's a caring Sensitive New Age Guy. And women will of course prefer to have a man in authority, providing that he's sensitive, protective and "caring," than a fellow-women.

Sorry. Women, particularly working class women, are still enthusiastic about Hillary. And Hillary also gets a bigger share of the black vote than Obama. Working class women and minorities, who have serious practical concerns, don't care about Obama's "caring."

I'm still for Edwards. He's more focused on bread-and-butter issues than any of the other candidates and further to the left. That's all that matters to me. But I warm to Hillary and will be delighted to vote for her if she's nominated. My second-favorite president, after Teddy Roosevelt, was Lyndon Johnson--that ugly cuss of a professional politician, consumate wheeler-dealer, tough guy and master of the Senate, who established the Great Society and took down Jim Crow. Kennedy, beatified as a martyr, really wasn't much of anything: he botched things with Cuba and almost got us into a nuclear holocaust; he did little or nothing for civil rights or for the alleviation of poverty. We don't need another JFK or, even worse, another Clean Gene McCarthy leading a Children's Crusade. We need a tough, pragmatic--even corrupt--politician who can get results.