Monday, July 31, 2006

Piling On Mel Gibson

I've never seen The Passion and don't know if it's anti-Semitic. I don't hold it against a man to say nice things publicly about his father who is making an ass of himself. I appreciate an actual apology coming from a celebrity, rather than the evasive crap we usually hear. And I am hardly surprized when a person is a focus of adulation and becomes full of himself, even if he means well.

That said, Gibson's comments were horrendous. Too drunk to be in full control? Don't drink. Liable to spew forth the bigoted comments you grew up with when drunk? Then be even more careful.

People went to bat for Gibson when he was under attack. He let them down.


I don’t see what the big deal is. This is supposed to be the ubercreative economist, asking brilliant questions and using powerful economic tools to reveal surprising things about the everyday world. But what Levitt does is the same thing Bill James and a dozen other sabermetricians do with baseball statistics. Historians like David Hackett Fischer do the same thing when they compares mortality tables, church membership rolls, and population demographics in colonial America. Sociologists and psychologists look for interesting proxy data or representative samples to answer their interesting questions about how people really think and act.

Levitt’s examples are particularly varied, and he seems to bite off large trunks of the truth at the first pass, suggesting that he is especially good at this. But there’s nothing new here. The book is interesting, and it will give you new perspectives on events around you, but a #1 NYTimes bestseller? How did that happen? Arnold Kling over at TCSDaily put up warning signals about this, and even gave a nice counterexample of an angle that Levitt overlooked and didn’t measure in his Freakonomic takedown of real estate agents abusing their inside information for their own benefit instead of yours. Similar slips occur throughout the book. On page 138, in discussing what causes criminality, Levitt assures us that single-parent families are a strong predictor; but by page 167, the intact family is claimed to have no effect on school success.

Well, sure, if you want to make a case that criminality and school success are unrelated, I suppose you could start from there. But in a discussion about what makes a perfect parent, you can’t just switch and say “We’re only going to measure kids’ test scores,” because most parents consider keeping their children away from criminal behavior to be an important part of upbringing.

Perhaps I have a slight resentment because I recently made observations about onomastics (that’s, uh, naming, thank you very much) and no one is citing me in best sellers, but is it really difficult to notice that boys’ names became girls’ names, but not the other way ‘round? I’ve been aware of it for almost four decades. I can’t be the only one. Whole chapters were devoted to onomastics in one of my college linguistics texts, and much of what Levitt reports breathlessly seems obvious to me. The names that rich people give their children become the names that middle class and then poor people give their children 10-20 years later. Especially true for girls. Ooh wow.

So how does Levitt get the rep as the Golden Boy of Economics, and send his book to millions of nightstands across America? I speculate:
1. Levitt and Dubner address some very sexy questions that people want to know the answers to – crime, abortion, gun control, school cheating, getting ripped off, racial bias.
2. They address them well. Not flawlessly, but interestingly, with soundish reasoning and good writing.
3. It includes fancy economics ideas like moral incentives and factor analysis, so you’ll know you’re reading a book by a certified smart person. And if you already knew about those things, then Levitt and Dubner reassure you how smart you really are, by referring to them like professional secrets.
4. Most writing by economists is really, really boring, so this looks like an easy way for the dilettante reader to break into the field.

Let me elaborate on that last one a bit. I took an anthropology class my senior year to fulfill a requirement, and learned a great deal about Meso-American economies. That’s about Olmecs, and Toltecs, and the improvement in maize (and that’s about all I remember thirty years later). For a final paper, I compared changes in pottery designs of several cultures. The central idea was that designs became more ornate in civilizations as they grew in strength, but became stylized before they reached the peak of their power. Stylization was thus revealed as something of a predictor that a civilization was reaching its peak. My data was so good that I must have selected it conveniently. Then I tried to relate the principle to (then) modern American culture, trying to detect if we were about to implode like Mayans.

Having been trained in English and Theater departments, let me assure you that this was a C+ paper. I was in no danger of flunking out, I didn’t need the grade, and a whirlwind 12 hour entering-the-library-to-finished-product paper was just fine for me. The paper got an A+. The professor read it out loud to the class as an example of what he was looking for. He asked if he could keep it to pass out to future classes. He encouraged me to consider graduate school in anthropology. Took my breath away. I could make no sense of this.

It was about two days later that I remembered how utterly deadly the style of writing in anthropology is. My writing skills, above-average but nothing world-beating, shone like Cortez’s helmet in the anthropology department. This effect is what is happening in Freakonomics. People want to know something about economics, but anything longer than 1000 words puts them to sleep. Levitt has gotten around that with cool topics, and Dubner seals the deal with snappy prose.

Recommendation: You will probably like this book just fine, and learn some interesting things. But if your hidden goal is to be able to find economics that is endurable to read, go over to Tech Central Station, or buy PJ O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Way We Talk Now

Geoffrey Nunberg's short commentaries on NPR's "Fresh Air," 1989-2000, collected into essays on language.

These are light comments, the sort you might expect to come up in conversation among friends of an evening - if one of your friends is a linguist. Some predictable items which linguists often bring out are here: that pedantry in grammar is a mark of a particular culture and cast of mind, not of education and refinement; that language change is inevitable, and not always a deterioration; and dispelling a few urban legends about language.

But the curiosities of language are so great that there is always something new to unearth. English is the only language with a word for the concept "lap," as in what a baby sits on. "Suburb" does not mean to the younger generation what it does to their parents and grandparents. The internet has brought back exactness in spelling, at least for url's. I love that stuff, and it sticks in my head forever.

When Nunberg tries to draw deeper cultural conclusions from this, he is less successful. Unexamined assumptions - and those entirely predictable for a voice from NPR - jut out from time-to-time. But if you like to have just the curious data provided, drawing cultural conclusions for yourself, the book is quite good.

Our Culture, What's Left of It

Update below

I believe this is Theodore Dalrymple's most recent book, a collection of essays. I had read a third to a half of them elsewhere (primarily New Criterion and City Journal), but sometimes it is good to have things all in one place.

Dalrymple is a great deplorer, perhaps the Great Deplorer, in observing the British cultural scene. He is very attentive to what we are losing in all our changes, and skillful in noting how changes in art, architecture, and intellectual fashion have borne bitter fruit in society decades later. He is not merely making the connections retrospectively, but has shown some predictive power as well. He predicted that something like the riots outside French cities was poised to occur some months before they actually happened.

A Glenn Reynolds or other libertarian will paint for you the potential gains we can anticipate from technical advances and freer markets. Dalrymple will remind you that similar predictions in past eras have not always turned out so felicitously. I believe both of them.

Dalrymple (a pseudonym for Anthony Daniels) has been a physician in 3rd World countries, but more recently a psychiatrist at a prison and an inner-city British hospital for two decades. He compares types of poverty, cross-cultural attitudes, the effect of drugs or Islamic culture on a people, and relates these back to Shakespeare, Bauhaus, and educational practice. Fascinating really, but you may not want to read it straight through. His but-for-the-shortage-of-handbaskets outlook is entertaining, but its cumulative effect is mild despair.

Especially because one has strong suspicions that he is essentially right.

Sample essay titles:
"The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations" (Princess Diana)
"The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris"
"How - and How Not - to Love Mankind."

Update: I really should have mentioned how often, when reading Dalrymple, one has the urge to underline a passage and send it to a particular friend or group of friends. Nearly every page has an important declaration which one will find in few other places, stated better than one will find in a month of reading.

When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping. You cannot pay a debt by having caused a greater expense, nor can you pay in advance for a bank robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it.

It is often said, for example, that African states were artificial, created by a stroke of a European's pen that took no notice of social realities; that boundaries were either drawn with a ruler in straight lines or at a natural feature such as a river, despite the fact that people of the same ethnic group lived on both sides.

This notion overlooks two salient facts: that the countries in Africa that do actually correspond to social, historical, and ethnic realities - for example Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia - have not fared noticeably better than those that do not...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Books at the Lake

A productive week, having read The Narnian, How We Talk Now, The Rivals, Freakonomics, and Our Culture, What's Left of It. Reviews of some or all to follow shortly.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Deleted.  Not good for me. 

I pray God this works. It's been a tough twelve months.  It's my own fault, but I still feel like I am being cheated and deserve vindication. Maybe even this will be too much, but i thought it might serve as a lesson.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

At The Lake

We will be at the lake in Swanzey this week. I may come back to post or comment one of the days.

I recommend you elevate yourselves with the writings of the good people over at the Social Affairs Unit and New Criterion. Real smaht folks theyah.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A DC Caucus Compromise

There is apparently a compromise deal in the works that the District of Columbia will get a Democratic caucus between the Iowa Caucuses and the NH Primary. Though NH attempted to protect its early status by statute, it specifies that our primary will be at least seven days before any other state.

Something of this nature has been desired by the Democrats for some time, because NH has low minority populations, and it is felt that the nomination process skews unfairly against them. The percentage of Republicans in DC is low enough that for the moment, it doesn't matter much to the Republicans either way. It is possible that Republican voters might react strongly against a candidate who did well in Washington, even from their own party.

I am sure most politicians and their handlers are looking at this from a fairly short-term perspective. Which is wise, because in another generation the political map may be different. It will be interesting, whatever happens.

That a DC Caucus would provide some advantage to black candidates seems fairly obvious. (If the Republicans did the same, maybe it would have some effect in 2008, because it might give Condi a leg up.) Beyond that, it's hard to say. First, it's a caucus, not a primary, which very few Americans have much experience participating in. How any of us would react is an unknown.

The political spectrum is a bit different for African American voters. They lean strongly toward punitive taxation of the rich and the creation of programs designed to help targeted groups, such as children, drug addicts, first-time home buyers, or whatever. Those are both quite far left on the bell curve of US opinion, and those have been the overriding issues on their past voting. But on other issues they are more conservative than the average Democrat: more likely to oppose gay marriage or limit abortion, more supportive of the military, more interested in school vouchers. Because they have been kept on the Democrat plantation to date, with very little chance of influencing the party nationally, the more conservative issues have washed out. In a city campaign, the ground may shift.

A successful nominee may be much more beholden to the black vote than has been true in the past. Promises made may be remembered longer, and the growing resentment against being used on election day, forgotten the day after may increase.

I have long thought that African American voters would have more clout if they registered as Independents, even if they were going to vote mostly for Democrats. It would be a warning shot across the bow.

New Pro-Life Ally?

There is an article at Psychiatry Weekly entitled"The Psychiatric Scars of Childhood Trauma." There is no accompanying photo online, but on the poster for display at hospitals there is a picture of a cute blond boy with a tear running down one cheek.

What we would ordinarily call childhood trauma is not mentioned in the article. It is a discussion of several studies which show a higher incidence of psychiatric illness, especially schizophrenia, in people who were exposed prenatally to their mothers' stress hormones in times of war and other danger.

Is this just a marketing point, where "childhood" is used in the title instead of "prenatal" because the pictures will be cuter, or because "childhood trauma" grabs the eye? Probably. I certainly don't think it is the result of any sudden switch in the medical profession away from regarding an unborn child as mere fetal tissue. I doubt that the philosophical issue was thought through very clearly by anyone involved.

I think there is a natural retroactivity of personhood in the eyes of people who work with children, or who work with people in a setting where previous childhood experience is potentially important. This assignment of personhood does not operate projecting forward from a first trimester tomato, uh, foetus, but for those already deemed persons, that status is intuitively projected backward before birth. I don't think psychiatrists, psychologists, psych nurses, or social workers (certainly not social workers) have this worked out in any systematic way, most of them. It just seems to be the natural way of looking at things, at least to the limited group I encounter live or in print.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Midwest Product's Polite Disagreement

I find polite disagreement on the blogosphere so exciting that I honored it with its own post. "Midwest Product" commented on my recent post about the Center. I don't answer all the objections, because that doesn't seem very conversational. I think I hit the main point.

I am grateful to learn that belief in a left-leaning MSM is now the CW.

It is of course only fair that I identify symptoms before diagnosing a disease. I gave no that the MSM leans liberal, then proceeded to explain why that might be. It’s a bit of shorthand. I have covered evidence for it in earlier posts, and did not attempt a proof of the idea here. I had this UCLA study in my first draft, but I’ve been trying to edit for length after the overlong piece on the religious left a few days ago.

For single instances of bias evidence, go here and here.

For more in depth cataloging of bias, there is, again, the Media Research Center, Accuracy in Media, and Center for Media and Public Affairs, each of which links to other sites.

There are also the books by Bernard Goldberg and Bob Kohn.

The main books taking the opposite POV, that the media does not list left, I mention here, with my objections. And earlier posts here and here touch on similar media issues.

You are correct that location does not necessarily cause belief, nor does having an opinion necessarily mean that one cannot report objectively. My starting point, based on the sources above and my own observations over the last 30 years, was that the slant exists, and I speculated why that might be.

Monty Python Advises the Israelis

The Peace Process in the Middle East is reminiscent of not just one Monty Python routine, but several.

Carl Bildt former Prime Minister of Sweden, after the requisite nods to all the terrible things that Hamas, Hezbollah, etc have done, spends most of his essay on how Israel missed its one recent moment for negotiations – because it was too busy evacuating settlers from Gaza. This is like nothing so much as the moment in the Dead Parrot Sketch when the shopkeeper assures the irate customer that the parrot isn’t dead, he was just wakin’ up when he was stunned by the customer’s pounding him on the counter.

And from The Argument

Israel: A peace process isn’t just a set of meetings

PA: It can be

Israel: A peace process is a series of negotiations intended to establish a comity among nations at war

PA: No it isn’t

Israel: Yes it is! It’s not just meetings!

PA: Yes it is

Israel: No it isn’t. Negotiation is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
(short pause)

PA: No it isn't.

Israel: It is.

PA: Not at all.

Or similarly reminiscent ofThe Cheese Shop.

Israel: I would like to purchase some peace.

Hamas: Excellent sir.

Israel: Cease fire?

Hamas: I’m afraid we’re fresh out sir.

Israel: Well never mind, how are you on leaving civilians alone?

Hamas: I’m afraid we never do any of that at the end of the week.

Israel: Tish tish. No matter. Well stout yeoman, the International Red Cross seeing the prisoners if you please

Hamas: Sorry Sir

Israel: It’s not my lucky day, is it?

Hamas: Normally sir, yes. Today the van broke down.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mass Delusion

People around here are insisting that the Red Sox actually won a recent World Series. I've lived here all my life and know that can't possibly be true. It's sad what repeated failure can do to the human spirit, huh? They've all gone mad.

Why the Center Isn't

The political center can be defined in diverse ways, but I am going to take the easiest definition and speak of the statistical center. To try and make a more philosophically pure definition, comparing our categories to world opinion, or historical opinion, or opinion derived from first principles breaks down too quickly. We intuitively include one or more of these things when we speak of whether America is a conservative nation or whether the Democratic Party is a liberal party, but run rapidly into counterexamples which mess up the data in our neat categories.

Who we run into, or correspond with, or read we tend to think are near the center of the political spectrum. Even if we have a recognition that we hang with a more liberal or more conservative cohort than most, we are still susceptible to wrongly estimating where the center line is drawn, always perceiving it to be closer to ourselves. We are idiocentric, secretly believing that our opinions are the normal and sensible ones, and the farther from our beliefs, the more radical or insane those others are.

I don’t think it matters much whether we measure the center by interpolating between the positions of those we elect, or by surveying what folks say of themselves, or carefully determining where people come down on key issues. It will be about the same. And it’s to the right of where the networks and major newspapers are. It’s not necessarily an enormous distance to the right – what’s important is that it’s consistently to the right.

Much analysis of this fastens on personality characteristics – that journalists are prone to the embittered idealism, or are folks who want to “make a difference,” or people who like to dabble in many ideas without specializing in any. These may be true, but I think something simpler is happening.

Traditional media is based in the bluest areas of the country. That may relate to personality characteristics of those who want to move there, but the first point is to simply note this. Even within that blue population, the MSM interacts with a bluer subset: writers, government officials, people in the arts, and people working for causes and nonprofits. This isn’t new information. It has been noted often.

There is an extension of that priciple which I have not seen mentioned.

Traditional media outlets still interact with other nations, especially western European and Anglospheric nations, more than most Americans do. More specifically, they interact with their counterparts in those nations. Other reporters, people in government, writers of books and the like are who they run into. This quite naturally gives them the impression that this is what people in other countries think. But that group is also a bluer subset of a blue group.

This is changing. International business, cheaper communication via telephone and internet, and increased international travel have narrowed the gap between how much contact someone at NBC has with people outside the US compared to the average American. The news sources used to have a virtual monopoly on the trade. More to the point, the average American who has contact outside the US does not have that contact with the same blue subset that reporters are used to. Engineers talk to other engineers, marketing guys to other marketing guys, clergy talks with clergy, families talk to families. It’s different people.

The MSM hasn’t figured this out yet. Because they still have more contact, they still think of themselves as having the only contact, like it was in the Good Old Days. They see themselves as knowing more, because they’ve been and you haven’t. That’s true as far as it goes. But it’s less true than it was, and they haven’t made the necessary correction for the slant of their data.

I won’t neglect why it is that folks on my side of the divide might be drawing the line too far to the right, but I have a bit more to cover on this side still.

In one sense of the word, America is a most conservative nation. Our definition includes economic policy and refers to our free-market orientation. As a consequence, personal responsibility in general is a large part of our conservatism. We are conscious of the potential cultural losses as well as gains to broadening the economic safety net. The American conservative’s support for traditional family structure is not entirely religious and cultural – church attendance has dropped off among conservatives as well as liberals, and the divorce rate between them may not be that different. But the idea that parents have the primary responsibility for supporting and bringing up children undergirds much of American traditionalism in this area. Parents are on the hook first. The village is a fallback plan.

What people call “conservative” outside the US is somewhat different. While socialism is acknowledged as leftist, the alternative economic plan in other countries is not always a free market, but a class or clan-based system that has been in place for generations. A conservative pull in Argentina has strong overtones of a racial and class-based system of ownership; in Kyrgystan it is the remnants of a corrupt Soviet system administered through tribal ties. A freer market in those places is classically liberal, and people don’t use “conservative” to describe it. Traditional family structures and traditional religious practice in other places are often deeply hierarchical, and thus not traditional for Americans. The overlaps between our family and religious traditions and those of other countries, on such issues as gay marriage or premarital sex, are seen by liberals in both places as the whole picture.

It is interesting that liberals in America have adopted something of this attitude from other societies, equating the free market with a perpetuation of class, when it is actually the primary destroyer of it; and equating sexual conservatism with perpetuating provincial values, even though the American model has emphasized the nuclear family, which is by its nature more egalitarian.

A news correspondent in Rio or Vienna, speaking with a writer or professor in those societies, unconsciously picks up some of their associations with the words liberal and conservative, and reapplies them on Americans she doesn’t see much of, even when she’s home in Maryland. When she’s speaking to the home office, she uses words in this way, pulling her associates in this direction, which they were already headed.

How is it that conservatives err in the other direction? I don’t know that we do, but let’s assume I and we have a similar blind spot, and overvalue factors which cause us to draw the line too far to the right. What would cause that? There are the usually-cited factors, that those with children tend to associate with other parents as a natural by-product of our children’s activities. Married people vote more conservatively, and those with children more conservatively still, especially if there is more than one child. (Which phenomenon drives which remains a matter of debate.)

We take history into account when we survey the landscape. We give a vote to our ancestors, as CS Lewis wrote. Perhaps we are more likely to ourselves vote with descendants in mind as well – both physical and cultural descendants on a personal level, not descendants in an abstract sense so much.

The stereotype is that we overemphasize certain periods of history: the founding of the republic and the 1950’s. There’s some truth to that, and some clear dangers. None sees the national culture at the time of their childhood clearly. Our impressions are too dominated by very local events, and our status as children, who have their needs attended to by others. What our own friends, school, and church were like then we naturally see as how “kids,” “schools,” or “churches” were then. Great men rose to the challenge of designing a nation in the 18th C, and we put a great deal of emphasis on how they intended things. Perhaps another group of men (and maybe a few women by then) might have done better a hundred years later, or might do better now. But we find value in there simply being an anchor point, over and above the value of the particular anchor point of our Constitution. Law and culture have grown up around it in a Burkean way, which is more plus than minus.

And conservatives value history in general, particularly American and regional history. We think more of the individual struggles of our own grandmothers than of “women” as a group. Things that Americans have been able to do for a long time, such as own guns or build on property, we don’t lightly abandon. Issues such as gay marriage don’t start at an even balance for us. We look at what seems to work and wonder why we should change it. If something doesn’t work, we’re more likely to re-evaluate. History professors may be a liberal group, but historical re-enactors, purchasers of history books, local historians, genealogists, map collectors (or collectors of just about anything), and geeks who can recite the Bill of Rights are pretty conservative.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Rage of Virginia Woolf

Theodore Dalrymple, a now-retired prison psychiatrist has a chapter in his recent book Our Culture, What's Left Of It entitled "The Rage of Virginia Woolf. A quote from that essay seems appropriate in view of our cultural discussions in the psychosphere.

It comes as no surprise that a thinker (or perhaps I should say a feeler) such as Mrs. Woolf, with her emotional and intellectual dishonesty, should collapse all relevant moral distinctions, a technique vital to all schools of resentment. Time and again we find her misappropriating the connotation of one thing and attaching it to another, by insinuating a false analogy: that since both the British policeman and the Nazi stormtrooper wore a uniform, the British policeman was a brute. It is one of the chief characteristics of modern rhetoric, designed not so much to find truth as (in the words of former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam) to "maintain your rage."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Visiting The Lebanese

Wandering through the Lebanese blogs today, I find much sense, but an uncomfortable amount of raving lunacy. There are commenters scattered throughout the sites who are putting forward the idea that even though Hezbollah started it, if Israel fights back, all of Lebanon must rise up to fight them to defend its honor.

"Oh the terrible police have broken into our house! Our crazy uncle Hezbol who lives on the roof was shooting at them, and we didn't do anything but tell him to be quiet, but that doesn't give the police the right to break into our house! The rest of us are fine, law-abiding people who want to live in peace. Okay, okay, a couple of the cousins are also a little violent, but most of us want to live in peace.

"Or some of us want to live in peace anyway - a lot of us would be angry if you arrested one of those cousins. Come to think of it, we'd all fight the police. But those bastards don't respect peace-loving people like us."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Who Would Jesus Bomb?

The natural conclusion is of course, "no one," and it's pretty easy to see why.

But I'd like to look at the question a bit differently, because that's not the real question. The real question for Christians is "Lord, what would you have me do?"

Also, I don't like the self-righteous sneer embedded in the question asked the first way.

The people closest to Jesus were remarkable for their repeated inability to anticipate what He was going to do and say. This alone should give us pause when making claims of knowing what Jesus would have us do. If Peter and John couldn't figure Him out until much later and after much reflection, then who are you? I make no claim that random or always counterintuitve actions are what Christ wants from us, only that the simple answers sometimes blow up in our faces when contemplating Our Lord. Jesus fed the multitudes and quite sternly admonished the rich to give. But he also criticized Judas for wanting to give money to the poor in a particular way at a particular time. Jesus went with complete nonviolence to His death - almost immediately after beating the moneylenders out of the Temple.

Almost every word that comes out of His mouth is a surprize, in fact. Not what we expected. Jesus, do you want to eat? "I have food of which you know not." "Be perfect." "Whose face is on the coin?"

These things are understandable and explainable in their context, and under the instruction of the Holy Spirit, but they are emphatically not our first guesses of what He would do.

Jesus frequently turned a general question back to an individual answer. "You must be born again" He says to Nicodemus. He admonished the rich young ruler "Sell all your goods and give the money to the poor." When the Pharisees tried to trap Him, He usually told them something about themselves and their own thoughts.

So my first guess is that Jesus might tell many of us, asking about war in Israel, war in Iraq, threats from North Korea "That is not for you to know. You have other work to concern yourself with." Which is hardly what any of us want to hear. Jesus is far more likely to tell us "What happens in the world is unimportant" than "I forbid war." This is reflected in the actions of the first few centuries of the church, when Christians were (much) more likely to see themselves as avoiding the wars of governments because they were called to a higher goal than to preach pacifism. We should not impose our way of seeing things on them.

Jesus didn't go up to any of the rulers of the age and tell them what they should be doing. John the Baptist did, but here's the thing: John didn't give political condemnation, he gave condemnation for the individual acts of Herod. Those personal sins don't appear to have had much to do with any of the political decisions of the age. In the context of oppression, the Baptist finds it more important that the ruler of the people be personally pure than that he act in some political fashion. And Jesus clearly approves generally of the actions of His cousin John.

This was a common OT theme. God seems exceedingly overconcerned with the personal piety of Moses and his own individual sins. The sins of Saul, David, and Solomon are believed to affect the entire nation somehow, though the Scriptures are not very clear exactly how that is.

When we pray for our leaders, we usually go for some variation of praying that they have wisdom. Perhaps we would do better to pray for the personal actions of presidents, Senators, military commanders, that they be righteous in their family and business dealings. How will that help? I dunno, but God seems to like it. He mentions it often.

When Jesus speaks to a Roman soldier, He doesn't hint that maybe the man would find spirituality easier in another profession. He tells him how to do his job justly. Go figure. On the other hand, Christ is clear, even emphatic about not hitting back when attacked. On the other other hand His disciples are still carrying swords around three years into the ministry of the Lord.

It is just to easy to use a phrase like "Prince of Peace," and believe we know what we are talking about while putting an entirely modern spin on the word "peace."

Beware the false dichotomies in these questions. "Oh, so you think Jesus would nuke the Iranians then?" "Are you saying that Jesus wants us all to spend more time making money?"

No, I'm just saying it's never simple, and always requires prayer - sometimes an agony of prayer if you really want the True Answer. Don't even listen to those who would make it simple.

When I Say 'Religious Left'...

Update: My wife assures me that this post is too long. Reading it over, I know she's right. Regard this as more of a reference work for when you need it someday.

"We are furious that the religious right has made Jesus into a Republican. That's idolatry," (Tony) Campolo said. "To recreate Jesus in your own image rather than allowing yourself to be created in Jesus' image is what's wrong with politics."

Now, who is it, exactly, who makes the claim that Jesus is a Republican? The answer of course is “Well, no one, but…” followed by the same tired talking points. Here’s a tip, Dr. Campolo: when you have to exaggerate what your opponents are saying, it suggests you can’t go toe-to-toe with their actual claims. Moreover, it is simply dishonest, and I recall there is a commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor. Your thought that you are just speaking dramatically, pointing out an important general truth in an engaging way, is self-deception. It’s just lying.

The conventional wisdom is that there has been no religious left since the heyday of civil rights and antiwar protests, a time which many boomer Christians look back on in fondness, overvaluing the effect of their protests. In this model, liberals in the church have just sort of gone quiet while the Religious Right did all this grassroots organizing and splashy politicizing. Only now (and they hope it’s not too late) has the liberal church begun to slowly re-emerge, claiming back the territory in the public square that was usurped by conservatives.

That is nonsense. Liberal Christians own the power structures of the mainstream denominations. They do not merely have some influence on where the money goes, or what is taught, or what the public statements of the denomination are. They control these things. I do not use the word “control” lightly. News outlets often refer to political parties “controlling” a house of congress, or “controlling” the judiciary. Certainly not in the last fifty years, and perhaps not in the history of the republic, has one party had sufficient dominance to “control” anything.

There Is a Powerful Religious Left. The social, economic, foreign policy, and environmental policies of the mainstream denominations are between Liberal and Far Left.

You might find that a good thing. You might believe that the gospel compels us to a POV that is called leftist in today’s culture but is in fact merely correct, or righteous. We will argue that point later. My current goal is to show that whatever their eternal value, the political positions of institutional Christianity are more than mildly liberal according to our current designations. The religious left is not without power. It is in fact the Power Structure, the Establishment, The Man.

The United Methodist Church, in its official statement on The Economic Community:
We claim all economic systems to be under the judgment of God no less than other facets of the created order. Therefore, we recognize the responsibility of governments to develop and implement sound fiscal and monetary policies that provide for the economic life of individuals and corporate entities and that ensure full employment and adequate incomes with a minimum of inflation. We believe private and public economic enterprises are responsible for the social costs of doing business, such as employment and environmental pollution, and that they should be held accountable for these costs. We support measures that would reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We further support efforts to revise tax structures and to eliminate governmental support programs that now benefit the wealthy at the expense of other persons.
(italics and bold print mine).

Or again in a statement from the General Board of Church and Society:
Poverty is literally structured into our society. Through their surveys and studies, Gordon, Mary and the coalition found that as a society we do not value the labor of those whose daily work makes society operate…

Today oppression comes in many forms. Working families are facing more job insecurity. Millions upon millions of workers face layoffs…

Quick, someone notify the churches of the old Soviet Union to come help us.

Or its statement on war and foreign relations:
We gather in the name of the Prince of Peace to witness to a better way: “We believe that war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ” (2000 The Book of Discipline, 165c)…

We recognize there will be no true and lasting peace in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is equitably resolved and both states are safe and secure. We call upon the President of the United States to send a special envoy back to the region to restart negotiations between the parties. We call upon all participants in the conflict to cease military action and violence. We call upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and to tear down the wall it is constructing (an action already determined illegal by the International Court of Justice and denounced by most of the world). We call upon Palestinians to bring an end to terrorist attacks against Israel.

We opposed this war in March 2003, declaring that the United Nations’ weapons inspectors should be allowed to complete their work. Recent reports from respected experts have confirmed the rationales given for invading Iraq have been proven false.* Believing these reports to be true, continuing the current course of action becomes foolhardy and sinful. Instead, we urge a truly united effort to transfer power and sovereignty back to the Iraqi people as soon as possible, the withdrawal of United States and other coalition forces, and their replacement with U.N. forces, and funding coordinated through that international body.
(italics and bold mine).

*And now that they're true...?
This ain’t conservatism (certainly not libertarianism); it’s not the moderate view in the current breakdown; it’s not even the liberal viewpoint, as it moves a bit left of that. It’s not far left, Kossack, DU territory, but it’s farther left than most Democratic senators.

Let’s see if the Lutherans are doing any better. The denominational statement about peace is pretty middle-of-the road, but there’s a whole section on childrens' peace and justice resources, and a statement protesting Israel’s building of the wall. The environmental and economic statements run mid-left, though there is significant effort to note the complexity and contradictory nature of issues. Bully for them on that.

The Presbyterian Church (USA): Is concerned about just trade and fair food in its hunger statement. Just trade isn’t the same as fair trade, which they’re against:
Revenge of the Acronyms: WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA
Can Acronyms Cause Hunger and Poverty?
Yes, they can.
International trade is an important way that the United States engages with the world. However, even ardent supporters of international trade have begun to admit that trade can produce both "winners" and "losers."
Recent international trade policies, designed and enforced by unelected bankers, CEOs and consultants, have caused tremendous damage to the environment and to people--especially in poorer communities and countries. Not surprisingly, those affected most by international trade are women and children. More free trade as currently practiced will only increase the damage. Accordingly, faith groups and organizations in the U.S. and around the world are intent on stopping or dramatically modifying these agreements and practices.
Given the many negative impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has taken a strong stance against free trade agreements.

And fair food is actually about farm wages
He thanked the church for its leadership during the successful Taco Bell boycott noting, "The church is absolutely necessary in this cause because of the power and credibility it has with corporations." He underscored the importance of the church's moral and consumer power.

Church of the Brethren slips in a nice equivalence between international law and God’s sovereignty, with the requisite slam against nationalism.
People sometimes oppose international law because of a tendency to give higher loyalty to national sovereignty, which claims the need to kill some people in war, than to God's sovereignty, which sees all people as precious in God's sight.

And their statement about Iraq is in the left-liberal range of the historical peace churches.

United Church of Christ, where I grew up, goes beyond liberal into truly leftist territory in its justice statement, and recent articles include this worry about privacy rights

“Basic Privacy rights continue to be threatened in the name of national security. Government surveillance of phone calls and electronic mail are but some examples of our threat to privacy; the privacy rights that we claim as basic to an open and free democracy. Certain people are targeted for investigation. Among those targeted are those who dare to disagree with public social policies that have a devastating impact on the poor, the elderly, the children, and people of color

M. Linda Jaramillo

I just have to interrupt here. Is she seriously suggesting that some people have been under federal telephone surveillance because they disagree with the president about social policy? Moonbat paranoia. Or maybe just making dramatic statements to scare us, without worrying about whether they're like, true or anything.

Or this wonderful use of repeated sneering quotation marks by one Diane Ford Jones
US national defense policy currently supports yet another armed conflict. Mired in a “war on terror” we are engaged in an endless quest to secure the so-called “liberation and freedom” of Iraq while claiming to serve the “righteous” interests of a self-proclaimed “civilized world.” Politcal spin doctors…would have the American people and others believe that our country simply has sided with a noble cause in Iraq in the defense of the defenseless. But instead of trumpeting US infallibility…

then goes on to explain how Frederick Douglas might have made reference to precious global resources, national imperialism, corporate greed. Yeah, US infallibility. I heard Rush talking to Rove about that one at the last vast right-wing conspiracy meeting.

You’ll notice that I didn’t have to go anywhere near the Episcopal, Quaker, and Unitarian churches – the denominations usually associated with liberalism – to pick up these examples. The victim claims of the religious left that they are being shut out of the national dialogue and have no power are specious.

But of course the granddaddy of all liberals is the National Council of Churches , and they’re going to get their very own post.

Also to come in this series:
Where the religious left gets the false idea it needs to reclaim power;
Crossover with the non-Christian religious left; and
Where they go wrong.


I did not win the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing this year. I sent in a dozen entries and got some (dis)Honorable Mentions a few years ago, but this year I only sent in two. It can only be one sentence long.

I still think mine are better than those that won.

Her hair was the color of gold found at Sutters Mill in 1848, setting off a period of westward expansion that forever changed the American experience, especially for the Indians who lived there but have now been displaced to reservations, mostly throughout the west, but seldom on their actual tribal lands and perhaps not coincidentally, a period of increased nationalism and desire for self-determination in Europe, but her roots were darker, probably more the color of the amber that they would make into jewelry in northern Europe, especially the Baltic countries that sometimes had preserved insects in them and date from much earlier than 1848, being actually hundreds of years old which is how we can tell whether insect species have changed much in that time.

“Well cowpoke,” belched Pierre ‘Pastille Pete’ Capuchin, his breath giving off the odor of camembert like old vomit, or vomit like old camembert, “Ah reckon ah could sing nahn verses o’ Alouette t’ yer seven verses, modulatin’ up a half step each chorus, yuh waffle-poopin’ pancreatic discharge of a Belgian, so we’ll see who surrenders to whom, mon-siuer.”

Of course, only Nikhail Rao over at OK, I'm Not Really A Cowboy might get all of the second one.

VRWC - Secret Message

I am honored to be one of the revolving blogs chosen to be a source for secret messages from the VRWC. If you aren't a member, please ignore the following. If you don't know, I can't tell you.

From: Larkover
To: VRWC, Sector 9
Orders 7/13/06: Good job on discrediting RKJR on what happened in Ohio. That was a close one. Continue to dismiss disappearance of Idaho as an "urban legend." As for imminent collapse of economy, continue to feign cautious optimism.

Set Decoder Ring to "S" for our secret intercept from DNC.
and listen to SHUR today @ 13:53 for further instructions.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Conservatives and Liberals

Conservatives deplore. Liberals condescend.

When they get rolling, conservatives rant; liberals sneer.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

That Religious Left That Doesn't Exist - Again

Under the middle-to-highbrow section on the sidebar of this blog is The Social Affairs Unit, a British site that has thoughtful conservative and centrist commenters on the events of the times.

This article, just up, discusses the letter from 20 Bishops to a UK newspaper on the incompatibility of owning nuclear weapons and Christianity.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Minor Changes

I have changed my sidebar to reflect the places I actually do visit frequently now. The newest is Vox Rodentae - a marvelous name - which is by katje, who has commented on several threads here recently.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

New And Improved

I haven't seen much increase in traffic, but I have noticed an increase in comments, and an even greater increase in intelligent comments. Good show.

Types of Answers In Education - Part Two

Part One may be found here.

Modern study in much of the Liberal Arts and Humanities rewards students for a certain type of answer. I hear conservatives shouting in the background "Liberal answer! It rewards a liberal answer!" That may be one common effect, but I think the liberalism comes late in the process. Before it rewards any political leanings, it rewards a leaning to abstraction, even at the expense of accuracy.

I don't think this occurs of necessity in the humanities, but the temptation is always there. The student is rewarded for making connections between ideas, e.g. s similarity of values of the Renaissance and the Reformation, or of seeing behind the traditional facts to deeper forces. Students are trained to look for economic issues behind cultural conflicts, or cultural issues behind economic conflicts. The author's upbringing or sexual preferences are fair game for understanding both fiction and nonfiction writing. Issues of social class or personal pathology are believed to drive issues of politics.

These skills of seeing behind and making associations between superficially unrelated ideas are much prized in the liberal arts, as well they should be. They are also prized in the sciences, but with one major, and crucial difference: in science (and a few disciplines in the humanities), these skills are regarded as tools for finding useful answers. In the humanities, they are regarded as ends in themselves. The sciences start with the simpler information and seek to learn if more complex interrelations are valid. The Sociology major is taught to leap immediately to the complex and try his wings at seeing what others may have missed.

Looking for truth is not the same thing as actually finding it.

I write this as a long-past Theatre & Speech major (at William and Mary, we preferred the pompous spelling) who nearly switched to Medieval Lit at the end. Since then I have read much of history, psychology, and culture, somewhat less of philosophy, economics, and anthropology. The little I have encountered indirected from sociology or women's studies suggest that the phenomenon is even pronounced there. I am fairly confident in my assertion that in these disciplines as currently constituted, there are few natural checks on great-sounding theories that have little basis in fact. Getting it right is a secondary, or even tertiary issue for many. It is considered much more enlightened to note the phallic nature of weapons in literature and write endlessly on their psychosexual meaning than it is to note that a sword is a pretty effective weapon, and those tribes which adopted breast-inspired weapons seem to have been eliminated from the gene pool. Rather rapidly, I would guess.

The humanities student is rewarded for statements that are plausible, well-constructed, observant, interesting, adventurous, and creative. Seeing things in a new light, and making due obeisance to prevailing values of the academy, showing that you have read the proper authorities and are familiar with their concepts goes a long way to being considered a Smart Person - which is the reward you're looking for. None of these things is bad. They are simply not in their proportionate place. They are tools to learning, they are not learning itself.

In translation, there is a bottom line: does this result in improved communication and understanding? In technology there is a bottom line: does the thing do what it's supposed to. Economics has a more avoidable bottom line, but ultimately someone can always push the question: did more people eat, or have jobs, or buy microwaves? In history, the bottom line which reasonable people think should be there has in fact vanished in some circles. Does this give us a clearer understanding of what actually happened is no longer the point, as "what actually happened" is regarded as an invalid concept, so dependent on the class, politics, and power of the speaker as to be of little interest. Of more interest are the values of the speaker, and how he imposes his interpretation on society.

Decide for yourselves. What political views will this reward system for a certain class of young adults do to their politics?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Free-Floating Outrage

The Assistant Village Idiot Changes His Mind About Why Leftists Say What They Say.

Update on board below.

Second update - a non-political one - on board below that.

There is a concept used in psychology called "free-floating anxiety." It describes an anxiety which does not derive from obvious external circumstances, but attaches itself to whatever is handy in the environment which might be thought to provoke it. The anxiety is already there, but the sufferer misattributes it to her job, or her relationships, or aspects of her health. As any of these things could drive anxiety, they are seen as driving this particular anxiety.

We don't use the terms "free-floating depression," or "free-floating paranoia," but something much the same happens with these as well. The mind seeks explanations, seeks a narrative which accounts for bad feelings. Come to think of it, the mind seeks explanation for good feelings as well. Early in a first psychotic break, the patient will often recognize that his paranoia doesn't make sense. "I know it sounds crazy to you but..." or "There's no reason why people should be spying on me..." Soon enough, the paranoid explanation becomes imbedded, and the patient no longer has access to the reasonable part of the brain which knows it's impossible. There's a chip implanted in my brain. No, there really is. The FBI had it put in because I know something about drug deals in my neighborhood.

The need for a coherent narrative seems to be stronger than the need to hold onto reality. People believe that the television is giving them special messages, even though they were previously not the sort who would adopt unusual ideas. The impression that the TV is speaking to them is so strong that finding an explanation for this becomes the brain's primary objective. It is not enough to say to oneself "That is an hallucination. It's not really happening." Because it is happening.

I've seen first paranoias change over the years. In the 70's, people in their first break would believe it was the CIA; when the Godfather movies came out it was the Mafia; satellites, computers, and now implanted chips have all had their run. Whatever is in the air becomes the explanation. High school students who are angry can always find something about their school or their parents that must be causing it.

The point to remember is that once anxiety, or depression, or paranoia is occurring, the mind will seek an explanation for it, and will not rest until it has done so. Once imbedded, it is no longer responsive to reason. No amount of counter-evidence will ever be enough. Any radically new information will simply be grafted into the old explanation somehow. If your brother was spying on you and your brother dies, then you will believe that some other family member has taken over the job.

In the 1994 elections, the Republican victory was attributed to "angry white males." They (uh, we) were supposedly insecure because of changing masculine roles, or affirmative action robbing us of status, or whatever, but we weren't aware of it conciously, so we redirected that anger onto the political arena and voted to restore our ancient glory because the Republicans had so skillfully manipulated these feelings in us. Agree with it or not, if you get that concept then you get this one: the Left has free-floating outrage. They're angry and they don't know why, so they attach it to whatever George Bush (and his cabal, cronies, henchmen, thugs, junta, etc) does. The data no longer makes any difference. There were enormous complaints then about the economy, and that's why they hated Bush. The economy has been going brilliantly now for years, but they no longer notice. Environmentalists complained about conservative's attitudes. We are now ahead of the Kyoto Protocol goals even though we didn't sign it, and the Europeans lag. The air and water keep getting cleaner, alternative energy is increasingly used, and there's more wilderness, but that's irrelevant. Bush hates the environment, he's evil.

Joe Wilson's a liar? No, he's a hero. Chemical weapons are found? No, can't be.

Until quite recently, I thought the lefties must just be lying. The economic news crossed the AP wire, why was it on page 14? Investigative panels absolve the accused but the accusations persist. Reporters must know that when your only document is a hoax/forgery, then you have no case, so why is the TANG story still extant? I concluded they must be lying. They know the unemployment numbers but conceal them because it hurts their cause.

I have at least partly changed my mind on this. While some on the left and in the MSM may be lying, I now think most have free-floating outrage instead. They are unhappy about "where this country is going," so they pick up something close to hand that's vaguely related and attribute it to that. Conservatives often call it a template but it's stronger than that. It is the narrative by which they live and have value that is collapsing. We all tend to hear what we like and allow the uncomfortable to recede, but this has moved to the point of the bizarre. The left is not merely cherry-picking data to make a point, but completely ignoring an entire side of the balance sheet.

This is because if they had to attend to the other side of the balance sheet, and engage in a discussion about whether Bush has simply overstepped Constitutional authority, then they would have no explanation for their outrage. If they can't blame it on Bush, they will have to examine it and see where it comes from. It would be a reasonable discussion to ponder whether there was more this administration could have done diplomatically to build a coalition for Iraq, but that discussion doesn't occur, because even winning the argument would not give sufficient cause for liberal rage. It has to be that we were unilateral, that we alienated our allies, that we were imperialists who fought for oil, that we have made the world less safe. If those things were true, they would be sufficient reason for outrage. I am outraged, therefore those things must be true.

There are a lot of subterranean reasons why liberals don't like where the culture is going, but cannot admit to themselves. I will tell you one, from personal experience. See if you can extend it out to a fuller explanation.

Social workers resent hearing about people in other, unworthy professions, who make more money than they do. "I have a friggin' Master's and I barely make $40,000/year, while (fill in the blank) barely got out of highschool and is making twice that."

Update: Gagdad Bob over at One Cosmos posts at length on a related topic.

Second Update: This morning's readmission was particularly interesting in this light. I knew Tim twenty years ago on his first admissions. A personable, intelligent young man with quite voice and refined features. Over his last few admissions for unsafe hoarding (bags of food, which he retrieves from the dumpster as soon as his MIMS worker leaves), he has shown more isolation and less affect. He showed a great deal of affect this morning.

We very frequently encounter patients who do not believe they have an illness, or that they do not need medications. Less frequently, our clients might believe that they are not actually being evicted when they are, or that the people who claim to be their family are imposters. Todays denial, delievered with real anger, was new to me. "The Mental Health Center is closed. It's gone out of business. They're going to make it into apartments. I don't have to go there." From there he took it a step farther. "I never did go there. I don't think it ever did exist." That's denial at impressive levels.

The Interconnectedness of Republican and Democrat Unpopularity

It has been all the rage this election season to note that the Republicans, especially Bush, are doing badly, and should be so easy to beat, except that the Democrats are frittering it all away and are doing even worse. Various plans are offered on the op-ed pages and news commentary shows advising the Democrats what they should do about this (Ever notice that this friendly advice is always given to the Democrats? On the rare occasion that such advice is ever offered to Republicans, the advice is to move to the center - read: center-left - and not "pander" to their base).

Most of this advice misses the point. Much of the reason that Republicans are doing badly is that the Democrats have been going consistently negative on them for years, and the MSM is echoing this is milder terms. Unfortunately, the reason the Democrats are doing badly is that they are seen as always negative, being critical without solutions. The method the Democrats have used to give themselves this opportunity is precisely the method by which they are losing it. The positive numbers that generic Democrats are showing are because their brand name still has some cachet, and people don't necessarily associate a generic Democrat with intensely negative campaigning.

There are no generic anything's running. There never are. Once a Democrat has to actually run, making statements and giving interviews, s/he has a dilemna. Every move toward criticism opens the door to all those impressions of shrill, outraged liberals pandering to their nutcase base. But if s/he doesn't go negative, s/he can't inflict damage. It's a wash, or worse.

There was an excellent example of this in the run for the Democratic presidential nomination leading up to Iowa. Howard Dean was showing some good poll numbers, but the support was known to be soft. He was clearly vulnerable on several areas where he had made an ass of himself, but none of the other candidates wanted to be seen as going negative on him. All the focus groups had indicated that an upbeat message was going to prevail. In the last two weeks before the caucus, it was clear that Dean could win unless someone took him down. But whoever took him down would go down himself, being immediately perceived as mean or irritable.

Dick Gephardt took one for the team. Dick went negative, and both he and Howard dropped in the polls in a matter of days (It wasn't the scream that did Dean in. He had already lost the caucus, remember?).

The strategy had worked pretty well for the Democrats over the years, because they had been able to effectively disassociate the attack dogs from the current candidates. Send out your wild accusers, but let the Joe Liebermans of the world take the high road. That method seems to be falling apart this year, because the attack dogs aren't staying in their place. They're attacking the Democrats who don't feed them red meat, and attacking with much of the fervor they reserved for Republicans before.

This is because they're batshit crazy, of course. They've come to believe their own rhetoric about fascism and police states.

P.S. Republicans run for office telling you they're going to work for you, because that's how they perceive progress happening: someone works for it. Democrats run telling you they're going to fight for you, because they believe that's how improvement comes: someone has to wrest good stuff away from others. This year it is even more extreme. The Democratic ads are assuring people that the candidate will protect the citizens from the Republicans, who are apparently on the verge of stealing lunch money from Cub Scouts.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Silent Planet, not The Warming Planet

Inspired by a discussion of "An Inconvenient Truth" over at GM's Corner, I recalled a long-favored theme of mine: I am much more concerned about the survival of Western Civilization, and in particular, the Christian faith, than I am about making sure my descendants have enough varieties of beetles to keep their environmentalists happy, or that enough areas are declared protected wilderness. Think about it. If they don't believe in such things as the worth of the individual, freedom before God, or even kindness or honesty, why are we worried about whether they survive at all?

I am reminded of the final section of C.S. Lewis's Out of The Silent Planet, in which this whole idea of preserving the destiny of our descendents is shredded.

The introductory remarks in italics are taken from the delightful Crusty Curmudgeon.

Standing before the Oyarsa, Weston delivers a bombastic speech about the moral superiority of technological advancement and the manifest destiny of humanity to expand to the stars. However, he has so little common ground with the innocent Martians that communicating his philsophy to them proves impossible. (Fans of the Narnia books will recognize this plot device: Uncle Andrew's encounter with the talking animals in The Magician's Nephew is a recycled Weston.) Ransom, translating Weston's rhetoric into plain language for the simpler-minded Martians, strips it naked and exposes it as high-minded nonsense:

"It is in her right," said Weston, "the right, or, if you will, the might of Life herself, that I am prepared without flinching to plant the flag of man on the soil of Malacandra: to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity - whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they have assumed - dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable."

"He says," translated Ransom," that because of this it would not be a bent action - or else, he says, it would be a possible action - for him to kill you all and bring us here. He says he would feel no pity. He is saying again that perhaps they would be able to keep moving from one world to another and wherever they came they would kill everyone. I think he is now talking about worlds that go round other suns. He wants the creatures born from us to be in as many places as they can. He does not know what kind of creatures they will be."

"I may fall," said Weston. "But while I live I will not, with such a key in my hand, consent to close the gates of the future on my race. What lies in their future, beyond our present ken, passes imagination to conceive: it is enough for me that there is a Beyond."

"He is saying," Ransom translated, "that he will not stop trying to do all this unless you kill him. And he says that though he doesn't know what will happen to the creatures sprung from us, he wants it to happen very much."

Weston, who had now finished his statement, looked round instinctively for a chair to sink into. On Earth he usually sank into a chair as the applause began. Finding none - he was not the kind of man to sit on the ground like Devine - he folded his arms and stared with a certain dignity about him.

More fun on this topic over at Into The Wardrobe, the most popular of the C.S. Lewis commentary sites.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Types of Answers In Education

Just playin' around with an idea here. More to follow.

Behavior that is rewarded will tend to be repeated. Behavior that is punished will tend to extinguish. Simple enough to understand, and pretty readily demonstrated. Its simplicity tends to break down in real-world situations, which are complex and dynamic. What we thought of as a punishment, such as smacking someone, turns out in some cases to be a reward: attention. When we reward a child for good grades, we might be unwittingly rewarding the cheating they did to get there. Real life is messy, but the principle still holds.

The actions that children engage in – what are the rewards they are receiving for various activities? Children who play video/computer games receive tiny but instantaneous rewards, which they can string together into larger rewards, especially mastery. Computer games reward focused attention, reflexes, fine motor coordination, keyboarding, instant memory retrieval, pattern recognition, and more. Experimentation and recombination are rewarded. A variety of skills useful in various adult contexts. Other important skills are rarely used.

Text-messaging, cell phones, VOIP and IM, email and MySpace teach the encoding and decoding of small bits of information into social meaning. They reward availability, quick response, and social flexibility as well as the fine-motor skills that most technology uses nowadays.

Other computer uses reward other skills. My sons have the first few letters of dozens of url’s memorized, so that they can look up when movies are playing or what the weather will be from any computer, even if it doesn’t have the bookmarks from home.

What a child learns from athletics varies enormously. We hope we are teaching both individual striving and cooperation, both independent action and respect for authority, both intensity and self-control. Realistic self-assessment, resiliency, grace under pressure, and strategy are lessons we hope our children learn over time. But we also know that sports can teach intimidation, humiliation and futility, selfishness, and scapegoating. A child ready to learn initiative may have a coach who does not allow it, and a child who should learn to stop blaming others may end up on a team where her good actions are, in fact, swallowed up in the mistakes of others. We don’t always teach what we hope to.

What was rewarded in our own childhood learning, and what was unrewarded or punished? My own experience was rather typical for children of a certain bent, I think. I read voraciously, which became its own reward. I wanted new information, any information, so cereal boxes, matchbooks, magazine ads, and road signs were as good a target as classic literature or good non-fiction. Better, in fact, because speed was of the essence. No poetry or elegance of expression mattered much. I wanted information, charts, plot, or dialogue. Quick-hitters for stimulation. An information-addicted brain, searching relentlessly for a fix, quality not important.

Does the type of reward for learning in children and young adults affect religious, political, and cultural values?

I have a suspicion we are doing something very, very wrong here.

Merritt Ruhlen's List

Linguist Merritt Ruhlen declares there are worldwide cognates for a small set of words. This drives most other linguists crazy. Even if it could be granted, they argue, that there were one original language from which all others descend, the time-depth is too great to have any confidence in word similarity. Language changes too quickly, they say, especially languages which are not written down. As writing only goes back 5-6,000 years, and an original language would have to be at least ten times as old, all similarities must be regarded as mere coincidence.

Ruhlen's counterargument is that a small set of words change much more slowly, slowly enough that we can still hear echoes. Other linguists would agree that some basic words change more slowly, but nothing like slowly enough to be useful.

With that as introduction, this is Ruhlen's list of words that he believes have been stable enough that we can find cognates in every language superfamily in the world (though not in every human language). Words in italics are cognates from supposedly unrelated languages. I took liberties with the orthography.

Who? !ku, k(w), kwi, kwi, okoe, kune
What? ma, ma, ma, mi, ma, manu, mina, minha, mana
Two ball, bala, bwar, pala, boula, bula, p'al
Water k"a, nki, engi, akwa, rtsq'a, akwa, oKwa, namaw, okho, akwa
One/finger tok, dike, tak, tik, tok, dik, diki
Arm kani, kono, gana, kang, kone, kan, Xeen, akan, kano
Bend/knee bonggo, bunqe, buka, buku, buku, bungku, buka
Hair sum, somm, toma, tsham, syam, summe
Vagina/vulva buti, butu, put, put, poccu, p'ut'e, put'i, betik, puda, butie
Smell/nose c'u, cona, suna, sun, cuntu, sna, sung, ijung, sunna, cuna
Seize/squeeze kangkam, kama, km, kama, kamu, kem, nggam
Fly (v.) par, pere, pyarr, p'er, para, para, p'hur, apir, paru

Ruhlen would also add Mama and Dada, the words for mom and dad in many languages. Traditionally, this commonality is attributed to the fact that these sounds are the easiest for an infant to say. Kaka, however, is a common word worldwide for uncle, grandfather, older male relative, and the k- sound does not come early for children.

Looking at the list, it's hard not to see it as a slam-dunk case for Dr. Ruhlen. Perhaps so. But with 6,000 languages it could just be that you could find something similar from at least one language in every family for whatever word you wanted.

Taxing Other Wealth

When we tax wealth, why tax only income and property? Why not tax educational achievement instead? If you have a PhD you pay more. Goodbye Marxist U.

I don’t want an overall increase, just redistribution, so that the educationally rich pay their fair share. Set everyone’s tax rate lower. Put in a multiplying factor for additional years of schooling after highschool. For those professions where schooling already leads to higher income, such as engineers, doctors, or lawyers, it will be a wash. If you had a poor education but made a bundle of money, big advantage to you.

If you have a Master’s in Theatrical Arts or a PhD in Social Theory, the outlook will be less rosy. Alternatively, we could treat education like property, and have people pay a tax each year on what they’ve got.

Look, the educationally wealthy are just winners of life’s lottery, like the monetarily wealthy, right? They chose their parents and their genetics well, and were rewarded with the great wealth of knowledge and understanding that makes life worth living. So what if they worked hard for it? Didn’t people work hard for their money as well?

I’m undecided whether people could donate their educational skills instead of cash. The folks with advanced degrees would want to teach in their specialties, but what we need are math and science teachers for grades 7-12, especially in cities. I’m not sure they’d be competent to teach that. If they passed a subject competency, maybe…

Try to articulate why this is a ridiculous idea without also proving that taxing income is ridiculous as well.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Peter, Paul, and Ingrate

Via Shrinkwrapped. Can we at least hope this is an urban legend, or an exaggeration?