Monday, June 09, 2008

The Raid Sounded Like a Freight Train

I fairly regularly listen to National Public Radio’s news programs on my way to and from work. I really don’t know why I do it. It is either some sort of strange impulse of masochism or else it’s simply because other morning talk shows on regular formats drive me nuts. Possibly it is because NPR employs some very talented writers and I have a real weakness for a well turned phrase, especially in the spoken word. Whether the cause is boredom or a dangerous curiosity, the pleasure I recieve from listening is somewhat akin to plunging my head in a pot of boiling water. Halfway to work I’m screaming invectives at the radio and must change the station to something more soothing – like the local heavy metal station – in order to calm down.

The problem with NPR is that for all their talent with well cut words, they aren’t actually the news agency that they might at first blush seem to be. Nor are they in my opinion actually old media, though their biases totter in the same direction. Ultimately, NPR is not designed to have me as an audience. This is because NPR is in fact new media in old media garb, and like many political bloggers with the same basic economics, their coinage isn’t news or reporting so much as affirmation of their audiences already held views together with passionate stirring language denouncing the evils of their political foes. In this, they are no more news agency than Rush Limbaugh or the 700 Club. Or perhaps, more flatteringly and more aptly, with their familiarly irritating pledge drives, they are the secular equivalent of KLOVE. The point is that Rush Limbaugh, irritating though he may be when talking about the environment with a naivety akin to Herman Melville’s pronouncements about whale, at least knows he isn’t a journalist, understands he’s an entertainer, and sells advertising spots that don’t pretend to be anything but advertising. NPR doesn’t even have introspection enough to know what they are or what they actually do.

But they can really turn a phrase.

I could devote an entire daily blog just to responding to NPR’s interminable biases and shallow propaganda. Other than the effort involved, the two things holding me back from such a blogging frenzy are first, as Schiller coined and Asimov reminds us: ‘Against stupidity, even the gods themselves contend in vain.’ The second is that I can’t generally stand to listen to NPR for more than a few minutes at a time, and they don’t post full transcripts on line.

Today, as on many occasions, while subjecting my brain to its twice daily abuse, I heard a story that I felt someone ought to respond to. This time, I will.

Immigration is a complex topic. It has far reaching economic and social consequence, not only in this country but in the home countries of the immigrants. Immigration is deeply wedded to our history and our national myths, and the role of immigration in the fabric of our society has changed as our nation’s circumstances have changed. The story of immigration is in many ways the story of our country – good and bad. So naturally, NPR’s take on it is neither complex nor nuanced nor particularly thoughtful.

NPR’s take on it can generally be summed up as: “Illegal immigrants good.” If there is anything to add to that, it is generally, “Opponents of illegal immigration are cruel racists.” Naturally, NPR isn’t even honest enough with the audience to present thier view in those blunt terms.

This story is typical in its attempt to push all the regular buttons while circling completely around anything like facts or journalistic balance.

The tone of the story is the one you would adopt if you were covering a disaster. From the coverage, you might expect that the town had been hit by a tornado. And it has the sort of depth of coverage you would expect on covering a simple tragedy like a natural disaster. After all, there aren’t really two sides of the story when it comes to covering a tornado. You interview the mothers. You interview the local priest. You talk about the deep wounds in the town. That’s about all there is to say, and the only thing missing is some local trying to explain how it sounded like a freight train.

NPR would have you believe that there really aren’t two sides of the story when it comes to covering immigration.

But listen to the story a second time. Did you notice that the word ‘illegal’ was not once used in the entire story? Dangerously honest words like that can’t be used less the tone of the story depart from grieving for a tragedy. There is only a single mention of the fact that law-breaking was involved, either by the immigrants or by the company that hired them, when it is admitted that 300 immigrants pled guilty to violating US immigration and labor laws.

We are left no doubt where the writer stands on the issues. The magnitude of the discomfort of this community is truly brought home in stirring languages. All words of blame are heaped on ‘the raid’ has the sort of faceless character of ‘the storm’ or the ‘the quake’. We know where the villain is, or rather, where the writer thinks we should find it. But that is just one side of the story.

If this story had two sides, what would it say?

No members of law enforcement get even thier five second sound bite. The prosecuting attorney is not allowed to present his case. There are no spokespersons on behalf of law and order. We are not told that that Agriprocessors knowingly recruited illegal immigrants and induced them to work in substandard unsafe conditions for very little pay. I think we probably should have that context.

We probably should also be informed that the raid on Agriprocessors was hardly random. It came in the wake of a disturbing series of ethical violations by the company. First there was the documentation of animal cruelty so severe it appalled not just the usual suspects at PETA, but pretty much everyone including happy hamburger eaters like myself. Then there was the company’s refusal to bargain for higher wages or better working conditions when the company’s workers refused United Food and Commercial Workers union United Food and Commercial Workers union. Then there was the admission that Agriprocessors had been regularly dumping untreated waste in to nearby rivers. There was no comment in the story on the fact that some of the evidence that led to the raid included the physical abuse of the laborers by their supervisors, or that the immigrants for their part had been attempting to cook up methamphetamine. What could go wrong mixing narcotics and an abattoir?

None of the competitors of Agriprocessors are interviewed. No former owners of family run kosher meat packing companies put out of business by a giant like Agriprocessors are interviewed. No one is allowed to say that Agriprocessors low wages garnered it an unfair economic advantage against its rivals. There is allusion to the benefit of the plant to the local economy, but very little mention of the damaging impact and loss of jobs it might have caused elsewhere. For once in a case of corruption by a corporate giant, NPR is strangely silent.

Local school officials are interviewed complaining that they will now, because of reduced attendance, receive less money from the state and federal government. No mention is made of the fact that the American tax payer had been forced to subsidize the education of illegal immigrants. No mention is made of the fact that for the money to go to Postville, it had to be taken from school districts trying to teach your kids. Nor is there any statements by the local school board on the children, some as young as 13, found at the meat packing facility at the time of the raid. No attempt to track how much of your money went to welfare to support immigrants who didn’t have fair wages. No complaints are made about how illegal immigration drives down working wages in the social classes least able to afford it, nor the damaging social impact that this has to our country in creating unemployment, vagrancy, mendicancy, and crime. Is it that illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t do, or do they do the jobs that Americans won’t do under the conditions and pay that companies can get away with when employing illegal immigrants?

No, the sole expression of this journalist is shock and disbelief that immigration officials, agents of the US government, would perpetrate such a tragedy by deciding to do their duty and enforcing the law. No thought whatsoever is given to the seemingly novel idea that perhaps enforcing the law is best for everyone, and what really created this particular tragedy wasn’t the enforcement of the law but the fact that the law went unenforced for so long.

Animal rights, clean water, living wages, and worker’s rights are some of the causes you’d think liberals would be strongly on the side of, especially when against the usual liberal bugaboo – ‘Big Business’. But in this case, all those values are tossed out into the swill pond because the town supposedly served as a ‘multicultural model’.

It is not possible to have a functional democracy if there isn’t a functional conversation. It isn’t really possible to have a conversation when everyone involved is only speaking to themselves and has no interest in addressing the complexity of the issue or the difficult facts on either side. I am very much in favor of there being a Rush Limbaugh and an NPR. I think on the whole both are good for America. But, I am very much not in favor of the extent of the national debate being two sides doing nothing but validating the biases of their primary audience.

It is enough to make you wonder whether the ability to write stirringly is even an important qualification in a journalist. Perhaps if someone wishes to style themselves journalists, perhaps they shouldn’t judge themselves by the same standards as poets or entertainers.

Even though, I admit I’d miss the poetry.

The Wisdom of Poets

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

- E. E. Cummings

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A response to Jon Chase...

Glenn at Instapundit linked to an editorial by Jon Chase at Popular Science that I found interesting. His basic take is that we better start making advertisement work for us again or we are going to lose all the content we hold precious.

I'm going to be straight with everyone. Commercial advertisements have never worked. They don't encourage people to buy your product, or rather; the cost you spend on advertising is generally not worth the increase in sales that you receive. If you are depending on advertising to sell your product, then you are doomed.

There might have been a time 40 years ago or so when that wasn't true, but since that time the public has become too diverse in their tastes and interests and too jaded to successfully pitch too.

When I was a teenager, I started keeping track of all the times I bought a product because of an advertisement I had seen. It was a dismally small amount from the perspective of an ad agency, especially when you look at the amount of money I spent. It remains a very small amount. I suspect that I'm fairly typical in that. Jon says he's never clicked on an advertisement willingly. How many times have any of you watched a commercial and then actually been persuaded to spend money on something you wouldn't have spent otherwise? I'd hazard that its not many times, especially compared to the enormous sums of money that are spent to govern your tastes, preferences, and buying habits.

Americans are simply too ad savvy now. They don't like them. They don't trust them. They ignore them.

Back in the middle of the dot com boom, I used to say that the problem with most dot com's was that they didn't know what they were selling. The Internet is only good for selling one product - information. If your product on the Internet isn't information, forget about it. Build a brick and mortar first. Even online retail outlets like eBay aren't really selling products. They are really selling information about buyers and sellers which is otherwise difficult to obtain. Retailers like Amazon are doing the same thing in more subtle ways. Online retails aren't selling clothes or whatever. They are selling information about clothes that otherwise would take hours of store shopping to acquire. That is their real competitive edge.

And that's the only thing about advertising that really works. The only thing advertising is good for is getting information out there. All the high priced ad agencies are adding very little value to the ads. I can't remember who is selling what even when I like the commercial and find the jingle catchy. But if I'm already shopping for something it’s the information that I have at hand that is the deciding factor in what I buy. And the thing is that when it comes to providing information, the net beats advertisements up and down the block. I don't need ads to discover anything any more. Three weeks after a product has come out, forget about it. It's too late for ads to do anything.

The vast majority of my initial product purchases are now shaped entirely by 'word of mouth' in some form whether it’s some other person mentioning something that they've found or reading about it in a blog. I take that unsolicited endorsement to be of much much more value than any advertisement, especially if I know the person and trust their taste. And it’s not something you can buy, because buying it completely undermines its value. The best you can do is try to barter for it but once that barter economy moves to outright bribery, it again destroys its value.

So I'm going to be honest with you. I think you in the traditional media are all doomed. I think traditional advertising and traditional media are dinosaurs wandering around wondering what happened to the climate and kidding themselves that this is some passing thing. I really do think we are going to move to entirely different modes of how people pay for content. I came to this realization from reading 'Sluggy Freelance'. It's free content. But provably, its fans will pay to sustain it. There is alot of media like that flying under the radar in what is now the long tail but will I think prove to be the next big thing. Michael Totten is an example of new journalism media that works under the premise that it’s free but fan supported. K-Love is an example of a radio station that works under the premise that it is free but fan supported and even to some extent so are ordinary public TV and radio stations. There are guys out there making living (Spider Software for example) selling products essentially to a fan community. It's not micropayments, its something else almost entirely new. It's like these people convince other people to adopt them into their family or clan, and then once in the family can ask to be supported in return for the important role that they play in family cohesiveness. Or maybe it’s something more like how the aristocracy used to be patrons of artists, because otherwise there would be no art. Well, now with our modern prosperity, it is the patronage of the comfortable plebeian that supports the arts.

At some point, some smart ad agency is going to figure out that traditional advertising is dead, and they are instead going to corner the market that really counts - the nodes in the social network that shape tastes and introduce people to new tastes. I bet if you could figure out who the right 10,000 or so people were that really mattered in a particular field or subject (fewer in specialized subjects), that you could dispense with advertising to the rest of us and just let their opinions guide us to your product with far greater efficiency than broadcasting to the world and hoping someone was tricked into trying your product.

Now take a look at the banner for Cardshark I have up over there. They aren't paying me anything for that. I'm not selling cards there right now. I don't get anything if you click on it. But that's a small scale website based on selling information about buyers and sellers and I'm willingly promoting it just because I like doing business there. It's exactly a case in point. Even consider how much advertising is actually in this post. If I had any readers, which I don't because I don't post, the links in this post would receive far more attention than the pitiful ad links on my page that you are rightfully ignoring.

Friday, February 17, 2006

On Wicked Problems

I intend to post poems at regular intervals. As my readers become familiar with my politics, the poems I choose to post might seem incongruous to some. How can I, a hawkish pro-capitalist Christian, admire most often in poets people who are gays, socialists, cult figures, and so forth. Don't I know who these people are? Don't I know the things that they stood for. Couldn't I choose someone whose beliefs are more like my own?

I could. I probably won't. Not often at least. You see, I think that it is a good thing to be challenged. I think it is also important to be able to sift the wheat from the chaff. I am pro-capitalist for what I think are good and for me sufficient reasons. But that doesn't mean that I can't feel empathy for those who are trod under the uncaring boot of profit, nor that I don't admire someone like say Carl Sandburg for what he saw and tried to stand for.

I consider myself a Hawk, but I could not and would not want to live a life untroubled by the concept of war. I consider myself a capitalist, but I could not and would not want to abandon socialism entirely. These are wicked problems, and they have no easy answers. Yes, of course I'm troubled - grieved even - by every single lost life. But these are wicked problems, and for every course of action their is a high price to pay.

I think that the easy and obvious thing is to be troubled by war. It is easy, especially in our Christian and post-Christian society, to take a principled stand against violence. I'm a Hawk because as troubled as I am by war, there are times when I'm even more troubled by peace. I wonder how often the Dove is troubled by an unjust peace. It's easy for the Hawk to be troubled by war. It is hard to deal with the dead of war. But I wonder whether the Dove gives as much thought to freedom he gives to evil doers by refraining from bearing the sword. The dead of peace go unmourned and unremembered more often than the dead of war. Who will grieve for them; nay, who will do more than grieve? Tears are easy. Do the Doves question whether they refrain out of love or out of simple apathy and fear?

Very well, you will have your grief, and I will have mine.

The Wisdom of Poets

The Right to Grief

To Certain Poets About to Die

TAKE your fill of intimate remorse, perfumed sorrow,
Over the dead child of a millionaire,
And the pity of Death refusing any check on the bank
Which the millionaire might order his secretary to
scratch off
And get cashed.

Very well,
You for your grief and I for mine.
Let me have a sorrow my own if I want to.

I shall cry over the dead child of a stockyards hunky.
His job is sweeping blood off the floor.
He gets a dollar seventy cents a day when he works
And it's many tubs of blood he shoves out with a broom
day by day.

Now his three year old daughter
Is in a white coffin that cost him a week's wages.
Every Saturday night he will pay the undertaker fifty
cents till the debt is wiped out.

The hunky and his wife and the kids
Cry over the pinched face almost at peace in the white box.

They remember it was scrawny and ran up high doctor bills.
They are glad it is gone for the rest of the family now
will have more to eat and wear.

Yet before the majesty of Death they cry around the coffin
And wipe their eyes with red bandanas and sob when
the priest says, "God have mercy on us all."

I have a right to feel my throat choke about this.
You take your grief and I mine--see?
To-morrow there is no funeral and the hunky goes back
to his job sweeping blood off the floor at a dollar
seventy cents a day.
All he does all day long is keep on shoving hog blood
ahead of him with a broom.

- Carl Sandburg

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Real American Heroes

John Hawkins at Right Wing News as a post about the upcoming Frank Miller graphic novel pitting Batman vs. Al Qaeda.

This topic has been making the rounds of numerous blogs, but I linked to John because he included the incredibily illustrative graphic.

My responce to the Frank Miller anouncement is pretty simple: "What took so long?"

Shouldn't stuff like this been coming out back in 2002? There should be dozens of similar titles already. By this point, every major owner of animated or illustrated content should consider it a point of pride to have had all of thier major stars take up the banner and fight for America. I'm not just talking about obvious heroes like Captain America. If you had told me on September 12, 2001 that by 2006, American icons like Captain America, Batman, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, the X-Men, and Spiderman were not fighting for the cause of freedom I wouldn't have believed you. I would have imagined that the only possible situation that could occur in was that we had lost the war and were now worried about not offending our new Sharia loving masters.

Is that what is going on?

A repeated question I've asked myself since late 2001 has been, where is GI Joe? Isn't now the time for celebrating real American heroes fighting for freedom against evil terrorist organizations determined to rule the world? Shouldn't that sound alot less implausible today than it did in 1982? Where are the Joes? Don't get me wrong, GI Joe Reinstated is nice and all, but by comparison to Al Qaeda, Cobra looks like a bunch of life affirming law abiding pansies. Isn't it time to acknowledge the real threat? Does anyone else who is a fan want to know where Hawk, Duke, Scarlett, Flint, Lady Jane, Shipwreck, Dusty and the rest were on 9/11, and what they did on that day? Does anyone else want to know what they've been doing since then, as well as see the stories of the new generation of Joe heroes? Does anyone else think that this could be the perfect vehicle for telling the story of the War on Terror? Doesn't it seem logical to think that such a series would be one of the hottest, if not the hottest selling comic books in years? It's not like that you'd even need to dumb down the horror of the story, or its moral ambiguities. If you can have a series like Ultimate X-Men, then surely you can have a mature story for far less gratouitous reasons.

Does anyone else see in that GI Joe timeline evidence of our men and women being betray by higher ups, especially say 'round about 1991? I'd like to hear the Joe's honest take on how they were used in the '90's. I for one find GI 'Eco-Warriors' to be abuse of the product line, and down right offensive and distasteful. Surprisingly, however, my views are not given nearly as much weight as the views of people who would find GI Joe fighting Al Qaeda distasteful - even though I'm customer and they are not.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

What Aren’t They Telling You

This may have to become a regular feature. Reading the press wire is increasingly like reading Pravda. What isn’t in the story is often more important than what is in it. This is the story from Reuters about the recent crime wave in Boston. Read carefully:

Got that? Take your time. Make sure you’ve read the story thoroughly before proceeding. Now answer the following questions about the Boston crime wave:

  • Why has the demand for illegal guns risen in Boston?

  • Who are the victims of the rising crime wave?

  • Who are the perpetrators of the rising crime wave?

  • Have the other major cities which are seeing falling rates of crime also lost federal funding?

  • If illegal gun trafficking is profitable because of the strict laws in Massachusetts, will making the gun laws stricter decrease the incentive to traffic in illegal guns?

  • What were the ‘community divisions’ that led to an end to successful ‘Operation Ceasefire’ program?

  • According to the clergy and community leaders which made ‘Operation Ceasefire’ successful, what is the cause of the problem?

  • Do you still feel like you have the full story? That last question in particular to me is pretty telling. All sorts of experts are asked for their opinion, but they are outsiders with political agendas. The locals that actually care about their community are not quoted. They may not even have been interviewed. The reporter questioned people in ideology driven think tanks in New York and Washington. But he didn’t bother to ask anyone actually on the scene except some local politicians who say what local politicians always say, “I need a bigger budget.”

    I’m not from Boston, and before reading that article I had not been following its internal politics. But whenever you see gaps like this in an article it’s a good bet that the reason for the holes are that the writer feels that some part of the story might be politically incorrect to tell or might interfere with the message. Most wire reporters have a message that they want to get out – lately its often nothing more complex than ‘Bush is to Blame for Everything’ – and they tend to leave out anything that might make that message more complicated. But, as my motto reads, the truth is always complicated. If you don’t give people the complexity, you aren’t giving them the truth.

    It might take some time for me to find out what the real story is, but it almost certainly involves some combination of minorities, racism, recent immigration, corruption in an embarrassing group, and the failure of orthodox liberal policies (such as tighter gun control or more lenient jail sentencing). If it involved anything else at all, it would have been mentioned in the story. As it is, unless you live in Boston you have no idea from the above story what is going on. I certainly don’t. You can only marvel how every story is always massaged by the press into the same story with the same solutions, as if every problem was simple. In this case, the narrative and solutions offered are the same as ever – more money for government, more federal money, tighter gun control, higher police to citizen ratios, oh and get rid of George W. Bush. But the problem hidden by the story is clearly much more complex than that, and the proposed solutions even from what little of the story that we have – the part that was deemed suitable for public consumption by our guardians in the media – clearly don’t address the problem. If you don’t live in Boston, you should be insulted by such a uninformative account. And if you do live in Boston, you should be insulted that the problems of your city are being used to push national agendas that have nothing to do with fixing crime in Boston.

    Two Heads are Better than One

    The November 25, 2005 issue of science (Vol. 310) contains a short article entitled ‘Two Views Better Than One?’ The first thing that really leapt out at me about this article was the question mark. I believe that reveals the typical combination of fear and patronization that marks modern sciences relation to the larger public. At some level it’s a shock to discover someone in the modern world has the contrary view – should anyone in science really question whether two views are better than one? The article proceeds to briefly describe what is apparently to the writer the startling result that two views may actually be better than one.

    Freshmen biology majors at Central Washington University in Ellensburg were divided into four sections. In two, arguments both for (uncontrolled) evolution and intelligent design (controlled evolution) were presented. In the other, arguments were only presented in favor of uncontrolled evolution. At the end of the semester, the students were asked to classify their beliefs before and after the course. In results that the writer of the article apparently finds counterintuitive, those that received the greater amount of information shifted their beliefs further in favor of materialism, and had a greater acceptance of evolution. Among those that were only presented evidence from one side of the debate, far fewer changed their position.

    Shouldn’t that be the expected results? I find it hard to imagine that if the reverse result had been achieved, that the writer of the article would have entitled it “One View Better Than Two?” with a question mark. The would almost have certainly put a period at the end of the statement as if it was established scientific fact from this one experiment alone, if in fact they did not go so far as to say something like, “Presenting More than One View Dangerous to Young People’s Minds!” and turn it into a full ten page expose bashing intelligent design.

    Craig Nelson of Indiana University writes that the study provides “powerful evidence” that directly engaging students’ beliefs, rather than ignoring them may be an effective way to teach evolution. Much as I’m in favor of the accumulation of scientific evidence, you wouldn’t think that they’d need a study to demonstrate this. Isn’t directly engaging students rather than ignoring them usually a better way to teach, regardless of what you are teaching? Isn’t vigorous but respectful debate and the free exchange of ideas usually the best way to convince someone of the merit of your ideas? So why are scientists of all people afraid to engage in this debate? Why do they need to hush up, mock, ridicule, and make straw man arguments out of the views of the other side? If they are convinced of the truth and that they have it, why don’t they present the facts to people and trust people to make up their own minds instead of acting like some sort of religious hierarchy desperate to suppress heretical views that might endanger its grip on power? Whether they know it or not, that sort of behavior is noted, and the public audience is in my opinion pretty darn sophisticated. The public recognizes when it is being ignored, patronized, and mocked and it (rightly I think) holds that attitude against the scientific community, with the result that the public unfortunately reflexively discounts the arguments being made to it. It recognizes the fear and anger in the scientific community and it interprets from that fear that science is a weak position to be holding in the debate.

    That lack of courage is evident in the conclusion. Rather than suggesting something merited by the science like maybe that this should have some influence on public policy and how teachers are prepared or how students are taught, or even just that further study is required to verify the results in more general cases, the writers immediately move to belittle the importance of their own results. The article concludes, “But he agrees with evolutionary geneticist Jerry Cone of the University of Chicago that this strategy wouldn’t be appropriate for high school students, who says Cone, “are not intellectually equipped to deal with such a controversy.” That is not a scientific conclusion. That hasn’t been tested. It’s not even intuitive. There is not a whole lot of emotional and intellectual difference between a high school student taking biology and a freshmen in college taking biology. It doesn’t seem to me very likely that one or two years would make a big difference in the outcome of an experiment grounded in such an obvious principle as the free exchange of ideas tends to lead one to a better defined, better reasoned position. But, Nelson and Cone must defend the position of the scientific orthodoxy regardless of the fact that it has no scientific support and is directly contrary to their own evidence. We can only hope that they aren’t doing so to avoid being shunned, denounced as a heretic, or to avoid having to deal with the import of their own work. If you want a career in biology, you know that you don’t say anything that might be perceived as providing even tangential support to the arguments of the intelligent designers. I believe the statement of Nelson and Cone about high school students reveals what is in fact their underlying assumption – they don’t believe the general public is intellectually equipped to deal with such a controversy. The scientific orthodoxy has adopted the position of an aristocrat clergy dispensing truths to the masses.

    If scientists want to find someone to blame for the degradation of respect for science and for the practice of science, I don’t think we have any where to look but ourselves. Hard as it may be to back down from a fight, the scientific community must back down from this adversarial relationship it has adopted with the general public. Science must evidence some good faith both in the public and in what the evidence we have forces us to believe if we expect the public to in good faith weigh and listen to our arguments.

    Behind this whole issue, at the level of root causes, I think science has found itself increasingly wedded to some unscientific positions it really has no business being involved in. An uninformed observer might conclude that the debate between evolution and intelligent design was entirely one of rationality versus faith, or of science and non-science. There is a certain amount of truth to that, but it’s not the whole truth. Masked by the scientific communities angry denouncements of intelligent design as a danger to the public morals is the fact that reason has already largely won. By and large, the intelligent design community accepts such principles as the antiquity of the Earth and the truth of micro and even macro evolution are taken as givens. So what more are we fighting for? Certainly, it’s worth pointing out that the conclusions of intelligent design are unwarranted and often unscientific, but couldn’t that be addressed by better teaching students how science establishes truth and letting them decide for themselves? In large part, I think that that reasonable and non-combative approach hasn’t been adopted because there is something else at stake. For a good deal of the scientific community, and certainly some of the most vocal and politically active parts of it, casting the conflict as one between science and religion has become only a convenient front for the real conflict. What is really at stake for both sides is theism versus atheism. The mainstream theistic community is increasingly willing to accept the factuality of evolution, but this is not good enough for someone when what they really want is destruction of theistic belief entirely. I don’t expect religious people to compromise on the existence of god, and ultimately it’s not an issue that science should be spending its authority on.

    Acts of War

    Tigerhawk has an interesting post on the role of the Syrian and Iranian governments in directing violence against Denmark.

    Godwin's Law

    Godwin's Law is one of the more well known instances of net culture. Much like Murphy's Law or the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it can be expressed in many ways. One simple restatement of Godwin's Law is that in any discussion, eventually someone will mention Nazi Germany. On the net, repeated experiments have shown this to be true time and time again.

    But, despite the curiousness of this social phenomenon, relatively little interest has been shown in why Godwin's Law holds true. To the extent that anyone has ever thought about why Godwin's Law holds true, I think that the unusual impression is that it holds true simply because people are rude or emotional or irrational, and people on the Internet more so. There is a certain amount of truth in that. Because there are no real consequences to anti-social behavior on the Internet, it tends to encourage rudeness, insult hurling, and extreme rhetorical positions that we would avoid were we actually speaking to someone face to face. And its long been noted how easy it is on the Internet for one socially inept person to draw large amounts of attention to themselves simply by being rude.

    But lately I've been noticing Godwin's Law holding true in discussions between even mature, rational, and temperate posters. Not only that, but Godwin's Law seems to hold true in any sufficiently long conversation in real life. Why is it that it seems we must continually reference Nazi's no matter what we are talking about? Consider the highly academic and literate essay by Eva Gerrard I just linked to. Right in the middle of the essay, Godwin's Law proves itself once again. Why would such an otherwise intelligent seeming commentator appeal to such an obvious and potentially offensive analogy, especially since in many circles bringing the Nazis into the discussion is considered a sure sign that the discussion has 'jumped the shark'.

    And, I'm no better about it. My blog has barely gotten started - and despite my strong distaste for bringing Nazis into any discussion - here I am writing a whole post about them. What gives?

    My opinion is that the reason Godwin's Law hold true is that our society's language for discussing good and evil has become deeply impoverished. In a society in which the memetic commanding heights are increasingly dominated by a media promoting moral relativism, moral equivalence, and amorality, there is increasingly little common language between cultural subgroups for talking about good and evil. Our common education and common cultural experience leaves us without a shared language for discussing right and wrong. Even using the word 'evil' is viewed by many as a sign of inferior and unsophisticated judgment. The Wikipedia entry on Godwin's law touches on this when it mentions, "Frequently, a reference to Hitler is used as an evocation of evil. Thus a discussion proceeding on a positivist examination of facts is transformed into a normative discussion of subjective right and wrong." While the Wikipedia editor may well be right that Nazi's make a nice emotional flog, the implication of such writing is that there is no such thing as non-subjective right and wrong. I would argue that while the emotional value of Nazi's might be part of the reason that they get introduced, its the non-subjective value of the Nazi's as a signifier for evil that is the real attraction. Nazis remain as an idea the one aspect of common culture which resists being moved into the moral relativism bucket. They are the one absolutist idea which a writer can reach for with reasonable assurance of broad consensus. 'Nazi' equals 'evil' to virtually everyone - even those otherwise uncomfortable with words like 'evil', 'right', and 'wrong'. In a given discussion, no matter how much we want to dodge around moral absolutes, eventually every writer on every side of the culture war has to reach for a marker that signifies evil. Even the moral relativists cannot escape claiming that there are some things which other people ought to do or not do. With all the other ethical and moral markers robbed of their value, only a comparison to Nazis remains in the tool box.

    The upshot of this is that every crime, lapse of judgment, moral weakness, and indeed anything else we don't agree with ends up getting compared to the evils of Nazi Germany. This of course itself has contributed to the impoverishment of our language for discussing evil. Virtually anything that one would wish to compare to Nazi Germany, only trivializes the great crime perpetuated by the Nazis while at the same time greatly exaggerates the danger represented by the thing you are actually talking about. Unless you are talking about one of history's greatest democides or genocides, a comparison to Nazi Germany is generally unwarranted and even unhelpful. But, here we are - unable to avoid such a comparison if we wish to remind any significant fraction of the people we are communicating with that in fact there really are some things which are evil.

    A Plague on Both of your Houses?

    Eva Gerrard has an interesting essay on arguments of moral equivalence entitled A plague on both your houses? on normblog. (Hat tip to Instapundit.) The focus of the essay is on the Jyllands-Postens cartoon war, but I think that the essay is maybe more important for the points it makes on arguments of moral equivalence in general.

    Wednesday, February 08, 2006


    You've probably noticed the 'Support Denmark' banners. Unless, you've been in infosphere cave you probably know all about the Jyllands-Postens cartoon controversy. That is already covered in detail in other places, and pretty much everyone already has an opinion on it. I would give you my take on free speach and its limits or lack there of, but I've observed enough of the controversy to know that everyone already has their mind made up and isn't interested in having their mind changed. So I thought I would approach the debate from a different direction that I haven't heard anyone comment on.

    In theory, the cause of this turmoil is that the depiction of Mohammad is prohibited on the grounds that it may lead to idolatry. It certainly isn't because the cartoons are horribly offensive to Islam in some other fashion, as all but a couple of them depict Mohammad in either or positive light or actually make fun of Jyllands-Posten or Kåre Bluitgen. Some are so abstract as to barely qualify as depictions. Some don't even depict Mohammed at all. Of course, if you live in the US, it's highly unlikely that you know any of that because the American newspapers are refusing to give their readers the full story. On the other hand, since you read blogs this is probably not news to you. The point is however, that while insulting depictions of Mohammad are particularly offensive to Moslems - any depiction at all would be offensive to Moslems.

    In theory, everyone knows how careful Moslems are to avoid depicting anything that could be considered an idol so as to avoid even the appearance of idolatry. One can recall how the Taliban made a great show of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

    There is a problem with that though. In many Moslem nations, depictions of religious figures in ways that seem obviously idolatrous by thier own standards are routine affairs. Iran threatens to put a trade embargo on Denmark for the depiction of Mohammed, yet they have no problems at all creating visual representations of other religious figures when it suits them. Is that any less iconography than any Catholic Church filled with supposed idol worshipers? If the problem here is the potential for idolatry, why don't they crack down on themselves?

    Worse yet, of the remaining nations of the earth which can truly be called cults of personality, almost all of them are nominally Moslem. In Libya, you can hardly go anywhere to escape the glaring visage of big brother Khadafi. For me, the most lasting image of the Iranian revolution is the huge banners of Ayatollah Khomeini flying over the crowds. Today, you can still see similar banners current Iranian leaders. Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein's image overlooked seemingly every public square. One of the most famous images of the war is the marines toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein. I can hardly think of a more striking contrast between what a person says and what a person does, as the US toppling idols to living men while Iran lifts them up. Exactly what moral authority do the Iranians think that they have to question our ability to abstain from idolatry?

    Right at the root of this conflict, I'm struck by this basic hypocricy - for all the criticism of the West for treating mere men as gods, Islam has as a practical matter a greater problem with elevating their leaders to the status of defacto living gods than the Danes have. No one seriously thinks the Danes would have been tempted to worship the image of Mohammed.

    All of this is as much to say that I don't think that the real issue is in any fashion religious. Religion is just useful philosophical cover for the game of real politik that nations like Iran and Syria are playing.

    The Wisdom of Poets

    "Old pirates yes they rob I
    Sold I to the merchant ships
    Minutes after they took I from the
    Bottom less pit
    But my hand was made strong
    By the hand of the almighty
    We forward in this generation triumphantly
    All I ever had is songs of freedom
    Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom
    Cause all I ever had redemption songs, redemption songs

    Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
    None but ourselves can free our minds
    Have no fear for atomic energy
    Cause none of them can stop the time
    How long shall they kill our prophets
    While we stand aside and look
    Some say it's just a part of it
    We've got to fulfill the book

    Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
    Cause all I ever had, redemption songs, redemption songs, redemption songs

    Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
    None but ourselves can free our minds
    Have no fear for atomic energy
    Cause none of them can stop the time
    How long shall they kill our prophets
    While we stand aside and look
    Yes some say it's just part of it
    We've got to fulfill the book

    Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom
    Cause all I ever had, redemption songs
    All I ever had, redemption songs
    These songs of freedom, songs of freedom"
    -- Bob Marley

    Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    Free Speech

    This is a Test

    This is a test. I have wanted to start up this blog for a while, but life has been a bit busy. This first post contains no actual content, and the blog at present should not be considered a good example of what I actually want to do. I'm just trying to get an idea of what the blog will look like. So, consider this a Beta post. Hopefully, I'll go live with actual content in the near future.