Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Combatting Idiocy, a continuing series
First, before anyone accuses me of getting all ivory tower on their asses, let me be clear. Everyone is an idiot from time to time- it's the nature of humanity. But the problem is that our society, and the Earth, has grown so complex that idiocy has become more and more prevalent and its effects are getting stronger as well. For example, I'm an idiot about quantum physics, and as david demonstrated earlier, I'm also an idiot about constitutional law. The latter one may be a better example of the point I'm trying to make here. It's not just that I'm ignorant of constitutional law- it's that I know enough to form Dangerously Stupid Ideas (which I am now copyrighting/trademarking under DSI). The point (or DSI) I was somehow trying to argue was that we don't actually NEED the constitution because on many occasions the Justices simply voted their conscience. While this argument is superficially true, it totally ignores the finer details of reality- that without a basis in text there could be no starting point- there could be no common arguing ground, and there would generally be chaos.
Why did I make this argument? Well, being an outsider to con law, I wanted to distill the reality of what the constitution was into a simple one-liner-- something I could keep inside my skull all at once. It's much simpler to think that the Constitution is just an arbiter of right and wrong than to think that it is a murky mix of case law, textualism, strategic ambiguity, and ignored parts.
So this is the situation everyone finds themselves in today. Intelligent Design is another such Dangerously Stupid Idea. Evolution isn't a perfect theory, and as such, it has gaps in its explanatory power. (like the interpretation of the Constitution). But Intelligent design is a gross oversimplification of human/biological origins, and it totally ignores reality so that its supporters have an easier time inside their brains. And it's not just Intelligent design-- people everywhere are starting to have fundamental distrust of science.
This NY Times article documents a 24-year old journalism major who was appointed by W to NASA, who starting censoring all documents by adding "theory" to every mention of the Big Bang and global warming. It has obvious parallels to the ID movement, with people trying to claim everything is ''only a theory", which in its perjorative tone, manages to dismiss everything that science is about in three words. Science itself, is made of "only theories" and is itself a theory if you want to think about it in those terms.
So the question is why? We do it because we can't understand everything, so we distill, simplify, and stereotype. With very religious people, the idea of evolution and the Big Bang clashes with their view of how God created humans and the Universe-- many of them have very simple ideas that include Adam and Eve, and 6 days of creation. It's not that adding these theories would fill their brains- it's that they would add layers of complexity and would take a certain amount of work- so the obvious reaction is that these new 'theories' are wrong. And the funny thing is, there is room for both. Many scientists believe in God and are religious people- because they understand the science, they are able to integrate that into their views. Perhaps God created the Big Bang. Maybe God controls which of the four genes' from a parent gets passed down to the child. Or maybe, they revise their idea of what God is.
And when scientists publish 80 page studies that detail a certain experiment, newspaper editors, somtimes untrained, or 'idiots' about science, read and filter them. And that gets put into a headline- "Eating fat causes cancer." Then the next week a new headline-- "Fat cells do not cause cancer." To an idiot, the easy explanation is that science is untrustworthy, that they are simply playing tug-of-war, like politicians. And therefore anything they say can't be believed. It especially doesn't help when scientists outright lie about their research. But the bottom line is that it's easier to continue believing what you already believed.
And isn't it the same thing with the cartoon violence? One Danish newspaper publishes the cartoon, and therefore all Danish people hate Muslims. The French government doesn't support the war in Iraq, therefore, french fries and french toast are unpatriotic. We have these symbols that we cling to, because they are easy to remember, because their ideas and their ideals are clear. And sometimes, it's all we have to go on. Racism arises out of the same Dangerously Stupid Idea part of our brain- we know nothing about a person, but their skin color gives us the ability to make certain assumptions. If it wasn't skin color, maybe it would be nose size, or mouth shape. Humans have always found ways to oversimplify, even to the point of ridiculousness (and you KNOW what I'm talkin' about!) It's how the human brain works- always classifying (and hopefully into 2 groups). But that doesn't mean we shouldn't accept it. It means we have to watch out for it.
So what can you do to combat idiocy? Identifying situations in which it's present is only half the battle. I've found, however, that interrupting the offender by yelling "idiot alert!" and asking them to stop talking is surprisingly ineffective. I think the only way for people to be aware of it is through themselves, and thereby, through culture change- we should stop being appreciative of politicans being 'decisive', because really that just means they have already decided- they are not open to new ideas. And we shouldn't glorify news programs because they spout off their own opinions for being 'forceful' and 'powerful'. What we should prioritize is the people who filter the experts- people who can RELIABLY simplify complex situations, like Science-to-English, Legalese-to-English translators. And I suppose, on individual levels, we should learn to appreciate nuance, complexity, and subtlety. And if you don't think so, well, you're an idiot.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Simple Script for Democrats Filibustering the Patriot Act Renewal
“The President would have you believe that this is a simple decision. The President would have you believe this is a choice between Defending America and not defending america. The President may even believe that this is the choice. But this is wrong.
“This is a moment to decide not whether we will defend our nation against those who seek to damage or destroy us, but how to best defend America.
“Certainly, the best way to prevent attacks against innocent American lives may involve measures such as stopping all immigration, maintaining an army presence in our cities, set up checkpoints and roadblocks into and out of cities and near tall or important buildings, and then silence, by imprisonment or otherwise, all who would suggest a different course of action. But this is not the best way to defend America.
“We have seen the lengths our Government will go to defend this country. And, to be honest, they may very well have prevented attacks; we don’t know. But such strikes may have been preventable by other means as well. If one plan prevents an attack, it does not follow that this is the only plan available, nor does it follow that this is the best plan.
“More importantly, defending this country involves more than just stopping terrorist activities. Some measures that help prevent attack are themselves attacks on America. There are other methods to thwart violence, methods that defend and promote, rather than intrude on, our freedom.
“Today we have an opportunity, an opportunity not to avoid defending our nation, but to devise a way to better defend this country. Together we can find new ways to defend America by preventing attacks on our country and attacks on our rights as individuals and members of society. Our history, or traditions, our values demand that we approach this issue with responsibility and with care not just for averting violence, but for maintaining our national dignity.”
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
George W. Public
Most people, most Americans, myself included, think we know a few things about how the world works, we're convinced that we're right, and we think we could do a better job than Bush could. All of these things may very well be true. And that last one might be twice as true as the rest. But, the point is, we're still normal people, not professional politicians, and though we are convinced of our morals and ethical practices, we rarely see the bigger picture that can only come from being lobbied by Indian reservations and their casinos while trying to decide how best to completely deforest 'their' land legally.
So, if we took this hypothetical geek off the street and turned him into a Regulator, I mean, the President of the United States, wouldn't he also be in way over their head? So let's explore what it would be like if you, being an average American, were the big bad POTUS.
The first year, being president would be pretty sweet. You just sign a few bills, make a few appearances, do what your advisors say, and blame anything immediately wrong on your predecessor. You'd talk the big talk- "cut taxes", "better education", "save the whales", and "God Bless America" over and over again. You of course would know that you might have made some campaign promises you couldn't keep, but that was politics. So you'd twiddle your thumbs, sit around, and drink a lot. But then oops, late in the year, something awful happens. Making sure that Americans don't forget it, you'd resolve to mention its date approximately 14,000 times. And you'd be sure to mix it up, sometimes calling it September 11th 2001, sometimes September 11th, and sometimes just 9/11. Variety is the spice of life.
Of course, being a regular guy, having a good time, taking a shitload of vacation, you weren't expecting this. So you freeze. What the fuck are you going to do? Take cover? Immediately go on the air? Destroy all the planes in the air? Declare a state of emergency? Martial law? It's hard to say, of course. So you think about it for a few minutes, you go on auto-pilot, because continuing to read a book about a pet goat is easy. After all, you've read it so many times it was the subject of your thesis.
But the public doesn't mind- it's not like there was anything you could do. And they're right. So when you vow to absolutely annihilate those responsible, everyone agrees with you, because after all, they're regular guys too. And that's what we were supposed to do.
And then everyone would love you. You'd be a big hero, you'd make more appearances, ensuring the populace that everything was going to be fine, that yes, there was evil, but as long as God continued to Bless America, we'd win. And it would be so awesome, because everyone would forever identify you as the Guy who was President when IT happened. And you'd think to yourself: I am great, Mom was right! I was such a strong leader for delivering America out of despair, and I'm going to make sure that it never happens again. After all, it was Clinton's fault anyway.
After a while it would get boring, though. After two full years of having a microphone and recording glued to your mouth, you'd be bound to have some ridiculous slip-ups and everyone would make fun of you, on national television, saying what a moron you were. But those people were missing the point. The point was that you were making America a better place- because you knew what was best for America.
But it would become rapidly apparent (even to yourself) that you were indeed over your head. It's impossible, you'd say (probably rightly), for one person to truly grasp the state of world and national affairs. I'm going to delegate. I'll make sure to surround myself with like-minded people. And that would be a great decision. But then you'd look around, and think- these people are all smarter than me in their respective departments! This place can run itself!
And then you'd notice that all of the people in Congress were on your team- and since they were on your team, you could trust them. Trust them so much that you would NEVER, not even once, decide to veto one of their bills. After all, if 51 senators agreed, who were you to tell them they were wrong? Plus, they're on your team, they wouldn't do anything you didn't like.
So, later on, you'd finally be faced with the fact that all you were charged to do, really, was keeping the public informed. Coupling that with the fact that you really weren't a spectacular speaker, you'd want to do something else. You'd need to make your mark on the world- be remembered for something other than "the guy who was President on 9/11" Doesn't "the guy who delivered us from evil" sound so much better? You'd make a plan, to fix these evil places in the world, and the public be damned.
The middle east would look like a great place to start. You could start with the main anti-American dictator and depose him. I mean- the terrorists were from the middle east, and here is this guy who would like nothing better to destroy us as well. It's hard NOT to believe he wasn't involved! So you'd gather intelligence. Your director might give you some shaky evidence for a case for war. You'd look at it, agree that it was shaky, but would rather not take chances with American lives! So you'd start putting the pressure on, squelching evidence to the contrary- and not really listening to what people were objecting to. After all, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And you'd rationalize that the public was mostly uninformed, and that their objections were the result of not seeing the whole picture. After all, you're the President! But you wouldn't flat-out lie to them. That would be wrong. Instead, you'd lie to yourself. Plus, if you went to war, you'd probably win the upcoming election- most presidents stayed on in a time of war. It (and being the incumbent) would be just what you needed to get a leg up.
Later on, a large natural disaster might strike the US. Let's say a hurricane. You'd seen plenty of hurricanes before. They could be bad, but as long as people were aware of them, they could usually evacuate and after a short rebuilding period, they'd be back on their feet. Sure, you'd sign a few emergency response budgets, but basically, your underlings would take care of it. But you'd have bigger things to worry about.
After it became readily apparent that it was much worse than you thought, you'd say things like"'I don't think anyone foresaw the levees breaking" because most regular guys didn't see it happen. Never mind the fact that the Army Corps deemed them incapable of handling a large storm, or the fact that even in the immediate run-up to the hurricane it was one of the biggest concners. And you wouldn't remember that earlier in the year you had cut funding to a project that would have helped fix it. I mean seriously, you sign a billion pieces of paper a year, and they expect you to remember each one? Sometimes the public can be so unreasonable.
Anyway, your dutiful little chain of command would do its job, send food, helicopters, rescue teams, and they'd get it all sorted out. You'd go down, make a few appearances, and it'd be great. You'd praise your underlings for "doing a heckuva job", because of course they'd been working hard- they were on your team. It would be ludicrous to think that one of your teammates would be so incompetent as to discuss fashion and PR rather than doing his job.
What you'd also want to do is get rid of all those pesky constraints on your power. Sure, there were laws- but the President was different. The executive branch was different. And really, wasn't the whole Constitution really just more of a guideline?
You'd think about what you could POSSIBLY do to ensure that you'd prevent another attack. And if that wasn't allowed, then you'd just do it in secret. That would be the nice thing about being the president- unparalleled amounts of power. And what power gives you is the freedom to make the decisions- the decisions about who you want to listen to, who you want to convict, and who you want your people to spy on, and torture. You'd get angry, because your critics just refused to understand that this situation was different! Your enemies were secret, not like in past wars. And this war looked like it would "end" in constant vigilance rather than a surrender signing on a big battleship. Why didn't they see that? Why couldn't they see that you weren't spying on decent Americans? Why couldn't they see that you were doing the right thing, and that all those people you had locked up and beaten were at the very least, indirectly related to terrorist activities. These were bad people! And you were a good person! You weren't going to do purposefully do anything bad with your power. And if a few innocents were harmed, well- it was a fact of life in war. You'd create a false dilemma in your head, saying that the critics would rather have an America where we sat around and waited to get hit again. And in that case, innocents would die too, so at least in your scenario, you get to mitigate the effects.
What you'd reason is that power is only suitable for those with morality- and that we were more moral than the terrorists, because we gave everyone a fair trial, we didn't kill innocents, and we didn't torture people. Ok, so there were a few incidents, but on the whole, we were the better option than them- and you couldn't afford to have your power diluted- that would enable it to go to people who didn't know how to stop themselves, people with questionable ethics.
So the last thing to do, would be to ensure that your legacy lived on- you'd appoint highly like-minded Justices to the court, who agreed that the President had all sorts of powers not written into the Constitution- that way nobody could disagree when they said you were breaking the law. But at the end of every day, you'd be able to sleep at night, because you'd be remaking the world in the image that you saw was right, because after all, you aren't just a regular guy, you're the President.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
TJ vs Dave
This post is my explanation for who I believe deserves the Super Bowl, between the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers. Rather than judge the quality of the respective teams, I am judging the quality of their respective fans. Specifically two men: Taylor James Peterson and David Harris. As always, judgment will be based on only the most relevant categories, and after only the most careful thought and consideration.
Loyalty to their Team: Edge T.J.
Dave is a Seahawks fan, but the sight of Shaun Alexander sneaking into the end zone does not bring Dave to a state of fiery passion in the manner of an Ichiro Suzuki infield single. Even within the realm of football, the Hawks are simply a mistress compared to Dave’s true love, the Washington Huskies. T.J., after whoring himself out to the Ravens as a youth, has shown impressive loyalty and maturity in his later years by remaining faithful to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Innate Sexiness: Edge Dave
While T.J.’s sculpted body, in addition to his exotic mixed background has soiled the panties of many a fair lady, Dave’s combination of extreme jewishness, class, charity, and faux-vulnerability is simply irresistible. Still, everyone is a winner here.
Combined Amount of Rights and Wrongs Transgressed Against Me: Edge Dave
The only category that really matters. They have both been thus far unwilling to share their girlfriends with me, even though Dave and I lived together for a whole freaking year. Uncharacteristically, uncharitable on his part. Dave can commit egregious examples of lameness that affect me negatively for knowing him: For example he once gave Clay Aiken a standing ovation for a performance on American Idol while sitting in our living room. When I met him in college, he was a huge Dave Matthews fan, and watched Ally McBeal.
T.J., on the other hand, has an appreciation for many of the finest things in life. His dedication to Chinese food, specifically General Tso’s Chicken, must be lauded. He introduced me to Mad Dogs an event we can all agree everyone is better for. He also has an impressive creative side, including inventing several delicious sandwiches at Bear’s Den.
But Taylor Peterson is also capable of acts of unspeakable evil. In addition to threatening to leave Anand in the woods, TJ has spent countless hours playing Super Smash Brothers as Marth. All this despite his supposed admiration for Link as the greatest hero in video game history. Shame
Basketball Playing Ability: Edge Dave
Both improved greatly over my time at Wash U, and while TJ can run the wing with the best, and has an impressive all-around offensive game, Dave is a better two-way player. This edge is only slight.
Providing moments of Intoxicated Hilarity Ability: A big edge for Mr. Peterson, who is a maestro in this category, not only among my friends, but among all people in the entire world. His college career could be compared to Picasso’s Blue Period in sheer artistic quality: Sleeping in Laura Potts’ bed, the Monkey-Dolphin Incident, Marching in Boca Ben’s bathrobe, for example. Dave just can’t measure up.
Having looked at the relevant categories, I have come to the conclusion that both are deserving of seeing their teams win titles. However a Steelers win would make TJ’s life a little sunnier, while Dave has the eternal source of joy that is living with Stuart to drown his sorrows. Thus, I vote for TJ as more deserving. I will, however, be rooting for the Seahawks.
Judge Marshall has spoken.
Friday, February 03, 2006
Blogs vs. NPR? Who wins?
Let's say you ran a liberal blog that became extremely popular- to the point where you sometimes were in on breaking news, felt the need to post every day, and generally just became a newsletter. And let's say a certain representative from your state/district took notice, and started having meetings and conference calls with you and other bloggers. In the majority of issues, you agree, just from your shared liberal background. But Clemons points out that in so many cases, bloggers become sycophants for those politicians, for a variety of reasons: impressed with their fame, the need to stay on the politician's good side, and sometimes simply just not knowing enough to question what that politician says. And so you, as that blogger, fall into the trap of being like Fox News.
So, taking our example a little further, let's say you find out that your Senator voted against a bill that had some of your core issues at heart. You're disappointed, but you get on the line with him and he strarts talking. As a mere blogger, though, it might always be the case that your Senator knows more about a certain bill or budget than you. It might be that he could convince you, that sure, perhaps he voted against an education funding increase- but it was because it was because the funding was used by environmental reform. Or it was because there is a better piece of legislation in committee right now. Or maybe it was simply necessary because a compromise had to be made, and don't you worry, getting that money back is his next priority. The point here is that we aren't in a position to know everything that's going on, and we have to trust our professional politicians. This is what they do for a living, and it's probably tough to argue with them, even if they're wrong, and even if you're pretty well informed.
So should we leave it up to the professional journalists? Well, it's tempting. Some of these flaws aren't there for traditional media like television and newspapers. Would anyone argue that O'Reilly doesn't have a big enough ego to say what's on his mind? And isn't it true that they can be just as well informed? Yes, but this brings us to the other big problem that all of the media have- audience.
Every day I drive to work, and there is a billboard on the way out touting a radio station. In big bold letters it proclaims "Liberals Hate it!". I assume that it means it's a conservative station. (or maybe it broadcasts NASCAR 24 hours a day? ok, ok, just kidding.) Would anyone of liberal mindset ever want to tune in? The point is that they don't care- they're trying to maximize their audience and they know that from their bias, liberals aren't going to be 'fooled' into listening to it anyway. What possible incentive is there for them to present fair viewpoints? What incentive is there for them to hold politician's feet to the fire? People thought that the blogsphere would lead to the democratization of the political process, that everyone would get a fair say. But instead, it's leading to the balkanization of the process. Everyone thinks they're right, and they only listen to the stations that don't absolutely enrage them, further fortifying their positions. It's that way on the blogsphere, it's that way on the radio, and it's that way on TV.
What would a news outlet that claimed "Liberals AND conservatives love it!" look like? Well, it would be non-profit, because the quest for profit/maximum audience and the quest for news/truth are often incompatible. It would be guaranteed access to politicians, and it would have honest journalists who were trained to get the truth from them. It would report on stories that we needed, not wanted, to hear. And it would probably be boring because of all that. To me, that sounds a lot like NPR, although I have heard many conservatives complain that NPR has a liberal bias. To me, though, I think it would be possible for a both conservatives and liberals to at least tolerate NPR equally well, because more often than not, their stories consist of actual source material- quotes from the President and his Cabinet. One study showed that from source statistics, NPR was more likely to use republican sources than democratic, which may simply be because we have a republican government. I think NPR is good, but I don't think it's perfect, which I'll talk about later.
But really, maybe the issue is that we can't FORCE people to choose 'good' news outlets; we can't force people to recognize when the media is attacking straw man versions of the opposition's arguments. Even if we could somehow get everyone to listen to a perfect news outlet, everything that we would hear would simply reinforce our own opinions anyway. When I hear the president speak, I'm always taken aback at how stupid and weak his arguments are. When conservatives hear him speak, they probably hear him 'straight-talking' and being direct, clear, decisive, and reassuring. When they heard Kerry speak they probably think the same thing.
But the important thing to remember, and perhaps what has pervaded the American consciousness, is that 'fair' and 'objective' do not mean 'in the center'. I think this is what the Republicans have done better than anything else over the past few years. If something shows democrats in a positive light, they decry it as liberal bias. If something that purports to be the truth actually seems to be left of center, they call it partisan hackwork and come up with their own version. In fact, think about it- "liberal bias" is a buzzword that gets thrown around all the time, (Google says 877,000 hits), while "conservative bias" sounds a lot like "Bears-Bengals Super Bowl". And I'm pretty sure that there's plenty of conservative outlets out there.
So, in order to be taken as fair, NPR and other outlets have stopped analyzing. When Bush does something highly illegal like the NSA wiretapping program, they say that "some groups are worried that this may be unconstitutional." Of course, they give equal airtime to the opposing viewpoint, that of Scott McClellan scrambling back and forth to come up with new reasons why we don't need the Constitution, or the Supreme Court, or Congress. But that's not being truthful- it's being lazy. If Bush reinstated slavery, would it be fair to present his argument right along side the other?
Of course, who decides what's right and wrong, then? And if NPR started taking sides, they'd be running all the same risks as the other outlets. So, I suppose that we have to live with NPR being the best of what's out there.