Wednesday, August 30, 2006


It was gratifying to read one of my favorite prejudices confirmed in McPherson's For Cause and Comrades about the private letters and diaries of the soldiers of the Civil War. Volunteers from the same towns often joined the same regiments, stayed together, and were able to write home about each other. North and South, soldiers noted that the men who were always fighting back home often turned out to be cowards and poor soldiers.

In my limited experience, it makes sense. The fighters are often those who are most concerned with their personal comforts and rights. Physical courage is what is needed at the point of action, but it usually requires moral courage to undergird it, or it is ephemeral - a thing of anger and the moment.

The Other Hippies

About once a year I get the Oldies Station Urge, and will listen to one for a week solid. A new cultural oddity jumps out at me every time this happens. This year's revelation:

I had always thought the most vacuous of the antiwar lyrics came from earnest but misguided middle-class white hippie wannabees. Perhaps this is because I was an earnest but misguided middle-class white hippie wannabee myself, and I certainly wrote my share of achingly embarrassing antiwar lyrics. For the record, my 8th-grade summer church camp hit "I like Napalm" may have been the low point of the antiwar movement. But both that and my other venture "Soldier Soldier Man" were not so much vacuous as simply shallow, stupid, and self-righteous. I shall include no lyrics. Wild horses...

But this week I kept hearing black groups, R & B artists, singing airheaded antiwar songs.

It's not just that they were antiwar songs, and I now disagree with that, so I find it airheaded. I don't think Richie Havens's "Handsome Johnny" was airheaded. Overwrought, perhaps. And Edwin Starr's "War" at least had some vocal styling to redeem it, even if "War! huh-yeah What is it good for? Absolutely nothing Uh-huh" it isn't poetry by Dryden (I mean John, not Spencer, Dryden).

But what are we to make of Marvin Gaye singing What's Goin On?
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

or even worse, the Ojays singing Love Train?
People all over the world, join hands
Start a love train, love train
People all over the world, join hands
Join a love train, love train

The next stop that we make will be England
Tell all the folks in Russia and China too
Don't you know that it's time to get on board
And let this train keep on riding, riding on through

It got me wondering - did these bands really believe this "All We Need Is Love" nonsense, or were they just hoping to sell some crossover records to white kids? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Either way, it's just embarrassing to listen to now.

Monday, August 28, 2006


My note to myself for my next post just says "Tavistock." I wonder what the hell that was about? Something about group dynamics, but who knows what?

UNH Tries To Be Cutting Edge

You've got a professor who believes 9/11 was a government conspiracy? Hey, we've got one too. No more looking at tiny New Hampshire as some sort of cultural backwater that doesn't keep up with the latest trends. And we're near Cambridge, too, so "nyah, nyah, nyah."

Do you know why Dr. William Woodward's theory is more believable than the other wankers out there who believe in conspiracies? Because this psychology prof thinks it was an elite group within the government that did it. That covers all your possible objections, you see, because whatever contrary evidence you put forward, well, an elite group could handle that. Secretly planting explosives throughout buildings scores of stories high? No problem. This is an elite group, remember? They can do things like that. Tricking Arabs into taking flying lessons, getting on the right planes, and thinking it's their own idea? Piece o' cake. These elite groups are very good at infiltrating foreign terrorist cells. Not anymore, of course, because now the Arabs are onto us. But it was easy, then.

People who believe Elvis is alive - who does it hurt, really? Believe that chocolate formed itself into a passable Virgin Mary? No harm. Even if you're a rock-hard creationist, it's hard to see how you're slowing the march of science nationally, though I suppose a case could be made on statistical grounds. But crap like this does affect the national will sufficiently to interfere with our ability to defend ourselves. Dr. Woodward may not just be wasting the taxpayer's money.

Nah. It's too ridiculous for people to believe, isn't it?

Why You Might Want Daughters Instead Of Sons

Usually I'm all for waving the flag about having boys instead of girls. The general rule is that girls are easier all but a few years, but those few are so thoroughly miserable as to make boys worth it overall. I briefly had foster daughters for a few months each - one eight, one seventeen - but I can't say I really know what I'm talking about with that group. My forays into coaching or directing girls' or co-ed groups were of, uh, mixed success.

Boys I understand better. The flip side of that is that they understand me better, which does not always work to my advantage. Dave Barry has written persuasively that males have a joke-storage part of their brain which seldom exists in women. In the event of any tragedy or national emergency, men spring to the fore to tell jokes about it. Even "better," they immediately network with other men to share these jokes from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters and all that. They tell jokes and they remember them. It is painful to watch most women trying to tell a joke, forgetting important parts of the set up or doubling back to correct themselves.

For a father with sons, this becomes a burden. I have dozens of reusable lines that are clever when first heard, but are admittedly tiresome or even grating when you've heard them, oh, several dozen times. In the wide world, most people get to hear the line but once, and if twice, then long separated. My sons get to hear them many times. One son in particular, who is either blessed with a more prodigious memory or thinks he is, or both, is no longer amused. A particular favorite of mine when a small child is out of sight of his parent and moving quickly is "Somebody's going over the wall, warden." I love that line. Yeah, I wish I'd had it when the children were small.

The Son With Exacting Memory points out "You say that every time you see a child running." Well, that must be a bit irritating, eh? eh? I said 'That must be a bit irritating, eh?'

If daughters are like wives, then I might get to hear something much more encouraging, like "What's that thing you say when you see a child escaping again? Something about around the wall?"

Debateable Improvement

Last week I again participated in the hospital discharge of a person who has both Axis I and Axis II disorders. We have effectively treated his paranoia - the best I have ever seen him in 25 years on that score - and he has been sober for the two months in hospital. But he's still an Antisocial Personality Disorder, now a more organized and effective one, and I wonder if we've done the world any favors.

Perhaps so. He seems to get into more fights when he's psychotic. On the other hand, when he's psychotic he can usually only manage to get ahold of alcohol and a little weed (plus whatever falls in his lap); when healthier, he can organize himself to get ahold of harder drugs.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be social workers.

John Dean's Books

Since 2001, there is a market for books by John W. Dean again. He had been absent since 1982, when he wrote Lost Honor, which did not sell well. When he began his comeback, he tried to keep to the old formulas, telling us the tired old "inside story" of how bad Nixon really was. For a generation of Boomer Democrats eager to see everything Bush as Nixon redux, this was meat and drink. Those folks write the reviews and buy a lot of books, but it wasn't quite a broad enough appeal for big sales.

Dean's last two books, Worse Than Watergate and Conservatives without Conscience have been bigger sellers. Looking over that sales record for books, I have to ask: would anyone give a rat's ass what John Dean thought about anything if he couldn't palm himself off as a conservative who hates George Bush? His testimony at Watergate has been exposed as too inaccurate to be historically useful, and he has effectively lost both of his head-to-head legal battles with G. Gordon Liddy (lost one, dropped the other just before trial, refused to testify under oath), has done little of particular political interest in decades, and knows nothing about the Bush White House that sets him apart from any other Washington dinosaur with a library card and the ability to type "google."

Dean says his ideological heroes are Goldwater and Buckley. Well, fine then. My heroes are CS Lewis and Bernard of Clairvaux. My favorite color is sky blue and if I could be any animal in the world I would be a wombat, just for the name. So what?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Civil War Cultures: Shame and Guilt

A friend who occasionally comments here as “akafred” lent me a book on Civil War letters and diaries. For Cause and Comrades by James M. McPherson is turning out to be more thought-provoking than expected. I was looking for flavor of the era, with perhaps some poignancy and stray memorable bits of information. But McPherson is a Princeton historian with a specific interest: he wants to know why the men on both sides fought. Why did they enlist, why did they stay, why go back into combat?

He references the ideas of duty and honor in the words of the old final exams “Compare and contrast.” There is some overlap with the negative concepts of guilt and shame which has been discussed in some detail in the psychosphere, particularly by Dr. Sanity. Those who live in shame cultures are concerned with how their morality looks from the outside. These are often clan or extended-family based societies. Guilt cultures stress the internal motivations for moral acts – what the morality actually is rather than merely appears – and tend to be societies which stress the nuclear family and individual actions more strongly. Some of you may also have run into the concept as external versus internal locus of control. In recent discussions, Arab societies have been described as shame-cultures and western societies as guilt-cultures.

McPherson identifies duty with internal motivation, and honor with external reputation as the motivating force. He is quick to point out that the terms were sometimes used interchangeably and are not an infallible guide to identifying motivation. Yet the contrast can often be seen in the context of the rest of the writings in each diary or letter, with words like “reputation” associated more often with honor, and “responsibility” with duty. The Confederate soldiers reference honor, heritage, reputation, shame, and local opinion more frequently; those from the Union write more often of duty, rightness, guilt, and living family members.

To keep my readers from the losing end of the War of Northern Aggression from getting too annoyed, McPherson is quick again to point out that both values appeared on both sides of the divide. He does not cite sources, but speaks as if this contrast is generally accepted among Civil War historians. When he compares those attitudes to those of the soldiers of WWII, he finds that honor and reputation have not died out as motives, but have receded in favor of duty and responsibility.

The regional difference may stem from founding cultures. The American South had been settled primarily by the more Celtic and Briton west of England from Scotland through Wessex and including Ireland. These societies were more clan-based and hierarchical. The American North had been settled from the Congregationalist East and Quaker Midlands of England. These regions had more Norse and continental European influences and were more egalitarian and structured on individual and nuclear family models. These regional strains in England persisted long after settlement in the colonies, and one can still find echoes of it today.

I bring all this up to stress the mixed nature of the internal/external, guilt/shame, duty/honor divide, to keep us from oversimplifying. While America and the west are more guilt-cultures, and the Arab and Persian cultures we are in conflict with are more shame-based, the division is neither pure nor universal. There are plenty of folks on our side of this conflict who operate from shame-pressures, and plenty on the other side who make moral decisions from internal motivations.

It does lead to the interesting speculation as to whether duty-based morality can survive on its own without honor-based morality to support it. Must shame be

Visiting Brother

The Assistant Village Idiot's brother came up yesterday. The lad's a bit discouraged. His year-long appointment as a lecturer at Smith College is over, and the job teaching at Tufts - which he thought was a lock - didn't come through.

We broke bread together and did those things that kinfolk do when meeting: criticised the relatives who weren't present and speculated uselessly for the umpteenth time what unknown scandal underlay family mysteries. Two of my sons came an talked theater and film with him, which is great, because I know next to nothing about movies now.

Anyway, if you know of an academic position in technical theater - or at this point, even a semi-academic position, I imagine - let me know and I'll pass it on to a genius lighting designer.

Freer Will

Upon rereading, this didn’t turn out as coherent and polished as I’d hoped. I think it’s still understandable.

The debate about free-will versus predetermination usually focuses on an either/or structure. Either I am free to take a left turn or my choice was determined; either I was destined to be born or I am something random. Predetermination does not necessarily imply a creator. The sum total of my makeup and experiences might cause me to take a left turn, however free it seems to me. If presented with the identical situation a million times, I might, for reasons I am unaware of, make a left turn each time. Or might I turn left, turn right, turn back, or change decisions many times each?

This is a false dichotomy. We know after only a moment’s thought that some of our choices are constrained: by gravity, laws of motion, and unidirectional time if nothing else. We know also from randomness, sensitive dependence, and chaos theory that the possible outcomes of a life or even a single day are enormous beyond our imagining. If this is not freedom, it is at least life at a level of unpredictability and complexity which exceeds our understanding so thoroughly that freedom would not look any different to us.

Trying to perceive through logic whether we might be absolutely constrained or absolutely free does not seem like a noble abstract intellectual exercise to me. It is not likely to produce deep insights into the nature of God, Man, and the Universe, but rather those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin manipulations of words and concepts which leads nowhere. We live in an actual world, after all.

A dog has fewer constraints on his actions than does a human being, but those few are powerful. Canine nature demands certain actions and precludes others. The environment – usually maintained by humans – likewise circumscribes the times and places of decisions to eat, eliminate, dig, or run. Yet once these large factors are measured, the remaining space seems to be quite free. Dogs don’t have enough memory to feel social obligations or make comparisons. Sleep, explore, or gnaw, Rover – as you like. There seems to be some limited freedom there.

A snail has even stronger demands from its nature and environment, and is even less free; an amoeba still less. As we go down the chain of biological complexity we find less freedom of will. Would we not then expect that we would find more as we went back up the chain of complexity? If we would not find free will – perhaps only God’s will is thoroughly free – would we not at least find freer will?

OK then, let’s move back down the chain again.

We cannot predict the behavior of even an amoeba with absolute certainty. We can come very close, knowing what its limited repertoire of behaviors are and how it will react to certain stimuli, but we could not leave it unobserved for even a minute and predict its location, shape, and actions with accuracy. We can dimly see how the thing might be done, given enormous initial information and control over the environment. But the freedom of even an amoeba eludes us.

From the amoeba’s perspective, or even the snail’s and the dog’s, our ability to predict behavior would seem miraculous. I have some understanding of canine nature, and know that my dog was abused when younger. Hence, some of his actions would seem free to him that I find easily predictable. It may be the same with us. As we learn more about human nature and response to environment, actions which seem free to us now might be revealed as strongly determined. But if even we uncover a dozen new ways in which our “free” will turns out to be determined in ways we did not imagine, that dozen would still be only drops in the bucket.

Wills are neither free not determined. Expecting decisions to nestle down into one category or the other goes against our daily experience. We know that some decisions are highly constrained, even saying we have “no choice.” At other times we change our decision seven times before sticking with one.

Strippers Banned At Chinese Funerals

Someone in the advertising department and the editor's desk have to be in better communication at The Register, a newspaper in the UK. Following this link from PJM about strippers at Chinese funerals (Of course. How could you not want to know?), I noted that the ad right under the headline reads "Find your perfect job."

Well it's somebody's perfect job, I imagine, but the number must be fairly small.

The Assistant Village Idiot Injures Himself

One of my prayers over the last few years has been "Lord, just don't let me die of something stupid." That woman who wanted to get a better photograph at the national park a few weeks ago... stepped over the guradrail and fell over a 500-ft cliff? "Yeah, not like that Lord, if you could, please. I don't like pain, but I'll take that if necessary. I don't want one of those one-in-a-million diseases either, but I'll put up with it if I have to. I just don't want everyone's last memory of me to be 'He thought the ice was strong enough,' or 'We told him not to put his hand inside.'"

When one asks God for something like that, one has a certain sheepishness, recognizing immediately that God's right eyebrow is raised, asking "And I gave you a brain of your own for what purpose, exactly?" Well yeah, but I only remember to use it about 90% of the time, so if You could please, y'know, help me out during those other times...

It was a typical guy injury. I was installing something on the bathroom ceiling, and it wasn't fitting in quite smoothly. So I pushed and jiggled one end, then I climbed down, walked over and pushed and jiggled the other end, but couldn't get both ends fitting at once. If I could just work more from the middle, maybe ... both ends would slip in. So I stepped on the antique footed bathtub which is not yet installed, but sitting around, getting in the way. One clawfoot came loose, and I slammed seemingly unrelated parts of my body into the tub on my way to the floor. My first thought was "I'm alive," and my second was "I don't notice extreme pain anywhere." By my seventh thought I was already at "I almost had that piece in. If I just stayed more to the left next time..." Fortunately, I didn't attempt it again.

So I'm glad it's just an aching shoulder, really. Annoying but not deadly, embarrassing but not humiliating.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

It Only Hurts When I Type

Thursday night I fell off an antique footed bathtub that I (of course) should not have been standing on. It still hurts; I will post Saturday. Frodo and Dr. Seuss, Pluto and the Garden of Eden should all appear.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Descendant of the Blood Libel?

Gardjola offers reasons why the current media coverage of Israel is mere update of the ancient blood libel against the Jews. The blood libel is the belief that Jews killed children and used their blood for ritual purposes at Passover.

I thought immediately it was an overreach. Reporters and photographers use children for everything to heighten the power of the image. When they're trying to make one group look oppressed, or another look evil, dead or wounded children are the vehicle of choice worldwide, not just against Israel.

Reading the article, however, I think Gardjola gives pretty good evidence that there's something to this. He notes the regularity with which the rumors are circulated that Israelis take Palestinian children as unwilling organ donors (widely believed in the ME). He shows how frequently cartoons depict bleeding Arab children with Jews laughing at the sight. He quotes the philosophy historian Jostein Gaarder
Gaarder makes the following pernicious statements: “We call baby killers ‘baby killers’... We don't believe that Israel grieves any more for the forty killed Lebanese children than it has wailed over the forty years spent in the desert three thousand years ago. We note that many Israelis celebrate such triumphs in the same manner they once cheered the plagues of the Lord as "fitting punishment" for the people of Egypt. (In that tale, the Lord God of Israel appears as an insatiable sadist.) We ask ourselves if most Israelis think that one Israeli life is worth more than the forty Palestinian or Lebanese lives. For we've seen pictures of little Israeli girls writing hateful greetings on the bombs about to be dropped on the civilian populations of Lebanon and Palestine. The little Israeli girls are not cute when they strut with glee at the death and torment on the other side of the fronts.”

And then slams it back:

Don’t believe? Don’t believe? This is too serious an issue for Gaarder to make statements based on a lack of belief. If he had submitted a thesis littered with “don’t believes”, it would have been rejected and he would have failed. Why does a doctor of philosophy find it acceptable to write statements on Israel based on the weakness of lack of belief? As the accuser, it is incumbent upon him to prove his charge. Instead he chooses not to belief. Hardly proof is it, Gaarder? Even so, this unproven allegation is enough to be used against Israel. Again how does he know that Israelis celebrate the deaths of innocents? Does he know? Does he have proof? Is his proof enough to overturn the evidence to the contrary of this Lebanese Arab woman?

A troubling essay, with more to it than I would have thought.

Punctuation Is Mere Convention

I know how to punctuate correctly, but am gradually abandoning it in favor of sense.

You know where the following sentence ends, and what the correct titles are from prior knowledge and from meaning context, not by the punctuation.

Which movies’ titles do you like better, “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” and “Oh! Calcutta!” or “Airplane!” and “Gone With The Wind?”

Also fun:

Jesus’s “s’s” were Moses’s “sh’s.”


You will notice that no one is making Chlamydia quilts.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Request Night

I have had a request for fewer links, more commentary. Please opine.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Otaku Japan

The "otaku" subculture of Japan - which is different from what an American anime fan would call "otaku" - sounds an awful lot like Asperger's Syndrome to me.

From Wired magazine

Dubbed the otaku-zoku, or otaku for short, these are Japan's socially inept but often brilliant technological shut-ins. Their name derives from the highly formal way of saying "you" in Japanese, much like calling a friend "Sir."

First identified by SPA! magazine in 1986, the otaku are Tokyo's newest information-age product. These were the kids "educated" to memorize reams of context-less information in preparation for filling in bubbles on multiple-choice entrance exams.

Now in their late teens and twenties, most are either cramming for college exams or stuck in cramming mode. They relax with sexy manga or violent computer games. They shun society's complex web of social obligations and loyalties. The result: a burgeoning young generation of at least 100,000 hard-core otaku (estimates of up to 1 million have been bandied about in the Tokyo press) who are too uptight to talk to a telephone operator, but who can kick ass on the keyboard of a PC.

Zero, 25, is a self-proclaimed otaku who flunked out of Keio University's math department because he didn't like being ordered around by teachers to whom he felt superior. "They couldn't deal with someone like me," he recalled. "Now I'm independent and I don't need to deal with anyone like them."

Zero's life now revolves around computer games. He only ventures out of his six-mat in Kawagoe to acquire new game-boards, the green, maze-like "minds" taken from commercial arcade games like Galaga or Space Invaders. At home, he plugs these circuit boards into a special adapter on his own console, analyzes and dissects them for bugs and flaws that allow one, for example, to glimpse a Space Invader's after-image as it scuttles across the screen or to change the color of a yellow Ms. Pac-Man to purple.

Zero often dresses in a plain white T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans rolled up about six inches. He doesn't look you in the eyes when he talks; he answers quietly with his face to the floor. His face possesses gentle features, but it is sickly pale.

He makes his living as a software trouble-shooter, looking for problems in new software before it hits the market, earning 350,000 yen (about $2,800) a month. He works in his murky home, where the windows are permanently covered with yellowing newspaper to block out the sunlight.

"I've always liked playing games. As a boy, I preferred video games to other kids," Zero offered. "So I understand technology. I'm more comfortable with computers than human beings.

"Finding the malfunction of a computer program or game is thrilling because I'm basically exposing the phony computer experts who invented the game in the first place," Zero says.

He threads his way over the tatami floor, which is a high-tech junkyard of old computer circuit-boards, obsolete monitors, archaic disc drives and a spluttering coffee-maker. He strips down to a white T-shirt and striped boxer shorts - dressed for company, though you wouldn't know it.

Zero sits on a swivel office chair and clicks on his Quadra 900 Macintosh PC with 240 megabytes of storage attached to a keyboard which Zero has remodeled to conform to his own idea of how a keyboard "should have been laid-out in the first place." As he waits for the computer to boot, he scans the rolls of newly arrived faxes.

The first is from his "buddy" Kojack. It's a chart of a mid-seventies Bay City Roller tour of Japan, including tour dates, attendance and play lists. Zero is impressed. Another, from Piman in Aomori, announces he is selling a rare 1978 edition of "Be Bop High School" for 50,000 yen ($400). Zero thinks it's overpriced.

Zero casts them aside to read one from Batman in Nagoya who claims that the Thunder Dragon and Metal Black video games employ the same game-matrix with different graphics and scoring systems. Seventeen pages of notes support this hypothesis. Zero is not impressed. He's known this since Metal Black hit the market way back last Tuesday.

Zero gets busy. He disseminates a warning through his computer modem that flashes on terminals from Hokkaido to Kyushu. He warns other otaku on the Eye Net computer network to be on the lookout for some poser named Batman pushing stale info. For those few moments - as Zero's invisible brethren attentively scan and store his transmitted data - he is no longer a wimp. He's a big gun, a macho man in the world of the otaku.

Information is the fuel that feeds the otaku's worshiped dissemination systems - computer bulletin-boards, modems, faxes. For otaku, the only thing that matters is the accuracy of the answer, not its relevance. No piece of information is too trivial for consideration: For instance, for a monster otaku - an otaku into TV and manga monsters - the names of the various actors who wore the rubber suits in an Ultraman episode where Ultraman is conspicuously shorter than in other shows is precious currency. For military otaku, it's the name of the manufacturer of 55mm armor-piercing ammunition for the PzkIII Tank. For idol otaku - fanatics who follow the endless parade of cute girl pop singers - it's the specific university the father of darling idol Hikaru Nishida attended. Anything qualifies, as long is it was not previously known.

Although Zero spends most of his waking hours exchanging information with fellow otaku-zoku, Zero only knows his tribe through the computer bulletin board. He has never met any of them. He doesn't even know their real names.

Language Update - What the French Mean

Jules Crittenden cleverly deconstructs French promises to the UN, and finds that almost none of the words are true. (HT: Instapundit) must understand that when France suggested it wanted to broker peace in Lebanon, it did not necessarily mean “broker” or “peace” or “Lebanon” in the way we might understand those words. The same is true when France further suggested it wanted to “lead” a “strong” “multinational” “force” there.

Red Sox Update

The Red Sox season is over.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Are We Good Or What?

We watched the trailers for the upcoming film "Borat," with Sasha Cohen doing his shtick as the supposed Kazakh journalist. Chris mentioned "It looks like Romania," and I agreed, but didn't think much of it. When we showed it to Ben and saw the village for the second time, we decided it really looked like Romania. The Dacia being towed by a horse and the white paint on the concrete telephone pole had us almost sure - and by that time it was pretty obvious that the people were not central Asians, it is unlikely that roofing ceramics are that similar from Romania to Kazakhstan, and bringing a film crew to central Asia might present problems that Eastern Europe wouldn't.

So we looked around and found that the village scenes in "Borat" were indeed shot in a village in Romania. We can't find out which village, but that will come.

Be honest, now. You don't have any other family you know who would have recognised it was Romania. Even if they are themselves Romanian. You can only get that kind of inspired journalism here.

Update: The village scenes in "Borat" were filmed in Glod, which is sort of near Brasov and Peles Castle in the Wallachian section of Romania. We were near there in 2001, but have never been there.

Suspicions Confirmed

The Dread Pirate Bluto points out the orders within the Lebanese Army to stand with Hezbollah. He has some sharp complaints against... well, you'll see here.

Hey, Sign Me Up!

Lane Core Jr over at The View From The Core has an unlikely headline story.

Me, I thought it sounded like a great idea. I've got a pilot friend who might be interested...

Personal Photoshopping

I just clicked past an ad for "Hypoderm," or probably "Hydroderm" that promises to make you look younger without botox. The picture of the woman's face is divided down the middle, with one side having more grey tone to the skin color in an easy photoshop move.

What a great idea! Look younger by photoshopping yourself! An idea whose time has come. Someday soon a woman "putting on her face" in the morning might be more literally true.

Yet for me it will be like the Far Side cartoon "Of course, now we're equally screwed." Relying on my fine-motor coordination for beauty is likely to be about as effective as genetics plus personal habits has been.

Sometimes an Idea Lies Around

Once an idea comes into general use, it is often possible to trace it back long before it became popular. This has led to theories of history and science which declare that the discovery of a principle is not enough to bring it to use – it must arrive in a context that can use it. That may well be true, and I’ll likely read something on it someday (though I have been hoping to avoid encountering the phrase paradigm shift ever again).

But ideas seldom come out of nowhere. Einstein was remarkable in that his ideas truly did have less precedent than most advances, and much of his early reputation sprang from this. Newton, though he used much that was already lying around in the natural sciences, seems to have compressed decades or even a century’s worth of advance into about a year’s time. These are exceptions. The rest of us often find that our original ideas have been cooked up by someone else years ago.

Someone usually gets the credit. The Declaration of Independence is largely attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But Cardinal Bellarmine, writing almost two hundred years earlier, had such quotes as “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” and “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man.” Bellarmine is of course impossible without Aquinas preceding him, Aquinas impossible without Aristotle.

One cannot read anything which even touches on historical linguistics without encountering Sir William Jones comment in 1786, which is considered the beginning of Indo-European studies. I am already sick of it, but will pass it on to you as it is not well known outside that limited field. Jones was an English justice who went to India, and while there, noticed similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly be produced by accident.

But even among that small sector of people who have taken a linguistics course, it is not generally known that Sassetti saw a relationship between Sanskrit and Italian two centuries earlier. He noted that the words for god Deva/Dio were similar, and reflected that the older Latin Deus might be even closer. Alert observers had already noted the similarity of the words Deus, Zeus, Djeu ( as in Ju-piter, god-father or sky-father), and the Norse sky-god Tiw, from which we get Tuesday. The words for the numbers seven, eight, and nine also struck him as similar: sapte/sette, ashta/otto, nave/nova. Between Sassetti and Jones there were also Schultze and Cruciger, noting similarities between Germanic, Slavic, Romance, and Sanskrit languages. You’d think people would have put the whole package together earlier.

No. Sometimes ideas just lie around.

There is ample evidence that ideas just “lie around” for shorter periods of time as communication improves. Scholars used to have to rely on infrequent documents from others to see how things were progressing. Some found it necessary to migrate to the same universities, forming pockets of advanced learning in a subject; hence the phrase “schools of thought.”

Printing pushed the exchanges forward at what was then thought a breakneck pace, and electronic communication even faster, despite efforts of tyrannical governments to halt the flow of information. I was speaking to a young friend last night about Islamic terrorism in the Xinjiang province of China, which the Chicoms are attempting to keep secret, even internally. Even twenty years ago, how could I have known anything about events in northwest China that the Chinese government was keeping secret, except upon the wild chance of running into a person who had contacts there? Even in terms of this post, I had known about Sir William Jones, and remembered vaguely that there was some Italian before him who had seen the similarities with Sanskrit. (Something with lots of “s’s” in his name…maybe his first name was Ferdinand or Francisco. Scarlatti. Sousaphone. Samsonite. Maybe I’m confusing him with de Saussere. Suss… Sciss...)

With google it becomes easy: “Sir William Jones Sanskrit Italian” and I also get to learn about Schultze and Cruciger, who I had not known about. How did I ever survive without search engines?

Ideas may not lie around much anymore.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Nonreligious Conservatives

Heather MacDonald over at the American Conservative writes about being among the nonreligious minority in the conservative movement. I had planned to answer her myself, but found that Michael Novak over at First Things does it much better. What a nice guy - much nicer than I was planning to be. And smarter.

I thought her objections were so common as to be thoughtless. If she were really worried about the things she claimed to be, there are a thousand places she could go for answers. They might not satisfy, but it would at least bring her objection closer to central issues. Novak saw it differently, treating her objections as honest questions, and identifying a great deal of common ground before trying to give justification to their points of difference.

This is why the Village Idiot is not always the best person to answer difficult questions, much less the Assistant.

There is apparently a longer back-and-forth between Heather and the Corner at NRO. I didn't read it, but it is summarised here at Gene Expression.

A Cynic Looks At Pessimism

There has been a sudden outburst of pessimism about Iraq from the conservative side, which took me rather by surprise. One item which seems to have set it off is an article in the NYTimes - I mean, really, now.

But Tigerhawk is depressed, both the Times of London and Mark Steyn tell us why it went wrong, which is echoed by The Belmont Club and CQ, who worry that things might be going wrong because of our failure of national will. Even Dr. Sanity shows some worry, though she does steel herself with renewed vigor by the end opf the post.

Well calm down here. Do things look very different than they did a month ago, or six months ago? Not much different. What has happened since then to get people so down in the mouth?

Time itself adds to the depression. We think "I had hoped it would be fixed by now." You think it, anyway. I expected that things would limp along miserably for some time longer. You pikers call yourself pessimists? Get out of here. I was expecting civil war in the first six months. I expect that when we solve the current problem of Baghdad - probably by sealing it off and beefing up the checkpoints as Omar suggests over at Iraq The Model (and don't read it unless you're going to read the update too) - some new problem will emerge. Expect our enemies to also adjust, unlike Imperial Storm Troopers in "Star Wars."

More importantly, people are disheartened because the Israeli-Hezbollah war looked like it was going to give a bit of resolution to the ME and it didn't. The reasoning seems to be that we hoped that Hezbollah would be completely eliminated, and because they weren't, Israel lost. And Iran is the big winner somehow. What Muslims perceive seems to be the big item here. Hezbollah can say they've won because there are some of them left - and what did you expect them to say? So we're worried that other Muslims will believe them, not that it's actually true. With Iran, even more so. They neither gain nor lose anything, but they get to say it's a victory, and many fools will believe them. Therefore they did win, because of PR. What?

So we've won, we win again and again, but because we never win hugely enough to make our enemies shut up we've lost.

You people have just got to be more cynical than that. It is going to look bad often, because we are fighting against people who lie like uh, rugs.

And I actually have some useful counters to the sudden pessimism, from Real Clear Politics and Victor Davis Hanson.

Ya wimps.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Acceptance of Torture

According to this article in the Guardian, the most left-leaning of the British newspapers, key information in the thwarting of the attempted multiplane bombing in the UK was obtained in Pakistan using torture.

The whole issue of torture seems different in that light. Morality, however is not about seeming, but about actuality. What is the real principle underneath, how does it apply, what other factors are germane to the issue?

Yet it is at least interesting, and perhaps illuminating, to examine why the seeming changed so quickly for me. I believe an examination of the topic will provide some insight into the moral reasoning of others. In the discussions about Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc, I have tried to draw clear distinctions between what we might find distasteful or even unacceptable and actual torture. I have declared myself against the latter, I hope as firmly as possible.

Yet when I read that the roundup preventing the bombings may have been spurred by information obtained by the Pakistanis by means of torture, I did not feel immediate horror, but simply a mild "Oh. That's unfortunate." Why?

Retrospectivity has something to do with it. Because I heard of the plot first, and had some dim imagining of the possible victims, they were more real to me. As everyone in my family traveled through London last August on our way back from Romania, on three separate flights, it occurred to me that those who might have been in danger were much like us. For a minute or so over the weekend, I thought of the people who had been on our flights, and pictured who the people on this year's flights might be: returning tourists, young couples with crying babies who had been brought to Europe to meet Grandma and were now returning, tired businessmen and women, a woman with a just-adopted Russian baby, British and other European tourists on their way to see the US. Even a brief thought of them gave them a peculiar reality, though I don't know any of them really.

The persons who may have been tortured, in contrast, seemed rather faceless. Their part was done. They had been picked up in unknown circumstances. More importantly, the fact that their information turned out to be true proves that they were not innocent - they did know something. Thus, they were faceless and evil. The trade as pictured, 3000 nice people for one bad one, is a no-brainer.

Usually, when we discuss the issue of torture it is the other way around. The people captured are in our custody, so we can make some picture in our minds who they are. As we don't yet have any information from them, there remains some possibility that they are innocent, or at least know nothing of value. The people who might be saved because of the information extracted, however, are quite faceless. We don't know how many they are, whether they are soldiers, foreigners, civilians. If we work at it, or someone paints the picture for us, we can imagine the likely scenarios and speculate who might be made safer. But it doesn't come naturally. The trade as pictured in this case becomes 3000 possibly bad prisoners tortured for zero to ? good people saved. That's harder to feel good about.

I have said that torture shouldn't be used because it doesn't work well. I have thought that the public relations disaster of using it costs us more than we could possibly gain. Those who are antiwar make precisely the same arguments about war itself.

But despite those more rational statements about why we should not torture, I think my real reason is that I think it's just wrong - I react badly to the very idea. Yet now I see that my reaction may have been founded more than I had thought on mere picture-thinking. Some guys who just might be innocent, in pathetic pain for no identifiable reason. It's a horrible picture, and no one likes to think of us causing it or lightly justifying it.

In a calculus of actually being responsible for the safety of the American people, however, picture-thinking may mislead. And if it really does work, in spite of my automatic assumption that it doesn't, and the public relations value is unimportant because people hate us whether we do good or ill, what is left of my picture?

We have been reminded frequently during this war how photographs influence public opinion. (Hint: Pictures always lie) Conservatives have been angry that no pictures of frightened or maimed Israeli children have been shown, and angrier still that pictures of the destruction in Lebanon have been altered and posed.

If I, who tell myself I am the uberrationalist, find that picture-thinking may be at the root of my opposition to torture, and see precisely parallel arguments between my own opposition to torture and others' opposition to war itself, how much more must we suspect that their opposition is not founded on moral clarity, but on pictures in their heads? And if the pictures have been planted by others, where shall we look for clarity?

I don't say this to offer any justification for torture. My previous position holds: it's wrong and we shouldn't do it. I'm just no longer sure of my basis for this in a complex situation where many people could die, in many ways. I need to think about this more.

Dark Humor

The medical side of psych is given to dark humor about our clients. Social workers and some psychologists are much more likely to be offended by this, even if extreme care is taken to keep the offending comments away from patients and families. The neuropsychiatric team I once worked on was even more extreme, and I understand that neurosurgery is worst (or funniest) of all. There does seem to be a correlation: the more truly pathetic a patient’s situation is, and the less able we are to restore full functioning, the grimmer the humor.

It is often difficult for student nurses and new employees to absorb. To them, it seems shameful and insulting, as perhaps it should at first hearing – or tenth hearing.

Christine was refusing to let people in her room last night, waiting in the doorway…

Sounds like badger-like behavior

Or a weasel.

No, she’s much too sizable for a weasel. A boar, maybe.

My ethology is weak. I defer to your judgement in this doctor.

Badger-like behavior. BLB. Should we have our esteemed behavioral psychologist design a program to reduce BLB’s? John?

Are you going to ramp up on her meds some more?

No, she says they’re good where they are.

May I remind you doctor, that this is a badger who is telling you her meds are fine? A badger who greets you every morning with a joyful “Horsey!” and throws her stuffed animal at you?

What is that thing? It’s not a dog.

It’s a horse.

A fairly damaged horse, I’d say. Perhaps we need to run the two of them through the MRI together.

Maybe we can fix the horse.

If it were your family member we were talking about, you’d never let us treat her. Except that families, who are often in the same sad boat, have dark humor as well.

I wonder if the angels have dark humor about us, because the pain of watching us is too much not to.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sleep Problems

The number one trick to if you frequently have the problem of not being able to get back to sleep – particularly in the last two hours before arising: do not look at the clock.

You can turn the clock away at bedtime. The alarm will still go off. You can eliminate all clocks between your bed and the bathroom. It will take anywhere from one week to two months to change the habit, but it works. Average sleep gain for 453 participants after six months was almost 30 minutes. If you take that number apart, figuring that some people will have sleep problems that require more serious intervention, you can figure that some significant percentage of the test subjects got 45-60 minutes of improvement.

The AVI Asks The Obvious

I grant that some of this international relations PR stuff is beyond me, but as an Assistant Village Idiot I have to wonder. Hezbollah is declaring victory, and even conservative commentators seem to agree with them. The rallying cry of “We hid behind women and children, got our asses kicked, but some of us are still alive! Neener neener neener” doesn’t seem like a victory slogan to me. I know that the PR war is subtle, but why are we falling for this?

Another AVI question. With all the discussion of the UN’s involvement, why is no one asking “Are you going to enforce the disarming of Hezbollah?” Is it because everyone knows the answer, and knows that the answer is not acceptable? It seems to be one of those Soviet things in which no one ever asks “Hey, where did Comrade Alexandrovich go?” Everyone colludes with the dishonesty. It’s the simplest question. It is the only thing that will help the situation. But no one is asking.

Monday, August 14, 2006

How Does God Forget? - Can I Have An AMEN?

While the pastor was on vacation I had an opportunity to preach this Sunday. The audio of the sermon is here.

Note on the voice: I used to have a clear second-tenor voice, but years of smoking, screaming at sporting events, laughing and talking too loud over noise, and singing out of range has left me with a low, raspy, clutter. For those who haven't met me live, it's a chance to hear my cadence and expression. I summarize the whole sermon in the first five minutes, so you don't have to listen to the whole thing. (Though of course you will want to, because I'm entertaining and wise).

And Another Thing...

Where do all these divorced people who work in human services – therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists – get the idea that negotiation is going to work in the Middle East? You can reason with Nasrallah but sometimes you just have to just stop negotiating with the father of your children?

You gotta love this reasoning. Colleges have to be forced to have diversity, states have to be forced to grant certain rights, insurance companies have to be forced to grant some types of coverage, corporations, hospitals, clubs… but you can negotiate with Hezbollah.

Health, Wealth, and Peace

Christians who reject would contemptuously the name-it-and-claim-it, health and wealth gospel as it relates to bodily health and personal prosperity nonetheless want to apply something similar for peace and international relations. The idea that there is this prescription for peace that involves negotiation, showing the other guys that we mean no harm, and crucifixion humility is imbedded deeply in the Christian Left. Because Jesus wants us to be, like, peacemakers, then it Only Stands To Reason that being peaceniks should work. Work for peace. Teach peace. Prince of Peace. War is not the answer. Interrupt the cycle of violence. If we do our part as Christians, then peace will follow.

Ignoring for a moment that the Bible does not actually teach that nations are morally obligated to do this, and granting arguendo that it does, it still doesn’t say anywhere that acting in pacificistic humility will bring peace, neither in the short nor the long run. With all the sophisticated dressing, the accusations of American arrogance and empire, the giving voice-to-the-oppressed rhetoric, and intonations about the Authentic Gospel, that’s what it boils down to. Underneath it all, there is the unexamined assumption that Jesus says it will work. Jesus never says that.
A related post, Transnationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.


Today is our 30th wedding anniversary.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Howard Fineman of Newsweek on Imus this morning made a passing reference “the majority of the American people now believe the war in Iraq was a horrible mistake.” The gratuitous insertion of the word “horrible” may seem like a small thing. It is not. Even if Fineman were a partisan operative (theoretically he’s not), it would be objectionable to be moving from spin to untruth. As he is a professional newsman, hired to be an objective source, it is even more blatantly untrue.

Early polls indicated support for the liberation of Iraq. No one at the time claimed that such polls revealed that the majority of the American people believed the war to be a “brilliant” idea. Such an overinterpretation would have been picked up immediately and roundly denounced. When the shoe is on the other foot, fewer people notice. A slight majority of the American people now believe that the war was a mistake. Presumably at least two or three of them believe that it has been on balance not worth it, while still acknowledging some benefit.

It is unlikely that Fineman or any other MSM figure decides to deliberately insert words like “horrible” in order to make the administration look bad, or still less to weaken our ability to make war. More likely, he thinks it has been a horrible mistake and spends his time with people who think it’s a horrible mistake. When polls show that sentiment is now more against the war than in favor, he leaps to the conclusion “Ah, most people agree with us now,” and feels comfortable speaking for people even as he reports on them. He doesn’t hear it for what it is.

Of the several million listeners to the show, some had their belief that it was a “horrible” mistake reinforced, acquiring one more tiny bit of reassurance that “we were right all along…everyone is starting to see it.” Those whose views were less strong have been told that what most people believe is even more strongly negative. In any single instance, the effect is likely small, even on a show as influential as Don Imus’s. But as one of a thousand statements made weekly, year in, year out, and repeated by listeners to their friends and neighbors, it is powerful. If the truth is green and the MSM repeatedly says it’s blue, some folks will gradually see it as seagreen, some as aqua, and some as teal – and that’s not even counting those people of low confidence who will immediately say “I meant blue.”

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Over At City Journal

City Journal is an unusual item, focussing on the issues of cities in particular, and New York in particular, from a center/right perspective. I tend to be more interested in the articles about general culture. On tap at the moment are two by Theodore Dalrymple and one by Gerry Garibaldi.

From Dalrymple's article on unwed motherhood
It has long been an official pretense in Britain that we have so many teenage pregnancies—the most by far in Europe—because British girls don’t know where babies come from. The answer to the problem, therefore, is yet more sex education: ever more children putting ever more condoms onto ever more bananas at ever-earlier ages.

And from his commentary on terrorists, with reference to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent:
Conrad tells us that one of the sources of terrorism is laziness, or at least impatience, which is to say ambition unmatched by perseverance and tolerance of routine. Mr. Verloc, the secret agent, has a “dislike of all kinds of recognized labour,” which, says Conrad, is “a temperamental defect which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers of a given social state. For”—Conrad continues—“obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid in the same coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and toil. The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly.”

The Garibaldi article is about how boys are treated at school, one of everyone's favorite hot-button issues these days. We at the Wymans were on this years ago, of course, and adjusted accordingly.
Brandon’s current problem began because Ms. Waverly, his social studies teacher, failed to answer one critical question: What was the point of the lesson she was teaching? One of the first observations I made as a teacher was that boys invariably ask this question, while girls seldom do. When a teacher assigns a paper or a project, girls will obediently flip their notebooks open and jot down the due date. Teachers love them. God loves them. Girls are calm and pleasant. They succeed through cooperation.
Boys will pin you to the wall like a moth. They want a rational explanation for everything. If unconvinced by your reasons—or if you don’t bother to offer any—they slouch contemptuously in their chairs, beat their pencils, or watch the squirrels outside the window. Two days before the paper is due, girls are handing in the finished product in neat vinyl folders with colorful clip-art title pages. It isn’t until the boys notice this that the alarm sounds. “Hey, you never told us ’bout a paper! What paper?! I want to see my fucking counselor!”

There's just so much to fascinate.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Unclear On The Terrorist Concept

The first call I heard coming in to Mike Barnicle on Boston radio this morning was from an impassioned woman, wondering WHAT IT WILL TAKE for Americans to WAKE UP and realize that WE HAVE TO CONSERVE ENERGY, and this terrorist plot proves it. Okay, exactly how much do we have to reduce our oil consumption until British citizens of Pakistani descent will no longer be able to afford to buy hair gel at the airport?

It’s a great example of looking for your keys under the streetlight because the light is better there, even though you dropped them a block away. It is certainly unpleasant and annoying that of the money we pay for gas, some of it ends up in the hands of people who know some other people who know some terrorists, who get some of our money. My calculation is that over my lifetime I’ve contributed about $.0037 to terrorist causes by not driving a Yugo.

The problem is that bad people want to kill us. We might adopt any of a number of strategies to combat this, but it’s important to keep our eyes on the main fact. Fanatics believe that whatever happens, it all relates back to their pet cause. I think it must give people some sense of control over a world they find chaotic to be able to identify something they can do that they think will help. Even better, getting to yell at other people to do what you’ve been telling them about for years activates even more feeling of control, and adds in self-righteousness to boot.

Conserving energy, even on a national scale, has very little to do with the war on terror. Even if we work really hard to impoverish the Arabs, there will still be a billion of them, many of whom hate us. Even with people starving in the streets, nutcase leaders will find money for weapons (See Korea, North; Iraq). Conserving energy on an individual level does not affect terrorism in any measurable way.

Tracing where their money comes from – that might help. Or listening to their phone calls. Just a thought, if you’re truly looking for some way you’d like to help.

Additional note: do you see now why someone might consider this level of evasion to be in some way unhealthy? Perhaps even diagnosable?

London Terrorism

One year ago today, my son John-Adrian was flying back to the US through London. It's one of those things that isn't really a brush with danger, but does illustrate under what normal circumstances danger appears.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

We Just Do It Faster

I have often maintained that professionals in psychology seldom do magic. They are simply better able to size up a situation quickly, are more objective, know some promising leads to follow, and know some likely pitfalls to avoid.

That's a lot, actually, and sometimes it is magic, because it seems so out of reach for other people. But here is an example of a woman writing about her husband. She has no professional training. She is, however, an intelligent woman with a willingness to see herself clearly. That enables her to see others clearly, if she has enough data. A good professional could see in a shorter time what it has taken her years to see, and would have some ideas how to proceed with helping her husband, if he would wish it. But we wouldn't tend to see things more clearly than this.

Ken seemed, I think to all the rest of us (me and the two attorneys), not entirely stable tonight. He made opposite decisions within minutes of each other, very emphatically, in opposition to his lawyer, and according to an inner logic that is fracturing him.

The consistency I could see was that he wants to sign the proposal but wants to look completely innocent, perhaps victimized, while doing so. Even his explanation of why he is not currently asking for divorce included that he was not comfortable being the initiator of that kind of action. He seems to be avoiding all responsibility, while trying to minimize his costs/losses in the process. Even his lawyer was a bit flummoxed, not having seen this unworkable inconsistency and flip-flopping in Ken before. The two lawyers met at one point in order to find some gameplan for the discussion, which seemed to be getting nowhere with Ken's patchwork of rhetoric that he has been repeating over the past several weeks.

Ken said that he will sign the proposal tomorrow (none of us were comfortable with him signing it tonight, after the erratic nature of the discussion), and then he and his lawyer will not show up in court on Wednesday, because the agreement will be uncontested. My lawyer (Susan Lachman) and I will be at court Wednesday at 10:00a.m., and the judge will question Susan as he considers whether the proposal, even as signed by both parties, is acceptable.

My overwhelming sense is that Ken is completely deluded and is suffering from serious mental and emotional strain from trying to super-logically and consistently live out a lie. His eyes seemed red and his arguments less coherent than they were a month ago, and he sounds to me like a psychotic person explaining with clarity the situation which is apparent to everyone else as a delusion. Tonight I felt like the wife in the movie A Beautiful Mind, which Ken and I watched last year: calling the doctor about the one I love, who is living a nightmare and thinks I am betraying him. I love him and will do what I understand is best for him, even though he can't understand it. I ache to see him falling apart, and to see him in denial of the true reasons for it. I pray that he will come to know that true wholeness only comes from a truly broken and contrite heart before God, who raises the spiritually dead.

Why Diagnose The Political? Part One

The objection is frequently raised in the comments sections of the psychobloggers that the host (at least) is diagnosing a mental illness in the people that disagree with them politically. This is seen as a contemptible dodge, an attempt to dismiss logical arguments without attending to them and answering them. The diagnoser is often further accused of hatred, fear, or anger. Those accusations have a humorous irony, as the accuser is engaging in the layman’s version of what he accuses the professional of. “You only think that because you fear/hate/don’t care/stink.”

An additional irony is that people with certifiable diagnoses object to being diagnosed as well. “You’ve hardly met me! You’re believing what my wife says about me! You’ve only talked to me twice since I’ve been here!”

The accuser often does not understand what we mean when we speak about symptoms, clusters of symptoms, and diagnoses. We are not saying that those we disagree with are “just crazy” with the implication that nothing they say on any subject can be trusted. You will notice that the diagnoses offered in the psychosphere do not typically run to “schizophrenic,” “bipolar,” or “autistic,” or the specific neurological disorders. Those are strongly definable biological illnesses with somewhat predictable courses. Political groups do not fit those categories well, though individual aspects of understanding those illnesses may come into play. You do not “become” schizophrenic by refusing to deal with the truth at deeper and deeper levels. Becoming unable to negotiate the truth is a description of what happens to you as you descend into schizophrenia.

These are conditions that are treated biologically. Therapy is used, but in much the same way that a therapist would help a person deal with paraplegia or diabetes. Talk therapies are not going to cure paraplegia, but they may help the person deal with loss, acceptance, illness management, and the like.

The misimpression that we are referring to disease conditions leads to the idea that we are being merely dismissive, attaching some obscure fancy name to our refusal to engage the intellectual debate. When a Dr. Sanity or a Gagdad Bob uses the term “narcissistic” readers mistake that meaning in two directions: either they conclude that some specific illness like schizophrenia is being postulated, or they conclude that we are sneaking in the common meaning of “self-absorbed” as a fancy way of being insulting.

Narcissism is in a different category from those illnesses. The defense mechanisms that Dr. Sanity puts so much effort into describing for her readers are not infections which come upon us and render us unable to reason. There are elements of choice, and understanding, and insight which come into play. (For those professionals reading, yes I understand that there are exceptions and variations here).

The clusters of symptoms and diagnoses used in political discussion are those which we are all prone to. Every human being uses not-quite-perfect ways of dealing with difficulty. Under increased stress, we use them more. Use of rationalization or intellectualization ebbs and flows in our lives, changing as quickly as within the course of the day, and as slowly as entire seasons of our lives. We are as susceptible to such evasions of painful realities as those we criticize, and we have every recognition that these symptoms exist along spectra.

Further, these diagnoses are made with awareness that other parts of a person’s life may be fully intact, and their reasoning just fine in other areas. A person may be in denial that his wife no longer cares for him, but have full and courageous acceptance that his business is failing. We all also use varieties of the defense mechanisms. We may have our favorites, but with such a full menu and such a variety of painful experiences, it is inevitable that we use different tools for different situations.

If this distinction explains the difference to you, you don’t need to read Part Two. If you still believe that diagnosing the political opposition is invalid, perhaps the next section will justify it to you.

Why Diagnose The Political? Part Two

A first point is to acknowledge that if we were simply diagnosing to dismiss, it would be a contemptible dodge. To simply say “I reject environmentalist arguments because all concern for the environment derives from neurotic fears of annihiation, probably stemming from not having children” would of course be ludicrous.

But some similar or derivative statements would not be ludicrous. An environmentalist might do or say other things in the mix that would arouse suspicion. She might be red-faced and screaming (or the print equivalent ALL CAPS). She might use an unusual amount of religious imagery for this political/scientific subject. She might be unusually focussed on the fact that her opponents make money. Any of these things would be a red flag to not only a professional, but an observant layman.

A red flag is not sufficient for diagnosis. It does invite the professional to look further. I have read antiwar commenters claiming “Bush lied.” This is where additional data comes in, because the comment is repeated. Often. Now, W’s comments under their worst interpretation were misleading, or stupid, or exaggerated, but they were not lies, and this has been frequently pointed out. At about the thousandth repetition after refutation, a good therapist begins to gently question the patient “This seems to be an important issue to you. You bring it up often. Is there another possible explanation for what happened?” Encountering resistance to such a suggestion provides more information.

A single such item may or may not be a concern depending on other factors. Even a cluster of similar items might excite only mild curiosity. Bush lied. Unilateral. Dictator. Moron. “Hmm, there seems to be a lot of hyperbole here…troubling…oh well…next question.”

What we are now encountering are a great many suggestive, and initially puzzling, statements and behaviors from the left. That’s an awful lot of condescension and energy from a colleague for an offhand political comment. Why does she always bring up how poorly her profession is paid? This newspaper uses every evasion for the word “terrorist” it can find. He keeps accusing other people of having sexual issues. Why is he using only half the economic data? We look for patterns.

This is not any different from what everyone else does navigating through life. What’s up with her? Have you noticed that everyone over there freaks whenever we mention the Comex account? He’s got this thing for dependent women. Novelists and playwrights make their livings by illustrating people’s motivations in more skillful and interesting ways than average folk. Or at least pretending to in ways that we average folk like.

It may surprise people to know that there are several sciences which attempt to understand these phenomena in systematic ways. There are hard sciences such as neurology and psychiatry, and softer ones like psychology and sociology, which contain people who have thought about these things for more than 30 minutes straight. More than most fields, the soft and hard sciences interpenetrate in this area. Though there is enormous disagreement about what causes things, there is a common vocabulary, and a common understanding of what things tend to go together. People who were sexually abused as children are more likely to have personality disorders. Even though there are many who were abused who do not go on to become BPD’s, and some adult Borderlines who do not appear to have sexual trauma in their childhood, there is clearly some connection here. Depression seems to have many causes, but some few factors recur frequently enough that we look for them first.

These are not connections and patterns we have dreamed up out of our heads. They are the result of years of observation by others and a considerable body of evidence. Modifications will continue to occur, as we try to refine the categories. And most clinicians do treat the categories cautiously – more cautiously than is popularly supposed – because we know that more than one thing is happening in any individual.

Knowing the categories gives an enormous speed advantage to understanding a situation. When a cluster of symptoms normally associated with narcissism shows up, we have a further list of things to look for immediately, to see if our suspicions are confirmed. When a person is using a particular defense mechanism, that gives us clues as to where to look further and what to explore.

When a category of people generally exhibits a cluster of responses that would be symptoms in an individual, we look for the other items likely to be related. If we find them, we might well give it a diagnosis.

For example, there have been analyses by those wanting to vote out Joe Lieberman that he is not disliked because he was for the war, but because he was so closely tied to Bush, worshipped Bush, was Bush’s butt-boy, etc. But the evidence is that Lieberman voted against Bush on other issues more frequently than the average Democrat. Leftist Democrats have the strong impression that he was too close to Bush, but their impression does not square with the data. The strong impression is wrong.

Psychological types like to puzzle at this point. Given that their claim does not fit the data, what caused them to get it wrong? We try on various explanations until we find one which seems to best fit the evidence. Projection seems a good place to start, and you might read up on it and see for yourself if it fits. The key point is that such examining of motives becomes fair game only when it is established that someone reached the wrong answer (You can come to the right answer for the wrong reasons, especially in politics, but we usually leave folks alone on that, perhaps dropping a hint). The technique can then be reapplied on issues where the correct answer is debatable or the issues mixed, but with less reliability. For example, they support welfare reform because they don’t want to admit how much their own success was a product of luck. That analysis may be partly true, completely true, or not true at all. Without a lot of further information about the persons in question, we can’t make a determination. If we start reading numerous op-eds in which the proponents of welfare reform keeping referring to how hard they’ve worked, and we know that’s not true, we begin to have some ground on which to accuse them. If we get further info that behind closed doors they are expressing their delight at the opportunity to punish the poor in general, all of whom they believe are lazy, then we have more evidence, and we might hazard a diagnosis of the symptom. To assume the symptoms are present is not allowable.

Friday, August 04, 2006

I Accuse Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has condemned Israel for a consistent failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants. This incident of the attack on Syrian and Kurdish farm workers was cited.

If you put that together with this article, which describes the ramping up of Iranian shipments of arms before a cease-fire, through exactly the place mentioned above, I have a different accusation. I accuse Human Rights Watch of a consistent failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

One of the reasons for the Geneva Conventions, which distinguishes between uniformed combatants and civilians is expressly for the purpose of protecting the civilians. You can try to dress up a lamb chop like a salad, but when the wolves find out it’s meat, they’re gonna eat it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Narnian, The Rivals, and Different Goals

When one reads two books back-to-back, one sometimes sees connections that would not ordinarily appear. In somewhat similar fashion, I once opened to the NT book the Letter of James, thinking it was Paul's Letter to the Hebrews. Starting from the chapter and verse I was seeking, I read for half-a-dozen verses before something cued me I was in the wrong place. But in that short passage, I saw both books in a different light. Had Paul actually said what I was reading in James, it would have a different flavor and emphasis.

It's a Jorge Luis Borges sort of approach - to read Cervantes as if Shakespeare had written it, to read Pindar as if Fitzgerald had written it. Cute idea, but don't spend more than a few minutes per attempt on it. It's not that illuminating, though it is fun.

The Narnian is Alan Jacobs' biography of CS Lewis, perhaps the best so far. The Rivals is a sports history, following the rivalry of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

You wouldn't necessarily connect those two, eh?

Jacobs tells more of the story of the falling out between Lewis and Tolkien than is available in other biographies. While their relationship never stopped being congenial, it did become more distant. Tolkien disapproved of much of Lewis's writing, on a variety of grounds. Chief among them was Lewis's practice of writing only one draft, or a second at most, before sending a manuscript to the publisher. In contrast, Tolkien rewrote ceaselessly, perpetually not quite satisfied with his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. Nearly as important was Tolkien's insistence on pure subcreation, creating a world utterly consistent and true to its own internal logic. Lewis allowed his books to be invaded - by differing mythologies, by the voice of the narrator, or by ideas from his other books.

In passing, it is perhaps significant that Tolkien's earlier book, The Hobbit, had a tone and an interruptibility similar to the Narnian Chronicles. Perhaps Tolkien was critical of a method he felt he had tried and left behind.

Their goals in writing were different, and this seems not to have occurred to either of them. Because of their enormous similarities of interest, profession, age, location, belief, and habits, it would be natural for each to think that the other was trying to accomplish the same goals in writing, and indeed in living. Tolkien judged Lewis according to his own goals, unable to step back and see if something different were afoot.

The sportswriter stereotype of Chamberlain and Russell was that Wilt was the more talented and dominant player, amassing impressive personal statisitcs and calling the shots wherever he went far more than other players, but that Bill was the better, indeed consummate team player, leading to the unequaled string of championships for the Celtics in the late 50's and through the 60's.

I had wondered if the stereotype was wrong and unfair to Wilt, who missed several championships by the slimmest of margins and the merest of chances. Surely, he must have wanted to win as badly as Russell did?

Not really. The stereotype turns out to be true. Wilt sabotaged the coaching nearly everywhere he went and frequently left his teammates out of the mix, forcing them to adjust to his style whether it was the best winning strategy or not. He was determined to win on his own terms, proving that his talent trumped mere method. He nearly did so. He was that good. Even being out-thought and out-strategized by Russell, Wilt nearly succeeded in having it all.

To the outside observer, it appeared that the two players had the same goal, and that Russell was succeeding while Wilt failed. This was heightened by the impression that sports fans have that the team goal should be the more important goal. I certainly subscribe to that myself. I grew up on the Chip Hilton books and the constant sermons that there's no "I" in "Team," etc. To win championships was the Real Goal, the Only Good Goal.

It was Russell, speaking at Wilt's funeral, who identified the difference. He noted that he had gotten what he wanted, and Wilt had gotten what he wanted, and I think that insight was genuine and perceptive on Russell's part. I don't believe it was just a polite and kindly thing one might say at a funeral. I think it was a real insight.

Two pair of great men, each forever associated with the other, pursuing what seemed to outside observers to be the same goal. Even the men themselves often assumed that the other was identical in orientation, and had good reason to think so. But it just wasn't so.

Marquis de Custine

Marquis de Custine noted that to the spy, everyone else seems to be a spy, too. The whole of mankind must seems to be either trapping you or falling into your trap.

I would expand this idea, that to the tyrant, all relationships mean control or be controlled; to the thief, all interactions are an attempt to rip you off.

Applying the principle in reverse, what does it mean when people always interpret the actions of others in terms of political advantage?

Tim and the Germans

I am 99% sure who the commenter “Tim” at my Freakonomics asking about linguistics and hermeneutics is, and he provides an excellent opportunity to describe what being the Assistant Village Idiot is like. The title, like the job, was chosen because “Village Idiot” was taken. It is meant to have ambiguous meaning, both arrogant and humble, and that fits me well. Sure I’m a bright enough guy and love collecting information, but much of the point of this blog is that many issues aren’t really all that complicated. Despite the evasions people go through to avoid plain sense, many things are understandable even to the Village Idiot. So - sometimes, the Village Idiot designates me to explain them to you.

I had a predictive essay, complete with scoring, about another religious thinker recently. I will attempt this feat again. At no time will my fingers leave my hands. I admit, even though I know flat nothing about hermeneutics, I have an advantage, which I will illustrate with reference to a similar advantage Tim has in another sphere. Young Tim grew up in an evangelical denomination, but more to the point, he went to Baptist schools (With my son. That’s how I know). Tim’s antennae for detecting someone trying to sneak in a culturally Baptist idea under theological cover are always going to be better than mine. Minutes before the speaker has come near mentioning popular music, Tim is going to pick up the faint whiff on the breeze “He’s going to claim that rock music is unspiritual.” (Or that evolution is bunk, or whatever). In reading about an historical figure, Tim is going to perceive that a hagiography is being loaded into the blunderbuss before the rest of us do. There are some things that Tim is forever going to see coming from five hundred meters out. The number of topics that you can do this with will grow, Tim, which is why old people get grouchy.

Eventually, of course, enough new things happen in the world that grouchy old people start guessing wrong, but I think I’m still at least a decade out from that.

Hermeneutics. Linguistics. German name. So that must be post 1920. Assigned reading at North Park for some class (North Park is the Evangelical Covenant school, and the Covenant is a cross between the evangelical and mainstream denominations), so we will suspect that it’s attempting to inject Protestant Mainstream Academic into the discussion.

Though the German arrogance is quiet, and under the radar in this area, it is nowhere more complete than in Philosphy. German philosophers define themselves entirely in terms of each other, as if no one else exists. They might treat a Dutchman (Spinoza) or a Dane (Kiergegaard) as an honorary German for purposes of discussion, and they find the French philosphers amusing, but they put their energy into what they say versus what other Germans have said. So this big name in hermeneutics is going to be one more fitting himself into the mix. What did Kant say, and how does my work compare with his? In contrast to what Heidigger thought, what do I think is better? And Fichte and Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer – must see how they fit, too. The construction of a vast abstract system whose beauty can be contemplated by other Germans is the goal. Bertrand Russell, Hobbes, Bosanquet, JS Mill, Santayana - these people don’t really exist as far as the Germans are concerned. They might have a drink with Sartre or Derrida, but they really can’t make heads or tales of those intriguing Frenchmen.

(To be fair to the Germans on this, it is true that French philosophy largely consists of taking German ideas, which at least attempt some coherency, and screwing them up even further, so that personal morality becomes not just ignored, but denied. For this, see Foucault, DeMan, Artaud.)

In and amongst this will be the sordid biographies of impregnating the maid, obsessions with the best friend’s wife, complete estrangement from family, messy divorces, envy of other contemporary German philosophers and their preferments, misuse of money, and in the 20th C we must always ask “What did you do in the war?” The answer usually is “kept a low profile. But I really, really hated the Nazis.”

This contrast is not accidental and not simply ironic. It is two sides of the same coin. Simple piety is beyond them, therefore, they compensate by constructing these elaborate systems of knowing, sensing, intuiting. How to contemplate God. How to know the Truth. Insofar as moral considerations can intrude into the discussion, it is never the persoanl morality of individual actions. It is always the morality of the community’s actions that intrigues them. Huh. Fancy that.

Next: Putting the linguistic angle into hermeneutics will consist of stretching some obvious items into another of those vast systems. That words change in meaning over time is hardly surprizing, nor that different groups of people interpret abstractions such as liberty and truth in different ways a huge advance. These are reasonable cautions in approaching texts. And it’s way cool to talk about, because you get to bring in sociology and patiently explain how things don’t really mean what they seem to mean. It is also a great opportunity to tell other people what Jesus really meant. Which for all of us, if we are allowed to engage in such an exploration, always results in Jesus teaching exactly what the cool kids thought when we were young and impressionable. Example: find an important difference between what Jim Wallis teaches and what we used to say at church basement coffee houses in the 60’s. Or between Jerry Falwell and the social teachings of small Appalachian churches in the 1950’s. Philosophers don’t usually sink that low themselves, of course, contenting themselves with the abstract. It falls to those after to point out that contemplating the Absolute is much, much more moral than merely being honest.

I’m going to guess that the linguistics involved in Herr German’s hermeutics is going to be theory of mind, theory of meaning stuff, derived from Edward Sapir (look up Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), who was another German who was “in the air” through much of the 20th C. This is why I guessed “after 1920” for this philosopher. Sapir’s idea of the cultural relativism of meaning, as exemplified in language, would likely appeal to a German hermeneuticist. The fact that linguists, led by Chomsky and Pinker, are much less convinced of SWH, probably didn’t cause him to change his theories much if he lived that long.

Summary: Things to look for:

1. German philosophy indistinguishable from other Germans unless you really, really care about these things. How can we make it look like we’re contemplating Truth, God, Absolute, without getting stuck with things we don’t like? If we could work in theories of Art and talk about Schiller and Rilke, that would be extra cool.
2. Complete political passivity during the Nazi era. If he was too young for that, then activity in leftist social movements of the 50’s – 70’s – when it was safe - would be my second choice.
3. Something seedy in the biography. Morality that is corporate rather than personal.
4. Linguistic theory based on the cultural relativism of Edward Sapir.
5. Regular words used in specialized ways, usually capitalized, like “Phenomenon,” or “Meaning.” Of course, most philosophers do this.

I’m not going to do the scoring on this one. Just an educated guess this time.