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In the dark, a blip of politics Aug. 9th, 2006 @ 06:43 pm

So every Democrat's least favorite Democrat lost the Connecticut primary by a four-point margin. Of course, Joementum's not going to let a little thing like that stand in his way. He's going to run as the candidate of a party he has named, in a stunning burst of magical thinking, Connecticut For Joe Lieberman. Joe Lieberman, Party of One. I can't imagine that he stands a chance. Who's going to vote for him? Democrats? Surely not. Republicans? Perhaps, but some of them will vote for the actual as opposed to the ersatz Republican, and at any rate there aren't enough of them in Connecticut to carry the day. A politician who can't pull majority support in his own party can hardly be expected to win the general election.

On the same day, Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) got trounced by Hank Johnson in the primary for Georgia's fourth Congressional district. Can't say as I'm sorry. Her heart may have usually been in the right place, but her frequently bizarre behavior made her an embarassment to the Democratic party.

How to be a mystic rationalist. Mar. 31st, 2006 @ 11:16 pm
Yes, yes, I know. But this time it was worth the wait: I'm going to explain the natures of consciousness and reality and, possibly, God. This is going to be rather long (You were expecting reality, consciousness, and God to be explained in a couple of paragraphs?) so I'll be breaking it up into a number of installments.

Aren't you glad you check back here every few months?

I. Reality is unknowable

We will begin by assuming that there is such a thing as reality.

That is, there exists a physical reality that is external to you and I, a reality that was here before we were born and will continue to exist after we die. I cheerfully admit that I don't have a scrap of evidence that the entire universe isn't just a figment of your imagination, but that doesn't bother me. Reality exists. You exist within it, as do I, and as does everything.

We gather knowledge about this reality primarily by means of our senses: we see and hear (and touch, smell, and taste) things within it. Our senses provide us with a vast amount of information about our surroundings, which we are able to perceive in a direct and immediate way. But this process by which we take in information about the world predisposes us to make a serious ontological mistake -- mistaking our sensory impressions for reality itself.

I am sitting here at the desk, looking at the computer screen and hearing the rain outside. But the image that I am actually experiencing is not on the desk, or the computer, or anywhere 'out there' at all. It is somewhere within my brain, which created it based on stimuli from my optic nerves. My visual impression of the computer screen feels 'real', but it isn't really the computer screen any more than the word "dog" can fetch a ball. As the Zen master would say, the computer that I see is not the real computer.

Likewise, the sound of the rainfall is an internal process in my brain -- one caused by stimuli from my auditory nerve, which in turn resulted from a complex chain of physical processes initiated by rain hitting the ground outside. The image of the computer screen and the sound of rain are only mental representations corresponding to things in the external world. Sight and hearing (and feeling, tasting, and smelling) are merely a show our minds create based on input from our sensory organs. Yes, most of the time, this show accurately corresponds to what's really going on around us -- but the show is not the reality. The reality is, ultimately, unknowable to us.

Plato's allegory of the cave is relevant:

Imagine being bound in a cave, your movement restricted so that you can only look at the smooth, featureless wall of the cave in front of you. You have been in this situation for so long that you remember nothing else -- you have even forgotten that you are a prisoner.

There is a bonfire behind you that throws a bright light on the the wall upon which you gaze. People stand behind you and hold up various objects, which cast their shadows on the wall in front of you. As they hold them up, they tell you their names. Apple. Chair. Potato masher. These shadows on the wall in front of you are all you have ever seen -- as far as you are concerned, the shadows on the wall are real. Apples, chairs, and potato mashers are different-shaped flickers of light and shade. You do not know that you have never seen any real thing.

You and I are able to move about and are not trapped in a cave, but our perception of reality is just as remote as the cave prisoner's. We lack the means to perceive reality directly; we see only shadows cast on the walls of our minds.

These 'shadows', these sensory impressions, these portrait of the world outside our skulls, are created by the same process that produces all our hopes, fears, prejudices, phobias, and all our other passions -- which profoundly influences what it is that we think we are seeing and hearing. Rather than being an accurate reflection of objective reality, your sensory experience is as subjective as any of your part of your conscious experience. We are all unreliable narrators: even if we are trying to be objective and fair, we have a strong tendency to perceive things that reinforce our preexisting beliefs. In addition to being biased, our perceptions can also be inaccurate or incomplete -- we get distracted, we stop paying attention momentarily, or for whatever reason fail to notice some important detail.

Further confounding our attempts to perceive the world accurately are our memories. We only perceive the present moment -- memory is how we stitch the endless series of infintesimal moments into a coherent narrative about what's going on around us. And while our sensory perceptions may provide inaccurate, unreliable, and biased representations of reality, our memories are capable of total fabulism.

Our memories are mutable and highly subject to suggestion. We tend to remember what other people say they remember. We also tend to remember events in ways that flatter ourselves, or at least reinforce our existing beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we re-organize our memories to better support the new beliefs. And on top of all this, our memories are not especially reliable in matters of recall. We forget things: details, great and small, and entire events, people, and places. Sometimes the information returns to us later, usually when it is no longer useful, and sometimes it is gone forever. Sometimes we know that something is missing but cannot say what, and sometimes we forget that we have forgotten something.

Yet consideration of the past is a critical part of our perception of reality. Understanding the present, much less predicting the future, requires knowing what happened in the past, which in turn involves relying, at least to some extent, on our memories -- which are even more unreliable and subjective than our perceptions of the present. How, then, can we hope to know anything about the world, when, even if we ever managed to make an accurate, reliable, and unbiased observation, we would only have an inaccurate, unreliable, and biased memory of doing so!

It is tempting, at this point to throw up our hands and conclude that we can never really learn anything about external reality. But that would be giving up.

Next time: The Scientific Method.

What's So Hard About Being A Guy? Jan. 31st, 2006 @ 12:10 pm
The inimitable beebeebatz has posted her thoughts on Norah Vincent's book, A Self-Made Man. Most of us have wondered to ourselves what it would be like to be a member of the opposite gender: Ms. Vincent, unsatisfied with idle speculation, assumed the identity of a man named Ned in order to see for herself. Apparently, she says it's a lot harder than one might think. Beebee is skeptical, and would like someone to explain what exactly is so difficult about being male.

Do I propose to meet this challenge? Well, not really. Men who claim that it's really the men who get a raw deal in the world annoy me endlessly. Men occupy positions of power and privilege, from corporate boardrooms to government at every level, in vastly disproportionate numbers. Men control the great majority of the world's wealth. Western society was, in large part, designed by men, for men, and any man who claims that being one works against him in any general way is, for lack of a better term, a contemptible whiner. So if beebeebatz wants someone to defend the proposition that it is more difficult to be a man than it is to be a woman, I cannot do it.

However, this is not to say that there is no downside to the male gender role, or that male privilege is an impenetrable armor which protects one from all slights in all situations. Here are some of the more bothersome expectations placed upon men:
  • You are expected to have no emotional life per se. You may express anger, irritation, and frustration, and these only within carefully-defined limits. The woman who snaps at the [male] boss may well get a pass, since "everyone knows woman are so emotional" -- but don't try this if you're a guy.
  • Male privelige does not protect you in interactions with other men. You are, to them, a competitor for status, attention, and success. Men, like dogs, are given to dominance hierarchies, and you will constantly be challenged in ways great and small to see where you fit in the ranks. Try to cultivate an aggressive side to your personality; you'll need it.
  • Much has been said, and rightly so, about men's unrealistic expectations towards women. Less has been said about the converse. Women will expect you to be a stable and solid sort of guy who can be depended upon to put bread on the table and pick the kids up from daycare on time, while at the same time they will want you to be exciting, rebellious, and a bit of a bad-boy. The fact that no man on Earth possesses both these sets of traits simultaneously cuts no ice; your best bet is to pick one and resign yourself to being considered either "boring" or "flaky" by potential mates.
  • Likewise, you are expected, by women, to be an aggressive, take-charge kind of guy who will make all the moves, set the pace of courtship, make decisions, and be the sexual aggressor. Except when you are expected to be a sensitive, caring sort of guy who will listen to her, be empathetic, and respect her decisions and desires. Again, the fact that these sets of traits do not usually coexist in the same man means nothing -- you just need a personality which executes 180-degree turns on command.
  • If you want to be attractive to women, you also really need to have some visible signs of material success. The form this takes will depend on your social class and setting -- it could be a new Camaro, or it could be a Manhattan penthouse and a fabulous career as a stockbroker. Regardless of the parameters, being perceived as materially successful will be as important to your mating prospects as being good-looking would be for a woman.
  • Depending on your temperament, you may find it extremely difficult to not notice and pay at least some attention to attractive women you see in public, on TV, in movies, et cetera. You must keep this carefully concealed, because the woman in your life will interpret it as a direct and personal betrayal.
  • On the other hand, if you are ever less than totally enthusiastic about the prospect of sex with your partner, she will wonder what is wrong with you. You are never allowed to be too tired, too worried, or not in the mood.
  • You are expected to know how to fix whatever breaks in the house or car. Your knowledge and skill in this area is a direct reflection on your masculinity.

Of course, most of these issues can be partially or totally avoided by a) refusing to hew to gender stereotypes that are silly, outdated, and unrealistic, and b) keeping the company of people who feel the same way. It isn't just women who find traditional gender stereotypes to be burdensome -- men and women both have been refusing to play this game, in increasing numbers and to an increasing degree, for fifty if not a hundred years. Women can find men who do not expect their mates to do a disproportionate share of the housework. Men can find women who do not expect them to have stepped off the pages of a Harlequin Romance novel. To a large extent, gender really is a social construct that we take on of our own volition, and if we don't like our defined roles, we can redefine them.

I would never claim that it's harder to be a man than a woman. But in the long run, it's a lot easier to be either if you decide for yourself what it's going to mean to you.

Auntie Beebee's Tips For Avoiding The Gulag. Jan. 27th, 2006 @ 02:54 pm
Everyone ought to read BeeBeeBatz's helpful tips for avoiding being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

It helps somewhat if you don't have a Middle-Eastern sounding last name, but that's no sure guarantee of avoiding government surveillance. You could be some other suspicious sort, like a Vegan.

And don't count on the Supreme Court to bail you out. Not with the all-star "all executive power, all the time" team of Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia, also known as the RATS.

Is this really what we've come to, as a country?

And now for something completely different.... Jan. 24th, 2006 @ 08:26 pm
...a silly viral meme. Here are the instructions:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence along with these instructions.
5. Don't search around and look for the coolest book you can find. Use what's actually next to you.
"If someone tells you an obviously untrue story, on the Continent you would remark, 'You are a liar, Sir, and a dirty one at that.'"

- Lynne Truss (who was quoting J. B. Priestly), Talk To The Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door
Other entries
» The Candian Election, part 2
I stayed up quite late last night watching the Canadian election returns come in. The results were unsurprising: the Conservative Party of Canada will form a minority government with 124 seats, 31 seats short of a majority. The Liberal Party, in power since 1992, were reduced to 103 seats. The remainder of the House of Commons will be occupied by the separatist Bloc Quebecois, with 51 seats, the left-wing New Democrats with 29 seats, and a single independent. Stephen Harper will become the new Prime Minister. Paul Martin fell on his sword before the night was over, resigning from the Liberal leadership.

This far from the worst outcome that could have happened -- Harper could have won a majority government and thus free reign to implement a neoconservative agenda that he has sought to disguise with moderate rhetoric. (See previous post.) However, the new configuration of the Commons is likely to put the separatist Bloc Quebecois at the balance of power. The Liberals and the Conservatives are natural opponents and are unlikely to come down on the same side of many issues. The NDP, the Conservative Party's ideological opposite, will also be voting against the Conservatives most of the time. This means that whether a contentious bill sponsored by the Conservatives passes or fails depends on the votes of the Bloc Quebecois. This is not lost on Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, who has already suggested that increased power and visibility for Quebec will be the price of his party's support for Harper's government. The Bloc's advantageous position probably means that we will see a return of Quebec separatism as a political issue.

I was pleased to see the New Democrats post a significant gain, going from 18 seats to 29. Much of this is no doubt due to former Liberal voters who could neither stomach voting for Martin's complacent and corrupt regime nor for Harper's watered-down American-style conservatism. It shows that the political Left is, in Canada at least, alive and well.
» The Canadian election
It is with some trepidation that I see that Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin is poised to lose Monday's election in a big way. Not that Martin deserves to win or anything. His government, as it turns out, is thoroughly corrupt. No, it's not for Martin's sake that I dread the election result, it's because of who's going to win in his place: Reform Canadian Alliance Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper.

Harper's of the ideological stripe that holds that government itself is just a bad idea. (How anyone can believe this for five minutes after observing what happens when government is not present or does not function is beyond me. Quick list of examples of situations involving a lack of government intervention: the initial response to Hurricane Katrina; the American meat-packing industry, pre-FDA; Somalia.) So he objects to the government going about in meddlesome fashion making people's lives better by providing them with healthcare and higher education; under a Harper government, we can expect these activites to be curtailed. Like most conservatives, however, he does admit that there is one useful function that government can perform: punishing people for having sex, or, at least, all sex that isn't heterosexual sex performed for the purpose of procreation. So if Harper wins we can expect to see Canada's historic and progressive recognition of gay marriages reversed, and, if he thinks for a minute he can get away with it, new laws restricting abortion in a country that has had none for many years.

Harper would have you believe that this is not so: that he's mellowed out since the heady days of the Reform party, and will deliver basically the same center-right policies that Canada had under Martin, except without all the corruption. But I'm skeptical. I think he really does look at what's happened to the USA over the past five years and thinks, "If only this could happen here!"

Now there is the argument to be made that if Harper starts governing like Bush North, he will quickly lose the support of the people and be turfed out of office at the next opportunity. But we all thought that about Bush South, who as you may have noticed is still firmly ensconced in the halls of power and grabbing more of it every day. You can fool some of the people some of the time, and that is, probably, tragically, sufficient.

Again, none of this is meant to imply to my Canadian readers (both of you) that you ought to vote for Martin. The guy's a crook, after all. I'm just afraid that who you get instead will be no improvement.
» Alito
You are, if you're among the audience of approximately five who tunes in for the sporadic and irregular updates here, already aware of the following: The confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito's nomination for the Supreme Court are all over but the shouting. Since a majority of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are Republicans, it is a foregone conclusion that the Committee will approve him. And since a majority of the Senate as a whole is also Republican, it is a foregone conclusion that the floor vote will also be in favour of Alito's nomination. Meaning that the only conceivable chance for the Democrats to keep Alito off the court would be to fillibuster.

There is much spirited encouragement on sites like Daily Kos for the Democrats in the Senate to do this. Alito, they say, is a right-wing extremist. Though he has evaded such questions during his confirmation hearings, his previous writings and indeed the bulk of his career clearly show him to be an implacable foe of abortion rights. Furthermore, they say, he never met an exercise of executive power he didn't like. He will provide judicial cover for the Bush Administration's unprecedented power grab; continue to leech the Fourth Amendment of any meaningful effect; and generally support the right of the State to intervene in our lives in ways great and small. Alito, they say, must therefore be opposed by all available measures, including a fillibuster.

They are right about Alito's views on abortion and on executive power. He is everything the enthusiastic partisans of Daily Kos say he is. And yet I find myself reluctant to agree with them that a fillibuster is the right thing to do.

Questions like these pit the activist in me against the political strategist. The activist says, the guy's a right-wing nut and there's no way in Hell you want him deciding Constitutional questions for five minutes, much less the rest of his life. The political strategist says... hold on a minute.

Let us assume that we have forty votes for a fillibuster. Let us further assume that the Republicans do not have fifty-one votes for the so-called "nuclear option", where they decide ad-hoc that you're not allowed to fillibuster judicial candidates. And let us assume further that the Democrats have enough gumption to maintain this fillibuster to the point where the Bush Administration gives up and withdraws Alito's nomination. (I find each of these suppositions increasingly unlikely, but never mind.) Who then, do you suppose George W. Bush will nominate in Alito's place? Alan Dershowitz? No. George Bush learned his mistake with Harriet Miers and will not appoint anyone to this Supreme Court vacancy who is not as far to the right as Alito. It will not be a matter of succesfully fillibustering Samuel Alito (in itself a minor miracle), but fillibustering every Bush nominee until 2007.

Such a course would give ample ammunition for the Republicans and Bush supporters. It would be a golden opportunity for them to shift the national dialogue away from the Bush Administration's many failures and shortcomings, and the Republican Congress's many ethical lapses, and onto Democratic "obstructionism". The American people will notice that the Senate is once more locked in partisan combat and not dealing with the many pressing issues of the day, which will further erode their confidence in the Legislative branch of government -- Democrats and Republicans alike. And when, in the end, a very conservative, pro-life person is confirmed to the Supreme Court, be it Alito or someone else, the Democrats will be seen as the losers. (True, if the Democrats simply vote against Alito to a man and woman, and lose on a party-line vote, they will also be the losers. But it is the difference between losing a smaller battle and a big one.)

The fact of the matter is, George Bush won the Presidential election (this time) by a small but unmistakable margin. And as the President, he gets to nominate Supreme Court judges. Given Mr. Bush's political views, his nominees are unlikely to be palatable to you or me, but those are the breaks. If we want a real shot at changing the sort of judges that the Senate will confirm, we must turn our attention to the elections this upcoming November. As long as a majority in the Senate are Republicans that support George Bush, Mr. Bush will nominate the candidates he likes for various positions and they will be approved. The activist in me doesn't like it, but it's the unfortunate reality with which we must deal.
» On the Miers nomination

I'm amused by my political fellow travellers' reaction to the President's nomination of his secretary hairdresser lawyer, Harriet Miers, for the Supreme Court -- specifically, the ones who have sought to warn us that Ms. Miers is really a -- get this -- evangelical right-wing conservative. Imagine that!

My dear, earnest fellow liberals, I am fully aware that Harriet Miers is not a closet lefty. Indeed, I am certain that she and I disagree on pretty much every issue on which it is possible to disagree. I also am aware that she is patently unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court, having no experience in constitutional law. Nevertheless, ever since President Bush announced the nomination on Monday morning, I've had to supress fits of giggling.

There are two ways to analyze the decisions that a political leader makes: in terms of policy, and in terms of politics.

In terms of policy, Bush's pick of Miers is a bad choice. Her inexperience and lack of qualifications have been widely commented upon. Her chief virtues, at least from the President's point of view, seem to be her personal loyalty to him, and her lack of a written record via which her views might be analyzed and, consequently, attacked.

No, I'm giggling about the Miers nomination, not because I approve of the policy it represents, but because it is such a singularily boneheaded political move. In fact, for an administration that thinks only in terms of political gain, this nomination is so monumentally inastute that I have to wonder if both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were both out sick that day. You see, the Christian Right wing of the Republican party has carried their water for many years. They are largely responsible for the Republican party's current electoral success. And they have waited all these years for this moment, when Bush would appoint a firebreathing evangelical conservative to the Supreme Court, to overturn Roe V. Wade and Griswold V. Connecticut and all those other evil decisions that have long prevented them from legislating the private morality of all Americans. And Bush has let them down in spectacular fashion.

Though she is a conservative and an evangelical, Ms. Miers is not firebreathing. Indeed, she's the complete opposite: a "stealth" nominee whose conservative views can only be deduced circumstantially. And why would Mr. Bush appoint such a person, instead of the loud and proud conservative so desired by his base? The obvious conclusion is that he feared that such a person would not be confirmed by the Senate. Reasonable enough, except that Bush has staked his political fortunes thus far on never backing down and never showing weakness. Here he has done both, while simultaneously denying his base the reward they have so long been promised.

» Disasters
In 1970 a tropical cyclone hit the coast of what is now Bangladesh. The 120-mile an hour winds and 20-foot storm surge killed at least half a million people; the deadliest tropical storm in history. In 1991, a more powerful cyclone hit the same region. Though cyclone shelters had been built after the 1970 disaster, few had sufficient warning to evacuate and those that did did not know where to go. About 140,000 people died.

In 1976 an earthquake measuring between 7.6 and 8.2 on the Richter scale struck Tangshen, China. The official death toll was 242,419, though many believe it to be higher. Iran experienced an earthquake (the Manjil-Rudbar quake) which killed about 35,000 people in 1990 and then another in 2003 in the city of Bam which killed perhaps 40,000. A 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, killed 17,000.

Less than a year ago, an undersea earthquake off the coast of Indonesia generated a tidal wave that killed perhaps 200,000 in Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

Here in America we have not suffered such staggering loss of life from a natural disaster. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed about 8,000 people; the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 killed at least 3,000. We have been lucky so far, but our luck will not last.

People speak of natural disasters as though they were aberrant events: something that should not have happened, a freak twist of fate never to be repeated. They are not. They are what happens on this planet. The surface of the Earth, in constant change, is only intermittently hospitable to human life. We are blinded by the shortness of our lifespans to the awesome forces which continually reshape the world: we think that because our parents and grandparents lived in peace on a piece of land, that we and what we have built will be here forever. It won't. Nature will claim it.
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