Saturday, March 31, 2007

Thalesian Fools

Timmo, a contributor here at The Barefoot Bum, has a new blog: Thalesian Fools. He's a sharp guy, and the new blog has a lot of potential.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Nope, still no spine

The Democratic party is still shopping for a spine.

Again, I will apply true rocket science to the issue.

Everybody knows who fired the U.S. Attorneys: Rove and Bush. Everybody knows why they were fired: Because they wouldn't interfere in elections or would prosecute Republicans. Everybody knows that the U.S. Attorneys who weren't fired did interfere with elections and/or wouldn't prosecute Republicans. This is common knowledge.

The only thing left to do is either get these guys on C-Span, under oath, or allow Bush to provoke a Constitutional crisis by refusing to allow them to testify. Either way the point is to build a case for impeachment.

Why the Supplemental stinks on ice

Of course, Arthur Silber and Matt Taibbi say it better than I do, but I'll throw my two cents in anyway.

I'm going to apply my almost superhuman powers of logical analysis, my incredibly deep political, historical and diplomatic knowledge, my numerous shadowy connections to high-level bureaucrats to evaluate this issue:

The Supplemental is a crock of shit. It stinks on ice because, it doesn't, you know, actually end the Iraq War.

Deep, eh?

The war in Iraq is not just "bad". It's not just way too expensive, in lives and money. It's not just damaging to American interests.

The war in Iraq is evil. I do not believe that any person of conscience can ever assent to spend even one more dollar on this monstrous evil, regardless of the personal or political consequences.

The American people elected Democratic candidates in 2006 for pretty much one reason. After extensive polling and analysis, I've concluded that this reason was not to listen to the Democrats talk about maybe ending the war someday. They elected these candidates to actually end the war.

"But we don't have the votes in congress to end the war!" sayeth the "progressive" pundits. "We have to support this bill because it's the best we can get. We have to pass something, and we have to pass it right now."

I call bullshit.

Maybe we don't have the votes in congress to end the war. Who knows? No vote has been taken in Congress on any bill to actually end the war.

The Supplemental is—maybe—the bill that, after a vicious fight with Cheney Bush and the Blue Dog Democrats Republicans in Congress, we'd be dragged kicking and screaming into voting for sometime in May or June. It's the bill we—maybe—would vote for after putting all these pro-war fuckers on the record. It's the bill we—maybe—would vote for after after Bush makes it absolutely crystal clear that he will in fact literally strand more than 100,000 American soldiers in Iraq with no food rather than allow the war to end. Maybe.

Pelosi woulda coulda shoulda... She could have strong-armed the Blue Dog democrats. She could have brought the fully funded withdrawal to the floor and let it get voted down. She could have pushed this fight past the day when we had enough money to withdraw the troops, and let Bush go on record that he himself would abandon the troops rather than end the war.

Bush is going to veto the supplemental. He's given us ample evidence that he doesn't give a rat's ass for public opinion. Bush is going to end up getting exactly what he wants. He knows now he can hold out for a "clean" supplemental, and he will. And he'll get it, too, wait and see.

The Republican party will back him. They know that they're going to lose in 2008, so they'll lose on principle; any inconvenienced legislators will become consultants and lobbyists with their fingers in the same corporate pies. They'll roar back in 2010, with war in Iraq still raging and expanded to Iran, and—more importantly—the Democrats' problem. We'll have Giuliani as president in 2012, and it will then be time for the most savage of paybacks, both on the people of the Middle East and the people of America. Giuliani is not.. ahem... the most forgiving of men.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Iraq war supplemental

Just so you know, the bill is H.R.1591: U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health, and Iraq Accountability Act, 2007 as passed by the House. The relevant portions are in Chapter 9, Sections 1901-1903, General Provisions of Title I (search for "Sec. 1901.")

I'll be talking about the bill later today.

Postmodern Crap Cop

(Copyright 2007 Nearing Zero. Used with permission.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Once more into the breach

Progressives lost big on the supplemental funding bill, but there are still some opportunities to do at least some good:

Kucinich is offering an amendment to the supplemental which strips the requirement to plunder Iraqi oil for the Iraqi government to pass a new oil law as a condition of a withdrawal.

Jim Webb is offering an amendment in the Senate which requires the president to obtain Congressional authorization for an attack on Iran.

Email and phone your representative and tell them to support these amendments.

The Capitol switchboard is (202) 224-3121.
Email your Representative
Email your Senator

Why we lost in Iraq

Edward N. Luttwak explains why we cannot possibly "win" in Iraq:
Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents, by using a number of well-proven methods. It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them. ...

[W]henever insurgents are believed to be present in a village, small town, or distinct city district—a very common occurrence in Iraq at present, as in other insurgency situations—the local notables can be compelled to surrender them to the authorities, under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions. ...

[The Roman Empire] relied on deterrence, which was periodically reinforced by exemplary punishments. Most inhabitants of the empire never rebelled after their initial conquest. A few tribes and nations had to be reconquered after trying and failing to overthrow Roman rule. A few simply refused to become obedient, and so they were killed off: “They make a wasteland and call it peace” was the bitter complaint of a Scottish chieftain (as reported by Tacitus).

Terrible reprisals to deter any form of resistance were standard operating procedure for the German armed forces in the Second World War, and very effective they were in containing resistance with very few troops. ...

Occupiers can thus be successful without need of any specialized counterinsurgency methods or tactics if they are willing to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that the fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents or their threats. ...

[T]he ordinary administrative functions of government can also be employed against the insurgents, less compellingly perhaps but without need of violence... [but] the United States has preferred both in Vietnam long ago and now in Iraq to leave government to the locals. ...

All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.
Tim Kreider explains Why we "can't" get out:
But there’s another, more important reason the Democrats aren’t going to yank the troops out of there anytime soon, which is that we can't. The whole point of the invasion was to get the oil. The world runs on oil, see. And the problem is, the oil is running out. World leaders understand this—I’m sure Mr. Cheney has explained it to George--and the major players are now scrambling to position themselves for what promises to be an ugly and savage every-man-for-himself-type brawl over the dwindling energy resources as industrial civilization implodes. The Russians have enough oil and natural gas to maintain their current stylish standard of living for another thousand years. Don’t you worry about the Russians. The wily Chinese are forging better alliances in Asia and Africa than we’ve ever had, and are also whistling and looking innocent while building a modern army that is probably not exclusively for rescuing stranded hikers. Our main thing these days, of course, America's equivalent of Belgian ale or those big cigars they make in Andorra, is having the most terrible military machine in the history of the world. So our best play is to use that to try to take over the Middle East, where there is lots and lots of oil, but, inconveneintly, everybody hates our guts. We (along with the British) have secured the contracts to Iraq’s oil (previously held by the Russians and French—ha ha, suckers!), but if the flimsy little government we’ve propped up there collapses later on in the same afternoon we pull out, only to be replaced by some batshit fervid-eyed mullah crying Death to the Great Satan, then it’s like it was all for nothing. And the thing is, we kind of have to have the oil. We really need it. Seriously. We wouldn’t even have invaded if we didn’t need it so bad. Like, okay, just listen: today, for example, we have to get home from work, which in rush hour traffic takes like an hour and a half, and pick up the kids from lacrosse practice and cello lessons, and stop off at Pizza Hut on the way, and oh right also get the fucking cat back from the vet’s. So I mean you see how it is. That’s like five gallons right there, and that shit is not free. Just please let us have all the oil and we’ll go home, okay? Deal?

Someone please explain

Will one of my readers please explain to me (and I ask this question with all sincerity) how not passing any sort of funding at all for the continuation of the Iraq war would be materially bad for anti-war progressives?

I'm not concerned with the propaganda value of such an action. The last time right-wing pro-war propaganda had anything to do with any actual facts was... well, never.

So let's assume that one way or another, the progressive minority in Congress could somehow successfully block any and all supplemental funding for the Iraq war. How would this be bad? The equation seems simple: No money, no war. Am I missing something?

The human cost of immigration

Immigration: The Human Cost

There's an ad, but at least it's for liquor.

(h/t to Dr. X's Free Associations)

Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus

I'm proud to be a member of the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus, dedicated to doing our bit to end the war in Iraq now, not next year. Check 'em out.

As my inaugural post, I want to talk about some fundamental political principles.

As citizens and voters, it is not our job to craft compromises. It is not our job to push for compromise. It is not our job to worry about "political appearances". These are the jobs that we pay our representatives to do.

As citizens and voters, we have one very simple job: To demand exactly what each of us actually wants. Full stop. If compromise is necessary, if the maintenance of political appearances is necessary, it is up to the representatives to work it out and sell it to us after it's been crafted.

This principle is negotiation 101. You never ever sit down at the bargaining table with a compromise in hand; you sit down asking for everything, and then you compromise.

This is probably the biggest mistake that lefty pundits such as David Sirota make. We're sophisticated, intelligent people, by and large, and the temptation to play inside baseball is very strong. Movement advocates must resist this temptation at all costs.

It is not our job to make sure that Democrats get elected. It's our job to make sure the progressive movement is strong enough that Democrats must embrace our values if they want to be elected. The conservative movement has taught us that it is better to lose on principle than win by compromising our values.

Which brings us to another fundamental political principle: If you're going to lose, lose big. If you'll forgive the sports metaphor, when you're behind, you don't play a "prevent" defense. You take risks. A loss by one point is just as much of a loss as a loss by a hundred points. Even though some of my representatives (notably senator Boxer) have decent anti-war credentials, I will never forgive them for their passivity in the early years of the Bush administration: Where were the filibusters?

For almost six years, we acted like wingnut delusional conservatism was a permanent feature of the political landscape. How much better off would we be now, how many more seats would progressive or moderate Democrats have won in 2006, if we had fought and lost, fought and lost, as many times as necessary in the early years of the Bush administration? Progressives, liberals and even moderates were already in the minority: we had already lost. Instead of taking risks and playing to the movement, the Democratic party embraced wingnut delusional conservatism, thus lending objective credence to the charge that there really is no difference between Democrats and Republicans: Both are tools of the conservative movement.

The progressive movement is still behind. We are still a minority within the Democratic party itself, and the party does not yet represent our values.

Now is not the time for the progressive movement to compromise. Now is not the time to play inside baseball. We do not yet have the political representation to end the war in Iraq at all; supporting the Democratic party in pretending to do so is not helpful. Now is the time for taking risks, standing up for principle and, if necessary, losing on principle. Now is the time for making a stink, for intransigence, for grandstanding, for theater.

The American people love a good show, so let's give them a good show, a good show with a principled progressive script.

Update: Historian Howard Zinn concurs (h/t to

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Better off without religion

A. C. Grayling on why we're better off without religion:
[A]ll the major religions have become more assertive, more vocal, more demanding and therefore more salient in the public domain. ...

If children are ghettoised by religion from an early age, the result, as seen in Northern Ireland, is disastrous. ...

Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.

This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. ...

The absolute certainty, the unreflective credence given to ancient texts that relate to historically remote conditions, the zealotry and bigotry that flow from their certainty, are profoundly dangerous: at their extreme they result in mass murder, but long before then they issue in censorship, coercion to conform, the control of women, the closing of hearts and minds. ...

(h/t to BEEP! BEEP! IT'S ME)

Religion and politics

A side issue that's arisen from The phenomenology of religion is the political nature of religion.

Deacon offers us what looks like a negative definition of "God":
God by definition is infinite, eternal, nonphysical... If God is, God doesn't exist. If God is, God can't exist. If God is, God isn't a fact. If God is, God isn't as things are. If God is real, God isn't real in the way that an object is.
and therefore
If God is, existence discourse isn't applicable to God's isness. If God is, we need a different kind of script to talk about God.

Whether Deacon's essay really does establish something meaningful, or merely hides the nonsensical vacuity of god-talk behind some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo is better suited to the comments of Deacon's essay or the repost of my comments here.

In this post, I want to talk about the nature of atheist discourse, especially the Dawkins/Harris/Marcotte "you're wrong and we're right" that I myself espouse, and Deacon's charge that atheist discourse obtusely employs inappropriate standards, and is thus dogmatic.

Speaking from my own perspective—a lifelong more-or-less atheist (now more than less) reasonably well hooked into the atheistic philosophical community—I think Deacon misunderstands the project of political atheism.

The atheistic political project is primarily about undermining and (in the very long term) eradicating existential God belief and God talk: We want to demolish the notion that God exists—a construct Deacon himself explicitly denies (and good for him). (As a philosopher, I have an additional project in eradicating the kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo to which Deacon appears to be retreating (even Postmodernism and deconstruction, in my not at all humble opinion, shouldn't tolerate arrant bullshit), but that's beside the point.)

The "existential atheist" project is primarily political rather than philosophical: It is aimed not primarily at discovering the t/Truth but rather at actually changing people's minds. It is not a philosophical project not out of any unconcern with the truth, but rather because "God does not exist" is, one way or the other, blatantly obvious. The truth has been established, the task is to convince people of it.

The charge that existential atheists are addressing the "wrong" conception of God or talking about God in the "wrong" sort of language either misses the point of the project or commits a No True Scotsman fallacy. It is admittedly the case that no small few theists actually do use existential language when talking about God, and we atheists weren't the ones who started the practice.

The goal of eradicating existential theism is the same whether one goes at it from the atheist side or the non-existential theistic side. No matter how you slice it, theistic or atheistic, the notion that God exists is a delusion, and truth-seeking people of any stripe should resist and denounce the delusion. The theists have had at least five hundred years since the invention of the scientific method to clean up their act; since they haven't yet succeeded, we atheists are joining the fray.

(coming soon: Existential theism and authoritarianism)

The phenomenology of religion

[this essay first appeared as comments to "Dude, where's my god?"]

A Deacon by the grace of God offers a phenomenalistic account of theism. This account, however, seems both a rational non-starter as well as unacceptably naive in itself.

Let me first accept arguendo that he has had some sort of valid subjective experience of the mystery of God.

Even so, you just can't go anywhere, at least not rationally, from such an experience: The experience is an experience of mystery. By definition, a mystery is unknown. You might get a warm fuzzy feeling, but you can't reason from a mystery to anything.

To actually reason from your experiences, your experiences have to be, at some level, non-mysterious.

He can't even put the mystery itself into words. As an engineer, I'm appalled at his abuse of language in asserting that God does not exist but that God is. I'm forgiving, though: Rather than analytical, such an assertion seems koanic, and I like koans. The only way to discuss a mystery is to assert an (apparent?) contradiction.

To get to any sort of substantive theology, however, to relate your deistic experiences to your other, prosaic, experiences, you're going to have to make some assertions about your non-mysterious experiences.

I'd like to see those non-mysterious experiences explicitly asserted, rather than slipped in as enthymemes.

About the subjective experiences themselves.

It is (to me) unproblematically rational that we reason from our subjective experiences to knowledge about objective reality. Rationality comprises—in my view—not just logic but also sensibility: agreement with our actual experience. I'm of a scientific mind, and (shared) experience is the foundation of science. Popper asserts, and I agree, that whatever we can say about science (being easier to discuss because science restricts itself to the investigation of public, intersubjective experiences) also applies to phenomenalism, the construction of our private notions about reality on the basis of our private subjective experiences. The scientific method is literally one-to-one transferable from public facts to private facts.

So, I'll grant the mode of reasoning. I'll argue, however, that the phenomenology of religion does not use that mode correctly: It does not use that mode scientifically.

There are two critical and difficult tasks in applying the scientific method: Accepting the facts as facts (in phenomenalism one's experiences as experiences), and then reasoning to an ontological interpretation.

These tasks are difficult because it is well-established in cognitive science, and well-understood by artists, detectives, scientists and maintenance engineers that one's non-conscious (preconscious and subconscious) mind does not supply one's conscious mind with "raw" experience from which we consciously draw conclusions about objective reality.

Our non-conscious minds, rather, supply us with a naive ontological interpretation of our "raw" experiential data. We must apply conscious discipline to strip away the naive non-conscious ontological interpretation to get at the facts or experiences as experiences. Only then, when one has "seen clearly", can one even begin to apply conscious reason to one's experiences.

Of course, our naive ontology, honed by half a billion years of evolution, works well under ordinary circumstances: Just because an ontological interpretation is naive doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong. But as soon as we get even a little bit away from ordinary circumstance—even to the extent of observing a pencil apparently bent by refraction—our naive ontology becomes suspect.

Every substantial scientific advance has come from a scientist identifying and stripping away the naive ontology of some phenomenon, and seeing the phenomenon for itself. After that, reasoning to a better conscious ontological interpretation, while still difficult, becomes possible.

So yes, I'll grant in theory that subjective experiences possibly could justify belief in God. But it is not enough to simply assert, "I've experienced the mystery of God." The inclusion of a naive ontology in such a statement seems blatantly obvious to me. I'm not challenging, the experience, nor the idea one that can reason from your experience to the truth; I'm arguing, rather, that the standard religious interpretation of those experiences is unacceptably naive.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Pathology Problem

I. Morals, Empathy, and the Brain

Larry the Bum recently linked to an article in the Los Angeles Times regarding a study recently published in the prestigious “first tier” scientific journal Nature by researchers from the University of Iowa, Harvard, USC, and CalTech, funded by the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke. This study, he contended, provided empirical evidence for his theory of Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism. While the jury may still be out on such a sweeping contention, what the study does do is lend research-based credence to a crucial foundational principle to all theories of moral subjectivity, including MESR: That morality is ultimately based more on emotion than reason.

The study’s authors found that individuals with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) of the brain (which comprises areas of the brain responsible for autonomic (i.e. physical) emotional responses) exhibit “generally diminished emotional responsivity and generally reduced social emotions (for example, compassion, shame, and guilt) that are closely associated with moral values.” All of the subjects with damage to the VMPC exhibited “severely diminished empathy, embarrassment, and guilt.”

When confronted with a hypothetical dilemma of whether or not to sacrifice the good of a few for the good of many (a utilitarian moral judgment) or not (an emotional judgment), the experimental subjects consistently made the utilitarian choice, where the control subjects (who were physically intact) did not consistently do so. The hypothesis – if moral judgments are governed by emotion, the experimental group would exhibit increased utilitarian judgments – was confirmed. In the words of the authors:
“If emotional responses mediated by VMPC are indeed a critical influence on moral judgment, individuals with VMPC lesions should exhibit an abnormally high rate of utilitarian judgments on the emotionally salient, or ‘personal,’ moral scenarios... but a normal pattern of judgments on the less emotional, or ‘impersonal,’ moral scenarios... If, alternatively, emotion does not play a causal role in the generation of moral judgments but instead follows from the judgments, then individuals with emotion defects due to VMPC lesions should show a normal pattern of judgments on all scenarios.” [Italics mine]
The VMPC patients followed the control groups on the “low-conflict”(i.e. give up a baby to make things easier on themselves) moral scenarios in both judgment and reaction time. In the “high-conflict” (i.e. push one person in front of a bus to save five other people) utilitarian scenarios, the VMPC group was more likely (P=0.05 and P=0.02 versus each control group) to endorse the proposed action. No such statistically significant variance occurred between the control groups (P = 0.77). For those not steeped in statistics, the low P-values for the VMPC group are astonishingly good, indicating that the data is very reliable and the authors’ conclusions on firm ground. There is a 5% and 2% respectively, that their conclusions are based on some form of statistical error. This is damned solid stuff.

All of which is to say that we now have empirical evidence that moral judgments are bound up in the parts of our brain controlling social emotional responses, like empathy. This appearing to be the case (and one must be careful about taking this first-of-its-kind study too much as gospel), then the implications for moral objectivism, and therefore natural law (and thereby theism), are – for their proponents – problematic.

[This is the first in a series of posts. I had originally intended this to be one essay, but its length is rapidly becoming unwieldy for the blog-publishing format. Consequently, I am dividing it into easily-digestible thematic chunks. I will be re-publishing them later own my own site, but for now, they are exclusive to The Barefoot Bum’s audience. –James]

Feminism and Postmodernism

Renegade Evolution offers us a righteous rant against the failings of contemporary feminism.

(This essay is turning out to be a bit rambling, more of a brain dump of some of things I'm thinking about rather than a well-structured essay making and supporting an unambiguous point, so please bear with me. Or don't. ::shrugs:: It's a blog: Deal with it.)

As I'm beginning to study Postmodernist philosophy I'm seeing the same sort of problems there that RenEv identifies with feminism, and I suspect the problems with Postmodernism might be related to (if not identical with) what Ren's talking about with Feminism.

Postmodernist philosophy (as I see it) started off as a revolt against the Modernist idea of authority: That patriarchal white European Ancient-Greek-derived capitalistic Christian Western Civilization[see update] was by definition The One Right Way To Live. That to even question the authority of PWEAGDCCWC was heresy, blasphemy, and rank stupidity (for the last gasp of this sort of Modernist authoritarianism, see the introduction to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind).

I see this sort of revolution against the arbitrary authoritarianism of PWEAGDCCWC to be a Very Good Thing. But somehow, the way was lost. In justly attacking the notion of The One Right Way To Live—i.e. The Truth-with-a-capital-Tee—postmodernist philosophers started to attack the notion of prosaic small-tee truth itself. Instead of attacking the blatant falsity and fallacy of PWEAGDCCWC, the PoMos started asserting that there was no such thing as "truth", that anything anyone said was just as "true" as anything else.

But you can't so easily dispense with the notion of "truth": Small-tee truth is extremely—even fundamentally— entrenched in our notions about what it means to speak and use language.

If the PoMos were really serious about this position, the obvious logical consequence is that it is literally the case that "goo goo ga ga" is just as "truthful" (in the sense that turtles and rocks fly equally well) as "rocks fall when you drop them." That all language reduces to nothing but the clenched fist (dominance) and the bared throat (submission). If this attitude towards truth were accurate, then everyone might as well just stop speaking completely and start shooting.

Philosophers, whose stock in trade are words and language, are of course never going to take this nihilistic metaphysic to its obvious logical conclusion. The only alternative is to bury their commitment to truth in layers of philosophical bullshit. (And I would argue that learning how to bury one's substantive position in layers of bullshit is (with, of course, a few exceptions) the primary goal of contemporary philosophical education.)

The primary technique of this sort of bullshit is to never ever actually talk about some substantive position, or directly discuss the merits or drawbacks of that position. Rather, one talks about who does and does not have the right to speak about that position. How can a man discuss women's rights? How can a white person discuss racial equality? How can a straight guy discuss gay rights? The notion seem preposterous.

Bullshit, especially the really good bullshit (and there's no doubt in my mind that Postmodernist bullshit is of premier quality), always rests on a half-truth. Of course it's true that I, a straight white Western male, can never know experientially what it is to be a woman, or black, or gay, or colonized. I have no standing to talk about what those things are, because I'm not.

While I'm always interested in learning about what it is to be something I'm not, that's not the only purpose of talking. We can talk about objective truth, and—more to the immediate point—we can talk about our shared social constructs. Our social mores, our laws, our language, these are all things we share, that we have to share, that we have to work out together. Even an authoritarian has to persuade or force me to submit; even authoritarianism cannot be established unilaterally.

Postmodernism entails a number of delicious ironies. By attacking truth itself, but still speaking, any writer must him- or herself have a hidden notion of truth—the very antithesis of deconstruction, which (when valid and interesting) aims at uncovering hidden notions of truth, and, more importantly, enthymemes (unspoken assumptions, often unjustified). Even more ironic is that, by attacking authority, writers often set themselves or their class or category as authorities. The discussion just moves from establishing truth about the subject at hand to demanding the authority to establish truth, to demanding the authority to declare who has the right to speak.

One thing I very strongly suspect is rare in any of the academic humanities is any sort of attack on the authority of academic credentials and the academic establishment. I strongly doubt that any person who has spent nearly a decade obtaining a Ph.D. is ever going to strongly argue that their doctorate is a meaningless social construct which gives them no more authority than an ordinary person.[1] Hence this blog, written by a high-school dropout with an average IQ[2], just by existing is a fiercely Postmodernist critique on academic authority.

One really delicious irony is that academia does not have the sort of raw, propagandistic power that its members think they have. By asserting their unquestionable authority, they merely marginalize themselves. Whatever persuasive power academia ever had—outside of putting a veneer of learned babble on established political authority—has been the academic commitment to truth. To the degree that any academic appears to renounce truth, they undermine the only claim to authority they ever really had.

As far as I know, no one who actually gets anything done in liberal/progressive politics really gives the smallest shit about what some Ph.D. in Women's Studies thinks about the Patriarchy. We're out there in the streets trying to elect Democratic politicians so they can appoint Supreme Court justices who will (with all good luck) stop gutting Roe v. Wade.

I have some observations that might hearten RenEv. The first is that Feminism is just as subject to Sturgeon's Law as anything else: 90% of Feminism is crap. It's still important to talk about what specifically is and is not crap, but the fact of the pervasive crappiness is not itself a cause for concern.

As to what to do, about feminism, and about anything else, I can offer only e. e. cummings' advice:
to be nobody but yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
Not only the hardest battle, but, at the end of the day, the only one worth fighting.

Update: The tens of millions of people murdered, and the unspeakable suffering of scores of millions more, over precisely which version of patriarchal white European Ancient-Greek-derived capitalistic Christian Western Civilization should prevail is a pretty strong argument that philosophical Modernism is about as completely full of shit as any ideology can possibly be.

[1] I don't want to criticize academic credentials in the substantive fields, especially science and engineering, as well as the humanities, such as history, which still have some degree of commitment to scientific truth. Since people in these fields actually do something, there is an enormous amount of background required to do any sort of productive work.

[2] Some people have accused me of being very smart; I believe they're incorrect. I've met people who really are very smart, and I'm not one of them. I've tested my IQ; it's a little above average, but well within the bounds of statistical normality. My theory is that I seem smart because I have a tolerably good memory, but more importantly, because I have a finely honed bullshit detector, and I'm completely uninterested in bullshitting anyone, especially myself. Once you learn to smell bullshit, when you can sense what's false before detailed analysis, it makes it so much easier to analyze, identify and criticize the source of the bullshit.

It is a sad commentary on our world when sincerity and honesty, especially self-honesty, is mistaken for raw intelligence. You don't need to be a genius to be honest.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Atheistic “fundamentalism”

At Subversive Christianity, the Deacon asks about Atheistic Fundamentalism, and offers a possible explanation. I don't think he gets it at all correct.

I was surprised at Hunsberger and Altemeyer's findings in Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers that atheists score high on their "DOGmatism" scale. And then I actually read the questions: Any person—as the authors explicitly note—who is convinced of the truth of some proposition will score high on this scale.

What separates dogmatism and fundamentalism from ordinary conviction as to the truth is not the confidence with which the belief is held, but the rational justification for that belief.

When investigating specifically religious belief, the authors go to considerable length to examine the rational basis of those beliefs. But because of the practical limitations on the Atheists study, only a single question—considerably flawed—addresses the rational basis of atheism. (The question and its analysis are lengthy and beyond the scope of this essay.)

Fundamentalism in actual theistic religion has gained considerable notoriety precisely because it is preposterous to believe any religion is actually true. There may be good reasons for doing so, but religion is really nothing but lies and bullshit believers tell themselves to make themselves feel better—Atheist Eve is spot-on when she likens prayer to masturbation. There's nothing wrong, I suppose, with (mental) masturbation per se, but it's not the truth.

When one is talking about ordinary matters of prosaic truth, there is not much room for ambiguity or difference of opinion. The Earth really is round. Rocks really do fall from the sky. Humans and chimpanzees really do share a common ancestor. Human beings really are making the Earth get warmer. HIV really does cause AIDS and can be passed through semen. These statements are true If you disagree with any of these statements, you're wrong.

Without actually looking at the rational basis for one's belief, any person convinced of some ordinary, prosaic truth will look just as "dogmatic" or "fundamentalist" as any Bible-thumper—because he too believes in the truth of what the Bible says.

That's what true means: That there's a right answer, and all the other answers are wrong. And it is the case that no small few atheists, notably Dawkins and Harris, and I myself, do believe that atheism is in fact the truth.

Of course atheists look like they're dogmatic; just as—if you consider evolution mere opinion—evolutionary biologists seem dogmatic; just as—if you consider global warming mere opinion—Al Gore seems dogmatic; just as—if you consider medicine mere opinion—Physicians seem dogmatic about pushing condoms.

The bottom line is that atheists seem dogmatic and fundamentalist because we really are convinced that atheism is true. What separates us from the dogmatic and fundamentalist religious is that we actually do have the philosophical and empirical arguments to back up our positions; All the religious have is epistemic nihilism; in plain English: Lies and bullshit.

I will invoke Ingersoll:
We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your mouldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a this year's fact. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity. Your miracles are too ancient. The witnesses have been dead for nearly two thousand years.

Show me that one fact: If then I still retain my conviction, you may with justice call me a dogmatist and fundamentalist.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Please impeach me

(h/t to DownWithTyranny!)

Empirical evidence for MESR

Empathy is hard-wired into the mind, study finds

James Elliott has a copy of the dissertation.

What have the liberals ever done for us?

"Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things...every one! So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, 'Liberal,' as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor."

Matt Santos, The West Wing

(h/t to Simply Left Behind)

The kabuki dance

David Sirota argues that movement progressives should allow our progressive Democratic representatives to approve the upcoming bill funding the Iraq war at least through March 2008.

Sirota recognizes that the pro-war Democrats are playing a "kabuki dance":
Immediately after the 2006 election, pro-war Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) told the New York Times that she hoped Democrats played a “kabuki dance” with progressives – pretending to be one thing, then doing another. It was an insulting comment – but the shrewd use of a “kabuki dance” should not be discounted as a critical political tool. And that’s exactly what’s going on with the supplemental on behalf of progressives.
Even so, Sirota argues we should "[p]lay hardball, then proudly hold your head up and vote 'yes.'"

He offers three arguments: The bill is something, something is better than nothing, and if the House passes some bill, we have the opportunity of getting a better bill from the Senate. Color me skeptical.

I'm not sure that the bill is even something at all. I'm generally leery of anything that pushes positive action a year in the future. If it's disadvantageous for us to get out now, why will it be advantageous to get out a year from now? What's going to change in a year? I'm also reminded of Mullah Nasreddin's strategy, and not in a good way: We're giving Bush a year to teach the horse how to fly [see the comments].

The crux of the biscuit here is the removal of the requirement for congressional approval to attack Iran. The Democrats could not have thrown the Bush Administration a better hanging curveball than this. One does not have to have mystical powers to prophecy that in March 2008, we're going to be looking at a war not only with Iraq but with Iran as well—and right in the middle of a presidential campaign. We're walking the pitcher here to get to Barry Bonds. Dumb dumb dumb.

Sirota argues that progressives should hold out for a compromise and then vote yes. But the critical compromise has already been taken off the table, and Pelosi is explicitly getting tough. If she puts any compromise on the table now, she's just going to look weak; if she restores a compromise she's already explicitly denied, she's going to look utterly powerless.

Sirota argues also that to govern, the congress must pass bills. I don't think that's the case. What are the consequences of this particular bill failing? The war is instantaneously de-funded, but that doesn't mean we stop feeding the troops. It's not the optimal solution, but if this bill fails the fully funded withdrawal doesn't also magically disappear. The right-wing noise machine is not going to make more noise one way or another; they're already cranked to 11.

Maybe we might get a better bill from the Senate. Yeah right, the same Senate that couldn't even manage hollow posturing.

Progressives should kill this bill, Pelosi and her appointments be damned.

Update: Looks like the progressive Democrats are caving. Can't say as I blame them (much); Pelosi did everything but put a horse's head in their bed. I don't like it, though. My prediction: Bush finds a way to bring Iran into the war, and March 2008 finds us in more of a war than we are today. (h/t to Talking Points Memo)

Ethics and ineluctability

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money wonders if it's morally or politically relevant whether homosexuality is or is not ineluctable. (Farley uses "genetic", but there are at least three biological mechanisms known to create ineluctable (unchangeable or inescapable) characteristics: genetics, embryonic development and imprinting.)

The answer is yes and no.

Under meta-ethical subjective relativism, the purpose of moral discourse and moral acts is to effect change—even to the extent (i.e. propaganda) of changing others' fundamental or primary moral beliefs, many of which are in fact changeable.

Richard Dawkins uses Basil Fawlty's abuse of his car [1] as an example of inappropriate moral behavior.
You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won't start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that's what we all ought to... Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is "Oh they were just determined by their molecules."

(as quoted by The Discovery Institute. The quote sounds right, but if anyone has a better source (i.e. one with a shred of intellectual integrity) please let me know.)

Dawkins' interpretation here is overstated and unsupportable; he concludes that Basil's behavior is inappropriate because the failure of the car was determined; the car didn't somehow "choose" not to start. This interpretation is incorrect because—regardless of whether the car did or did not "choose" not to start—the car itself is still definitely at fault: Cars are supposed to start. There's a much simpler and non-metaphysical reason for the inappropriateness: verbally berating a car or hitting it with a tree branch is a ridiculously ineffective way to correct its inability to start. The scene is funny for a much more prosaic and non-metaphysical reason than Dawkins suggests.

It it obviously ridiculous and stupid to use an ineffective means to attempt to effect a change. In just the same way, it is trivially stupid to use moral discourse to condemn an ineluctable characteristic, because by definition it cannot be changed at all. The only way to "change" an ineluctable characteristic in humans is to kill everyone who exhibits that characteristic. Those of us a tad more sentimental than Hitler[2] will reject such a remedy, leaving us with nothing moral to say about the characteristic.

(Whether some particular characteristic is or is not ineluctable is, by the way, an empirical scientific question, not a philosophical question. There are many moral beliefs that are not ineluctable, that are changeable, including sexism, racism, and homophobia.)

It is just as pointless to morally condemn homosexuality by individual nature as it is to morally condemn pedophilia or sociopathy (lack of empathic feelings) by individual nature. Ineluctablity removes the characteristic itself from moral discourse, but does not entail that we cannot condemn the expression of that nature. One cannot choose one's nature, but one can choose whether or not to act on that nature. Homosexuality as a characteristic is off the moral table, but homosexual activity is still on it.

The ineluctability still entails some constraints, though. Since homosexuality as a characteristic is not morally discussable, it is therefore incoherent to condemn homosexual activity just because it is an expression of a "bad" characteristic.

Whether you condemn homosexual activity depends on your individual moral framework. If you choose to accept the conservative interpretation[3] of the Christian Bible, then you'll probably condemn homosexual activity. On the other hand, from a humanist perspective such as my own, (consensual) homosexual activity per se causes no unwanted or involuntary suffering, and is thus unproblematically permitted.

(Contrast this view of homosexual activity with pedophiliac activity, which always entails a violation of consent, which is intrinsically harmful. One cannot condemn pedophilia by nature, but one can easily condemn all pedophiliac activity.)

[1] Here's a longer clip of the hilarious scene.

[2] This is an example of irony by massive understatement. Literalists should read this sentence as, "For those of us who are not genocidal maniacs..."

[3] Some theologians and scholars argue that the Bible should not be interpreted as condemning homosexuality per se or that the original texts do not condemn homosexuality at all.

Atheist Blogroll

I'm now on the Atheist Blogroll, over 200 blogs strong. Go team!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pelosi gets tough

... on liberal Democrats in the house, to keep fighting the war in Iraq. I'm sure President Bush appreciates her support.

At least the bill keeps Bush from starting a new war with Iran. Oh wait, she killed that too.

Gotta love those "San Francisco" values!

Quote for the day

Scientific creationists are part of a movement that seeks to establish through government policies a particular religious doctrine contrary to the principles of the United States Constitution. The movement is strongly authoritarian, patriarchal, militaristic, and opposed to public support of social welfare programs. This New Religious-Political Right represents not just a disagreement about scientific interpretations but a serious effort to buttress the economic and political power of the traditional American bourgeoisie. The debate over evolution versus creation is at once a side effect of the movement's world view of antitheses and a means of identifying those who will follow authority in the movement. To put one's signature to a declaration that one accepts on faith the "absolute inerrancy of the Bible" is public witness of one's willing submission to authority. Nothing scientists outside the movement can say can change the minds of those who have declared their a priori commitment to "Biblical revelations (as) absolutely authoritative." Scientists who feel compelled to challenge the movement must look to the political arena.

Alice B. Kehoe, Scientific Creationism: World View, not Science (1987)

Primate Behavior and the Roots of Morality

Primate Behavior and the Roots of Morality:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. ...

Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies. ...

Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals. ...

I disagree with two criticisms leveled against Dr. de Waal's work:
Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”
If any philosopher had successfully offered any sort of framework where we could in fact answer the question of whether we ought to hold some values—a framework not fundamentally undermined by the Universal Philosophical Refutation—I'm still waiting to read it.

Jesse Prinz draws what appears to be an obviously fallacious dichotomy:
Biologists are allowed an even smaller piece of the action by Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina. He believes morality developed after human evolution was finished and that moral sentiments are shaped by culture, not genetics. “It would be a fallacy to assume a single true morality could be identified by what we do instinctively, rather than by what we ought to do,” he said. “One of the principles that might guide a single true morality might be recognition of equal dignity for all human beings, and that seems to be unprecedented in the animal world.”
I don't get any sense that Dr. de Waal is saying that all morality is biological, just that cultural morality is built upon biological morality. The idea of "equal dignity" seems to rests squarely on at least three of the "four kinds of behavior — empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking — [which] are the basis of sociality," that Dr. de Waal has observed in non-human primates.

I agree with Dr. de Waal:
Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in “Primates and Philosophers,” with “a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.”
Our morality may have been shaped by evolution—arbitrarily, at least to some degree, or so sayeth Gould—but it has been shaped nonetheless, and it is ours.

(h/t to Butterflies and Wheels)

The atheist conspiracy

Buridan's Ass on the vast atheistic conspiracy:
[R]eligious moderates, like Prothero, have been feeling a little under the gun lately with all the sectarian crapola infecting public life in our country and abroad. Ah yes, but instead of going to the source of the problem, which would require criticism of the role that religion generally plays in all of this, they/he would rather divert attention away from the core religious pathology, which implicates them, and blame atheists. If this isn’t the sort of tacit enabling of the Religious Right that Sam Harris talks about, then I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

“No” is not the default

Let me tell you a story. A true story.

Many years ago, when I was still young, I struck up a conversation with a charming, beautiful, sexy, intelligent woman. Let's call her "Irene". We seemed to dig each other, so I asked her out on a date.

We had a good date. Really good. Tons of eye contact, laughing, a lot of "accidental" touching, resting her hand on my thigh, not to mention really terrific conversation and considerable sympatico.

"Can I walk you home?"


We arrive at her doorstep. She opens the door. "Come on in."

I'm thinking, "Woo hoo!"

I step inside. Suddenly, the temperature drops to twenty below zero. She goes to the bedroom and turns on the TV. She won't look at me. I sit down next to her, and she scoots away. I barely open my mouth and she shush's me. I'm a card-carrying SNAG*, and damn proud of it, but I don't need to be Deborah Tannen to figure out I've suddenly pissed in her cornflakes.

After about five minutes of this, I make my excuses and leave. She doesn't even see me out. I'm not angry, but I sure am confused. Very confused.

I get home, and I just can't figure it out? What did I do?

I guess I could have just jerked off and gone to sleep, but instead, I picked up the phone.

"Hi, this is Larry."

"What do you want?"

"I'm just curious: What happened? Everything seemed to be going great and then suddenly, wham you're all, 'Who the fuck are you?' What gives?"

"Well, I want a man to be more aggressive."

"What was I supposed to do? Grab you when you started to freeze and rip your clothes off?"**

"That's exactly what you were supposed to do."

"This is still within the realm of possibility."

"The door's unlocked."

I will leave the rest of the evening to the reader's imagination.

This is, of course, merely an anecdote. But did I happen to stumble upon the only woman in the world who really wants a man to take charge? I doubt it. Does every such woman have both the ability to "step out of the game" and the willingness to step back into it without ruining its flavor? Probably not.

We had a brief affair of a few weeks. I really wasn't the sort of man she really wanted—I just wasn't aggressive enough. And she, frankly, wasn't the sort of woman I really wanted. We parted friends, though, and saw each other off and on until we lost contact a couple of years later.

Now, I'm easy: If women want to insist on written consent, signed and notarized, all right, that's what I'll do. You set the standards. I might complain, but I'll comply.

But I will ask this: What effect are you having on Irene's sexuality, and the sexuality of women like her? This is not about a game she wants to play, this is about what sort of man she wants, and how she wants him to act. She doesn't want to make every man explicitly negotiate consent. She wants a man who will rip her clothes off as a matter of course. I'm not saying she's "right", I'm not saying she's "wrong", but that's how she actually is.

Of course men should be clued into body language and nonverbal signals. But many men (and no small few women) aren't. Perhaps in a perfect world there wouldn't be any women with Irene's sexuality, perhaps not. But it's true that in this world, there certainly are.

When imperfect communication meets a very wide range of emotional and sexual attitudes, how vigorously do we want to actually criminalize every mistake? And all for the sake of those who don't have the self-possession to utter a single syllable under a bit of pressure, and who don't have enough situational awareness to stay away from pressure.

At what point do we stop treating people as victims by default?

*Sensitive New Age Guy

**Update: The exhortation that I should have "ripped [Irene's] clothes off" was metaphorical; she wanted me to aggressively initiate sex. At no point in that evening or our subsequent affair did she ever indicate that she wanted me to ignore an explicit "no" at all, much less without prior negotiation.

Sex, consent and responsibility

Cassandra and Renegade Evolution weigh in on sex, and they're spot-on. Update: distracted by teh pr0n, I missed this even better essay.

There is only one kind of good sex: consensual. There is only one kind of bad sex: non-consensual.

Consent is what you choose. Not necessarily what you want, not what you'd get in a perfect world or if you were king or queen, not even what you would have chosen if you'd known then what you know now. It's what you choose right now, given the people around you right now, given whatever state you're in right now, given who you are right now.

If you choose to have sex with someone because they're nagging you, that's your choice. If you choose to have sex with someone because you're afraid they'll leave you, that's your choice. If you choose to have sex because you voluntarily got too drunk to think through the consequences of having unprotected bodily-fluid exchanging sex with a complete stranger (or a known asshole/idiot), that's your choice. This is the first part of taking responsibility.

If you can say no, and you don't say no, you are consenting. "No" is not the default choice. "Maybe" is the default choice. This is the second part of taking responsibility.

If you, man or woman (but mostly men) even so much as raise your hand, clench your fist, or even mention any violent act, consent is impossible. Full stop. If you're so out of it that you cannot even utter the word "no", or are unable understand what you're saying yes or no to, consent is impossible. Full stop. This is the third part of taking responsibility.

That's pretty black and white. Let's move on to the gray areas.

We in the Western world live in systems that are inherently economically exploitative. This is not a strictly feminist issue, nor a strictly racial issue, although it is definitely true that women and racial minorities are disproportionately getting the shitty end of the economic stick. Regardless, we all have to live in the real world, and we all have to choose not whether but how much we're willing to be exploited to live.

I'm not trying to defend economic exploitation. I'm saying only that exploitation is not a matter of individual consent per se, it's a much bigger political issue. Attacking the individuals who consent to a greater degree (or merely to a different mode) of exploitation is stupid, ineffective, and nauseatingly sanctimonious. Even the most degraded slave has chosen slavery over death. By attacking his or her choice, you're saying nothing but you'd rather he or she die. The effective way to fight exploitation is always to offer more choices.

Consent in the presence of an actual threat of violence--however mild--is impossible. But consent is not so easy to decide in the presence of generalized or non-specific fear, absent an actual threat. If you have sex (or do anything at all) because you're afraid of anyone (mostly men), then you have a serious psychological issue that requires treatment. It is not men's fault, nor the fault of any man. We (as a society) ought to be willing to help, but you have to take responsibility for these sorts of psychological issues, because no one else can. This is the fourth part of responsibility.

This is not rocket science, it's basic common sense.

This is America in the twenty fucking first century, not Pakistan, not 1970. The structural, institutional barriers that denied women and minorities access to the courts, to the government and to the economy have been broken. This does not mean that full equality has been handed to anyone, women, blacks, gays, atheists, pagans, or furries. But anyone can now fight for his or her personal, political and economic rights. So fight, dammit. This is the fifth part of responsibility.

Yglesias on Progressivism

Matthew Yglesias sounds a pessimistic note about the near-term prospects for the progressive movement. I think he's spot-on, except for one mistake peripheral to his argument:
The time for that sort of [progressive] campaign, sadly, was 2000, when Al Gore could have leveraged long years of peace and prosperity delivered by Democrats into an argument that now was the time for ambitious plans to tackle long-festering problems. But he squandered the opportunity, and subsequently George W. Bush squandered the nation's fiscal capabilities along with the public's faith in the ability of the government to be competently managed... [emphasis added]

As Bob Somerby has been pointing out for years, Gore didn't squander the opportunity, the American people squandered it, by letting the commercial media spin Bush right into the White House.

Economics, complexity and feedback

There are two fundamental reasons why planned economies in general (with a few specific exceptions) are a Very Bad Idea.

The first reason is that whoever plans the economy is also part of the economy. They're going to always plan the economy to favor what they like in general, and all sorts of mechanisms are necessary to keep them from simply redefining the economy to give themselves all the wealth and turn the rest of us into slaves. From the planners' personal point of view, that's the most efficient economy possible.

The second reason is more severe. Even if we could somehow guarantee the absolute personal disinterest of the planners, there's simply too much information to ever competently manage in a central location.

We can see a fair analog in the way that the internet works: There is no single central location which receives every single packet and sends it to its correct physical location. Rather, all the routing information is distributed into millions of individual routers, each of which makes part of the decision of where to send a packet. There are no small few technical details that are suboptimal, but the overall design really is a work of genius. The internet has become several (6ish?) orders of magnitude larger than its original design.

The problem is that the routing of each packet is arbitrary: There is no a priori way to determine to whom (and from whom) any particular user wishes to send a piece of data. That means that the complexity of the routing system is factorial[1]. Any time you have polynomial or greater complexity, you benefit to some degree from partitioning, breaking up the problem more-or-less arbitrarily into two two problems and then solving them separately: nk + mk < (n + m)k. There's always a cost to actually creating the partition, but usually partitioning can be done in linear time.

In just the same way, the determination of value (as opposed to actual cost and actual price), the sine qua non of economics, is a factorial-complexity problem, because it depends on each person's arbitrary, subjective evaluation. Every time a person buys, for example, a DVD player, he is making a subjective decision that the value of the DVD player is at least a little higher than its price. Furthermore, every time a person doesn't buy a DVD player, he is making a subjective decision that the value of the DVD player is at least a little lower. The value of a particular DVD player is a statistical function of all of these individual, arbitrary votes, for and against.

Value is not only subjectively relative, it's also internally relative: We can't just put a number on the value of an individual item, we must always (at the end of the day) express the value of something relative to the value of something else: the value of a potato is less than the value of a DVD player. It doesn't mean anything to say with no context that a DVD player has a value of $89.95: We must compare that dollar value to the dollar value of a potato, or a 60" TV, or a romantic dinner with one's spouse to get any meaningful sense of the actual value of the DVD player.

So a planned economy is right out. It's actually computationally infeasible for entire human race to analytically solve the value problem even for a relatively small population and a relatively small number of items. The only way to manage an economy is to distribute the decision making.

The above argument, though, does not entail that an absolute laissez-faire economy is necessarily the correct answer.

Although we must partition the economic problem, the partitioning itself is less complex than the economy as a whole, and a good partitioning can make the overall problem many orders of magnitude more efficient (good partitioning and other sorts of lesser-complexity optimizations can yield five or more orders of magnitude more efficiency in computing very complex functions such as the Ackermann function). While central planning is impossible, central optimization is not only possible but desirable.

More importantly, economics is dynamic. Every economic transaction not only is a vote to establish or determine a value, but also a request to change the value of something. When a lot of people buy DVD players, they not only set the value, but they are ipso facto requesting that the cost be reduced, which changes the relative value of the DVD player. It's a bit counter-intuitive, since setting a high value on something entails a request to lower that value, but that's the basic story of the law of supply and demand.

Any time you have any sort of dynamic process or system, you have two ways the system changes: positive feedback and negative feedback. You can get a quick example of positive feedback by putting your microphone next to your speakers and listening to the ensuing squeal. Your thermostat is an example of negative feedback: When the room gets too cold, the thermostat turns on the furnace, making the room hotter. When the room gets too hot, the thermostat turns off the furnace, making the room colder.

Any dynamic system which has only positive feedback will quickly explode, and pure individual material selfishness is a positive feedback mechanism. In any finite economy, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, until (absent other mechanisms, such as violent revolution) one individual has all the wealth and everyone else is his or her slave. If an economy is to have any other outcome, we need to impose negative feedback mechanisms (e.g. the graduated income tax and monetary inflation) by non-economic (i.e. persuasive or coercive, usually coercive) means.

The classical liberal political-economic system, where individuals and more-or-less private companies set value on a distributed, free-market basis; and the government addresses itself to partition optimization and negative feedback mechanisms, is plausibly optimal.

[1] The order of complexity goes from constant (simplest) to linear, logarithmic, polynomial, exponential to factorial (more complex); in O-notation, where n is the size of the problem and O(n) is the time (or cost) to solve that problem (c and k are constants): O(c), O(n), O(n*log(n)), O(nk), O(kn), O(n!). There are even greater orders of complexity, found in such as Ramsey theory.


Jesus and Mo on victimology.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The stupidest people on the face of the Earth

(h/t to This Modern World)

Quote of the Day

It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. … And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.

Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from the self and the world as it is. …

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound or sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the one and only truth. …

It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. …

If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. When some part of a doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it. Simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret message. There is thus an illiterate air about the most literate true believer. He seems to use words as if he were ignorant of their true meaning. Hence, too, his taste for quibbling, hair-splitting, and scholastic tortuousness.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)

(h/t to The Mahablog)

A grim date

Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war. TomDispatch gives us Anthony Arnove's comments on the war's "progress": One in five Iraqis are dead or displaced since the war began. The United States has accepted "almost none" of these refugees.
[Y]ou could hardly take a subway ride [in New York] without seeing an ad that reads: '400,000 dead. Millions uniting to save Darfur...' But you could travel coast to coast without seeing the equivalents of the billboards, subway placards, full-page newspaper ads, or the like for the Iraqi dead...

[T]he focus on Darfur serves to legitimize the idea of U.S. intervention, of being more of an empire, not less of one, at the very moment when the carnage that such intervention causes is all too visible and is being widely repudiated around the globe.

Laura Flanders asks: Where are the women talking about the war?
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and erstwhile United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was right about Bush's "war on terror." I believe it was she who first pointed out that you can't wage a war on a tactic, and besides, the attacks of 9/11 were criminal acts not acts of war. (And acts, of course, that Iraq had nothing to do with.) Retired Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatowski, tried to blow the whistle on Rummie/Feith's failure to prepare for post-Saddam Iraq when she was still working as a Near East expert in the Defense Department. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) is the one person who voted against Bush on the invasion of Afghanistan. She could see what was coming when the Congress still had time not to abdicate their war-powers authority. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty went to Iraq in 2003 and came back to co-found Iraq Veterans Against the War at age 27, determined to sound the alarm about the troops' lack of armor and the racist attitudes driving much of the occupation. Any one of those women would be a fantastic guest. Why not book the bunch?

From Iraq, women like Yanar Mohammed of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq screamed to high heaven about the dangers of collaborating with warlords (described in this country as clerics who happened to have militias.) American viceroys, eager to get the oil-profits flowing, were trading human rights, especially women's rights, for a phoney promise of security, said Mohammed. But you can't have national security without women's security, said countless women's leaders -- leaders whom the media studiously ignored.

Currently considered moral by Peter Pace

From The Top Ten Conservative Idiots (#4)
Aggravated assault
Vehicular manslaughter
Receiving stolen property
Making terrorist threats
Illegal drug use
Being a neo-Nazi

Two men kissing

Well, I'm glad that's cleared up.

The pleasure of the President

There's a very fundamental point about the recent U.S. Attorney scandal that I don't see being made, or at least I don't see it being made with enough force.

U.S. Attorneys serve, like Cabinet officers and any other appointed position, at the pleasure of the President.

But—and this point seems to escape the attention of many—the President is not a king, and we are not his subjects. The President is elected, he is the servant of the people, and he is always accountable to the people for everything. The President cannot act arbitrarily. We have both a right and a duty to demand an explanation for everything the President does, and the President has an obligation to provide a sincere and honest explanation for all his actions.

Bush did not act illegally in firing the U.S. Attorneys. But legality is only one constraint on the official actions of the President, and it's the lesser constraint. We have a right to demand political accountability, and evaluate the political acceptability of the President's explanation.

Since "malfeasance" didn't make it into the Constitution as a justification for impeachment, the firing of the U.S. Attorneys per se is probably not an impeachable offense. I don't know whether or not it was a good idea to leave malfeasance out; I can see benefits and drawbacks to both sides. However, we do have the power to demand an honest and sincere explanation, and Congress has the legal power to compel a truthful explanation.

I want to see Gonzales testify under oath to Congress and say outright, "We fired the the U.S. Attorneys because they wouldn't prosecute Democratic politicians for partisan gain, and because we wanted to shield Republican politicians from criminal investigation." (Fox News crawler: "President and AG acted legally in firing U.S. Attorneys.") And if he says anything but that, I want to see his ass impeached and in prison for lying to Congress—a felony. And then I want to see Bush's ass impeached for ordering Gonzales to commit a felony.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Rape

The Apostate posts on rape.

I’m 43 now. I grew up in the 70s and I remember the incredible change in our attitudes about rape in this supposedly “enlightened” country.

I remember when it really was considered the woman’s fault even if she was attacked in broad daylight by a stranger, dragged away and raped.

I recently read Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. I was irritated when Brownmiller called rape a crime of all men against all women. And then I remembered what things were like in the 70s when she wrote that book, and of course I had to admit the justice of her position.

I remember Roe v. Wade. I remember the debates about Rape Shield laws. I remember when someone tried to rape Edith Bunker.

By the time I was in my 20s, everything about rape had changed. Rape was a serious crime, no longer either legally or socially an acceptable way to keep women in their place.

I’m disturbed now, a generation later, that rape seems to be on the increase. This makes no sense to me. Women don’t seem to be more victimized, more marginalized, less empowered than they were thirty years ago. So why is rape apparently on the increase?

We as a society had to be no-bullshit firm twenty years ago, firm to the point of outright dogmatism. Rape was not the woman’s fault. No woman ever deserved to be raped. Rape was always a crime. Full stop. No exceptions, no excuses, no bullshit. There was no moral room for letting attitudes about rape “evolve”. We had to break down attitudes entrenched by thousands of years of custom, and it had to be done right now.

And, by and large, we did it. Good for us.

Of course, we haven’t eliminated sexism. But we’ve made substantial progress on the two pillars which have justified sexism for millennia: pregnancy and rape.

Today, the issue isn’t black-and-white as it was a generation ago. Women are gaining control of their sexuality. Men are losing the absolute control of sexuality they had just a generation ago (and thank God for that).

The dogmatism of the 70s and 80s is giving way. Thirty years ago, if a woman called it rape, it was rape–-the stigma was so great that just the accusation was compelling evidence. Today, it doesn’t seem as clear cut.

I think that’s the case The Apostate is trying to make, and the point that some do not appear to grasp.

Women do in fact have more power these days. They don’t have equal power to men, but neither are they in the state of almost total legal and social disempowerment of only a few decades ago. And with power always comes responsibility–this is true for everyone.

The old dogmas, predicated on the absolute legal and social repression of women, are going to have to give way to a more sophisticated, nuanced view. Consent is still consent, no still means no, crime is still crime.

But the empowerment of women to say “yes” to sex, as an expression of healthy, normal human sexuality, without the stigma of being a slut or a whore, has made it so that “no” is no longer the obvious, default answer. Making sex an actual choice opens up a new gray area, virtually unknown a generation ago, where the old dogmas cannot be automatically upheld.

Fisking Andrew Sullivan

Amicus's blog, Bootstrapping Andrew Sullivan, deserves a plug. If you've ever wondered why Sullivan doesn't allow comments on his blog, this might be why.

But dude: Fix your layout!

Blame the victim

The usually intelligent Barbara O'Brien puts the dumbest sort of "blame the victim" spin on recent atrociously dishonest right-wing propaganda leading to pro-war counter-protests.

Skip past the headline and lede and you'll see a litany of dishonest right-wing propaganda (fabricated "threats" of vandalizing the Vietnam Veterans memorial) and obnoxious and abusive misbehavior towards anti-war protesters.

Let's go back to the beginning:
Stupid Activism

From time to time (most recently here) I ramble on about how activism and demonstrations, done stupidly, can backfire and do more harm than good to the cause. Today we have an example of what a backfire looks like. (And, yes, I understand the backfire is way out of proportion to the alleged act that triggered it; this is pretty much always true.)

Who's fault is this "backfire"? According to O'Brien, it's the fault of the "Stupid Activism" of those who "do more harm than good."

And what is the sole unchallenged stupid activity which is responsible for this backlash?

Hold onto your hat, cover your children's ears and prepare yourself for a tale of unspeakable villainy and inexcusable stupidity of those who would blithely sacrifice progressive ideals for the sake of their selfish anarchism.

Someone put a pink tiara on a statue.

Good grief.

The (Secret) Life of Brian

Robert Hewison (Author, "Monty Python: The Case Against"):
I think what really worried [Life of Brian critic Rev.] Roger Fulton was actually Britsh humor. Because while he could as a believing Christian make all these objections to the alleged blasphemy in the film, what really, I think, got up his nose was the fact that here were all these men dressed as women.
John Cleese:
You've got to remember that Christianity in America is mainly about sex. They're so deeply uncomfortable about every aspect of sex that they don't much care about wars, or destroying the environment, or financial corruption; but anything to do with sex sets them off. And it's because these people are operating at a very very low level of mental health; they are incapable of understanding the teachings [of Jesus].

(hat tip: I'm not worthy to Red State Son)

The Progressive Movement

I want to articulate the fundamental ideological planks of what I see as the progressive movement.

Humanism: I think the fundamental value of the progressive movement is to value that which promotes human happiness and diminishes human suffering. This plank stands in stark and principled contrast to the conservative movement's value of adherence to abstract ideals. To a progressive, an ideal is worthy not in itself but only if it promotes subjective human well-being. To a conservative, one should adhere to the ideal for itself, even if it doesn't promote subjective well-being in reality.

Libertarianism No, not like the "Libertarian" party, which is no more libertarian than the "Republican" party with its king is about a republic, or the "Democratic" party, which ignores and challenges the principles of its voters, is about democracy.

I mean "libertarian" in the sense of valuing personal liberty and, insofar as practically possible, freedom of choice. Libertarianism entails that, while there are some wrong ways to live (e.g. as a criminal or in poverty), there is no "One Right Way" to live.

Communitarianism: The idea that we have positive moral duties to each other. We have a duty to promote happiness and relieve unnecessary and unchosen suffering in our fellow human beings. The "Invisible Hand" cannot regulate everything (or, in another sense, we should recognize that the Invisible Hand regulates not only economics but also politics: i.e. "There ain't no such thing as governnment interference").

There is a certain dynamic tension in these positions. Humanism has internal tension: the happiness of one person can entail the suffering of another. The essence of progressivism, though, is that we resolve these difficulties not by appeal to an abstract ideal, but rather by getting down into the gory details and figuring out how precisely we have the best effect on human well-being.

Libertarianism and Communitarianism are also in tension. We have a communitarian duty to others so long as we're not interfering with their own choices: No one is substantially interfering with my freedom of choice, for example, by making it impossible to live in involuntary poverty, but one might well object if our government forces her to quit smoking.

Progressivism, unlike conservatism, does not provide simple, easy answers. This is a feature of progressivism, not a "bug".

The only way conservatism can provide its simple, easy answers is by promoting as its highest meta-value submission to authority: Submission to the unquestionable authority of church and religion, to political leaders, and to objective moral virtues. The problem with the meta-value of submission to authority is that there's never only one authority; and once you submit to some authority, you cannot negotiate--you can only fight.

By explicitly embracing complexity and tension, progressive ideology preserves its ability to negotiate without sacrificing a strong principled position from which to negotiate.

All of the terms which I used to label these planks have been corrupted and redefined by opponents to a greater or lesser degree. Better rhetoricians, polemicists and politicians than I will doubtlessly have to present these planks in a more salable fashion.

Messages and Movements

The strongest and most powerful high-level strategy of the conservative movement has been to keep the conservative movement "on message", and to make the Republican party identification secondary to that message. This strategy entails that the movement is going to lose some elections (Carter, Clinton, 2006 congress, etc.), but it also means that a lost election is not a defeat, merely a setback.

This strategy has additional benefits. Even when the Republicans lose an election, the continued power of the conservative movement still affects the behavior of Democrats. We have only to look at Clinton's evisceration of welfare, his sacrifice of labor rights and environmental concerns to his free trade agreements, and his support of the blatantly anti-free-speech Communications Decency Act. The spinelessness of Democratic politicians continues precisely because there isn't a principled progressive movement underlying the Democratic party's electoral success.

I don't read many conservative or Republican sources, but I never see any Republican politician or movement conservative trying to promote compromise as an intrinsic virtue. Rather, every compromise is presented as an incremental gain for the overall goals of the movement; compromise is not itself a principle, it is merely what the conservatives have to put up with until the scourge of liberalism is someday eradicated.

I often see liberal and Democratic blogs take the Republicans to task for "pandering" to their base. It's of course important to note precisely to whom Republicans are pandering, but the notion that politicians in general shouldn't pander is preposterous. I don't know about you, but I want my politicians to pander to my political beliefs, and I do not want my politicians to ask me to pander to their professional limitations. If they want me to pander, they can pay me $165K/year.

Yes, I vote for my politicians knowing that they're going to cut deals, but I want them to come to the table asking for the whole cake, not giving half of it away before they even sit down.