Monday, November 16, 2009


A century ago, the august British newspaper The Times asked several eminent writers “What’s Wrong With The World?” GK Chesterton responded in the form of a letter.
Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, Gilbert K Chesterton.

I have said enough for now.

Confirming and Disconfirming Evidence – Part II

After extended thought, I don’t think this needs to be long. Confirming evidence for our beliefs is more central than disconfirming evidence. That is, we can withstand a great deal of evidence which calls our beliefs into question, so long as there is some continuous amount of evidence which supports them. Beliefs erode not because they are mortally wounded, but because they are undernourished. Exceptions occur, but this is the general tendency of humanity.

As this becomes more pronounced, it reveals itself as pathological. Delusions, impervious to all contrary evidence, persist in their tight circles of logic. I have been most concerned with this phenomenon in political, social, and religious thought. I am most familiar with this in my line of work, listening to mentally ill people on an individual level evade obvious realities for the sake of preserving a single interpretation. But there is a strong need to believe certain principles in every culture, and confirming evidence will be found even if it involves turning the data back in the opposite direction. I have been something of a counter-cultural warrior, arguing that the main danger to our culture comes not from the tight circles of logic on the side of simple faith, simple patriotism, and simple civic morality, but from the even tighter circles of our enlightened classes which seek to undermine these.

There are closed circles on both sides, of course. But far more often than is commonly believed, it is the dogmatic who are ultimately tolerant; those who believe themselves tolerant are always in peril that a deeper dogmatism is disguised within them. Those who know they rely ultimately on faith apply reason forcefully nonetheless; those who claim to rely only on reason conceal a hundred unquestioned creeds from their own sight.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


More than any current comic, xkcd makes me say "Wish I'd written that."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Confirming and Disconfirming Information - Part I

GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy includes an early section The Maniac which impressed me greatly from the first time I read it. If you have never read Chesterton, this would be an excellent place to let him introduce himself. It captures wonderfully his ability to take conventional wisdom and platitudes and see that they are not merely banal, but 180 degrees wrong. The first paragraph alone should hook you, and is a superior introduction to my discussion than anything I could write myself.

For the unfamiliar early 1900's references, Hanwell was an insane asylum outside London, a companion to Colney Hatch mentioned in The Magician's Nephew. Joanna Southcote was a self-proclaimed prophetess (c. 1800) who declared she was the woman spoken of in Revelation 12 and would give birth to the Messiah at age 60. Even after her death, she had followers in England for many years.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Honey Honey

Never heard of the song. Didn't follow ABBA at all back in the day. I've adopted them because of the irony and the amazing traffic they drive to my site.

I was too proud to listen to disco groups like ABBA. I was too cool. I had an image to keep up. So I missed watching Swedish girls in fancy costumes dance.

Yeah, I were a ruddy genius then, weren't I?

Mustang Sally

Samantha gave back the ring to John-Adrian a few months ago. We worried about her. We adore the girl, and are sorry she won't be a daughter-in-law. J-A made noises about enlisting in the Air Force - still might. We saw that as the modern version of running off to join the French Foreign Legion. But Samantha was still in school, starting a new job, living with her parents. The nice, boring things you like in a daughter-in-law, but not so much fun sounding for a pretty young girl.

We read today on Facebook that she's bought a Mustang convertible. Looks like the girl's recovered some. That suggested this song. You younger folks want to be properly retro? Forget Woodstock. Put yourself in this scene, as white kids are first discovering black music and going to concerts that are nothing like the school assemblies they're used to.

Monday, November 09, 2009

American Jewish Language

A twofer for me, combining both linguistics and Jewish culture.

David Bernstein at Volokh links to a new survey of American Jewish speech and identity markers. It is hardly surprising that Yiddish is declining and Israeli Hebrew ascending, but there are oddities even in that. A small selection of Yiddish words is actually becoming more common.

I keep forgetting that most Jews I know are my own age. Most anythings that I know are my own age. My impressions of American Jewish culture is very much formed then, by Jewish Boomers from the northeast, with a secondary influence of Jews a generation older. It's good to bust out of that a bit.

Victims Of Communism

Over at Volokh, Ilya Somin summarises Paul Hollander's WaPo op-ed on the fall of communism. Hollander's longer article on the topic is also worth reading. Why victims of the Holocaust should be remembered and studied so much more than the victims of communism is indeed a bit puzzling. Hollander's explanation is as good as I've seen.

I would add three other points that I seldom or never see mentioned. A) The Nazi focus on Jews creates a narrative focus that sticks more easily in the mind. The Nazis also killed Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the disabled, but the percentage of victims was so overwhelmingly Jewish that it creates its own movie script out of history. The communists killed more Jews than Hitler, but they also killed a few dozen other ethnic and religious groups. The very broadness of their evil seems paradoxically to lessen its impact on our psyche. B) Americans did not grow up with much knowledge of the places under communism in their formative educational years. We learned first about America, second about Western Europe. We might also have picked up something about Canada or Mexico. When we learned about Greece or Bible lands, it was the ancient history of these peoples, not their current incarnations. We otherwise had more misinformation than information on the rest of the world. Thus, when the countries of Eastern Europe were liberated, it was almost as if people had been added to the world. We hadn't been much aware of them, knowing more about Polish-Americans than people in Poland. As additions, these Eastern Europeans did not stick in the mind, and still don't. We had some awareness of Russia because it was so large and they seemed to be in charge of this whole Soviet thing. East Germans we could vaguely incorporate because we already had a cuphook for "Germans" in our memory storage. But who knew or cared about Estonians, Belorussians, or Moldovans, and who cares now? Europe was the UK, Germany, France, and Italy, then a bunch of others.

Ironically, the countries behind the Iron Curtain, who perpetrated or at least witnessed much of the Holocaust, had much of their own history concealed from them, and don't tend to think of the Jewish perspective on WWII that much.

C) and perhaps most important, the Jews had better writers and movie makers.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

You Do Not Understand (blank) Culture

Here is a guarantee - and my most recent reminder was on NHPR, so it's not a conservative/liberal thing: whenever the radio caller (blog commenter, guy at the water cooler) says, in the appropriate accent "This person does not understand (blank) culture" and wants to launch into a lecture, what he - it is always a he - really means is "We have a rationalization for the evil things that we do."

Fort Hood

Well, it sends chills up my spine, with a boy in the service, that's for sure. A Muslim veterans group denies that there is a pervasive bullying of Muslims, contrary to claims by Hasan's family.

But let's say, arguendo, that there is. He's been taunted. Disrespected. So...the guards at Gitmo have been taunted. Disrespected. Is anyone saying they could be cut some slack if one of them when off the reservation and started shooting all the prisoners?

There is also a lot of talk about secondary trauma, working with PTSD victims. I don't want to say it doesn't exist, but most of my patients have experienced trauma, I see them in crisis, I've been doing this for three decades, and I don't know any provider who believes they have anything more than a little something extra to cope with. I mean, just so you know, those of us that actually do this job don't go around saying how close we are to suddenly popping off a lot of folks we don't like.

Hasan went into the service for a paid trip to medical school. Then he owed them some years. Then we went to war. Well duh, it's the military. It might happen, y'know? You should factor that in to your plans. He made a deal, he doesn't like it, so he builds up a narrative of victimhood to justify himself.

Just like the guys in jail, actually.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Speaking Of Bad Lyrics

A coworker - my age - mentioned that she had seen a few minutes of Spongebob Squarepants and found it appalling. She went on to mention how much she disliked Barney, and several other recent shows as well. She preferred Captain Kangaroo. So I encouraged her along, until she finally took the bait and said she liked Tom Terrific.

I followed up with Beany & Cecil, which she also approved of.

Sorry Kim, I think the weirdness factor is about the same.


It’s a good time for a bit of retrospective. It’s one year after the election, and two biographies have come out. The force of nature which descended upon the American consciousness in August 2008 has had some opportunity to find, or make, her niche in the political landscape.

Some parts are easy, and have been said loudly and repeatedly over the last 14 months: the evidence usually cited for her lack of intelligence has been tribal and social rather than intellectual; the obsession with her sexuality from some parts of the left has been creepy, and the commonness of milder creepiness from progressives suggests some adult sexual issues of their own. Demands for obstetrical records, rape and humiliation fantasies, urban legends about rape kits and her children’s sex education – even the new collection of critical essays about her is called Going Rouge, in parody of her own biography’s title – and this is from the supposedly respectable sources. This insanity has generally been defended with some version of “She brings this on herself because she’s the sort of woman we’ve been making fun of for years. Women who side with oppressors deserve to be oppressed.”

Yet being unfairly criticised is not in itself a skill one puts forward on a resume. Dealing with unfair criticism, sure. That’s worth noting. But her selling points have been two things she will do, plus two things she promises not to. She claims to be a good manager, savvy in all real-world aspects of running things. Her short stint as governor tended to bear this out, but as she has resigned, we will have little further information. There will now be no evidence whether she’s a great manager. She’s good: she delegates, she’s strong but not doctrinaire, she watches the budget, she eschews corruption and the culture of favors. That’s a real positive, but it’s a modest one.

Next, she claims that her instincts are common-sense conservative middle American, and we can count on her to tend that way. Grand utopian visions, even of the conservative or libertarian sort, are not her style. Her conservatism is not the sort that wants to create, or even return to, a particular American Dream. Hers is the sort that wants to yank the culture out of the hands of visionaries on the other side; it is more reactive than imposing. Those other utopians aren’t even going to understand the distinction, but the rest of us should keep it in mind. This claim of Palin’s also seems to be generally true, but not dramatically so. She may not be a libertarian dreamer herself, but she does hang with some people who are. Folks who claim to be strict constitutionalists but obscure contradictions. Folks who think a few simple interventions (gold standard, flat tax, Tenth Amendment) will right the ship pretty quickly. As the oversimplifiers of the left have had a few sympathetic ears in Washington for decades, it is perhaps nice that the oversimplifiers of the right get some too. If Sarah could move us 10% in that direction, that would be nice.

The things she promises not to do or be are related, and include one extremely powerful qualification: she resists the urge to leap in and fix things just because loud people say it’s a crisis. That may sound like a modest ability, but it is actually rare and enormous. People who go into government, especially Washington, like to tinker with things and try to prove how much better off everyone is with them in charge. That was the rap against McCain and Bush on domestic issues. Campaign Finance Reform. No Child Left Behind. Even general small-government types seem unable to resist this drug. In the current context, with an administration chock-a-block full of people who want to fix things by making everyone else smarten up and fly right, a Palin-style bailout (vetoing the congressional bailout down to about 40%), a Palin-style stimulus (ditto: 30%), and a Palin-style health care reform (try it on Medicare first) would be great. That’s still her strongest point – what she won’t be.

The second won’t-do is more intriguing. She promises to be a straight shooter who will stick to her principles, by jiminy. That is easy to do in the movies, hard in real life. Her record here is more mixed. It’s no good saying that it’s an impossible tightrope to walk, and all governing involves compromise. If it’s an impossible tightrope, don’t get on it. If what you really mean is that you will stay as close to principle as possible, and some principles will be absolute, then say that. It doesn’t wow the crowds as much, but that’s the price you pay. Sarah Palin did sorta kinda take Bridge to Nowhere money before she gave it back. Sarah Palin did sorta kinda stop mentioning some principles because they weren’t McCain’s. That’s okay, nothing wrong with that. Joe Lieberman certainly did, and everyone recognises him as generally following principle. But then you can’t have quite so much of the fresh-wind-blowing aura about you. Sarah Palin can legitimately brand herself as “Look, I’m a practical woman – I appointed a pro-choice judge because she was qualified,” or legitimately brand herself as “Take America Back.” She can even try to have as much of each as possible. But if any of us chooses that last road, we must do so with full knowledge that there’s not only political risk from the instability, but personal risk to one’s principles because of the constant dissonance.

As to her intelligence, that oft-debated item, my suspicions against her have grown, though I believe the book is still out. The health insurance reform debate provided intriguing evidence on this. The Obamites went moonbat crazy at her Death Panels accusation, citing it as proof she is either stupid or deceitful. As usual, their own comments were far more stupid (or deceitful). One aspect of the end-of-life discussion question was the Democratic proposal to reimburse such discussions with your physician. It was, in effect, encouraging you to have a major voice in your own death panel. That’s a good thing, but they didn’t want to mention that end-of-life decisions necessarily involve a DP of some collection of uh, stakeholders – yourself, your family, your doctor, your insurer, government regulations, hospital ethics committees. Absent those discussions, someone other than you will be on your death panel – and the health care reform bill proposed to change the composition of that panel, elbowing out the insurers, elbowing in the government. So there was a reasonable defense of Palin’s statement. Here’s the problem: Palin didn’t make that defense, other people made it for her. She had a chance to make exactly the sort of uncomfortably honest but reasonable argument her supporters expect from her, and she didn’t use it. She doesn’t get too many more of those chances before I am forced to conclude that she’s not up to it. I’m pretty good at disregarding the unfair criticism of her, but she has to put more on the menu.

Under Paris Skies

One of those songs that always hung around in my head with no lyrics.
Dum dum de tum, De Dum dum de dum Under Paris Skies.
Dum dum de dum de dum de de dum de de dum. Andy Williams.

So I looked it up, and the lyrics are terrible. That's the problem with the singers of the Andy Williams, Tony Bennet ilk. They can make anything sound good. Nice-ish melody, good hook line, Andy Williams - you've got a record. And hey, a foreign city just for good measure. Three Coins In The Fountain, April In Paris - it always works. This one was originally in French, and I recall it was an accordion favorite on amateur hour shows. I hope the lyrics work better in the original.

Sinatra could do that, too. I recall growing up on "French Foreign Legion," from the Capitol Years collection. My mother loved Sinatra. I sang the song for her, dutiful son that I was. It wasn't until years later I figured out how lame the lyrics are.

Anyway, here's Andy.

The Liberals I Am Most Familiar With

I spend my work day with Social Workers and Psychologists, both very liberal groups.
I could just scream some days.
Perhaps they are not fully representative, and I overgeneralise about progressives on the basis of this select group. Yet the liberals I encounter elsewhere and read the writings of seem durn similar. I do know some more reasonable liberals – at church, mainly. Not very liberal, though; only in comparison to nutcases such as I.

A running conversation among a half-dozen people over yesterday and today, which I listened to more than contributed to (yes. really.) still has me spitting. They are convinced that good people who mean well all support Obama’s health care reform. This is as obvious to them as the fact that the sun rises in the East. They don’t actually know much about the details (jaw-dropping stupidity at times), but they know this emphatically by history. Good people who want everyone to be as secure as possible in getting health care are for this. The people who aren’t don’t care about suffering. They can prove it, too. They have actually met mean, selfish people, and they have heard anecdotes about others. Want to hear another example of what a jerk this conservative person I once met was?

They have heard this is going to turn out to be really, really expensive. A few are even worried about this, wondering whether it will divert resources from the economy and hurt jobs. (Duh.) But the general consensus is that there is a lot of money out there that evil cheating people get away with not paying taxes on - and there’s something vulgar about people having too much loose money around anyway. It’s not only better for the rest of us, it’s better for the rich people, too, if we take a lot of their money and put it to better uses. Because it was all made in this society, so it belongs to society. There is plenty of money if we want to do this, it’s just in the wrong places. And they waste resources and pollute, too.

I don’t exaggerate here. I am putting things forcefully, in words they would not fully endorse, but if you take their comments one by one and look at the content, this is it. I am not projecting out the eventual consequences of what they are saying – this is the base content of what they are saying.

It is dramatically circular. The good people want X. Then who is against X? Why, it must be bad people. In fact, I have stories about how bad they are. Okay, anyone can be bad and no one’s perfect, but we’ve told them and told them that this is wrong and they still don’t get it. Maybe they’re stupid instead of bad. So what, ultimately, should good people do about bad stupid people? Oppose them, of course. And we oppose them. Which proves we’re good.

These are all people with graduate degrees. They could know these answers, understand the opposing POV’s, if they wanted to.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Capital Punishment

I changed my position on this over 20 years ago, but now think I am changing back. I once heard a patient claim that her mother had “done a complete 240” on something, and bizarrely, this turned out to be true. I trust I am not that bizarre, but as my reasons are not what they were, perhaps I should cop to that. There are many angles to this argument, and I seldom feel confident I am taking the best one. However, I do have a surprising contradiction or inversion I had not thought of before. Which is why you all visit, right?

I have always accepted the idea that for the state to take life is an enormous thing. I have sometimes thought it so enormous as to be a net loss in treating life as sacred, whatever the deterrent and justice effects. At other times I have thought it a net gain; yet always, a high cost. Reading a comparison between the Mosaic Law and the systems of the other peoples of the time, historian Paul Johnson noted that the Jews had capital punishment because life was sacred, not in spite of it. It was not used for crimes against property, but for crimes against life*. You could not buy your way out of it, no matter how rich you were. If a rich man killed a slave his life was still forfeit, because the slave’s life was sacred and could not be bought for mere money. This has generally not been the view of most peoples in most places. The natural tendency of fallen humanity seems to be that some lives are more sacred than others, and being well-connected could, in many circumstances, get you off the hook.

I had not thought of capital punishment as an expression of life’s sacredness before, but as an exception. I don’t know that looking through the telescope the other way like this changes my whole opinion. But it gives me pause, and is worth thinking about.

*As with every other culture, crimes “against the natural order,” variously defined, could be reinterpreted as crimes against life, and warrant execution.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Terri at Wheat Among Tares linked to this article about Halloween by Internet Monk, who I have great respect for.

This would be something else I got wrong, then.

Best of August 2006

Events in the Middle-East, and the reasoning by progressives about them, were in prominence that month. Some folks believe they can't negotiate with their ex-husband, or agency management, or Republicans, but you can negotiate with Hezbollah and Nasrallah. Religious liberals reject the principles of the health-and-wealth gospel, but think the same approach works just fine with international peace efforts. A third group cannot chuck their favorite soapbox even for a moment. Copithorne was in the comments section then.

I made fun of the French, who are now making more sense than we are in international relations. Things change rapidly, don't they?

I had three more general thought pieces, about Shame Cultures and Guilt Cultures in The Civil War (I'm sorry, I meant the War of Northern Aggression); how slowly ideas got exchanged in the past and how quickly they do now; and my little contribution to the Free Will/Determinism debate, Freer Will.

I also linked to articles over at City Journal which remain pertinent.

To Correct Impressions

In my discussion of the National Geographic impression of the history of humankind versus the Genesis impression, I may have given one incorrect impression myself. From 50-150 years ago, historians and prehistorians would have generally agreed that The early books of the Bible were not stories about actual people, but collective legends only, perhaps based on an occasional real figure or event in the dim past, but no longer historically reliable in any way. As historian Paul Johnson notes, both the Wellhausen (Critical Method, Documentary Hypothesis) followers and the fundamentalists had a comforting simplicity to their ideas: The fundamentalists that the Bible was always literally true word for word, the scholars that it never was.

While this rejective view of historicity is no longer the norm among Biblical historians and archaeologists, it is still widely held, especially among those who were educated in other fields years ago. The pendulum has swung again. Further texts have been found and read, sites have been excavated, and odd things have turned up. It has come along in fits and starts - finding records of high-ranking officials with Semitic names in Egypt in the 13th-14th Centuries BCE, for example gives weight to the idea that the story of Joseph is based on a real person. Alluvial deposits in the correct strata give credence to The Flood. Descriptions of alliances and covenants similar to those we find in the Abraham story not only support the idea that such a one existed, but also shed light on the meaning of previously obscure references.

Obscure references - that is the really telling part. The 19th C German school which taught that much of Genesis and Exodus were compiled much much later by priests attempting to retroactively justify the claims of the Israelites is now pretty thoroughly discredited. There was simply too much that people wrote down that they could not have understood, but preserved because they believed it came from God and had to be copied exactly. The heroes had feet of clay, and some passages actually undermine the later claims. They copied and preserved in honesty, emphatically not trying to make it any better than it was.


Checking the archives for my Best of August 2006 post, I encountered my Vice of Tolerance post on the same day I had read Weisshaupt's fascinating post over at Town Hall How To Argue With A Statist. His section on Non-Judgementalism makes an observation I had not thought of before. While conservatives have long noted the judgementalism of progressives, despite their protestations, Weisshaupt makes the underlying dynamic clearer. Progressives see themselves as nondiscriminatory because they add no personal discriminations to the group norms. The relinquish the decision for what to deplore to the group. Weisshaupt makes it as strong as to claim that they defer that right to the state, but I think that goes too far. Liberals accede to their group norms, their tribal norms, of who can be judged - those are not universal in America.

In this way, Statists find “freedom” from personal and moral responsibility for their own actions, and transfer the responsibility for decisions and/or the consequences that arise from them to the entity of the “State”, which hereafter assumes the (moral) responsibility for everyone decisions and achieving a “fair” result for the community. To a Statist, the only real sin is not adhering to the “state sanctioned” morality. For instance, when the Statist announces that everyone “deserves respect” they are in fact announcing that no one is entitled to form or express an opinion not sanctioned by the community. University Speech Codes, Sexual Harassment Codes, Hate Crime Legislation and “political correctness” are all attempts to make “being offensive” a crime and thus punish those who deviate from the automatic reactions desired. Dissent is variously characterized by the Statist as “racist”, “sexist”, “hateful”, “greedy”, “mean” etc. These are all ad-hominem attacks to diminish and dismiss the speaker in an attempt to avoid confronting the opinion.

It fits my many rants on liberalism as a social, rather than intellectual phenomenon. Acceding to the group norm of what opinions one should have about various groups is a way of social signaling membership, or at least desired membership, in the group.

There are other intriguing concepts in Weisshaupt's essay.