Monday, December 8, 2008

Abusers and their punishment

A woman in my town stabbed her husband. He had been abusive for years, and was, if I read correctly, in the process of physically abusing her again when she grabbed for a large knife (moral: don't beat your wife in the kitchen) and stabbed him. Whereupon he died.
She was arrested, tried, convicted of some sort of murder or aggravated manslaughter and sent off to spend time in jail.
The judge said that he intended to "send a message."
Hmmm. What sort of message could he be sending? Let's see -- how about, "All you uppity women need to mind your husbands, and if they smack you around a little, that's their prerogative." Did you know that the phrase "rule of thumb" came from an old statute that a man couldn't beat his wife with a stick that was larger in diameter than his thumb? I kinda think that's where the judge was going for his precedents.
Those who applaud the judge's decision will say, "Well (huffy). She could always leave him." Or, "Well, she could have sought help." Those are the simple-minded answers of people who have options. Folks, I've seen this woman's picture, and I don't really believe that any options were open to her except the one she took. She was just a drudge who'd been beaten on for years and finally snapped.
You could respond, "Well, abuse is very bad and all that, but it's not worth killing over, is it?"
Sure it is. A decade or so of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is easily worth the life of some scummy sonuvabitch with the IQ of a houseplant and the empathy of a salamander (Sorry about that, salamander lovers).
Here's what I think. First, that the judge is dumb enough to take a three-dollar bill in change for a five. Second, that anyone who abuses a spouse deserves whatever comes to him or her. That's the kind of message I'd like to see sent out.
I think Billy-Bubba Pussgut might treat his wife a little better if he knew that she could blow him away with the family 12-gauge as he slept -- and get away with it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fraternity revisited

This thing about the fraternity and the young man's death keeps hanging around in my mind. I am bothered by the events it generated, and I think I have figured out why. It's all about presumption. There's an old rhetorical doctrine that nobody thinks much about anymore, but that is very operative in our lives. It's called the "doctrine of presumption." What the doctrine says is that in nearly all situations in which we have to make a decision, you can make presumptions about the argument. In the case we know best, consider a guilty/innocent problem. The doctrine of presumption here is that, in America at least, a person is presumed innocent. This means that the "guilty" forces have to prove their case; the "innocent" forces don't have to. In other countries, the doctrine might be different: that one is guilty unless proven innocent.
Another of the cases where the doctrine might hold is in the matter of change. Traditionally, the doctrine has been that a new "ism" has to prove its case before it can replace the status quo. Conservatives like this presumption. Liberals, on the other hand, would rather, I think, prefer that the new is presumed to be better than the old.
Back to the frat question. The situation seems to me to be that the university acted on a presumption that if something bad happened, the fraternity had a hand in it. Thus the speed of the action that banned the fraternity from campus.
There is nothing inherently wrong in a presumption of guilt approach. Sometimes you just gotta pull the trigger when you're not quite sure.
In this case though, I wonder if it doesn't spring from either PR or CYA, rather than a desire for justice. But, as I've said, not all the evidence is available to me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Confusion on Campus

About a week ago, a young man attending my university did some serious drinking off campus, lay down and, sometime during the night, died of alcohol poisoning.
That's what we know. Details are frustratingly rare and couched in tentative terms. The Utah Statesman, the campus paper, said, "The drinking was part of an initiation " into a fraternity, "which could consititue hazing." Coulda woulda shoulda. Again, from lack of details, I'd assume that frat-rats were involved in the drinking, but haven't the faintest clue whether it was countenanced by the fraternity (If it was, the fraternity is dumb as a post. If they were getting around campus regs, they're criminal to boot).
We can assume the young man got the booze from somewhere, and that means that at least one law was broken in the process, since the young man was under the legal drinking age.
However, people assumed a lot more than that, at least from the published reports. The university president immediately shut down the fraternity and a sorority, though there doesn't seem to be any evidence forthcoming that they were culpable in the young man's death. Sort of a "shoot from the hip and ask questions later," approach. The words "hazing incident" were also bruited about, and a round-robin of finger pointing ensued.
As I write this a week later, the account from today's newspaper tells me nothing new. The frat and the sorority are still closed, and police are investigating.
First off, the death was horrible. It was devastating to the young man's friends and family.
But. Was there hazing? Hard to tell, but from what I know so far (very skimpy, true) I'd say probably not. Somebody gave the young man booze. That's wrong and stupid to boot. But unless someone sat on his chest and poured vodka down his throat, it doesn't seem to be hazing. Nor does evidence point to active involvment by the fraternity.
But -- and here's the crux of this problem for me. The attitude seems to be: The young man died and someone has to pay. In all this pother, no one has thought to concentrate on the person most responsible for the young man's death -- the young man himself. He played a major role in his own death. That sounds harsh, doesn't it? Yet that has to be taken into account as we assign blame and punishment.
The doctrine of an eye for an eye was never meant to be taken literally. It was simply a way of assessing what a transgressor owed those he or she had transgressed against. A life has been lost. But who the transgressors are and what the transgressions were is a more difficult problem. You can't simply say: "A young man died; someone must pay." At least not at the life-for-a-life level. The part the young man played in his own death has to be taken into account, as painful as that may be.

I honestly think that as the investigation stretches out it will become less of an emotional posse gettin th' varmints and more of a rational process under the guidelines of law. After all, that's what the law is for. Here's what I think will happen. A couple of people will be charged with offenses like providing alcohol for a minor. The frat and the sorority will be quietly reinstated, and that will be it.
It's entirely possible, though, that the lives of more than one young person will be ruined because they were stupid and weak. I hope not. It's also possible that the fraternity and sorority will be closed permanently. I won't grieve over this, as the greek system has always seemed to me a place where lead-heads get together to convince each other that they are superior. But I wouldn't like for them to get railroaded either.
I am sincerely sorry for the loss of this young man. I hope, though, that the loss doesn't lead to a rush to make somebody pay at all costs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mea Culpa

I apparently have depths of liberalism in me that I didn't realize I had. I find that I have this urge to apologize in agonized (and agonizing) tones to anyone who will listen, even though it wasn't really my fault. So, I want you to picture me in a large fireplace somewhere, sitting in (cold) ashes, wearing a hair shirt, hair side in, sitting in a lotus position, fingers delicately posed on my knees, imploring the gods to strike me with lightening, or at least a had cough.

Mea Culpa, for those of you who don't keep up with your Latin, means "my bad." I caused distress to someone who didn't deserve it. There. I've said it. I feel so much better. It all has to do with the incident I described in my last blog, but I note that I wasn't sufficiently humble about the whole thing; not nearly enough groveling.

See, this person was deeply distressed at the sight of President-elect Obama being hanged in effigy. And the distress was caused, not by the fact that she is a Democrat (though she may well be), but because she well knows the history of lynching African-Americans.

Which thing I didn't even think about at the time. And there's where I went wrong. The image of President-elect Obama hanging is an ambiguous one: it has two possible interpretations. One: Presidential candidate. Two: African-American. In normal circumstances, we see only one of the two; that's what makes ambiguity such a linguistic pain in the butt. The sentence, "Visiting relatives can be tedious" (courtesy of, I think, Noam Chomsky), has two interpretations, but we will usually only see one.

Unless you're a professional in communication, in which case you have a duty to see all the ways anything you write might be interpreted. And I didn't. What followed was that I missed a wonderful opportunity to use this incident to talk about ambiguity and the problems that it can cause. And that's what really hurts.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Color blindness

I've had a series of interesting (to me anyway) experiences in the past few weeks. It started when, as a result of a class exercise, one of my students came up with a figure of Barack Obama hanging in effigy. It was not, I thought, a tasteful example of what we were dealing with, but beyond that I didn't think much of it. I did suggest that we needed, for fairness sake, all the other figures in the presidential contest to be hanging there too. We needed a McCain effigy, a Palin effigy, a Bush effigy, a Biden effigy, and so on.
It wasn't long before I got my chain yanked. Someone complained about images of lynchings of African-Americans, and as soon as I heard that, I know that I was in the soup (DEPARTMENT OF MIXED METAPHORS).
See, I didn't even think of Obama as an African American. I thought of him as a presidential candidate. Silly, naive me. And it is right that someone should have reminded me of the fact that he is African American and that the US has a woeful history of hanging such people out of hand and turning the whole thing into a picnic. If you don't believe me, google the words "Negro lynching" and see what you come up with. It's grim.
But, that's not my point today. It's that I was really, truly, colorblind. That's what Martin Luther King wanted, and I'm actually proud that I didn't see the African American part of it.
The problem is that people don't want me to be colorblind. Not really. They want me to always keep the memory of the lynchings in the back of my mind, so that "such things won't happen again." They seem to want to keep the sore open.
I'm not sure why this is. For one thing, there is no danger that we'll go back to lynching people. For another, it really gets in the way of the things that King and others were working for. It's a puzzler, and reminds me again how complicated people are, and how little you can trust what they say up front.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rumors and such truck

Don'cha just love rumors? I heard one yesterday that is so scurrilous I just had to share it. It seems that Barack Obama won't sing the national anthem because of those words in it about rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air -- all that violence. If, the rumor goes, our national anthem was about sharing and flowers and bluebirds, he'd sing it.

Further, the rumor goes, Obama wants us to show the Arab world that we are really meek and mild, and if we do, they won't hate us.

There are at least three possibilities here: 1) the rumors are totally false; 2) the rumors are totally true; and 3) the rumors are partly true (or partly false, depending on whether you are a half-empty or half-full person).

In almost all cases, the correct answer is number 3. It is certainly possible that Barck Obama doesn't like to sing the national anthem (I don't either. That land of the freeeeee is a killer.) and, if so, that's a right he has.

And, I'm sure he'd like to have us back off killing mid-easterners.

On the other hand, if he's not a complete idiot, he will know that in the middle east, to appear mild is to announce, "I am a victim. Do with me what you will," and it is not coincidence that Arabs have been killing each other and any one else in the neighborhood for thousands of years. My mom, who lived in Afghanistan for five years, said there is a story there that Genghis Khan killed a million people in one day. She said the people told the story with some pride.

And as for the bombs bursting in air, surely President-elect Obama realizes that there was, after all, a war of independence going on, and they aren't fought with toothpicks.

Let's say, though, that both rumors are completely true. In which case, Mr. Obama will get a healthy dose of reality therapy in January. Or, he may be getting one now, since he's the Arab world's house n*****. In any case, he'd do well to remember the words of Mr. Roosevelt about soft voices and big sticks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Focus groups

I need to explore a kind of a tricky subject today. It's this: Can I criticize a special interest group without being accused of anti [fill in the blank here]? That is, can I criticize a Spike Lee movie without being a racist? Can I criticize CAPSA (Citizens against physical and sexual abuse) without being against helping battered women?
That's the first general question. The second is like unto it: Can I criticize any group of which I am not a member? Can I criticize a Gay-rights group if I am not gay?
I remember reading once a book on blues music which strongly suggested that if a person was not African American he/she had no business talking about the blues, or even listening to it. Many of these groups (Not CAPSA, by the way; they are quietly working to help out) have a proprietary feeling toward being downtrodden that basically bothers me. Naturally, I don't mind a group being downtrodden. I don't even mind that they are trying to become uptrodden. Bravo. My dad started life on the wrong end of a shovel and ended up the director of O&M for a small city.
It's the sullen, overt signs of frustrated privelege that bother me. Groups hold endless, well-publicized, scantily-attended meetings and talk about being discriminated against (which is true), as if holding a meeting and talking about things will make people love them and see the intrinsic worth in each and every one.
Meanwhile, there are two men in Logan, Utah, who are quietly building wooden toys for children who don't even know what a toy is. No fanfare (I found out just by chance), but thousands of simple, well-made toy cars and trucks go to children who have no idea what it is to have to worry about being discriminated against. They worry about scurvy, diarrhea, starvation, and living to be six.
I don't see a quick way out. If one is part of a group that's being discriminated against, progress will come slowly, but it will come. That is, unless the group discriminated against is the stupid group, but they might well be in the majority.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Race and the race

Some years back, I remember reading a book by A. Drury, I believe, called Advise and Consent. Memory being the shaky thing that it is, I may have gotten both the author and the title wrong, but it's the thought that counts. Anyway -- one scene in this book was set at a reception for an African diplomat, who showed up in full traditional tribal regalia (This was the 60's, when things like that were cool). Anyway, one of the socialites at the reception remarked to a friend that the African was dignified and clearly intelligent, "Not," she opined, "Like ours."
Shazaam! What an insight. In the imagination of the intelligentsia, the exotic is always preferred to the homegrown. It's somehow, well, somehow, well.....better, don'cha know.
I have remarked before that Barack Obama is an African-American in the truest sense of the word. His father was African, his mother American. His genealogy does not include sons and daughters of slaves. He is outside the herd. He is exotic for this reason.
I'm convinced that this is one of the things that makes him so acceptable to the elites of this country, who are as racist (in a convoluted way) as any Klansman.
I think that this is unfortunate for two reasons:
First, we have many home-grown African-Americans who would make wonderful presidents (my vote goes to Morgan Freeman). Think of the panoply of leaders that the African-American community has generated in the last century, almost any of which would represent the country well (I'll make an exception for Adam Clayton Powell).
Second, it turns out that Barack Obama is really nothing more than a run-of-the-mill politician after all. His record is undistinguished, and he seems to have been a party lap dog for most of his tenure.
Still, he's the president, and more than one party-liner (Truman) has come on strong as president. Here's hoping that Obama does it too.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Return of the noble savage

I was in a meeting the other day, and happened to sit next to an anthropologist. We got to talking about the wonderful rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, and I expressed my viewpoint that it was probably bored teenagers tagging the neighborhood.

He replied archly that his group was trying to overcome such ethnocentric thinking.
I never got a chance to answer that, because the meeting began. So, I'd like to do it now. "Ethnocentric thinking" is the buzzword for a concept that each culture sees the world through a special set of lenses, and that what we see in another culture's artifacts is probably inaccurate. So, I look at rock art and see graffiti, while the truly cosmopolitan person knows that they aren't. They're .... well, they aren't graffiti.

I see two problems with this approach. First, it's a resurgence of the old "blank slate" hypothesis, which says that we are only compilations of our experiences and that we bring nothing with us into the world. I wonder that it still pops up, though here it's in disguise with a false beard and groucho glasses. There is a growing body of evidence that says we are pretty much alike, after all, that while each culture sees things differently, the differences are limited and actually minimal. I like this approach. It says that people are people, regardless of their culture, and though culture does influence the way we see things, it does so in a limited fashion.

The second problem is another hoary old notion -- the idea of the noble savage. Our graffitists are uncouth, uneducated louts while the Fremont taggers were expressing noble and profound thoughts as they chipped away at the rocks. The fact that we can't decipher the noble and profound thoughts is beside the point. These were pre-industrial peoples and therefore wise beyond our ability to understand. It's a kind of reverse-spin racism that's very hard to combat.

Both the blank slate and the noble savage need to travel in disguise these days, since some attention to the accumulation of new data makes them seem slightly ridiculous, but they are alive and well amongst those for whom data is not a valid basis of argument.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Liberal tendencies

I must have more liberal blood in me than I thought. I'm feeling guilty about something that is not my fault, and I'm going to try to wash away the guilt by doing something for someone who might not deserve it, probably doesn't need it, and certainly has never asked me to do it. I'm going to vote for Barack Obama.
See, yesterday I was sitting in a store talking to an older man who brought up in conversation that he simply couldn't imagine a N* as president. Then he looked at me from under his brows and said, "I probably shouldn't have said that," meaning, "You are I know the way things really are."
He shouldn't have said it. I felt uncomfortable, the same way I felt once in high school, when a young woman with mental problems told a dirty joke that she couldn't possibly have understood (kind of a funny joke, though). I felt put upon and faintly besmirched.
I decided that, my response to the man's racism would be to vote for Obama. But that's nuts, don't you see? That's not logical. I'm doing something that I'm not sure is right simply because an old man opened his tangled mind to me. I'm trying to correct the balance of the universe by doing something that is illogical, as if I were, by voting for Obama, putting a thumb on the cosmic scale and tipping things back into order. I'm also trying, I think, to get rid of the guilt I feel because I didn't haul off and smack the old guy in the chops then and there.
What I am going to do is the day after the election drop by where he hangs out and gloat. Inwardly, because I'm a liberal now.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Back at you

I read a syndicated column in a local paper the other day by a man who was incensed that a liberal university (Brandeis I think) had punished a professor for speaking a forbidden word in class. It seems that the professor, with impeccable liberal credentials, happened to mention in class that in former years an illegal alien was referred to as a "wetback." Now, I knew this, being from New Mexico. Mexican nationals wanting to get into the U.S. would swim the Rio Grande and come out all wet. Hence "wetback," or simply "wet" as we knew them. We'd say, "My dad hired a wet to help him with his house."

So far so good. I don't use the term any more, except in discussions like this one, and I assume that the professor didn't either. Nonetheless, according to this column, the university landed on the professor like the angel of death and did everything but cut out his tongue. "How could such a thing happen at a liberal university?" the column asks.

What's that sound I hear? Can it be the delicate susseration of feathers as chickens come home to roost? If the question is, "Who created the PC monster in the first place?" we'd come back, oddly enough to institutions like, how about this, Brandeis University.

Barry Goldwater, that old conservative, said, "You can't legislate morality" and was soundly booed for that thought. Lucky for Bill Clinton we can't. How about this, from me: "You can't institutionalize manners." As soon as something escapes the public conscience and gets put down on paper it gets challenged, expanded, rigidified, and calcified. Thought goes out the window, to be replaced by passion. And, to steal from Eric Hoffer, "every passionate attitude is an escape from the self." (quote approximate)

Yeats: "The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Where is heaven?

I read in the newspaper this morning about a woman who died briefly, went to heaven and then came back. She's written a book about the subject, but you'll have to find out about it on your own. I'm not telling. The author recounts how, in her time in the afterlife, she walked through a heaven of gold and diamonds, met friends, and saw how people lived in third-world countries. All pretty much standard stuff.

There's an urge in me to go into long involved discussions about the mechanics of afterlife experiences, but you know all that already. Instead, think of this: The woman had a very real experience. She lived (no pun intended) all these things she describes. She's not lying to us, nor scamming us. It happened. And it changed her life.

Whether or not heaven has gold and diamond decor isn't really that important. What is important, though, is that this experience is her experience. It isn't mine and it isn't universal. If I were to have an afterlife experience, I'm sure that heaven would resemble a combination library and classic car show. Can you imagine it? A huuuge room, high ceilings, wall to ceiling bookshelves, high windows, dark green carpet covered with perfectly restored Jaguars, Duesenbergs, Ferrari Barchettas and Alfa Romeos. I'd see my friends there, along with Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain, arguing over whether a 67 Mustang was superior to a 68 Camaro.

I share my vision with you, but you may rest assured that yours will be different. For that reason, I couldn't bring myself to write a book about it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Old and Young

Mr. Obama seems to be widening his lead in the polls. And it's getting more and more to look like he'll be our next president. I don't think that's any reflection on John McCain. It's just that people would vote for Godzilla if he were running against the party of George Bush.
I wish I could shake my fear that a country governed by a yonker just out of short pants and a convicted liar is not a good thing.
It may well be that Mr. Obama is the real thing. It could be that all that stuff he's been talking about is more than just "elect me" froth, and it may be that he can stand up to the bluster of the Russians, the rage of the Mideast, the disdain of France (well, that one's not so hard), the "what are a few million infant deaths?" syndrome of the Chinese, the "We copy German cars better than you do" mentality of the Japanese, and the growing clout of Brazil (A world power that speaks Portuguese?)
But I don't think so.
I think he'll be like Jimmeh Carter, a nice man in a job that calls for a tough old bastard. Well, maybe Biden will fit in here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Snobs

There are all sorts of snobs in the world. I may have mentioned this before. There are coffee snobs, tea snobs, wine snobs, literature snobs (oh yeah!), cycling snobs and recycling snobs, canoeing snobs and kayaking snobs, sailing snobs and motorboat snobs, car snobs and anti-car snobs.
Snobs all have a couple of things in common. The first is that they possess some special knowledge about whatever they are snobbing, something that sets them apart from the others in their particular arena. Sail snobs are aware of the subtle differences between "true" sailboats, which have fixed keels, and the sailboats of hoi polloi, which have swing keels. A good coffee snob is aware not only of the secret of fresh grinding beans in a stone grinder, but of using a French press so that the oils are not trapped in the filter and lost.
The second thing that snobs have is the assurance that their knowledge makes them better than the others. I see a person sailing in a ####### sailboat, and know that this person is not a real sailor, and I can sit back comfortably and bask in my superior status.
Because it's an election year, the political snobs are coming out into the sunlight, far from their smokey rooms. Conservative and liberal alike, they cherish their special knowledge. Liberals know that they, and only they, possess true charity. They are the party of forgiveness, of understanding, and it makes them righteous as all get out, and insufferable to boot.
Conservatives on the other hand, cherish the knowledge that they are the true realists, the savvy thinkers. They are the party of logic, of business, of hard decisions, and it makes them righteous as all get out, and insufferable to boot.
The problem for me is that, while I can see a case for compassion, and I can see a case for hard decisions, I don't really like the people advocating either. Sigh

Friday, August 29, 2008

Veep fever

Woops. Just as I was thinking I liked McCain for his experience as a warrior and for his honesty, candor, and feistiness, he became a politician. It's his veep nomination, a 44-year-old woman from Wasilla, Alaska (I bet I'm one of the few people in the lower 48 who knows where Wasilla is. I've even been there). What's her experience? Well, she's been governor of Alaska for two years. At least she matches Obama's experience. What's her foreign policy experience? Ummm. Expertise on the economy? Ummm. Ability to fight off terrorists? Ummm. So, why'd McCain choose her? She's a woman, dummy, she's young, and she's photogenic. She has the Obamic qualifications (simply swap African American for woman). I don't know if she is a rousing public speaker or not, but if she is, then she and Obama are kind of the Bobsey Twins of the presidential race.
So now we have one geezer and one young Turk in the race for the president. I will probably go to the polls with my usual sour face. The only thing that might tip the scales for me on this one is that with the Republicans the geezer is top billing, and for me experience trumps rhetoric.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Us and them

My one contribution to world thought, though someone has probably already said it, is this: There is no "we" without a "them." Conservatives need liberals; liberals need conservatives. Good guys need bad guys; bad guys need good guys. The righteous need sinners; sinners need the righteous. The actions of sinners might or might not remain the same if there were no righteous people to point the finger. It's the polarity that does the defining. One is not a sinner in a vacuum. One does something and it's a sin if someone has so defined it, and the definers do so as a contrast to their own position. Righteous people can't exist without sinners. Can you imagine a world full of righteous people (horrible thought)? They wouldn't be righteous because there would be no category "righteous," or perhaps even a concept "righteous." However, comes a sinner and zing! righteousness exists. And sinners need the righteous. How many people sin to punish themselves? Or to thumb their noses at society, parents, peers? If there were no righteous, what would they do? I remember being at a school that was so uptight that people who played Hearts (the card game) on weekends were suspect. The good thing about that is that one can be a rebel and not do any great damage to one's self. At a liberal school, you'd have to pierce some important body parts to be a rebel.
Let's extend this into the cosmos. When will the world become one people? When we discover intelligent life on other planets somewhere. Not until then. We've got to have the "them," you see.
One of our problems as an American society is that we really don't have a good, solid them out there. We're it - king of the hill, cock of the walk, cream of the crop (multiply cliches as needed). As long as we had the evil Commies, we could have some sort of unity. The Nazis unified us nicely, thank you. Who can step in and take their place? The mid-east? No, that's a family feud and we're only in it for the oil. Aside: Does anyone really think we'd care what the mid-east did to themselves if it wasn't for oil?
Bottom line -- we'll keep squabbling until ET comes to town and then we'll whip into line.

Monday, August 25, 2008

SOB as Presidential material

During the time that Nixon was president and his penchant for dirty play was coming out, people would say to me, "We need a president who is honest. We need a nice president." So we got one - Jimmy Carter. So much for nice presidents.
Which leads me to believe that we don't really need a nice president. We need a mean, nasty sonuvabitch who can stand toe to toe with Putin and tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine. We need somebody who is grouchy, touchy, who believes that the United States is the best thing since (and before) sliced bread and anyone who messes with us will be chewed up, spat out, and forgotten.
We need someone who understands that war is not civilized. Therefore, this person would not enter into a war unless there was no other choice, but once in the war would have two goals: not getting our people killed, and getting their people killed. As Patton said, you don't win a war by dying for your country. You win by making them die for their country. As long as the US fights tippytoe wars, we'll lose soldiers.
So, where does that leave us? Should we have invaded Iraq? Probably not. Should we stay? Until we have kicked some serious a##.
Which presidential candidate is more likely to think this way? Need I say?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Veep

Well, it's official. Joseph Motormouth Biden is Obama's vice presidential choice. I don't really have too much to say about his politics -- he's been around long enough to have plenty of experience -- but he's a cheat. Remember what derailed his presidential bid a few years back? Plagiarism. So now we have a disappointed presidential wannabe willing to steal ideas as second banana. That's what I call poetic justice. Let him sit just out of the limelight for eight years and then he's too old for the brass ring (Courtesy of the department of mixed metaphors)
Actually, I've been thinking that Obama should have chosen Condaleezza Rice as his running mate. Think of it. Obama would be balancing the ticket in a number of ways: gender, party affiliation, experience. In addition, and this is the clincher, she'd be able to tell him he was talking like an idiot and not be accused of racism.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dying for the right

This thing has been festering in me for years, and now I've got to get it out. My countrymen in far away places are dying. That saddens me, but I am no so naive as to suppose that we can get rid of the Taliban by offering them Oreos. But people ought to die for something worth dying for, shouldn't they?
Which brings me to the subject of this monolog. Dying and making it worthwhile.
Some years back, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made a recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," that was a hit, as such things go. The music will give you goosebumps, sure thing, but at the same time, I'm bothered by it. For one thing, they didn't include all the verses. There's one that goes,

"I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps
I can read his righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps"

And another that goes

I have read a fiery message writ in burnished rows of steel..."

These verses are not there. The meat of the message, "This is real honest-to-God war," is left out.
But that's not what really gets me. In the Julia Ward Howe poem, one of the last lines goes,
"As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." The Tabernacle Choir version reads, "As He died to men holy, let us live to make men free." As if living were some sort of sacrifice in time of war? As if freedom for all can be won without blood?
Not only does this destroy the parallelism and strength of the lines, it mocks the fact that thousands of men did in fact die to make men free. Do we toss off their sacrifice? The way the Choir sang the song was a complete evisceration of what Howe was trying to say. She was saying, "Let us be prepared to die so that people might live free." The Choir negated that poweful image when they wimped the song down the way they did. Maybe we should send a copy, with Oreos, to the Taliban.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Who is this guy?

I've decided not to vote for people I don't know anything about. In the past, I've walked into the voting booth, looked at the names, and realized that I knew nothing at all about most of them. I'd be voting not only for President of the U.S. but for my local school district members.
Over the years, I've developed various strategies for making my vote a valid one. For a while, I voted for the first half of the alphabet one election, the second half of the alphabet the next election. I realized, though, that this skewed my choices, since way more than half the people in the U.S. have names that begin with a letter in the first half (Don't believe me? Check it out).
So, for a while I used word association tests. I'd look at a name, say the first word that came to mind, and if the word had a positive connotation (chocolate, say), I'd vote for that person. If the word had a negative connotation (licorice, which I hate), I'd vote against. But what if both candidates had negative connotations?
Then, for a while, I chose names on a consonant vowel ratio. If there were exactly two consonants per vowel, I voted for that name.
All of which means that I voted for a large number of doofi (plural of doofus) in my time. Best to not vote at all.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The going gets nasty

McCain just compared Obama to Paris Hilton. Oh, boy, those are really fighting words. If I were Barack, I think I would be justified in challenging John to a duel, or maybe even having a hit put out on him. I didn't think things would get this bad this fast.
What McCain is saying, of course, is that Obama is all glitz and no substance. I have to admit that this is a reasonable tactic to use, although comparing him to Paris and the like is a little much. But the idea is out there, isn't it? On my home page, there's a popup that asks if Obama is "the man with the plan, or flash in the pan?" (BTW, I wonder how many people know where that expression "flash in the pan" came from. Answer at the end of this blog).
So, is Obama a lightweight? His foreign policy experience is virtually zero, which is not necessarily bad, as long as he remembers that people lie, cheat, distort, make empty promises, and do anything else necessary to advance their national or religious agendas. He also should remember that what T. Roosevelt said about speaking and sticks.
During the American Revolution, two men played important roles in securing the help of the French: Adams and Franklin. Franklin met guile with guile, oil with oil, schmooze with schmooze, while Adams went straight to the point in neatly American puritan firm impassioned stress. Which technique worked? It depends on whose biography you read. I tend toward the Adams route. Lay it out. Speak politely, but don't hide the stick.
Who is more likely to act the way I want? At this moment, I'd have to say McCain, though Obama may surprise me. As with everything else, it's too close to call.
"Flash in the pan" means that if you're shooting a flintlock rifle, the small charger of powder under the hammer flared but it didn't ignite the powder in the barrel and your rifle is not going to fire and the big bear coming at you gets a meal.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Ah, the golden age!

There's a poem I remember vaguely from college about ships. I can't even remember who wrote it. There are three verses. The first begins with something like, "Quinquireme from Ninevah." The second begins, "Stately Spanish galleon." The third begins, "Dirty British steamer with a salt-caked smokestack." (All quotes approximate)
Partly, of course, the poet is in love with language. Partly though, he's contrasting the grace and beauty of the past with the prosaic clunkiness of the present. The quinquireme is carrying precious cargo, ditto the galleon, but the steamer is carrying "cheap tin trays."
Never mind that the quinguireme is being rowed by slaves with the life expectancy of a may fly and the galleon is on its way to Spain with treasure looted from the natives (well, they did give them disease in payment). And never mind that cheap tin trays means everyone can afford one. No, the past was always better than the present -- Those were the days, weren't they Archie?
Both presidential candidates will occasionally want us to go back -- to values, to attitudes, to whatever. Well, I have news for them. Not only can you not go back, you shouldn't want to. Anyone who thinks that the past was better than the present is, how shall I say this---nuts. Think a downtown is dangerous after dark? You should have lived in 18th C London, when gangs openly roamed the streets and going out meant going armed. Think too many people are dying in Iraq? How about 53,000 in three days at Gettysburg? Think modern medicine is bad? Would you like your local barber to bleed you if you're sick? Think we have drug problems? Does the phrase opium den (they were legal) mean anything to you?
The world is, by and large, getting better for larger and larger segments of the population. Those who live in dire poverty now are living about the same way everybody lived 300 years ago, and nearly everybody lived 100 years ago.
'Tain't perfect. But it's chugging along. Let's push ahead rather than dragging back.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ocean Survival

I ran across an article in this morning's paper entitled, "Will the Oceans Survive?" I had one of my aha! moments as I realized this was exactly what I'd been talking about in my blog on precision in language. The question is not "Will the oceans survive?" Of course they will survive. The question, rendered more precisely, would be, "Will the oceans continue to exist in a form that is acceptable to our use as humans?" That's a different question utterly, because, for one thing, it raises the question of what form the oceans have that would be considered "ideal." The answer is, of course, 'It depends." A warm, gooey ocean might be just right for certain kinds of life, while being fatal to ours.
Nor are humans the first and only beings to change climate, oceans, and weather dramatically. One of the earliest massive killoffs in our planet's history was about, what, 3 billion years ago when an organism arose that put out an poison which killed most of the life on the planet, oxygen (have I mentioned this already somewhere?)
So, let's do three of things. First, let's not think we are unique in our power to change things. Second, let's try to describe the situation with more precision (and yes, it's possible, all ye post-modern nutcases with tinfoil hats). Third, let's realize that as we remake the climate, we're doing it for us and for current species. Quite frankly, Ma Earth doesn't give a damn one way or another.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The NEPA way

The National Environmental Policy Act is one of history's great pieces of legislation, not only because of what it does, but how it goes about it. I wish we could apply the NEPA process to the way we enact other legislation.
NEPA requires that, before we do something with our environment, we very carefully study the effects it will have. NEPA doesn't say we can't rape and pillage the environment if the outcome is important enough, just that we need to know as much as we can about the consequences. Y'all ought to read NEPA if you haven't, it's not very long and even I can understand it.

One thing that NEPA requires is that before you do any thing, you must look at all the effects of that action - direct, indirect, cumulative, hidden. Another is that you must look at the effects of the action, the effects of not doing anything at all, and the effects of all reasonable alternatives.

Let's say we want to pass a law to help eke out our supplies of gasoline, so we hurry up and say that 10% of each gallon on gas has to be ethanol. STOP! What are the consequences? What are the alternatives? Are we aware, for instance, that some automobiles can't run on gas that has ethanol? How do we get the ethanol and how will that affect food crop production? Are there any reasonable alternatives?
The other thing that NEPA does is to force action groups to expand their focus. Liberals are focused on the liberal grail, conservatives on the conservative grail, usually with one eye on the ball and the other on the main chance. The medieval narrative "Pilgrim's Progress," presents a sequence in which people are raking in the muck around them (hence the term "muckrakers"), so intent on their tasks that they don't even see angels hovering above them with crowns of gold. All they have to do is look up....
Liberals and conservatives are born, not made. We can't, and shouldn't, change that. But we can and should, whenever possible, try to make our lawmakers see the whole elephant (How's that for a subtle and slightly mixed metaphor?)
Politicans aren't going to think unless they have to. They certainly are not going to try to see it from the other side. Maybe it's time we made them. So, I propose a NLOA - National Legislative Observation Act, which extends the philosophy of NEPA to making any decision.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I say what I say

We're in the silly season, aren't we -- getting ready to elect a president. And no one can say what they really mean. People are terrified that anything they say about Obama might be construed as racist. Whether he wants it or not, simply being African-American means that the racist card is in play (I call it the Spike Lee defense. Anytime anyone criticizes one of Spike Lee's films, Mr. Lee notes that the criticizer is a racist).

But that's not what I want to talk about. What I need to do is unburden myself on precision in speech, writing, listening, and reading. It is important that speakers and writers be precise. But it is equally important that readers and listeners be aware of precision. For instance, there is a significant difference between
"You are doing something stupid," and
"You are stupid."
Yet, if you say the first sentence to someone, they will very often say, "You are accusing me of being stupid." Given that response, they may well be stupid, yet you didn't say any such thing.

Remember the big flap over "niggardly"? Some one used it in a speech, and was roundly accused of being racist. Yet "niggardly," and ugly term though it is, is not even remotely racist. So, whose fault was it? Here I'm going to have to go with the idiots who react without knowledge. Use the dictionary, dolts.

Korzybski, the founder of general semantics, said, "I say what I say. I do not say what I do not say" Granted that's an oversimplification, it's still a good rule for both speaker and listener.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Newspaper wisdom

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an editorial in which they lamented the small turnout of Utah voters, perhaps the lowest in the country. At the same time, Newsweek had a graphic showing that McCain's chances of carrying Utah in the November election were 100%. I've known for months now that my vote was going to go to McCain whether I marked him, Obama, or Groucho Marx on the ballot. So, where's my incentive to vote? I wonder if it ever occurred to the guy who pens the portentous and pretentious Tribune editorials that the reason most people don't vote is that we are a one party state. Why vote? It won't count. I still marvel at how few people actually take cause and effect into consideration when viewing the world around them.
I've been a conservative and a Republican all my life. They seem to me to be the lesser of the two evils of the system (I'd rather be ruled by greed than by idealism any day). But it seems to me that it's time to switch parties. Not that I believe in the Democrats' creed; I don't. But I do believe that one-party rule leads inevitably and inexorably to corruption. Apparently our legislators are adept at keeping church and state separate. That is, what they talk about on Sunday doesn't seem to influence what they do in the legislature.
Utah is at a kind of a crossroads. It's halfway between a machine political state and a genuine republic. In a machine-run state, you get things done by knowing the local ward heeler. Want your street patched? Talk to the man who knows someone who knows someone and it gets fixed. It worked in Chicago for years, may still be that way. The problem in Utah is that it's kind of a covert machine. No one will admit that such a thing is even possible, and yet it's clear that the only difference between Utah politics and Chicago smoke-filled-room politics is that there's no smoke. I don't think we'll really achieve a republican (lower case) state while there is only one party. We need Brigham Young to rise out of his grave and say, "Everything north of South Temple is Democrat; everything south is Republican."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Despise your neighbor

I just read about a group who get together to drink and make fun of their neighbors. They have some form of the word "liberal" in their title and their logo is the Angel Moroni taking a long draft of beer. So, let me see if I get this right. A group who call themselves liberal (generous, forgiving, live-and-let-live) gets together and chooses for a symbol something that is a conscious and studied insult. Hmmm. If asked about it, I imagine they would say something like, "It's all in good fun. Don't you have a sense of humor." Well, no I don't and no, it's not in good fun. It's vicious, condescending, and arrogant. But it's also depressingly universal.
What it does is demonstrate a tendency you will find in any minority group that considers itself superior. It's this: despise the majority.
Sailboat people despise motor boat people. Bus riders despise motorists. Bicyclists despise motorists (almost everyone despises motorists except when they are motorists themselves). Cross-country skiers despise downhill skiers.
It's a tendency well documented by sociolinguists, though they use it in a different context. But it's the same thing. Here's how it works: Let's say that you are in a foreign country. You are a member of a group who don't speak the language, don't understand the culture, don't know the history. So, you circle the wagons and talk only to each other. The British in India, the US in Japan after WWII. You don't realize you are in a rich culture, but instead speak of the locals as "wogs," or some other derogatory term.
Or, you drink and make fun of them and their symbols. If you reached out to them, of course, you'd be admitting that they are real people, and one can't have that, of course.
It's a pretty universal thing, alive and well in Utah.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plato wrote for dummies

I wish people would stick to things they really know something about. Case in point: An editorial by David Broder on the intelligence of Presidential speeches (the “Golden Age” hypothesis is about to rear it’s hoary head). Mr. Broder is quoting a book in which a man with way too much time on his hands used a readability formula (The Flesch formula in this case) to analyze the IQ of speeches from Washington on, with the (natural) conclusion that modern Presidents are dumber than posts, or at least, assume that the electorate is, since they give “dumbed down” (please note the quotes) speeches.
This analysis is badly flawed. Readability formulas (or formulae if you wanna be high-hat) by and large depend on two metrics: Average sentence length and percentage of long words. Long words are those of three syllables or more and are assumed to be harder to read (I mean, look at the struggle you have just to read “hippopotamus.” What? No struggle? There must be something wrong with you).
Using such metrics, it’s no wonder that a speech by George Washington is deemed harder to understand. For one thing, the fashion in those days was for “periods,” or long, involved, balanced sentences. The fashion was also for words of Greek or Latin origin. With all this, it’s no wonder the stuff is hard to wade through. The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is one sentence. And it has that “inalienable” word in there.
But, and here’s the kicker, a higher Flesch score doesn’t mean that any piece of reading is more intelligent. It simply means that, according to the metric of choice, it’s at a higher grade level. By the stand espoused by Broder’s source, Plato, Mark Twain, and Hemmingway wrote for dummies. Shorter sentences, simpler words, don’t mean “dumbed down.” The sentences generated by the great minds of the past are works of beauty, no doubt, but that is not what makes the thoughts great. The thoughts are great because they are great. There’s a scene in the movie National Treasure in which Nickolas Cage quotes something from the Declaration of Independence to his sidekick who says, “That’s beautiful. I’ve no idea what you just said.” Then Cage tells him, in modern terms, what it means. It’s supposed to be a comic moment, but all it really does is to illustrate the differences in the modes of expression, classical and modern.
Quite frankly, I prefer the modern and feel we’ve come a long way, baby.
Which is not to say that the electorate is not dumb. It may well be. But, the junk science here doesn't prove anything.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sock puppets and racists

I've seen the infamous sock puppet, and it does look like a black monkey. What I had in mind when I read the original news item was one of those sock puppets that have a red nose and behind because that's the color of the sock toe and heel. This one is clearly intended to be black. Still, I have to ask myself if this is enough to make it a racist effort. Remember, in order for something to be racist it must not only refer to the person's race, but be negative, and the race has to be the driving factor. So, it's not enough to make a crayon drawing of Obama black, cause he is. If I make a black sock puppet, is that enough to make me racist? Remember that I'm also making a wrinkled McCain puppet.
The crux of the matter seems to be that the sock puppet is equated with monkeys, and people have in the past equated African-Americans with monkeys. McCain's puppet is also a monkey. Does the fact that there is a McCain monkey cancel out the Obama monkey? Or is the very suggestion that we might equate Obama with a monkey make it out of bounds? I admit that it's an interesting and potentially disturbing question. Have we gone too far in "sensitivity"? Or is it just good manners to refrain from anything that might be injurious, like not mentioning hippos around fat people?
I haven't changed my opinion, though, about who the real racists are. They are the self-proclaimed keepers of the gate who keep a watch on us lest we slip. Remember the joke about the guy who went to the doctor? The doctor showed him several geometric shapes and asked the guy what he was thinking of. To all the man replied "sex." Said the doctor, "You are obsessed with sex." But, came back the man, "You keep showing me dirty pictures."
Remember also the definition of a Puritan as a person who is angry because somewhere somebody is having a good time. (I wish I knew who said that) Whatserface at the Tribune sees racism in just about everything and piously intones, "They just don't get it." Right.

Friday, June 20, 2008

How noble we are

Let’s suppose for a moment that we are considerate beings (which is true) and that we are visiting in a country where it is considered polite to belch loudly after every meal, the louder the belch the better the meal. We know this. Though livid with embarrassment, we personfully summon up a belch after every meal.

Now, let’s suppose that a person from this country comes to visit us, and, after every meal, gives out with a loud belch. We don’t do that here, but of course, how could this person know that?

So, we are gracious, understanding, generous. Actually, what we are is racist. Look at the assumptions behind our gracious actions. They are 1) that the people we are visiting in their country are too dumb to know that things are done differently in other places, 2) that they are too backward, rigid and unforgiving to make allowances, and 3) that they are too dense to see that things are done differently when they are outside their own country.

So, our graciousness is simply a rather smug acknowledgement of our own superiority. Noblesse oblige in a democracy.

The fact is, however, that the people we condescend to are aware of what’s happening. They resent it, they exploit it, they sometimes use it on us. The Samoans who hoodwinked poor Margaret Mead are an example. So the guy whose table you belched at is probably secretly laughing at the poor dumb twit who isn't very good at belching in the first place and doesn't know he's making a fool of himself in the second.

Isn’t it about time that we realized that we are as dumb as the rest of the world?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Worshipping at the alter of our Ford

There are two kinds of car dealerships: Those that are businesses and those that are temples. Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and the like are all businesses. When you walk into the dealership you see cars, and you see people sitting at desks and studiously ignoring you, and maybe some posters on the wall, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, walk into a Jaguar, Audi, BMW, Mercedes , or Land Rover dealership and you might as well be in church. There is a definite aura of worship in the place. The attitude is hushed, the d├ęcor is sumptuous, and the people are well –dressed and quietly spoken. If you want your car serviced, you call ahead and make an appointment, then meet in an office room with a service consultant who takes all the pertinent information and finally consents to fit you into the schedule.
If you have to use the restroom, you’ll find it well appointed, with top-of-the-line fixtures. The towels will be in a little basket on the marble washstand, and there will be flowers on a stand in the corner, maybe a copy of The New Yorker to read.
If you want service, you’d better wear your Yuppie duds. Get the Rolex out of hock, shine up the tassled Bally loafers, press your jeans and wear a Lacoste shirt (DI gets them from time to time). Oh, and get a haircut.
My problem is that I love to worship at these shrines, but the only cars I have are so old that no one will take me seriously. While people will roll out the red carpet for a 2007 Range Rover, they chuckle indulgently over my 95 Discovery (the one with the permanent list to port).

Barack's big chance

A racist is someone who attributes a negative characteristic to a person solely on the basis of his or her race. If I note that Coby Bryant is African American and suggest that this might have something to do with his phenomenal ability at basketball, that’s not racist. Is it? Actually, according to the PC folks, it is. It doesn’t matter that the data might bear out my assertion. The very fact that I’ve linked any characteristic and race is enough to get me branded a racist.
So I won’t. What I will do is comment on the persons I consider the real racists: those people who see slurs in everything and believe, deep down inside themselves, that other races can’t defend themselves and that they, the heroes of the hour, have to do it for them.
Case in point. Some people in Utah want to market a sock doll and call it some version of the Obama Doll (I forget the real name). These same people have a version of the doll for John McCain too. Now, the Obama doll isn’t black, it’s a simple red-toed sock doll, the kind you’ve seen a million times. The rub comes when you remember that this sock doll is sometimes a monkey. So, one of our beloved Salt Lake Tribune writers hopped in and started calling the sock manufacturers racist, saying, “They just don’t get it” (That’s a dead giveaway, by the way).
Why is this writer racist? Because she hooks Obama, the sock doll, and monkeys together in her mind. That is, she’s the one who sees the insidious threat when all we see is a funny doll. And she’s the one who has to speak out and protect pore ol’ Barack. She’s the superior mind in her mind. Ergo, racist.
If my reasoning is too subtle for you, consider this: every act of protection is an assertion of superiority. I think Barack Obama is perfectly capable of taking care of himself, and I’m willing to give him a little advice. Want to get elected? Buy one of those Obama sock dolls and carry it around with you. Show it to people and tell them you think it’s cute and that you like it much better than the McCain doll.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Liquor for young people

There's a bar in Logan, Utah, called The White Owl. It's quite a popular place. Of course, there aren't that many bars in Logan, Utah, so anyplace with booze is likely to be popular. Anyway, underage kids like to get in to the Owl, and the Utah State Liquor control people like to bust young people trying to get into the Owl. Now, I'm in favor of keeping young people from the inside of bars. Let's make 'em get their liquor in the old-fashioned way, by raiding dad's cabinet.

The point of this whole essay, though, is a recent escalation in detection by the White Owl. Seems like every time the state catches someone inside the Owl and underage, they jerk the bar's license for a time. No booze, no profits. So, the Owl has a very real interest in keeping kids out. Recently, they installed a sophisticated scanner that can pick out phony ID's.

You'd think that the liquor control people would applaud this. After all, the Owl is doing all it can to help keep kids out of the bar (at gunpoint, but they are doing it). This is, however, not the case. See, the state loves to run sting operations. That is, they find some underage kid and get them to try to infiltrate the Owl. Then, if the kid get in, the cops have the Owl cold and can shut 'em down again. The cops don't like the new scanner because -- get this -- it makes it harder for their moles to make it into the bar.

The cops seem to have forgotten the whole point of the legal system, which is to keep underage people from drinking. Instead of keeping their eye on this simple goal, the cops have allowed things to evolve into a contest between the cops (getting kids in) and the Owl (keeping kids out). And in this escalation the targets for the system, the poor dumb teeners who want to get drunk and act grownup, are completely forgotten. They stand on the sidelines, puzzled and stupid, while the law and the bar duke it out to see who has the best technology or the smartest spies.

I realize that, given freedom to do so, many bars would serve liquor to kids in diapers, but still, in this case, the state liquor control people really need to back off, re-evaluate what they are doing and why they are doing it, and perhaps, just maybe, get real?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

You are what you wear

An article in today's paper notes that scientists changed the physiology and behavior of birds by making their breast feathers darker with magic markers. Dark breast feathers are apparently the sign of virility and desirability in this species of birds. Here's the kicker. Not only did the birds behave more like alpha birds and get more chicks (intentional pun), but the levels of testosterone in their blood actually rose. The scientists hinted that the same principle might apply to humans as well.

Think of it. We all know the folk wisdom that you don the persona that your clothes proclaim, but to think of actual physiologicial changes -- well that's something else again. Maybe that's why school uniforms work.

I think this is not only true, but that it expands to other areas of social life as well. For instance, you could say, "You are what you drive." I've always been of the opinion that people who drive high-end BMW's were arrogant jerks, and assumed that the Beemer was simply the arrogant guy's car of choice. But what it the Beemer makes the man?

The implications are staggering. Got a kid with low self esteem? Make him drive a Mustang GT. Got a kid with too much aggression? Make him drive a Ford Festiva. I can see the scene now: Juvenile court. A young man charged with starting fights. The judge looks sternly at him and says, "This is a serious charge, and must be dealt with seriously. I order you to spend six months driving a Geo Metro." Ashen-faced and contrite, the young man is led from the courtroom, his spirit broken.

I trust that conservatives will mount a campaign to have young people drive old six-cylinder pickups and that Liberals will press for everyone to have a Rolls.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Texas as Big Brother

As y’all may know, the Texas state government raided a fundamentalist religious compound and took all the kids away, running the whole show in a sort of kangaroo-court fashion (why are governments so stupid?) that has been repudiated by the higher courts. Among the side issues is one of why the feminists of the country haven’t rushed wholesale to the defense of the women involved. A reason put forth by conservatives is that they aren’t the right sort of women. They’re, well, tacky. Those dowdy hairdos, for instance. If you are going to rush to someone’s defense, wait for the right kind of person. So, we cheer for Anita Hill and ignore Monica Lewinsky.
That’s partly right, I think. But there’s probably more to it than that. Some psychologists look at “core concepts” to explain much of our attitudinal behavior, and that might work here. Imagine yourself standing in a circle. That circle is also inside a larger circle, which is inside a still larger circle. It’s as if yo were in the middle of a target. Those things inside the smallest circle are the things that are closes to you. Let’s take animals, for instance. Inside the smallest circle are familiar animals, cats and dogs, gerbils and parakeets. In the next circle are animals that are more distant, horses, cows, sheep, goats. In the third circle are animals more distant still, iguanas, snakes, lemurs. Our attitudes change from circle to circle. We don’t eat animals in the first circle because they’re family. We do eat the animals in the second circle. We don’t eat animals in the third circle because they are too weird.
Let’s apply this to feminists. In the first circle are people like us, educated, hip, passionate about causes and justice. In the second circle are people like the women in Texas, barefoot, pregnant, on the edge of town. In the third circle are third-world people, exotic, mysterious. So, we skip circles: help those like us, don’t help those not like us but recognizable, help those who are utterly different.Everybody loves a lovable child. The hard thing to do is to love an unlovable

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why be true to yourself?

Let's start from scratch. What if certain aphorisms that we were all raised with turn out to be nonsense? Or at least in need of a total makeover. Take something that "threadbare plagiarist from Avon," Shakespeare, said, "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." I think I got it close (I'm doing it from memory). Aside from the questionable if/then construction in there, I've always worried about this being true to one's self motif. Seems like a recipe for trouble, if you ask me.

Let's say, for instance, you were born and raised in a strong religious household. Which religion it is doesn't matter (except for Unitarians. A strong Unitarian upbringing is an oxymoron. I'll throw in a Unitarian joke later). Where was I. Oh, yes. You have a strong upbringing, but sometime in your life come to the conclusion that Marx was right, it's an opiate. So, being true to yourself, you renounce your religious beliefs (or political, or social). There you stand, clothed in the vestments of truism. On the other hand, you've possibly deeply hurt your family, maybe alienated them, and cut apart what may be the only thing in life that really matters, especially if you've kicked God out of your life.

If God doesn't exist and your family is important. why sacrifice the real for he unreal? Doesn't is seem reasonable to assume that if God is dead He doesn't care if you're a hypocrite? Why not go ahead and be a Catholic or a conservative or a martian? Keep in mind what's important. And being true to yourself at all costs doesn't seem that much of an advantage.

I chickened out on the Unitarian joke. Just call Mr. coward pc guy.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Wheels within wheels

This topic is going to require a little tiptoeing around delicate subject matter, so forgive me for being a little abstruse.

It has always seemed to me that one of the unfortunate effects of affirmative action might be to cause people to be uneasy about minorities in the professions. Let's say you are feeling a little under the weather and you go to the new doc in town, and lo! he or she is a member of a minority group. I defy anyone not to wonder, somewhere in the back of the mind, whether this person might not be one who was admitted, passed, and certified on the basis of the minority status.

People me this can't be the case. I nod but in the back of my mind, I'm saying, "Yeah, right," with as much sarcasm as I can muster. It's too bad that people may think that way, unfair to all the good doctors, lawyers, merchants, and thieves out there who worked hard in an unfair world.

Now, there are, it seems to me, three choices of action for a person who suddenly has to trust his or her liver to an unknown quantity. Person A, inhales deeply of the spirit of affirmative action, and will use the services of the professional even if, or perhaps, especially if, they may not be in fact, ready to practice. Person B wouldn't go to a minority professional if his or her life depended on it. And person C (that's me) realizes that a lot of the majority population in the professions consists of people dumb as posts and that it's a crapshoot anyway.

Case in point. I recently saw in the news that a person of double minority status (woman plus minority) had been appointed to a high office in spite of the fact that her credentials weren't specifically in the area she'd been appointed to. I huffed a couple of times (Person B behavior). But then I realized that I really didn't know anything about this woman, and perhaps I should let her have a chance. The good news is that she won't kill anyone if she goofs up.

And don't give me that stuff about being prejudiced before hand. I'm that way with everyone, so I am at least evenhanded.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

We believe what we believe

Steven Pinker, a man whom I greatly admire, has written a wonderful book, The Blank Slate, which reads like an adventure story. In it, at one point, he mentions evidence I have alluded to earlier, a massive study which indicates that, in the U.S. at least, where citizens have guns there is less crime. Makes sense to me; after all, if I'm a mugger and I think that citizen X is likely to be packing, I'm more inclined to leave him or her alone. If I'm drugged, crazy, or desperate, then all bets are off, of course.

My point here, though, is that Steven Pinker, very rational person, burster of bubbles, can't quite bring himself to accept the evidence. He says something to the effect that , well the evidence is there but I'm not sure I can accept it.

And why not? What is it that makes people of sound mind shy away from accepting certain propositions? Not only about guns, of course, but about all sorts of things - lifestyle choices (euphemism alert!), religious beliefs, life after death, no life after death, UFO's, conspiracies, you make it. You are usually either for it or agin it. The stand seems to come before the evidence. That is, you believe in something and then you search for evidence to support what you believe in. Counter evidence is either dismissed or seen as somehow "flawed."

Case in point. For years now there has been mounting evidence that the first Americans didn't come across a land bridge from Siberia, but coast-hopped along the North and South American continents all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The opposition to this theory has been vigorous, voluminous, and sometime vitriolic (sorry, hit the alliteration button on my computer). Aside from the fact that tenure and fame are at stake, I think that some scholars simply believe in the land bridge, even though the evidence indicates that it wasn't there.

In my down days I think that nothing can change such beliefs. I think they are buried too deeply in our theory of the world to be rooted out and changed. On my up days, I think that perhaps people can change deeply rooted beliefs. Today, I'm kinda drawn to the words of Matthew Arnold:

Charge once more then, and be dumb
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall
Find thy body by the wall.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Frothing subjects

I'm reading a fascinating book on the early history of migrations in America. The thesis of the author is that Native Americans took a shoreline route from Asia to Tierra del Fuego, and not the land-bridge route that was formerly the received wisdom. When he talks about opposition to the shoreline route, he makes it clear that they are wrongheaded, pigheaded, and headed for a fall, but he is still respectful. Only one time does he blow his stack, and that's when he's talking about a group of people who think at least some of the Native Americans were Caucasian (an idea that has been around for a long time, by the way). He speaks of their arguments as "spewing venom," and gets kinda nasty about the whole thing.

He's right, I think. The "Europeans in America in 13000 BCE" idea is a little much. But why the fury? Why the names, the insults, the rancor? After all, they are no more wrong than the land-bridge people.

It's because these people have hit one of the froth-at-the-mouth buttons: race. The author of the book can't help himself. He has to come unglued. There are a number of such buttons, on both left and right sides of the aisle. Race is one, of course. Abortion, guns, sexual identity are three more. When folks light on these topics, they cease being rational beings and become robots. As soon as the topic of guns comes up, people rush to the ramparts to do battle on one side or the other. Our own Salt Lake Tribune weighed in today on guns, for example. They decried a move to make Utah's concealed carry permits good in other states. "Oh, sure," they opined, "that will make us safer." Well, actually, it will. And that's not just me talking. That's dyed in the wool, rock solid, brass plated, academic research. More guns equals less crime. Or, as Robert Heinlein put it, "An armed society is a polite society." Have I quoted that before? I'm having a burst of deja vu here. But that's not the point. The point is that if I rubbed the corporate nose of the Tribune in the facts, smothered them with data, their editorial position wouldn't change. Guns are the devil and that's all there is to it. Gays are perverts and that's all there is to it. All races are entirely equal and that's all there is to it. Sex except to make children is evil and that's all there is to it. Don't be smug, liberals, you do it too. Don't be cocky conservatives, you do your fair share. And me, so do I.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Veep as sidekick

All this speculation about a veep for Hillary, Barack, or John has got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the sidekick. The sidekick has always been an important literary and/or dramatic figure. The sidekick tells the hero’s story or serves as the foil so that the hero can show off (“What’re we going to do now, Roy?” “Elementary, my dear Watson.”).

Turns out there are actually three types of sidekicks. The most populated category is the sidekick who is an “inferior” (please note the quotes) social, racial, or cultural specimen. I call this category the Tonto. The job of the Tonto is to scout around, fetch food and water, hold the horses, occasionally get beat up, and to ask the right questions. A smaller category is the Watson, a sidekick who is the social and ethnic equal of the hero, but who is kind of a dim bulb. Pat Buttram for Gene Autrey, Gabby Hayes for Roy Rogers, Watson for Holmes. Finally, there is the smallest category of all, the Jeeves, usually used in comic situations. This sidekick is the social inferior of the hero, but the intellectual or moral superior. It’s so small that I can think of only two people: Jeeves and Sancho Panza.

In our pc times, the first type of sidekick is disappearing. Instead, we get the buddy system, in which two ethnically diverse types find common ground. Riggs and Murtaugh, Jackie Chan and Chris Rock. It all started with Starsky and Hutch, don’cha know.

So, what is our new veep going to be? Keeping in mind that we have to “balance the ticket,” I think I’ll have to propose a new category: the shadow. It’s a sidekick whose job is to stand around and support the president until the president either 1) kicks off, 2) serves eight years and then gets out of the way, or 3) has to resign. Given the fact that any politician has a brass-bound super-sized ego, this is a hard role to fill.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Are you a racist?

Been thinking about being a racist. Not whether I should become one, but whether I am one. Part of the problem is that "racist" is a created category, like noir movies, and not a category that is inherent in existence. Thus, a racist is what the definers say it is. F'rinstance, there might not even be such a thing as race according to some thinkers. Humans are so closely linked genetically that suggesting some sort of division based on physical characteristics is specious. There is some merit to this. On the other hand, we are nearly identical to chimps genetically, but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one. If the random hand of evolution has shaped some people with noses different from mine, and color different from mine, I am willing to accept that it has also shaped people with brains different from mine. Would that make me a racist? And that's the crunch. For although it is allowable to talk about genetic differences in color and dentition (because you can't ignore them), it is verboten to even breathe that there might be genetically determined differences in intellectual or spiritual makeup. This is an article of faith, not an empirically derived, data-driven stance. Any genetic difference in any intellectual capacity whatever (even a heightened ability in spatial consciousness) always carries with it the possibility that some people are (gasp) better than others. But what if it's true? What if some genetic groups are better at finding their way in the wilderness than others? What do we do if it's so? And does considering the possibility make me a racist?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Election outcome

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been using the online card game "Hearts," to predict the outcome of the presidential election. I figure it's as accurate as anything. Here's how it works: I assign myself as a player, and then Hillary, Barack, and John as opponents. Now, this means that there are games within games, as Hillary and Barack are playing against each other as well as against John, and I'm the electorate (So, I should, in theory win every game, right?). The whole thing is a wonderful metaphor for the electoral process. The beauty of it is that it's like a horoscope (Even if you get the wrong one, you can still make sense of it).

So, tonight, we started out with Hillary dumping on me big time. She knows about my conservative leanings, I guess. But it was John who jumped into the lead by stabbing me in the back. In the end, Barack won the nomination handily, but John won the election by a small though comfortable margin. And the electorate? He got the shaft.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The primaries (yawn)

More and more Hillary and Barack are looking like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, making it seem that the choice is between an African-American and a woman rather than between policy positions. This is the ultimate liberal existential dilemma. I can kind of picture the inner conversation: "I'd really like to vote for Barack, to sort of make up for our shameful behavior to his ancestors. Wait, no. His ancestors weren't slaves. His father is an honest-to-goodness African. So, maybe I should vote for Hillary to sort of make up for our shameful behavior to women. On the other hand, Barack really is African-American, I mean literally. Hillary, though, has had her own non-denominational cross to bear (WJC), so perhaps I should vote for her. Barack, though, had to sit through those awful sermons."

Once it all shakes out, though, and the election process begins in earnest, then we will have two genuinely different positions. Won't the fur and mud fly then.

I've discovered the only sensible way to pick a presidential candidate. I've been playing the on-line card game Hearts, with three opponents: Hillary, Barack, and John. So far, Hillary is a tough and tenacious opponent, while Barack delights in giving me the queen of spades at odd intervals. John is kinda quiet and never gets in trouble. When the election gets down to Republican and Democrat, I'll have to factor in Nader. I wonder how he will play?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Proper Grammar

Have you ever wondered where "correctness" in grammar comes from? Is there, somewhere, perhaps just outside the orbit of Pluto, a fully-developed, perfect, immutable set of rules that defines what is right and what is not in grammatical usage? How about this sentence for instance: "Yesterday I boke a cake." Sounds weird, but the past tense of bake was once boke, like the plural of shoe was once shoon.

Truth is, there is no absolute standard of correctness in grammar. Never has been. The notion of absolute correctness comes from a combination of strange Biblical interpretations mixed with the "golden age" hypothesis. In the 19th century, it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was Hebrew (though why anyone in his/her right mind would think that is beyond me). All languages were descended from Hebrew and were corrupt forms thereof (see "Babel, Tower of"). English in particular was a degenerate form of Latin, and if Latin had an ablative, then English must have one too. The "Golden Age" of language was the aforementioned garden, and things have been going downhill since, which they continue to do.

Because of this and some rather pernicious inventions (two negatives make a positive), there is a great deal of nonsense taught in the school systems about what one should or should not do in writing. For instance (and all of these are ridiculous rules):
  • Never begin a sentence with "because"
  • Never begin a sentence with "and" or "but"
  • If you outline and you have an "A," you've got to have a "B"

Bah! And humbug! But you may not believe me. Because of this, you'll continue to fret over things that are not only non-essential, but not really real except in the minds of English teachers, who should find better things to do with their time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Politicians

The big news, of course, is that HRC (That does not stand for Her Royal Consort) got caught in a lie. Or, as she said, "mis-speaking" (I don't care what other people do, I'm hyphenating it so that it is at least readable. Otherwise it looks like third runner-up in a beauty contest for orators). I have a couple of questions concerning this incident. First, is it a mis-speaking, an honest error in memory, a fib, or an outright lie? Hard to tell, though I think I would lean toward the fib explanation. After all, she was in a war zone, and had been warned of the possibility of sniper fire, so I don't call for the outright lie. On the other hand, it can't be an honest mistake or a memory lapse, because HRC is smart and has a good memory. So, it's a fib. Which brings up the second question: Why? This was a serious lapse in judgement imho. Because it's verifiable, or as the new term in science is, falsifiable. And it was falsified. The media pounced on the statement like a hungry lion on the lamb it's supposed to lie down next to. The only explanation I can think of, and it's a little far-fetched, is that she is trying at one and the same time to emphasize her experience vis-a-vis BHO and also establish her creds vis-a-vis JMcC. If so, it backfired badly. It gave BHO a chance to flaunt his halo.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Secret of the Universe

Have you ever had this happen to you? A friend comes up, presses a book into your hands, and says something on the order of, "Read this. It changed my life." No? You're lucky. It happened to me last night, and, being a compliant sort (muffled laughter in the background) I took some time to read in it. I found an interesting heading: Incontrovertible proof of immortality. Now this struck me, as I've always had a secret hankering to be immortal, so I read on. The text was only about a hundred words, and the gist of it was something like, "There is no separation of the 'I' from life. You don't have a life; you are a life. So, you can't lose what you don't have." QED. I really haven't twisted the text at all. I came away realizing I had read nonsense in the purest use of the word: non-sense. The writer had strung words together and they made syntactic sense, but that was it. There was no data, no logical chain of reasoning (as you find in, for instance, Descartes's' exposition of cogito, ergo sum). Nothing except a sort of cryptic reference to the unity of existence.
There are two kinds of self-help books, I think. There are the practical ones (How to win friends and influence people kind of thing), and then there are those that promise you the totality of enlightenment. These are dangerous. They are flimsy strings of assertions parading as facts; they ignore all hard-gained knowledge in biology, physiology, evolutionary studies, physics, psychology, and economics; they offer no replicable studies, hard data, or even tight reasoning. Worst, they say that the scientists and thinkers of the world are wrong because "they don't have the secret."
I've got news. Nobody has the secret. There ain't no secret. It's best expressed in the koan, "Before enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, you chop wood and carry water."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Guns and Rosie's

"A conservative is a liberal who was mugged the night before." Alfred E. Newman

For those of you who don't recognize the name, he's the "What me worry?" kid from Mad Magazine. A couple of incidents to start.

A friend of mine, very liberal, was once threatened by some seriously bad people. They said something on the order of, "We will get you." My friend came to me one day, told me of this, and asked if he could borrow one of my handguns.

Another friend, also very liberal, was going to take a long motor trip, alone. She asked me if she could take one of my handguns with her.

In both cases, I asked the same question: "Would you be willing to use the gun?"

In both cases, the answer was "No, I don't guess I would." Wherewith I refused their requests.

I'm not here to make fun of liberal resolve not to use deadly force, or to discuss what happens when abstractions become reality, but to talk about using guns.

Look, folks, I believe in guns. I believe in the overwhelming evidence that says, "More citizen guns, less crime." But I am also scared silly of the things. I mean, they can be lethal. I also realize, as most people do not, that guns are not demons, not angels. They're just a way of throwing a little piece of metal very fast. And they're not efficient. If you haven't practiced and practiced with a handgun, you might as well throw it at an attacker. So, unless you 1) are willing to use one, and unless you have really thought and thought and thought about how and what you would do in every possible situation, and 2) shot and shot and shot until it's all automatic (no pun intended), then leave them alone and trust to the police to help you (good luck).

And the "Guns and Rosies"? Just a way to get a clever title,