Sunday, August 28, 2005

Terrifying Image

From the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, via Wikipedia:

Update: Another good blog following Katrina here. The latest information is that it may only be a strong Category 4 by the time it hits New Orleans; but they're still predicting that the damage will be catastrophic.

Update (Monday, 11:30 a.m.): From Dr. Jeff Marsters' Wunderblog: "The storm's passage to the east of the city means that New Orleans has escaped the catastrophic blow a direct hit would have delivered, and heavy loss of life is not expected in New Orleans.... Katrina is not hitting at maximum intensity and is sparing New Orleans a direct hit, and although the damage will be incredible, it could have been much, much worse." Thank God!! Although what has happened looks terrible enough.

More Katrina Links

It's like that moment on the 9/11 video when the plane is just about to smash into the tower, but paused; or like one of those nightmares where something is coming but you can't run, you're stuck for no discernable reason. Horror beyond imagining is about to erupt, but not quite yet: a slow-motion descent into hell. God help us.

Here is a complete transcript of the 2002 NPR story about the possibility of a hurricane hitting New Orleans which I linked to earlier (via). Here's a picture accompanying the story, showing how high they think the water might go:

The Hurricane Katrina Wikipedia page is surprisingly detailed.

Wunder blog is keeping track of things closely. Another useful dedicated news blog (mostly repostings, it looks like, but seems like a good selection) on Katrina is here.

The New York Times has a beginning of an answer to my question earlier about the Louisiana National Guard:

Many of Louisiana's national guard forces are currently deployed to Iraq, but the general in charge of the Louisiana troops "has 1,500 troops ready to be deployed, with another couple of thousand that they can tap into pretty quickly," Mr. Nagin said in the CNN interview.

CNN is reporting that Katrina has shut down (not may -- has already) 1/3 of U.S. domestic oil production. Prices are likely to soar, at least temporarily.

Maps of the storm's forecast path.

There's an almost apocalyptic warning from the National Weather Service here. Here's the heart of it:






(Update: Links added.)

Impending Disaster

There are a lot of things that the U.S. doesn't do very well. One of them is prepare for large but distant threats -- particularly those from natural causes (of course, Bush is doing a disastrous job at treating human-made threats such as terrorism as well, but that's another story). One looming disaster is an avian flu pandemic -- a possibility for which the U.S. is grossly unprepared, and which some experts now estimate as having a 100% possibility of occurring. I don't know why we're so bad at this -- I think that the U.S.'s increasing disdain for science is one reason; I think that simplistic free-market ideologies which attack the very notion of government planning is another.

But I'm horrified to note that another concern that has been long foreseen -- a hurricane making a direct hit on New Orleans -- may be about to occur. Hurricane Katrina is now a category 4 storm, and is heading straight for the city. People are evacuating, but of course not everyone can afford to. (The AP is reporting that at least 100,000 people lack transportation out of town.) I'm terrified to think what could happen.

(Less immediate, but also worrying, is the possibility of major oil disruptions from the storm, and economic havoc that would result. And yes, peak oil is yet another large and distant threat we are horrifically unprepared for.)

Weather is unpredictable; perhaps recent efforts to make preparations will have been adequate. But I'm very worried.

If you're the praying type, now's the time.

Update (Sun 11 a.m.): Katrina is now a Category 5 hurricane -- as high as they go. (Only three category 5 hurricanes have hit the U.S. since they began keeping track.) The Mayor of New Orleans has issued a mandatory evacuation order.

Chris Mooney published a good article warning of this possibility a few months ago in the American Prospect for anyone looking for a little background.

Update (2:15 p.m.): "So basically the part of New Orleans that most Americans, and most of the world, think of as the city could disappear, under the water." "Some scientists think that 40,000 people killed is a conservative estimate." Those are quotes from an 2002 NPR story on the possibility of a disaster should a hurricane hit New Orleans. It's well worth a listen. (I'm just assuming that anyone reading this is safely out of the way...) Part one is here, part two is here. (Via a comment on Daily Kos.) Daily Kos also has a thread of people offering help and shelter. It is heartening to see people reach out, horrible though the necessity is...

A thought occurs. I wonder how much of the Louisiana national guard won't be able to help with the emergency because they're in Iraq?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Further Selections from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Picking up more or less where I left off last time, here are some further selections from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Notes in parentheses and italics are mine.


DUKE OF LIMBS. A tall, awkward, ill-made fellow.

DUMB-FOUNDED. Silenced, also soundly beaten.


ELBOW GREASE. Labour. Elbow grease will make an oak table shine.
(Also included with definitions essentially identical to the modern meaning: elbow-room; eves dropper; eye sore; fat headed; to feather one's nest; feint; to fence (in the sense of to sell stolen goods); fidgets; flabby; freshman; gang; gift of gab (as gift of the gab); gingerly; and many others. In some cases, it feels surprising that the slang goes back so far; in some, that it was listed as simply slang (and not regular English) then.)

ELF. A fairy or hobgoblin, a little man or woman.

EMPEROR. Drunk as an emperor, i.e. ten times as drunk as a lord.

FAGGOT. A man hired at a muster to appear as a soldier.

FALLEN AWAY FROM A HORSE LOAD TO A CART LOAD. A saying on one grown fat.

FAM LAY. Going into a goldsmith's shop, under pretence of buying a wedding ring, and palming one or two, by daubing the hand with some viscous matter.

FAULKNER. A tumbler, juggler, or shewer of tricks; perhaps because they lure the people, as a faulconer does his hawks. CANT.

FICE, or FOYSE. A small windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs. See FIZZLE.

FINGER POST. A parson: so called, because he points out a way to others which he never goes himself. Like the finger post, he points out a way he has never been, and probably will never go, i.e. the way to heaven.

FIRING A GUN. Introducing a story by head and shoulders. A man wanting to tell a particular story, said to the company, Hark! did you not hear a gun?--but now we are talking of a gun, I will tell you the story of one.

FLABAGASTED. Confounded. (Note it's not "flabbergasted".)

FLY-BY-NIGHT. You old fly-by-night; an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying that she was a witch, and alluding to the nocturnal excursions attributed to witches, who were supposed to fly abroad to their meetings, mounted on brooms.

FORTUNE TELLER, or CUNNING MAN. A judge, who tells every prisoner his fortune, lot or doom. To go before the fortune teller, lambskin men, or conjuror; to be tried at an assize. See LAMBSKIN MEN.

FRUITFUL VINE. A woman's private parts, i.e. that has FLOWERS every month, and bears fruit in nine months.

GAG. An instrument used chiefly by housebreakers and thieves, for propping open the mouth of a person robbed, thereby to prevent his calling out for assistance.

GALIMAUFREY. A hodgepodge made up of the remnants and scraps of the larder.

GAMON AND PATTER. Common place talk of any profession; as the gamon and patter of a horse-dealer, sailor, &c.

GARRET ELECTION. A ludicrous ceremony, practised every new parliament: it consists of a mock election of two members to represent the borough of Garret (a few straggling cottages near Wandsworth in Surry); the qualification of a voter is, having enjoyed a woman in the open air within that district: the candidates are commonly fellows of low humour, who dress themselves up in a ridiculous manner. As this brings a prodigious concourse of people to Wandsworth, the publicans of that place jointly contribute to the expence, which is sometimes considerable.

GENTLEMAN OF THREE OUTS. That is, without money, without wit, and without manners: some add another out, i.e. without credit.

To GIGGLE. To suppress a laugh. Gigglers; wanton women.

GODFATHER. He who pays the reckoning, or answers for the rest of thecompany: as, Will you stand godfather, and we will take care of the brat; i.e. repay you another time. Jurymen are also called godfathers, because they name the crime the prisoner before them has been guilty of, whether felony, petit larceny, &c.

GOOD MAN. A word of various imports, according to the place where it is spoken: in the city it means a rich man; at Hockley in the Hole, or St. Giles's, an expert boxer; at a bagnio in Covent Garden, a vigorous fornicator; at an alehouse or tavern, one who loves his pot or bottle; and sometimes, though but rarely, a virtuous man

GORMAGON. A monster with six eyes, three mouths, four arms, eight legs, live on one side and three on the other, three arses, two tarses, and a *** upon its back; a man on horseback, with a woman behind him.

TO GOUGE. To squeeze out a man's eye with the thumb: a cruel practice used by the Bostonians in America.

GRANNY. An abbreviation of grandmother; also the name of an idiot, famous for licking, her eye, who died Nov. 14, 1719. Go teach your granny to suck eggs; said to such as would instruct any one in a matter he knows better than themselves.

Shorter David Brooks (Now in Three Flavors!)

I managed to find two people who don't think that Iraq's constitutional situation is totally FUBAR.

Alternative paraphrase:

Bush's most insightful critics are those who actually don't criticize him at all.

Yet another paraphrase:

Notwithstanding its being written in English by US Embassy staff members, the new constitution is deeply Iraqi.

Choices, choices...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Quote of the Day

SNYDER: One day the campus is completely bare. Empty. The next, there are children everywhere. Like locusts. Crawling around, mindlessly bent on feeding and mating. Destroying everything in sight in their relentless, pointless desire to exist.
GILES: I do enjoy these pep talks. Have you ever considered, given your abhorrence of children, school's principal was not, perhaps, your true vocation?
SNYDER: Somebody's got to keep an eye on them.

-- Joss Whedon, "When She Was Bad", Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Monday, August 22, 2005

Why Does It Still Matter?

Liberal hawks are saying that we need to debate what to do in Iraq now -- and that the issue of whether support for the war was justified (or even justifiable) in March 2003, and the issue of who-supported-what-when, is now moot. Those of us on the left side of the spectrum -- those who were always against the war, or who turned against it early and seriously (i.e. not with a quick, defensive, dismissive mea culpa but with genuine regret) -- tend, not monolithically but in general, to say that no, it still matters. (Though of course we also need to discuss what to do now.) So the question is why? Why does it still matter?

This is important in part because the desire (or even demand) for extended expressions of self-recrimination are at best unseemly, and at their worst have an air of communist-style "self-criticism" about them. Further, those on the pro-war left seem to think that some of the attitude of the left is akin to gloating -- we-were-right-and-you-were-wrong. And while I would emphatically deny the implications of "gloating" -- no one with the slightest bit of sense is in the least bit happy about the horrendous situation we have gotten ourselves into -- I do think that, at least in some cases, the desire for extended mea culpas is driven by a not-very-admirable desire to have them admit that they were wrong -- a desire that is not due to gloating but to helpless, heartbroken rage: damnit, if you had just seen this back in the day, maybe -- not likely but maybe -- we could have stopped this thing. I know this is true because it's true of me: it is frustrating and depressing that everything that has gone wrong was so clear, the size of the blunder so utterly evident, and yet that even people supposedly on our side aided and abetted it.

But there are other reasons -- good reasons -- that this still matters. Let me list some of them.

First of all, there is historical truth. I know, I know: that sounds quaint. Yet as a historian, an academic, a person who spends much of his life engaged with ideas, I find it important. Call me silly, but I do.

Second, there is the political issue. This war is, at this point, desperately unpopular. And, as much as any war has ever been, this is a war due to a single, particular individual: George W. Bush. This is an issue that should hang around the Republicans' neck like a loadstone for a generation. Yet this can't happen, won't happen, so long as many of the most prominent democrats still support the decision to go war -- even in retrospect. Insofar as this is a political issue, it is not an issue of having-to-have-been-right: but you need to be right now. Whether they say they were lied to or say that given the administration's now-evident incompetence they now think--, or whatever, democrats need to be united on the idea that this war was wrong. It seems crass to treat a horror of this magnitude as a political issue. But to prevent future horrors -- and ongoing policy disasters -- we need to do so. Certainly the other side has done so, and is doing so, a thousandfold more than we have (Bush evoked 9-11 as an excuse for Iraq most recently today.) So all the prominent democrats -- DLCers, Biden, Clinton, Kerry, the lot -- need to say, strongly and clear, that we should not have done this.

Third, there is the issue of avoiding future mistakes. This is really one we should have learned from Vietnam. While there are, of course, numerous differences -- there always are, in any two historical situations -- the similarities are so strong that we really should have seen this coming. If we can't now see that this was a mistake we'll just make it again in twenty years -- or whenever Bush decides to invade Iran -- which, I think, will be right after the next terrorist attack in this country (attacks that his Iraq policy have, of course, made more not less likely, and which his other policies have done little (certainly far, far less than they ought to have) to prevent). The mainstream, centrist, liberal establishment supported the Vietnam war for years; they were wrong, and should have known it at the beginning (certainly from the point of major escalation in 1965; and they should have asked questions that they did not of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964). The mainstream, centrist, liberal establishment supported the Iraq war, and they were wrong again: if we are to avoid another go-around of this, we need to make this very clear -- in the culture, in the Democratic party, and in leftist circles generally. This is all the more crucial because even those liberal hawks who have admitted that they were wrong seem, generally, to have not come to grips with why they were wrong (about which more in a moment), tending instead to focus on the safe ground of 'we should have known that the Administration would mess it up' -- true, but not the whole story.

Finally, and most crucially, there is the fact that they are still making the same mistakes today. Whether this is true of the various intellectuals, think-tanks and consultants who continue to support the war or not I'm not certain, although I suspect it is. But it seems unquestionably clear of the actual, front-line politicians, including most of the people who -- alas, alas -- are currently in the front of the running for the 2008 Democratic nomination. They are currently supporting policies for the same reason that they, disastrously, supported the war.

What do I mean by that? (Since obviously they are not now saying that Iraq has/had WMD and is/was a threat!) To answer that, we need to get at the root of why they supported the Iraq war in the first place. I can't bring myself to believe that, at root, it was about WMDs, or any of the other myriad reasons that were given for supporting the war. I can't believe that because it was so clearly wrong at the time, as was evident by the fact that damn-near 40% of the country (and most of the civilized world outside of it) opposed the war, stating clearly that it was wrong: that, fundamentally, Iraq was no threat to us. (We may have thought Iraq had some minor WMDs (i.e. not nukes, not smallpox) lying around, but we thought that Iraq was not a threat -- particularly given the genuine threat that other countries, to say nothing of Al Queada, presented.) If a large group of people are saying something, and it turns out to be true, then it is hard to credit those who say that they could not have known it at the time. We are entitled, I think, to look elsewhere for an explanation.

And I think the explanation is, in a nutshell, to look tough. They were afraid, post-9/11, of looking weak -- to the public, to other policymakers, pundits, establishment intellectuals, and so forth -- and thus supported this war without thinking it through. They ignored the reasons to think it would be a mistake -- probably less in the sense of deliberately and consciously turning away from them, but more in the manner of never looking at them with unjaundiced eyes in the first place. They dismissed those who made the arguments that have turned out to be right as peaceniks, or weak, or even anti-American -- and thus did not see the truth of what we were saying.

A big part of this is what Publius insightfully called "the other Vietnam syndrome", which he described as follows:

The original “Vietnam syndrome” referred to the reluctance of Americans to send troops to war after the fall of Saigon. The critique that many conservatives and hawkish liberals made was that this reluctance morphed into irrational knee-jerk hostility to the use of any and all military force. What I call the “other Vietnam syndrome” is precisely the opposite. It refers to the mindset of those who are so anxious to distance themselves from the anti-war movement of the 60s that they have developed an irrational and knee-jerk acceptance of any and all exercises of military force.

What is crazy about this, as Publius goes on to note, is that this "other Vietnam syndrome" persists in spite of the fact that -- as most Americans as well as most historians and policymakers (or at least centrist and liberal policymakers) now believe -- the anti-war movement was right about Vietnam: we should have gotten out long before we did; it was a mistake to be there in the first place. This is mirrored in the fact that, in Timothy Noah's words (quoted by Publius in his post), mainstream Democrats continue to make "support for a mistaken policy [invading Iraq] a litmus test" because "it shows that the person in question is willing to project U.S. force abroad" -- which Noah calls the D.C. consensus and "completely insane". (Indeed, some people are still arguing for reading people out of the party on essentially this basis!)

In other words, people, even those who now admit it was a mistake, are still only listening to those who supported the invasion of Iraq because it makes them look tough.

But I fear that this is the main motivation behind the centrist Democratic support for Bush's non-policy policy of "staying the course" -- certainly for the (essentially cowardly) politicians of the DLC-persuasion who support the war out of a pathological fear of looking weak, despite the fact that majorities of Americans now think it was a mistake (to say nothing of the fact that it has clearly made the U.S. far less secure in numerous ways), but probably also for the pundit/consultant/intellectual class as well.

Now, people are right that we need to have a debate about what to do now. (This seems like a good opening salvo to me.) I'm not saying that people have to support a withdraw-now position to be taken seriously. I am saying that people have to recognize that a concern for American security sometimes leads to not using force to be taken seriously. Even aside from the historical, political and future-policy necessity of seeing and openly saying that this war was wrong which I outline above, I -- and many on the left -- find it almost impossible to take seriously anything that establishment, centrist, pro-war liberals have to say on the 'what-should-we-do-now' issue without some sense that they have gotten over this "other Vietnam syndrome". Until liberal hawks see not only that they were wrong but why they were wrong, they will continue to distort their policy recommendations out of a misguided desire to look tough. Until they make it clear that they see why they were wrong, those of us who were right about this war are, I think, justified in distrusting their judgment on the what-to-do-now issue -- since they are still looking at this war with jaundiced eyes.

The country should never again blindly support a war out of a desire to be tough. But I would hope that, above all, liberal hawks would see that they in particular should never again dismiss those who question the use of military force as unconcerned with American security, as knee-jerk pacifist or weak or antiwar or anti-American, given that they have themselves shown themselves to be knee-jerk prowar, blindly in favor of a policy which has made America less safe. Let their mistake in supporting this disastrous war teach them that at least, lest we continue making the same mistakes over and over again.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Once More Around the Web

Good reading from various places:

Majikthise threads her way through some thorny issues: chickenhawk hypocrisy, the problem with liberals opposing 'sleaze' on TV, and who can cry racism.

Ten questions to ask your history teacher, and God: a Career Retrospective (both via).

Publius thinks about the Iraqi constitution from a Madisonian perspective.

The Nation on the problem of the institutional encrustation of the pro-war Democrats, and related article from The American Prospect on the responsibility of pro-war pundits.

James Wolcott pairs two texts on the Iraq war -- one from highly noted academic Immanuel Wallerstein from what can only be described as his blog (albeit a blog avant la lettre). Who knew?

David Morse at TomDispatch on how oil is driving the genocide in Darfur.

Jason Kuznicki on How Not to Make Me Ex-Gay (via).

Digby on one thing that's helping create the Democrats' image problem, and how to start fixing it. (And, from a while back, on Bush's ongoing lies and the press's refusal to call him on them.)

Shakespeare's Sister does some necessary critiquing of friends-we-don't-need.

And lastly, another web comic I can recommend, Hereville by Barry Deutsch (of Alas, a blog fame) which demonstrates, among other things, that "troll killing is just not a Shabbos thing". Start here.

Update: links added.

Another Argument Against Intelligent Design

There's an argument against Intelligent Design creationism that I've not seen anyone make yet. (It's implicit here or there, but I've not seen it articulated as a separate argument.)

Most of the arguments against Intelligent Design have, rightly, focused on the fact that it's bogus -- that it's claims are either untestable and unfalsifiable (and hence not scientific at all) or are claims which have been tested and falsified already. This seems contradictory, incidentally, because Intelligent Design itself is nothing very coherent: it makes a grab-bag of bad claims of all sorts: unfalsifiable metaphysical claims, simple lies about science, presenting specific outstanding scientific questions (which there are of course, that's how science works) as if they somehow falsified evolutionary theory as a whole, deceptions based upon misunderstandings about the nature of science (i.e. what the word "theory" means in a scientific context), etc, ad nausuem. These are the main arguments made because it's the key point: ID's simply bogus (I prefer the word "bogus" because it covers both "wrong" and "unfalsifiable" and "deceptive" -- the various different ways various ID claims are, well, bogus.)

The other major argument -- about why the "teach the controversy" position (recently adopted by Bush) is wrong -- focuses on the fact that ID is a trojan horse. It's not science, but an attempt to teach religion in science class as if it were science. (No one opposes teaching religion in classes about religion, as long as it's not a single religion being promoted.) The key thing to understand here is that ID was engineered -- quite deliberately -- to work around the 1987 Supreme Court decision declaring the teaching of "Creation Science" to be a violation of the first amendment's disestablishment of religion: don't mention who the designer is (though everyone knows, nudge-nudge, wink-wink), hide your religions motivations (although they come out when ID's proponents let their hair down), and so forth. This is why ID shouldn't be taught in science classes: it's teaching a religious point of view in badly-fitting secular drag.

But I think there's another argument to be made as well. Assume for the sake of argument that ID is what its leading proponents say it is: a scientific challenge, made on scientific grounds, challenging evolution for purely scientific reasons and not ulterior motives. (Just to be clear: this is what philosophers call an assumption-contrary-to-fact, i.e. it isn't true; we're just assuming it is for the sake of this argument.) Even given this assumption, ID still shouldn't be taught in public high schools -- to say nothing of junior high schools, etc., nor in basic biology classes at the college level. (This particular argument doesn't hold for advanced classes (though of course the others do.))

Why not? Because the point of basic science education -- such as that of junior high, high school and introductory college classes -- is to teach basic science (and the scientific method, etc.) A fringe theory, one not yet accepted broadly in the scientific community, simply has no place there. Sure, this means that years after a student takes their classes, some of what they were taught will have been rendered obsolete -- but that's because of what makes science good, namely that it progresses. But since we can't know in advance where science is going, what basic science classes must teach are the best science of the day -- not fringe theories that have yet to gain acceptance.

This is obvious if we look at any other scientific controversy. I believe that there are still scientists who are promoting the idea of cold fusion -- but I'm sure that they themselves would agree that it shouldn't be taught in basic science classes until it gains wider acceptance. Certainly no one else would think so. Similarly with any other minority theory -- including ones that have come to be widely held, back when they were fringe theories: for a time the notion of continental drift was accepted only by a few -- and no one thought it should be taught in high schools; only when the evidence became overwhelming for it did it enter the basic curriculum.

Of course, in some cases a dispute is too live and too central to ignore. For instance, at least the last time I checked (if anyone has any more up to date info, email me) there was an ongoing question about human evolution, whether humans evolved into essentially their present-day state in Africa before spreading out into Asia, Europe and elsewhere, or whether earlier forms of primates spread out, and modern day humans evolved (as it were) all over, with enough interbreeding to keep us all one species. (I've never understood how the second makes sense, so perhaps I'm explaining it wrong. But of course it doesn't matter what I think; the vague understanding of laymen is not what matters in science, as is sort of the whole point here.) So if talking about human evolution, perhaps you'd have to mention both theories, at least until the evidence becomes clearer. But of course ID is not any such theory. The overwhelming majority of scientists reject it. It hasn't even published any real papers in peer-reviewed journals (except for one review essay shoved in against journal policy by a partisan editor.) So even if you (as per our contrary-to-fact assumption) take ID to be simply a scientific movement, there is absolutely no reason to teach it in high schools. It's just too fringe. Wait until it becomes a major movement, with serious scientific support, and then think about teaching it. If ID people were serious scientists, they'd agree -- no rush, wait until the evidence is in and more scientists become convinced. This, incidentally, is why ID proponents always talk about a growing controversy: to make it look like it's winning, not only for Rovian-people-join-the-winning-side reasons, but so as to make the idea of teaching it in schools look a little less ridiculous.

So why do people want it taught? Here, alas, is where our contrary-to-fact assumption breaks down (as they tend to do, since they are, well, contrary-to-fact). People want it taught for non scientific reasons -- specifically, for religious (or political and religious) reasons. Its major proponents -- Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski and the like -- don't want to wait for more evidence to roll in because they're not waiting for evidence at all. Maybe it's because they're insincere, and know that what they're promoting is bunk and will never get more evidence. But even if they sincerely believe what they claim (and who knows, really), they are pushing it into schools for reasons other than those (supposedly) scientific reasons. If they simply wanted to get to the scientific truth, they'd wait: all sorts of developing science isn't taught in basic science classes, if it catches on it will be, until then what's the rush? But they want to undermine what they see as a tool of atheism -- evolutionary theory, and a materialist worldview more generally. (They've been explicit about this from time to time, although they try to hide it since it damages their strategy of appearing neutral for legal reasons.) Their goals, in other words, are religious, philosophical and political -- not scientific; and this is true even if they believe what they claim.

(Now, as I understand it, the current position of the Discovery (sic) Institute is that ID shouldn't be taught -- so to that extent they're honest, or at least trying to appear so -- but that the "problems" with evolution should be. But their supposed problems with evolution are as bunk as their notions on ID -- and the same argument applies: if they were serious about this as science and only as science, they wouldn't want these arguments taught until they'd gained wider acceptance. Pushing the teaching of so-called problems with evolution is simply one form of pushing the teaching of ID. For that matter, all that ID is is a bunch of bogus arguments against evolution -- there's no positive program there at all (as its proponents will also admit in unguarded moments.) So despite their attempt to appear fair, DI really is pushing for ID to be taught in the schools.)

That's the central proponents, most of whom are associated with the Discovery Institute. (Dear Lord, the very fact that a think-tank is the center of a purportedly scientific movement should be a dead giveaway!) But for the majority of proponents -- school board members, politicians, preachers and sundry other citizens who are pushing for ID to be taught on a local level -- it's even clearer. After all, most of them believe, frankly, in creationism. And therefore they're even less disciplined about hiding their religious motives than the central proponents are. (That's why the Discovery Institute is discomfited by the case in Dover, Pennsylvania: the Dover school board was too open about its religious motives, and thus are hurting the essentially deceptive legal strategy of ID.) Probably some of these other ID proponents don't understand the legal background and thus the necessity to hide their religious motives; probably others feel that they oughtn't to have to hide them and are frankly in favor of putting partisan religious views into public schools, the first amendment be damned (literally, I suppose). Whatever the reasons, though, they are far more open about it -- they will talk about teaching "divine design", for instance, which really messes up the ID/DI legal strategy, or openly say they are for ID because they believe in creationism, which does so even more. In other words, they see ID as essentially equivalent to creationism -- legally acceptable, but basically the same thing. (So at least on one issue, they're right.) Which is why they want it taught.

The very fact that people are pushing for ID to be taught in public schools shows that their motives are not scientific but religious (and/or political). The very fact that people are pushing for ID to be taught in public schools shows why it shouldn't be.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Freedom, Property and Capitalism

Recommendation time. Elizabeth Anderson is a philosopher at the University of Michigan, a former student of John Rawls -- and a blogger, on the site Left2Right. Since January she has been doing a series of posts on the relationship of property and freedom which are simply magnificent -- the very best that the blogosphere has to offer. They are in a very philosophic vein, and assume a familiarity with the basic ideas of, e.g., Locke; but they're clear and well written and unless you're absolutely allergic to that sort of thing, I recommend them as strongly as I can. They are all really one series, but so far they have run under two titles; first, a series called How Not to Complain About Taxes parts One, Two, Three and Four, and then So You Want to Live in a Free Society, parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five. She's written a lot of other good posts on other (sometimes related) topics too (e.g. this one), but this series is magisterial.

As befits a student of Rawls, the series is clearing going to end up being a defense of the redistributionist welfare state -- but a defense based not on justice per se but rather on the value of (ultimately) freedom and of private property as an essential part of that. Anderson is doing some intellectual work that is part of a project which is, I think, absolutely crucial to rebuilding a sane politics in this country, namely, reclaiming the mantle of pro-capitalism and pro-private property from the rather simplistic libertarian philosophy that currently claims it as its own in public debate. Private property is essential to freedom -- but not absolutely unrestricted use of private property, nor is it a matter of natural right or individual desert, all of which Anderson argues for eloquently. Libertarianism is a very appealing stance in American political debate, but one which is not only simplistic, but is, I think, ultimately dishonest at any number of levels (in its honest versions, which certainly exist, it isn't really appealing to very many people). Separating the argument for property-based-freedom from libertarian assumptions is crucial intellectual work -- and Anderson is doing it. (Along the way, she is demonstrating rigorously something which many people (including me) have long thought, namely, that so-called libertarians don't care so much about liberty as about property. Property is necessary for liberty -- but so are other things, so the two can conflict; and in the conflict libertarians pick property over liberty just about every time. (Again, there are exceptions.) Anderson hasn't gone into the issue of libertarianism explicitly yet -- she's building up slowly -- but the implications of her arguments are already quite clear, I think.) Anderson is an enthusiast for private property (as she's said a few times, she wants everyone to have access to it!) and is in particular an enthusiast for capitalism, and the expansion of opportunities -- liberty, really -- that it provides. But she is a liberal capitalist, in a way that strengthens both liberalism and capitalism.

The most recent post segues into a contemporary political topic, making a powerful argument for why pharmacists should not be able to refuse service to customers based on their religious convictions (e.g. against premarital sex), as is currently being pushed politically. Her argument here rests on her earlier work, although I think one can summarize it by saying that she sees it as analogous to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the reasons that storekeepers can't, and oughtn't be able to, refuse to serve someone because of their race. But this simply shows the good ground work she's doing, making arguments which can then be put to powerful intellectual and political use.

I have some ideas of my own on these issues -- influenced and inspired by hers in large part -- ideas which are probably closer to the realm of pure political argument than the sort of philosophy that Anderson is doing. But I don't know if/when I'll write them, so in the meantime, go read Anderson. She's terrific.

My biggest beef with the series, really, is that what she's saying is too important to be left in such academic, philosophically-sophisticated terms. Her basic ideas (e.g. for property as a basis of freedom, but not on the grounds of natural right nor of desert; the issue of the two notions of freedom, the necessity of both but the primacy of freedom-as-opportunity) could be phrased in much more popular ways -- ways in which they might begin to do some healing on the deeply sick political discourse in this country. Her work on this topic is too important to be left to the philosophers. Which is one more reason I strongly encourage everyone to read it -- the more people who do, the better chance of these ideas spreading further and deeper into the culture then they can from these essays alone.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

A few selections from the

1811 Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue:
A dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pickpocket eloquence.
Unabridged from the original 1811 edition with a foreword by Robert Cromie
Compiled originally by Captain Grose.
And now considerably altered and enlarged, with the modern
changes and improvements, by a member of the whip club.

Source: I am pleased to see that this is one of the most-downloaded texts from Project Gutenberg -- one of their top 100 from yesterday. (I also just have to mention this version of Beethoven's fifth from Project Gutenberg, which is played by Geof Pawlicki on (I believe) the electronic synthesizer.)

First, quote from the preface:

..we claim not merely the praise of gratifying curiosity, or affording assistance to the ambitious; we are very sure that the moral influence of the Lexicon Balatronicum will be more certain and extensive than that of any methodist sermon that has ever been delivered within the bills of mortality. We need not descant on the dangerous impressions that are made on the female mind, by the remarks that fall incidentally from the lips of the brothers or servants of a family; and we have before observed, that improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before the ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty. It is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of TWIDDLE DIDDLES, or rise from table at the mention of BUCKINGER'S BOOT. Besides, Pope assures us, that "VICE TO BE HATED NEEDS BUT TO BE SEEN;" in this volume it cannot be denied, that she is seen very plainly; and a love of virtue is, therefore, the necessary result of perusing it.
And now, a few selections from the dictionary... Only A - D thus far, but I find these quite amusing, so perhaps I'll post more later.


ACT OF PARLIAMENT. A military term for small beer, five pints of which, by an act of parliament, a landlord was formerly obliged to give to each soldier gratis.

ADMIRAL OF THE NARROW SEAS. One who from drunkenness vomits into the lap of the person sitting opposite to him. SEA PHRASE.

ANKLE. A girl who is got with child, is said to have sprained her ankle.

BABES IN THE WOOD. Criminals in the stocks, or pillory.


BED-MAKER. Women employed at Cambridge to attend on the Students, sweep his room, &c. They will put their hands to any thing, and are generally blest with a pretty family of daughters: who unmake the beds, as fast as they are made by their mothers.

BET. A wager.--TO BET. To lay a wager. (What's interesting about this is that it's listed among such unfamiliar slang. There are a number of these, unsurprisingly; but this is one that struck me. -- SF)

BITCH. A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore, as may he gathered from the regular Billinsgate or St. Giles's answer--"I may be a whore, but can't be a bitch."

BORE. A tedious, troublesome man or woman, one who bores the ears of his hearers with an uninteresting tale; a term much in fashion about the years 1780 and 1781.

BOW-WOW. The childish name for a dog; also a jeering appellation for a man born at Boston in America.

BULL. A blunder; from one Obadiah Bull, a blundering lawyer of London, who lived in the reign of Henery VII. by a bull is now always meant a blunder made by an Irishman. [...]

CATERPILLAR. A nick name for a soldier. In the year 1745, a soldier quartered at a house near Derby, was desired by his landlord to call upon him, whenever he came that way; for, added he, soldiers are the pillars of the nation. The rebellion being finished, it happened the same regiment was quartered in Derbyshire, when the soldier resolved to accept of his landlord's invitation, and accordingly obtained leave to go to him: but, on his arrival, he was greatly surprised to find a very cold reception; whereupon expostulating with his landlord, he reminded him of his invitation, and the circumstance of his having said, soldiers were the pillars of the nation. If I did, answered the host, I meant CATERpiliars.

COMING! SO IS CHRISTMAS. Said of a person who has long been called, and at length answers, Coming!

COMMODITY. A woman's commodity; the private parts of a modest woman, and the public parts of a prostitute.

CORPORATION. A large belly. He has a glorious corporation; he has a very prominent belly.

TO CUT. (Cambridge.) To renounce acquaintance with any one is to CUT him. There are several species of the CUT. Such as the cut direct, the cut indirect, the cut sublime, the cut infernal, &c. The cut direct, is to start across the street, at the approach of the obnoxious person in order to avoid him. The cut indirect, is to look another way, and pass without appearing to observe him. The cut sublime, is to admire the top of King's College Chapel, or the beauty of the passing clouds, till he is out of sight. The cut infernal, is to analyze the arrangement of your shoe-strings, for the same purpose.

DAMNED SOUL. A clerk in a counting house, whose sole business it is to clear or swear off merchandise at the custom-house; and who, it is said, guards against the crime of perjury, by taking a previous oath, never to swear truly on those occasions.

DEVILISH. Very: an epithet which in the English vulgar language is made to agree with every quality or thing; as, devilish bad, devilish good; devilish sick, devilish well; devilish sweet, devilish sour; devilish hot, devilish cold, &c. &c.

DEWITTED. Torn to pieces by a mob, as that great statesman John de Wit was in Holland, anno 1672.

DIVIDE. To divide the house with one's wife; to give her the outside, and to keep all the inside to one's self, i.e. to turn her into the street.

DOVE-TAIL. A species of regular answer, which fits into the subject, like the contrivance whence it takes its name: Ex. Who owns this? The dovetail is, Not you by your asking.

DIE HARD, or GAME. To die hard, is to shew no signs of fear or contrition at the gallows; not to whiddle or squeak. This advice is frequently given to felons going to suffer the law, by their old comrades, anxious for the honour of the gang.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sixty Years Ago Today

"Rest in Peace as we will not make the same mistake twice."

-- Memorial to the victims of the atomic bombing,
Peace Park, Hiroshima (quoted)
Sixty years ago today, the United States destroyed the city of Hiroshima with an atomic bomb.

If nothing else, one thing we need to do today is to remember the victims. Even for those who think that the bombing was morally justified -- and it's a complex issue and a live debate -- it has to have been, at best, the best of bad alternatives: many of the victims were unquestionably innocents, and thus to be mourned. There is an important moral sense in which even justified killing in war is staining; for the biblically inclined, there is 1 Chronicles 28:3, "But God said to me, 'You shall not build a house in My name, because you are a man of war, and you have shed blood.'" And this is what God said to David, his chosen. So whatever you think of the bombing, we should realize that it lessens us, as a nation, that we did it.

But the debate over its justification is, as I say, live. It's necessarily mixed up with the historical debate about the precise circumstances of the bombing. Moral evaluations are deeply dependent upon the conditions of the act: the richer the description, the more accurate the judgment.

In this regard, I noticed in a number of commentaries about the bombing surrounding its sixtieth anniversary implications that the historical consensus had changed in recent years. In particular, Kevin Drum linked to this Weekly Standard essay which talked about recent documents undermining the revisionist theory. I was interested by this, since everything I'd read about the topic (and it had been awhile) dated from a decade ago (or more), so I realized that my understanding of events might well be out of date.

(A depressing sidebar: I must admit that the Weekly Standard essay was not, itself, enough to convince me. Part of this, of course, was that in any active historical debate participants will see things differently, so it is important to get more than one point of view (or at the very least, a point of view which explicitly lays out various schools of thought.) But, honestly, a reasonable part of this was because it was in the Weekly Standard. What I find depressing about this is not simply that I have grown partisan or cynical enough to doubt something solely because it is in a major conservative publication; what I find depressing about it is that I actually think I have good reasons for skepticism. On a great many issues, contemporary conservatives work hard to create the appearance of scholarly debate or factual doubt on issues where there is, in fact, strong scholarly consensus or strong factual basis. Krugman's latest column (also here) was about this, putting the controversy over Intelligent Design creationism in the context of the issues of supply-side economics and global warming; Chris Mooney has a forthcoming book on the topic. But science is only the most extreme instance of this. Bush's political rhetoric is premised upon deception -- and I don't just mean Iraq, but the titling of environmental-gutting bills such things as the "Healthy Forests Initiative". And frankly misleading Republican spin is repeated verbatim across the internet and in right-wing magazines such as the Weekly Standard, too. So yes, at this point, on any controversial fact (save perhaps when it's an "admission against interest", as the lawyers say) I look for additional confirmation if I read it in a conservative publication. Of course the right wing would say, and does say, the precise opposite, that liberals aren't trustworthy: and one might simply say that partisanship is too viscous and intense in this country. But to equate the two is, in my view, deeply mistaken: I am not a relativist, and I don't think that the two sides are equivalent just because they each accuse the other of distortion.)

So I went looking for information about the current state of the historical understanding. As of ten years ago, my impression was that the revisionists had gotten the better of the argument. The revisionist position on the decision to drop the bomb was complex, and there were many takes on it, but the basic point is that the atomic bombings were not necessary to convince Japan to surrender, and that the U.S. knew it (or at least should have given the information they had). There were many parts to this -- that all the Japanese wanted was to keep the emperor as a figurehead, which of course we ultimately agreed to anyway; that the Russian entry into the war was enough to convince them to surrender; and so forth. As Frank notes in his Weekly Standard piece, there were different viewpoints about why the bomb was dropped anyway (to scare the Soviets? bureaucratic inertia? etc). But Frank claimed that this view was no longer tenable.

Well, I dug around, and the best piece I could find on the issue was a historiographic survey by J. Samuel Walker in the April, 2005 issue of Diplomatic History. The essay itself isn't on line, although a summary of it can be found here. Walker claims that in the past decade both the revisionist and the traditional viewpoints on the dropping of the bomb have become untenable, at least in their pure form, and describes a number of different historians' views, all of which stake out a middle ground, but hardly the same middle ground. (Richard Frank, by the way, is one of those historians, and based on my reading of Walker's essay, I think that my fears about his piece in the Weekly Standard were, thankfully, groundless, so I can recommend it -- although it is only one view, and some things he asserts are still in contention, but it is worthwhile reading.) Another view of the recent historiography is Robert Newman's, one version of which can be found here. But I think the following paragraph from near the end of Walker's essay more or less summarizes his findings:

Although those who occupied the middle ground generally agreed with the traditionalist position that Truman used the bomb primarily to shorten the war and save American lives, they rejected the argument that the president faced a stark choice between the bomb and an invasion. They suggested, with varying degrees of certitude, that the war was likely to have ended before an invasion became necessary. And several expressed doubts that had an invasion occurred, the costs in American casualties would have been nearly as large as Truman and other officials claimed after the war. Recent literature on the atomic bomb has inflicted even greater damage on key elements of the revisionist interpretation. It has gravely undermined if not totally refuted the fundamental revisionist tenets that Japan was ready to surrender on the sole condition that the emperor remain on the throne and that American leaders were well aware of Japan's desire to quit the war on reasonable terms.

So, so far as I can tell after a few hours of looking, that is the state of play on the facts surrounding the bombing. If you're interested, I highly recommend digging up a copy of Walker's full article; at the very least, take a look at the summary of it. I must admit that the complexities, multiple possibilities and uncertainties that this view presents seems to me to more accurately reflect human decisions as they are really made than either of the two more extreme views (revisionist or traditionalist).

But it's worth noting that while this historical analysis must influence our moral evaluation, it doesn't by itself determine it. Under the old revisionist theory, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was, fairly clearly, simply an atrocity: the unnecessary slaughter of civilians. The new view complicates this, obviously. Newman among others has pointed out that many civilians were dying each day the war continued (including civilians being killed by Japanese forces who were neither American nor Japanese, victims of Japan's Asian empire); so that arguments that the war might have ended in a few months anyway need to bear these in mind. On the other hand, it seems troublesome at best to argue that it is all right to slaughter civilians if you think that it will achieve good ends, whether those are the end of the militaristic Japanese state or the saving of other civilian lives elsewhere. The new, more complex view of the choices that went into the bombing seems to raise the issue of the basis of moral judgment -- utilitarian v. deontological views (i.e. making moral evaluations based on consequences or on the inherent worth of actions in and of themselves) -- in a fairly stark form: if the bombing was necessary to achieve various ends, does that by itself make it right? I myself tend to be extremely reluctant to say that the killing of civilians, simply as a method in itself without any military aim, is ever all right in wartime: it seems the very definition of terrorism. But the new historiography does make that position more complex than the purer form of the revisionist understanding did.

(Note that this isn't, or shouldn't be, itself a reflection of the contemporary conservative/liberal debate; as has been pointed out before, conservatives were among the first to critique the bombing, and some have called for them to do so again.)

Perhaps, for today, we should simply mourn the dead: innocents who were -- with or without ultimate justification -- killed before their time. By us.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Kirk Poland and Bulwer-Lytton

(Taking a long running start before we get to the main matter:)

Over at Slacktivist, Fred Clark has been doing a series of posts reading/interpreting/commenting on Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins' series of "Left Behind" novels (which for those who don't know are a series of (12?) bestselling novels depicting the apocalypse according to one particular (widespread in America) evangelical interpretation). It's a marvelous series: full of interesting comments on all sorts of things. Clark is a Christian, but -- how to put this tactfully? -- one of those Christians who don't seem to think that Jesus's main message was to further enrich the rich and start lots of wars. He's a good person to read if some of the theocratic tendencies and nastier political positions of today's Christian right start (as they do me from time to time) to bias you against the whole religion thing: a walking and talking, or at any rate posting, example of a man for whom Christianity inspires compassion and intelligence. The Left Behind series is moving extremely slowly, since Clark is doing one post a week, and covering only a handful of pages in each post (he's only halfway through the first one more than twenty-one months!); but as I say it's terrific, a great example of a superb use of the whole format of blogging.

Anyway, in his latest post in the series, Clark takes a brief break from page-by-page interpretation of the novel to examine why bad writing (or at any rate negligently bad writing) is anti-Christian. And in the course of this, he notes the following in passing:

Much of this stuff is simply Bad Writing. Sometimes it can be accidentally entertaining in a Plan 9 From Outer Space way, but usually, like most Bad Writing, it's just boring.

And that brings me, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to my main topic.

Here's the thing: I think that it's true that bad writing is generally dull. So what about Kirk Poland and Bulwer-Lytton?

The Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition is a (more or less) annual event at Readercon, a more-or-less annual SF convention devoted to written SF -- and, during the day, to well-written SF. But on the Saturday night of the convention, time out is taken to mock bad prose. The way this is done is through a variation of the game 'Dictionary'. The moderator of the panel -- by tradition always Craig Shaw Gardner -- reads the first half of a piece of bad SF writing, stopping, in the words of (at least one of the) program guide(s), "in mid-sentence, often in mid-metaphor". Then each of the panelists reads a continuation: four or more false ones, plus the real one. The audience votes for which they think is the real one; a panelist gets a point for each audience member who votes for theirs (the panelists read each other's, of course, or you'd know who wrote what), and the audience itself gets a point for each person who votes for the real one. The audience always does terribly ("We're number four!"). It's always hysterical (though I personally get tired of them and skip a few before going back -- others seem to enjoy them every year without fail.)

Why is it so funny? Well, there are the entries of Craig Shaw Gardner, who unlike the other panelists doesn't try to mimic the style of the bad writing, but is simply flat-out funny (his books are generally humor; he's a very funny guy). Yet the rest is funny also. But I think that this is in large part because of the nature of the event: Craig's delivery is always funny, many of the other panelists' deliveries are too. The mob mentality helps too -- laughter always being promoted by other people laughing. (At least one person has argued that the 'badness' of the prose is largely due to the structure's calling it that, and if it called it good people would believe that as well. I don't agree -- most of the passages are genuinely terrible -- but I think they seem even worse than they are, and certainly funnier, because of the context.) The whole structure of the event -- the delivery, people laughing, the other bad prose, Craig's humor -- makes the wackiness of the bad prose funny rather than just dull. (If I'm right, then the oft-floated idea (by me among many others) of a Kirk Poland anthology, including the entries from past Readercons, just wouldn't work -- it wouldn't be very funny on the page: at best it would be funny for people who had attended the actual event since it would recall the context for them. Still would probably sell well enough to make a few bucks though.)

Okay. But then what about the Bulwer-Lytton contest? This yearly contest -- now more than two decades old, with its results collected in numerous books -- asks for the first sentence of a bad (indeed, I believe of the "worst possible") novel, giving out awards in various categories (by genre, nature of the badness of the prose, etc.) It, too, is very funny. Obviously here too context helps -- reading it labeled as such, amongst other pieces of bad prose, etc.

But I think that many -- I haven't read all that many, honestly, but from what I have read it's a large percentage indeed (if anyone thinks my sample has just been wrong, email me and I'll publish your rebuttal) -- are funny because they aren't bad prose: instead they are actually well-crafted humorous prose, albeit of a certain type -- broad-brush humor rather than narrow scintillating wit. Actually, they remind me of nothing so much as Craig Shaw Gardner's contributions to Kirk Poland.

To show you what I mean, let's take a look at some of the winners.

(Pedantic, micro-scholarly footnote. I started thinking about this because someone forwarded me a purported list of the "top ten" winners of this years contest -- the list is here among other places. But it turns out that the list is no such thing; indeed none of its contents are from this year's winners (the full list of 2005 winners is here). Rather, the list is cobbled together from the promotional material from four of the Dark and Stormy Night collections -- the original one (#1 & 9 on the list) Son of "It was a Dark and Stormy Night" (#7 & 8), Bride of Dark and Stormy (#5, 6 & 10) and It was a Dark and Stormy Night: the Final Conflict (#2, 3 & 4). I don't know who put this particular list together and presented it as a 'Top Ten' (and caused me to have to track all this !@#$% stuff down in the name of possibly-misplaced concern for accuracy); but since they are all actual B-L quotes -- indeed, some of the samples they use to promote their books -- I feel fairly justified in using them. So onward.)

"Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do." This isn't badly written: it's a clever joke, written not in any of the standard formats (story-punchline, cartoon, or whatever) but as a hypothetical first-sentence of a novel. But it's not bad, it's clever -- even witty.

"Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store." Another joke, in this case a pun -- not bad if you like puns, although it's not, y'know, Joyce. But again, there's nothing in this sentence that is bad writing -- at most it's a bad pun (and I don't even think it's that).

"Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back-alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved." This is a bit more complicated: it's two jokes, one pun ("cutting edge of narcissism") plus the main joke (he loves himself, is becoming a woman), plus a silly name. Still, while not good prose, the only thing in it that's arguably "bad" is the name choice -- and, of course, that's part of the humor.

I won't keep belaboring the point, but four others from the list are also, simply, jokes -- and all well written as such. The ones I have in mind are:

As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the sound chamber he would never hear the end of it.

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep.

Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word fear, a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death -- in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.

Jokes, not bad writing. Oh, they may have some characteristics of bad writing (e.g. use of clichés) but they are all using them well (using them to set up a context which makes the joke funny & knocks them down in the process). So of this list of ten entries, by my count fully seven are simply jokes rather than any sort of bad writing.

The one listed as being the "winner" on the list (actually from the promotional materials of the original book) is: "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"" This is mostly a joke -- the part about the princess and the frog certainly is. The first few phrases are, I suppose, genuinely bad writing -- but, of course, in context they just make the joke funnier. I suppose, though, that they come closer to the supposed ideal of the contest, namely 'bad writing'.

One of the remaining ones is funny because it is bad writing. Sure, it's over the top -- and deliberately so (requiring a fair bit of craft to create, of course) -- but unlike most of the ones above, it is funny because it is so bad, rather than because it's a good joke. ("Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.")

Finally, only one is straightforward bad writing -- oh, funny, but funny because it's inane, rather than because it is over-the-top bad like the Santa Claus metaphors or the beginning of the frog/princess one, or because it is simply a joke rewritten as a first sentence. ("Just beyond the Narrows the river widens.")

-- Now, I grant you that any of these might well be the first sentence of a terrible novel if it were actually used as such. But on the other hand, I can actually imagine that any of them might be the first sentence of a very good novel -- not a 'great' novel à la Ulysses or even a 'great' humorous novel, perhaps, but a very good novel of a certain sort, namely, a novel written with a very broad humorous brush -- the sort of prose that you find in Douglas Adams or Woody Allen's written stuff.

Again, someone please tell me if the ones I've picked aren't representative, and I will post their point of view. But looking over the other promotional material, and the various winners from this and other years, it looks to me like this is a fairly reasonable set -- perhaps a bit higher on out-and-out jokes than the others; but then, whatever anonymous fraudster put them together and called them a top ten list presumably did so because they were the funniest -- which is to say, I bet the best parts of the Bulwer-Lytton books are the jokes, with the over-the-top bad writing being fun but not perhaps as funny, with any actual, ordinary bad writing being simply, in the end, filler.

And what of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton's famous first sentence? The sentence, as quoted at the top of the contest's home page, is the first sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, and runs as follows:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Not, I think, that bad a sentence -- purple, certainly by today's standards, but not as bad as most of the stuff made fun of at Kirk Poland. But not particularly funny either.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On Being a Cracked Pot

I do not believe that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election.

But what I want to examine in this blog post is why I don't believe that. The answers are not encouraging.

Shortly before the 2004 election, Ron Suskin wrote a New York Times Magazine article in which he quoted an anonymous Bush administration official as follows:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

The phrase "reality-based community" became a sort of rallying cry on the internet among those opposed to Bush, for, I believe three reasons: first of all, it summed up so much of what seemed to be wrong with Bush's policies, namely, that they simply ignored reality (WMDs in Iraq, Massive tax cuts, ignoring science on multiple issues, etc, etc); secondly, since so much of the (internet) opposition to Bush was ideologically heterogeneous -- including libertarians, traditional conservatives who actually cared about what they claimed to care about and simply people disgusted by one aspect or another of Bush's appalling policies as well as liberals and leftists -- "reality-based community" was a point of unity. And finally, of course, it was just so !@#$% crazy that the guy actually said it. So those opposed to Bush pledged themselves to reality. Didn't seem controversial, really.

Of course, we all know how that ended up: in the apt words of Mark Danner, "[Those] who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts." So much for the reality-based community.

But it's still a rallying-cry, of sorts. You'll notice that at the top of this blog I adopt it as my own. And I think it's important: there's been a fair amount of talk on the net about needing to definite, for ourselves and others, what the left believes in with the clarity and simplicity that the right has over the past few decades (a debate I intend to weigh in on when I have the time and energy to spare). But when those principles are defined, I think that basic empiricism will be one such principle. It seems ridiculous that it would need to be -- surely adherence to reality should be bipartisan? -- but the truth is that it's not: the right has been opposing simple facts in issues across the board for years now -- increasingly so. Many of these are scientific issues -- evolution and global warming being two of the most significant examples. (The point here is ignoring the science: one can have legitimate policy disagreements about what to do about global warming or how to approach evolution in public schools, but the scientific facts of those two issues can't be ignored. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion – but not his own facts.") But, of course, it goes beyond science: there's Iraq, not only the WMDs but the administration's assessment of what's going on there, plus their pre-war assessment of what would be needed for the occupation, etc. There's the right's ignoring evidence about the effectiveness of their own programs (e.g. abstinence-only education, programs for "curing" gays, etc.). And there's the general attitude of the right-wing commentators and bloggers in this country, who seem to be able and willing to spin on a dime and adopt whatever new talking points the RNC comes up with, no matter how greatly it contradicts their previously stated positions or principles, like the Stalinists of old. We have always been at war with Eurasia. So I think, when we tally up the principles, empiricism will have a place of pride. We on the left believe in facts -- recognizing them, and adopting our political programs to them.

But I think that a responsibility to facts come with a price, namely, you have to be willing to do it when the facts are against you as well as for you. Fortunately, I think for the most part we are.

But. What about the election?

The truth of the matter seems to be that there is hard evidence that Bush might have stolen it. None of it is conclusive -- but it's enough that (in a country with a functioning press, a vertebrate opposition party and/or politicians with basic allegiance to principles of democracy rather than political party) the issue would have to be investigated, fully and carefully and properly -- by which I mean with subpoenas, forcing the rot into the light.

This first hit home to me when I read this blog post by Paul Velleman, who happened to be a former teacher of mine (I took his intro statistics course in the fall of 1999). He talks about exit polling, and makes the following points (the following is heavily edited; click the link for the full version):

Nationwide, exit polls predicted that Kerry had won by 3%, but the final tally showed Bush ahead by 2.5%. Errors in some key states were even larger. As a statistician, I have been concerned that the errors were unexplained ... All who have considered the problem agree that there are three plausible explanations: 1. Chance error, 2. Bias in the exit polls, and 3. Inaccurate election tallies, or (say it softly) election fraud. Edison/Mitofsky [the firm which conducted the exit polls] and all who have examined the data agree that (1) is not plausible. The errors were so extraordinarily beyond what could occur simply by chance that we can safely exclude this possibility... This analysis of the E/M data makes it clear that the E/M report fails to provide such an explanation. And, of course, if the exit polls were not themselves flawed, that would raise questions about the honesty of the vote itself... if there are biases inherent in the E/M exit polls, we should expect them to follow their own consistent patterns. For example, it isn’t plausible to posit different biases in different places without offering any account of the differences. Such ad hoc explanations are not scientifically or statistically supportable.... States that voted with paper ballots showed only small random errors between exit polls and votes, well within statistical error. States that used automated systems showed large errors fairly consistently biased toward Kerry.... Let me be very clear. I do not assert there was extensive fraud. I would prefer not to think that, and I had hoped the E/M report would reveal a systematic flaw in their methods that accounted for the errors. But it hasn’t, and the issue is still open... E/M have not released precinct-level data, which would be necessary to determine whether voting technology is a factor.

Professor Velleman notes, in his conclusion, that America "cite[s] discrepancies between exit polls and votes in elections in other countries as evidence of problems." He doesn't point out that the U.S. government -- i.e. the Bush administration itself -- did so a few weeks after our own election in calling into question the vote in Ukraine.

So far as I can determine, these questions have yet to be answered in any satisfactory way.

So. We have exit polls saying that Kerry won by 3% (note, by the way, that these are not the early exit polls that were misleading people throughout election day, but the final set of poll results); we have states which used paper ballots not showing such discrepancies, while those with electronic machines showing them.

Before the election, a lot of people loudly and repeatedly worried about the electronic voting machines. They noted that the executives of the companies which made them were largely Bush partisans. They noted that the security on the machines was a joke; that there was no paper trail, so that the accuracy of the vote was unverifiable, and if there was fraud there would be no way to know. This was fairly widely discussed, at least in the left-wing blogosophere.

And all this aside from numerous other problems, such as "standard" American discrimination by income and race (better machines at richer districts, long lines at poorer ones), reports of harassment of African American voters, and the like. (There's a good summary here, with links to lots of other information. (via))

So why weren't more people convinced that Bush stole the election (or stole another election, if you're of that view)? Put aside the right wing and Bush supporters for a moment. Why weren't more people in the reality-based community concerned about it? Why weren't die-hard Kerry partisans suspicious?

Why wasn't I?

Right after the election -- in the day or two, the week or two after -- I think the answer was sheer exhaustion and numb dread. There was the sheer exhaustion of the most intense, important election campaign of (most of) our lifetime's. And there was the numb dread of another Florida -- of another bitter, protracted dispute. An important factor in this was that, at least at first, it seemed that if the vote was to be challenged, it would be challenged in Ohio alone -- in other words, we would be fighting to show that Kerry won the electoral vote and not the popular vote. Given the 2000 fight -- when so much of the legitimacy of Gore's struggle rested in the fact that he had won the popular vote -- it seemed like we couldn't push it. Some combination of commitment to principle and commitment to previous positions stopped us.

(Not that that would have stopped the right in similar positions: recall that, in the week before the 2000 election, the right-wing noise machine was explicitly gearing up to challenge the legitimacy of the election if Gore won the electoral vote but not the popular vote (as many thought possible at the time): a challenge that they would have maintained, it seems clear, throughout Gore's term if he had prevailed in such a circumstance. (Hell, they challenged Clinton's simply due to his being elected in a three-way race!) These arguments and principles were, of course, dropped immediately upon the real situation presenting itself, and the right made the counter-argument with a straight face. But never mind: we stick to our principles. That's what they're for. That's who we are.)

Add to this the attitude of the media -- always powerful, no how much we may believe that they are a bunch of lemming-like echoes of the right -- that anyone who questioned the result was a crackpot, and it became impossible. (Of course, they media had been immeasurably important in securing Bush the presidency in 2000 by presenting the issue as if he was the legitimate winner and Gore the one trying to overturn the election, rather than the other way around or simply that it was flat-out undecided -- a stance whose roots were, in large part, the result of Fox news' calling Florida for Bush (a decision made -- I kid you not! -- by Bush's own first cousin.))

But this whole election-poll results thing was new. This put the issue in a different light -- not that Kerry might have had a TKO stolen from him, but that Bush might have flat-out stolen the election. And not stolen it in the quaint, old-fashioned way he stole 2000 (illegally disenfranchising African Americans (in this case, with wildly inaccurate "felon" lists in Florida drawn up under the supervision of Bush's brother and Florida campaign manager); nor stealing it in the stylish new way of getting the Supreme Court to intervene on your behalf. No, this would be theft in what seems the worst way (emotionally, though for rational reasons I can't see why it is): flat-out rigging the vote, like LBJ in 1948.

And the truth is, for about twenty-four hours I walked around in the world thinking that this was true. Kerry had really, unquestionably won: won the popular vote, been the choice of the American people, who were not so foolish as it had seemed. And the forces of Mordor had stolen it away.

It was a weird experience, to tell you the truth. It's one I've had a few times: walking around the world, seeing it in fundamentally different light -- most recently, I walked around looking at industrial civilization as if it was about to end due to the effects of Peak Oil (a belief I set aside for reasons similar to the present issue, actually). The artistic experience that most closely captures this feeling is one that occurs frequently in fantasy (and also, if less frequently, in SF): it's the experience of the person who has just found out, in the strongest possible way, that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy" -- like the kids in the Narnia books after the get out of the wardrobe, or E. C. Gordon in the final pages (save the last) of Heinlein's Glory Road wondering if it was all a dream. The feeling that is captured in these words from one of the finest fantasy writers out there:

If it was true... Then nothing makes any sense. If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think is a life. It means the world's about as solid and reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don't even want to think about.... It means that we're just dolls. We don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives while a paper's thickness away things that would drive us mad if we thought about them for too long play with us, and move us around from room to room, and put us away at night when they're tired, or bored. (Sandman 16, "Lost Hearts")

So it's a weird feeling. I felt it; I thought these things. -- And then, after about twenty-four hours, I gave it up. Bush won. I believed that. I beleive it now.


Not because of any facts or analyses that would convince me. But just because it was too weird not to.

Part of this is because everyone else believed the contrary; and to believe that Bush stole, flat-out stole, the election makes one a crackpot -- like a scientologist or a believer in new-age auras or someone who thinks that the freemasons control history. It doesn't matter that, in this case, there are facts and reasons to believe it; it doesn't matter that one might believe it based on the preponderance of the evidence, willing to listen to counter-arguments (just so long as they are reality-based), rather hoping it wasn't true but brought there by the evidence at hand. You'd still be a crackpot -- and listened to, or not listened to, as such. People wouldn't take what you'd said seriously -- not on this topic, maybe not on other topics. So you -- I -- drop it. Move on. Don't believe it.

It is a victory of group-think over empiricism, of believing what everyone else thinks because everyone else thinks it. It's not being reality-based, but community-based, with all which that implies.

But there's another part of it, too. (I mean, why does everyone else think it?) And that's the part captured in the lines that "...we don't have a clue what's really going down, we just kid ourselves that we're in control of our lives...". If Bush stole the election, then U.S. democracy is over -- basically. I mean, U.S. democracy has taken a lot of hits recently, from the acceptance of the idea that people can be locked up without trial forever ("enemy combatants") to the notion that wars can be based on lies and nobody cares to, yes, the Supreme Court ending vote counting. But if the rot is serious, it's not terminal. I mean, it can be repaired, right? We can still win, reform, rebuild. The foundations are solid, however weak the new construction.

But if Bush stole the election... How can we win our country back? Oh, maybe the forces wouldn't stay solid for the next round: maybe it was a one-time thing, the Bush family machine and not a broader Republican machine. Or maybe the Republican machine wouldn't hold in the face of internal divisions, or in the face of a sufficiently overwhelming victory by the other side -- one that would be harder to hide.

Still, if the election was stolen, if Kerry really won and the government is illegitimate... It's just hard to go there. I mean, we know that the Republican congress has been arranging spending like they're a banana republic, but elections are something else. Our sense of this country -- not as always good (uh, slavery?) but as fundamentally sound -- is too strong. Bad may prevail for a while but it can't last -- can't win out in the open like that. So we don't believe it. I don't believe it. And then, because no one does, no one can -- the peer pressure is too strong. Too strong to even seriously consider it. So we don't look at the evidence -- don't even say 'Maybe it's true, maybe not, we need more information and an investigation'. We simply proceed with our lives, as if it's not true. Because it makes us too uncomfortable to think that it might be true. I think this is part of what Goebbels meant by "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." Some things are simply too big to be disbelieved.

No one wants to be a crackpot.

So did Bush steal the election? No. I don't believe it. I really don't. Bush won -- fair and square. Maybe he shouldn't have been reelected, but he was. We lost. I'm a little teapot, short and stout: not a crack anywhere. Don't toss me out.