Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Close Call

The senior members of McCain’s campaign team have undergone a painful odyssey of their own. In recent rounds of long conversations, most made it clear that they suffer a kind of survivor’s guilt: they can’t quite believe that for two frantic months last fall, caught in a Bermuda Triangle of a campaign, they worked their tails off to try to elect as vice president of the United States someone who, by mid-October, they believed for certain was nowhere near ready for the job, and might never be. They quietly ponder the nightmare they lived through.

Despite the passion and furor of the 2008 presidential campaign, I actually have some respect for Senator John McCain. The same cannot be said of Sarah Palin, and as this new article in Vanity Fair shows, America avoided one hell of a close-call by rejecting her last November. Should the unthinkable happen to McCain in the next eight years, the only thought in the minds of millions of Americans will be that they came painfully close to having to witness the inauguration of Sarah Palin.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Belgian Liar

Do you remember the Belgian girl who claimed that she fell asleep while her tattooist put fifty-six stars on her face against her will? Well, she finally admitted that it was all a lie to get herself out of trouble. What a shock!


Paul Krugman on Climate Change

While normally I am a bit skeptical of Paul Krugman's articles - while I agree with him ideologically, he has a streak of reflexive contrarianism that is almost unbefitting a man of his intelligence and egregious nature - I found this piece to be right on target. I have pasted it below.

Betraying the Planet
By Paul Krugman
So the House passed the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. In political terms, it was a remarkable achievement.
But 212 representatives voted no. A handful of these no votes came from representatives who considered the bill too weak, but most rejected the bill because they rejected the whole notion that we have to do something about greenhouse gases.
And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason — treason against the planet.
To fully appreciate the irresponsibility and immorality of climate-change denial, you need to know about the grim turn taken by the latest climate research.
The fact is that the planet is changing faster than even pessimists expected: ice caps are shrinking, arid zones spreading, at a terrifying rate. And according to a number of recent studies, catastrophe — a rise in temperature so large as to be almost unthinkable — can no longer be considered a mere possibility. It is, instead, the most likely outcome if we continue along our present course.
Thus researchers at M.I.T., who were previously predicting a temperature rise of a little more than 4 degrees by the end of this century, are now predicting a rise of more than 9 degrees. Why? Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than expected; some mitigating factors, like absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans, are turning out to be weaker than hoped; and there’s growing evidence that climate change is self-reinforcing — that, for example, rising temperatures will cause some arctic tundra to defrost, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Temperature increases on the scale predicted by the M.I.T. researchers and others would create huge disruptions in our lives and our economy. As a recent authoritative U.S. government report points out, by the end of this century New Hampshire may well have the climate of North Carolina today, Illinois may have the climate of East Texas, and across the country extreme, deadly heat waves — the kind that traditionally occur only once in a generation — may become annual or biannual events.
In other words, we’re facing a clear and present danger to our way of life, perhaps even to civilization itself. How can anyone justify failing to act?
Well, sometimes even the most authoritative analyses get things wrong. And if dissenting opinion-makers and politicians based their dissent on hard work and hard thinking — if they had carefully studied the issue, consulted with experts and concluded that the overwhelming scientific consensus was misguided — they could at least claim to be acting responsibly.
But if you watched the debate on Friday, you didn’t see people who’ve thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of climate change, so they’ve decided not to believe in it — and they’ll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that feeds their denial.
Indeed, if there was a defining moment in Friday’s debate, it was the declaration by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia that climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that has been “perpetrated out of the scientific community.” I’d call this a crazy conspiracy theory, but doing so would actually be unfair to crazy conspiracy theorists. After all, to believe that global warming is a hoax you have to believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — a cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.
Yet Mr. Broun’s declaration was met with applause.
Given this contempt for hard science, I’m almost reluctant to mention the deniers’ dishonesty on matters economic. But in addition to rejecting climate science, the opponents of the climate bill made a point of misrepresenting the results of studies of the bill’s economic impact, which all suggest that the cost will be relatively low.
Still, is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? Isn’t it politics as usual?
Yes, it is — and that’s why it’s unforgivable.
Do you remember the days when Bush administration officials claimed that terrorism posed an “existential threat” to America, a threat in whose face normal rules no longer applied? That was hyperbole — but the existential threat from climate change is all too real.
Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Follow Up on Transformers Controversy

Two articles that should be read on the controversy surrounding two characters from the new Transformers movies who embody racist caricatures:



What makes this so sad is that it sounds to me like a lot of individuals connected with this project, but who had no involvement with the creation of those offensive characters, are being unfairly dragged by their existence. Orci and Kurtzman, for example, appear to have crafted a screenplay that was then altered by a third writer (Ehren Kruger) and the director (Michael Bay) to include numerous elements that they never put in there, including the characters of Skids and Mudflap. While of course their claim at having been shocked could just be so much smoke screening, Hollywood's history of mutilating the work of other screenwriters is well-known, and Michael Bay films are not renowned for their storytelling prowess; to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, their claim has "truthiness". Likewise, although Steven Spielberg is being lambasted by at least one critic (Harry Knowles) for his involvement here, Spielberg is the same man responsible for such racially progressive motion pictures as The Color Purple and Amistad, to say nothing of an upcoming biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. While I do not doubt that Spielberg played a large part in bankrolling this film (as producer), it seems a little unfair to assume that he played any significant role in the film's creative composition, especially since he held the Executive Producer title over a large team of co-producers (who quite likely did most of the work for him).

So who ought to be blamed? In my eyes, the responsibility lies with four people: Michael Bay, the director; Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter who inserted these two racially offensive characters (as well as a third less-discussed individual who actually is a buck-toothed African-American and talks about needing to earn money so that he can replace his disgusting teeth with fancier alternatives); and the two actors voicing these robots, Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson. I have never been impressed with Michael Bay, and I am completely unfamiliar with the previous work of Ehren Kruger and Reno Wilson, but I must say I am more than a little upset at Tom Kenny's involvement here. As a long-time fan of SpongeBob Squarepants, a show whose titular character is voiced by Mr. Kenny, I have been a fan of Kenny's work for almost a decade.

So how important is this? In the grand scheme of things, it is more unfortunate than it is downright problematic. I strongly doubt that it will lead to any direct harm being inflicted on African-Americans, and although it certainly promotes and reinforces racist stereotypes, it is unlikely that it will cause those views to be any more widely disseminated or believed than they would have been had this movie not existed. Even so, the film is unfortunate because it puts a permanent aspersion on the careers of four individuals and, in a year that ought to be a highlight in the history of the black community, permanently etches into American cultural history some of the most repugnant racial prejudices out there. If this movie becomes the highest grossing film of 2009, then the first year in which an African-American ever served as President of the United States will forever be remembered as a year when the most popular entertainment medium of this country had as its champion work a film that promoted the very legacy that the election of the first black president hoped to put to rest, or at least weaken.

Health Crisis

An article that everyone should read. We need another Upton Sinclair, another Robert La Follette, another Rachel Carson. Enough is enough.
More investigation in aluminium (a product common in antiperspirants) and its correlation with Alzheimer's Disease also warrants further study and, more importantly, public attention.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Deflating Reagan

I found this excellent article online about Barack Obama's professed admiration for Ronald Reagan (!). Granted, the piece comes from early in the 2008 primary season, and there is an above average chance that Obama's language was intended to win over the infamous "Reagan Democrats" (who he had to court for the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries). Even so, this author's deflating of the Reagan mythology - as well as his explanation as to why the Republican party is promoting it in the first place - is incisive and apt.

Inducing Hypochondria

I can understand that the authors of this article were trying to provide a public service by mentioning how common medical ailments may indicate cancer (or at least, I hope that that was their motivation). I can't even bring myself to really condemn them for doing this. My problem, of course, is that as a hypochondriac, I know that reading this piece will cause me to overanalyze my own health to such an extent that I will soon become convinced that death lurks behind every unexplained lump and twinge. There ought to be some disclaimer on these articles making it clear that just because a symptom COULD indicate cancer doesn't mean that it IS cancer, and that, in all probability, it probably is something more innocuous. Of course, such a disclaimer wouldn't draw readers to the web article, and the lack of hits would take a toll on advertising revenue.... nah, that's way too cynical of me.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: Jew-baiter

They suck - they're like leaches. I'm so tired of it. They start out the most popular person in the world, make a lot of money, big house, cars, and everything, end up with, penniless. It is conspiracy. The Jews do it on purpose.

Those were the words spoken by Michael Jackson nearly four years ago, regarding his financial and professional woes. They were underreported by a media which had already written off Michael Jackson as a man whose disturbing idiosyncracies and bizarre antics had become old news (unless they involved allegations of child molestation or baby dangling). At roughly the same time he also released a song, "They Don't Care About Us" that featured these lyrics:

Jew me/Sue me/Everybody do me/Kick me/Kike me

Why do I bring this particular piece of news up so soon after Michael Jackson's death? Because I want to explain why, despite the heaps of praise being lavished upon his immediately post-mortem (which is more than a little distasteful, considering how many of these same media outlets held him up to abject ridicule only days before), I find it hard to sympathize with him. If you put aside the fact that he almost certainly molested children, that he definitely behaved in inappropriate ways with those same children, that he took advantage of Beatles songs to which he had acquired the rights in a manner that did a grave injustice to that band, that he spent the last decade of his life bandying about the "racist" card whenever misfortunes of his own making plagued him (such as when he accused Sony's CEO of racism because his album underperformed, even though they sunk $30 million in it and it was widely views as being well beneath the quality of his earlier work, or when he accused prosecutors of similar motivations in his child molestation cases), and that in general plunged into narcissistic indulgences and self-pity in his later years... if you ignore all of that, I have a very personal reason for lacking sympathy. You see, I am Jewish, and whether I am told that I should take comments such as these personally or not, the fact that I am a Jew means that they are now and always will be very personal.

Michael Jackson, the man who preached compassion and empathy throughout his work, reverted to scapegoating the Jews as soon as the chips were down for him, and I do not believe this aspect of his character is at all inconsequential. Where here was the loving man who he so often trumpeted himself as being? Was it the Jews who caused him to destroy his reputation by sleeping in the same bed with little boys who were not his own children, or bankrupted him by splurging on lark projects?

I know that you aren't supposed to speak ill of the recently deceased, but just as I will understand when African-Americans seethe after the death of Michael Richards and homosexuals after the expiration of Isaiah Washington, so too am I feeling less than distraught over the loss of Michael Jackson. Granted there is a part of me that is stunned - he was a major cultural figure from my childhood, and it is hard for me to imagine a world where he is not in the news. What's more, his contributions to the world of American music and pop culture - from the rise of the Jackson Five in the late-1960s to the release of Thriller and Bad in the 1980s - are undeniable, and overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, my sympathy is mitigated by my sense of self-respect.

Another Rebirth in Harlem

Langston Hughes. Zora Neale Hurston. Paul Robeson. W. E. B. Dubois. Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong.
What do each of these names have in common? All of them belong to prominent intellectual, artistic, and political figures within the black community whose rise to prominence in America between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II is known today as the Harlem Renaissance.
The flowering that occurred during this two-decade period and centered around a small neighborhood in Manhattan was brought about by the rise of a black middle class. As more and more African-Americans were allowed opportunities for education and socio-economic advancement (which had been denied to their ancestors for hundreds of years), scores of black men and women cultivated these benefits into a cultural movement that affected not only the growing black minority in America, but soon the rest of the nation and the entire world.
That voice has not been silenced by the passage of the years. The textured human mosaic that is the Harlem district of Manhattan continues to seeth with words, actions, ideas, and political and cultural movements, all of which have the potential to change the American landscape as profoundly as their antecedents did three generations ago. The only question is whether the attention that it was paid in the Interbellum years will be offered again. Now that one man who insists that it should is now beginning to speak up, it is my hope that America will decide to listen.

Transformers: Racists in Disguise?

I cannot believe that I am actually writing this. Let me explain why:

Back in 2005, movie critic Roger Ebert was labelled by many African-Americans as
being racist for panning Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Having seen the film in question, as well as read both Ebert's review and the
accusing comments from imdb.com and other cinematically oriented message boards, I came to the conclusion that the bespectacled self-possessed critic was
absolutely right and his detractors decisively in the wrong. I stand by that
conviction to this day: Considering the severe nature of racial, religious, and
sexual prejudice, as well as the intensive degree to which it has been
stigmatized by our society (rightfully so), people should not be charged with
possessing bigoted views unless there is a substantive reason for doing so.
Simply disliking a movie that happens to deal with African-American characters
and/or themes is not racist by a long shot, and it serves as a form of social
intimidation to imply or state otherwise.

Thus when I heard that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was being accused of possessing racist caricatures, I assumed that once again I would wind up writing about the danger of carelessly bandying about the "racist" label. That knee-jerk reaction went out the window the instant I saw a clip of what objectors are referring to. Unfortunately I cannot share that snippet with you, as it was removed from YouTube very shortly after I was lucky enough to watch it. Even so, here is an excellent explanation of the problem as concisely summarized by Manohla Dargis, one of the main film critics for The New York Times:

That disconnect only deepens with the introduction of two new Autobot characters, the illiterate, bickering twins Skids (Tom Kenny) and Mudflap (Reno Wilson), both of which take the shape of Chevrolet concept cars. The characters have been given conspicuously cartoonish, so-called black voices that indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas. For what it’s worth, the script, by Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also includes a crack about Simmons, who’s coded as Jewish, and his “pubic-fro head.” You’re not meant to take that seriously, of course, just like there’s nothing to the reference to President Obama being whisked out of danger instead of standing tall like Optimus Prime and the rest of the robotic heroes. But that’s the perverse genius of Michael Bay. Despite the tediousness of his stories and inanity of his visual ideas, he always manages to keep you laughing and shaking your head in disbelief at the outlandishness of his cinematic spectacles, with their orange explosions, armament fetishism and even their noxious stereotypes. The man just wears you out and wears you down, so much so that it’s easy to pretend that you’re not ingesting 2 hours and 30 minutes of warmongering along with all that dumb fun.

Here is a more detailed description provided by complex.com:

Check out 7 reasons why Transformers 2 might be racist…
#1: “Skids” and “Mudflap” sound suspiciously like “skid-marks” and “mud people.” Tell us how you really feel, cracker!
#2: Skids not only has old-school Raekwon bucked teeth,
one of them is actually gold! We’re assuming the rope chains and 40s for the action figures are sold separately.
#3: The twins constantly fight and snap on each other in inappropriate situations, like in the sacred tomb of the Primes. Sigh. Black robots just don’t know how to behave in public, do they?
#4: Skids and Mudflap refer to Leo, the Latino college student played by Ramon Rodriguez, as a “shrimp taco.” All black robots gotta be ign’ant though, right? That’s just like the white devil to put his secret racist thoughts into the mouths of black robots.
#5: In the twins’ vehicular incarnation, they’re flashy compact racing cars. Black robots aren’t concerned about the safety and security of their loved ones? Family sedans aren’t “urban” enough for you?
#6: The hip-hop jive that Skids and Mudflap spew comes from the mouth of WHITE voiceover comedian Tom Kenny, a.k.a. the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. At least if Mike Epps was the one bamboozling, talking about “bustin’ caps,” we could take solace in a black actor getting work.
#7: The twins make R. Kelly look like an advocate for literacy. When Shia LaBoeuf asks if the twins can read ancient glyphs, they nervously respond, “Read?! Nuh-uh…” “No, we don’t really do much readin’!”.

Although the complex.com article makes one factual error (though the caucasian Tom Kenny of SpongeBob Squarepants fame does voice Skids, it is African-American actor Reno Wilson who voices Mudflap), for the most part its analysis is disturbingly incisive. I am amazed that director Michael Bay and screenwriters Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Ehren Kruger actually have the gall to insist that these characters were simply meant to be generically goofy as a means of appealing to children. Do they expect us to believe that the vernacular, aesthetic, physical mannerisms, intellectual abilities, personality traits, and even names that were given to these characters were selected entirely at random and that, by sheer dumb luck, they just-so-happened to be carbon copies of some of America's most well-known racist caricatures? Why did the writers have to select this particular set of attributes, when certainly there are any number of potential personalities that can be used to make the kiddies laugh (who are not known for being especially discriminating in their comedic preferences)? For that matter, are we really supposed to swallow this claim that Skids and Mudflap were necessary to draw kids to the movie - to assume, as that argument suggests, that the Transformers franchise has sophisticated subject matter which needs further dumbing down to attain commercial viability?

What makes this situation especially depressing is its timing. Less than nine months before this movie's release, almost seventy million people cast their ballots for the first African-American to ever run for president on a major party ticket (more popular votes than have ever be received by any one presidential candidate in a single election). While no one could have realistically expected even this monumental event to usher in an end to all racism, it didn't seem too naive to hope that it would have at least stamped out the last vestiges of blatantly crass racist humor within mainstream pop culture. Instead, the year 2009 - the first in American history to be presided over by a black leader - may wind up having as its box office champion a motion picture that harkens back to the very same racial attitudes that have disparaged and degraded that president's background for centuries. This is the kind of irony our society can do without.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Thirty-Five Favorite Quotes

These are my thirty-five favorite quotes, placed on this website because I am unwisely immodest about my addiction.

"In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd."
- Miguel de Cervantes (1605)

"Cogito ergo sum"
- Rene Descartes (1644)

"Neither despise, nor oppose, what thou dost not understand."
- William Penn (1693)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
- Thomas Jefferson (1776)

"... unmerited abuse wounds, while unmerited praise has not the power to heal."
- Thomas Jefferson (1796)

"To believe all men honest would be folly. To believe none so, is something worse."
- John Quincy Adams (1809)

"Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night."
- Edgar Allen Poe (1842)

"While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."
- Abraham Lincoln (1860)

"Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice - error."
- Victor Hugo (1862)

"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty."
- Abraham Lincoln (1864)

"I would rather believe something and suffer for it, than to slide along into success without opinions."
- James Garfield (1871)

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

"What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? That is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever."
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

"The work that is really a man's own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man's work and cannot lose it."
- Mark Twain (1905)

“Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws — sacred, inviolable, unchangeable — cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”
- Franklin Roosevelt (1932)

"My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."
- Diego Rivera (1935)

"We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure."
- Franklin Roosevelt (1944)

"Man is by instinct a lover, a hunter, a fighter, and none of those instincts are given much play at the warehouse."
- Tennessee Williams (1944)

"Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor and confession are good for the political soul."
- Adlai Stevenson (1952)

"Much of nature's mystery has come under man's mastery. Heat, cold, wind and rain have lost their terrors, but the environment man has created for himself has yet to be brought under control. Nature's jungle has been conquered, but man still lives in the larger jungle of his fears."
- Adlai Stevenson (1952)

"The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process."
- Adlai Stevenson (1956)

"Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good."
- Vince Lombardi (1959)

"Life is an unanswered question, but let's still believe in the dignity and importance of the question."
- Tennessee Williams (1960)

"We believe liberalism is more than intellectual capacity - intellectual liberalism must be buttressed with an understanding of people and a love of them that goes far beyond texts or documents. For if you can't cry a little bit in politics, the only other thing you'll have is hate."
- Hubert Humphrey (1960)

"Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore. But after Buchanan this nation needed Lincoln; after Taft we needed Wilson; and after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt."
- John Kennedy (1960)

"Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man - that state is obsolete."
- Rod Serling (1961)

"William Benteen, who had prerogatives; he could lead, he could direct, dictate, judge, legislate. It became a habit, then a pattern, and finally a necessity. William Benteen; once a god, now a population of one."
- Rod Serling (1963)

"Even great men... have to pee."
- Peter Stone (1974)

"I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, Goddamnit! My life has value!' "
- Paddy Chayefsky (1976)

"Fear doesn't travel well; just as it can warp judgment, its absence can diminish memory's truth. What terrifies one generation is likely to bring only a puzzled smile to the next."
- Arthur Miller (1996)

"The movies that last, the ones we return to, don't always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart."
- Roger Ebert (2000)

"I believe in comedy more than I believe in dignity."
- Regina Teltser (2009)

"All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort _ to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings."
- Barack Obama (2009)

"History is littered with big moments that turned on the pettiness of small men."
- Jonathan Alter (2009)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What movies have I seen in theaters multiple times?

I was bored, so I decided to count them all. There are fifteen movies that I have in theaters more than once: 28 Days Later, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Shrek 2, Collateral, Meet the Fockers, Sin City, Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Munich, An Inconvenient Truth, The Good Shepherd, The Simpsons Movie, Saw IV, and The Dark Knight. Of the fifteen, the only four that I saw more than twice were Sin City (three times), King Kong (four times), The Simpsons Movie (three times), and The Dark Knight (three times).
I was bored, so I decided to write this down.

PS: September 7, 2009 Update - As of Thursday I will have also seen Inglourious Basterds in theaters twice.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Old Article on Anti-Semitism

A year ago, I recall discussing a survey about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe at my alma mater, Bard College, when suddenly an angry so-called liberal began angrily fuming about hwo "Jews aren't persecuted" and should stop whining about it. When I pointed out that his perspective benefited from the very overpriviliged American myopia that he was quick to criticize in others (after all, Jews may have had a historically positive experience in this country, but that has hardly been the case elsewhere in the world, something that is only easy to overlook if you forget that the world has history outside these borders), he reacted with even more incense. This from a supposedly "progressive" and "racially liberal" individual, at a school that takes pride in being among America's most left-wing.

I mention that anecdote as an introduction to this article:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sarah Palin & The Culture of Intimidation

What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.
- Sigmund Freud, 1933

While Sarah Palin and her cohorts may not yet be burning David Letterman's legendary jokebooks, they have certainly done everything but. For those who have spent the last week living under a rock, the controversy to which I am alluding involves Letterman's tongue-in-cheek quip about... well, let me just show you a direct quote. It references Sarah Palin's visit to New York City with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, and comes amidst the flurry of media attention surrounding her 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, who was impregnated out-of-wedlock despite her mother's advocacy of abstinence-only sex education (which the daughter has disingenuously decided to parrot):

"One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game: during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."

Let's look at our trusty checklist of taboo subjects:
- Politics: Check!
- Sex: Check!
- Religion: Indirect check (abstinence-only education and the national debate surrounding Bristol Palin's hypocrisy is a strong undercurrent here, after all)
- Race: No check!

Sorry, Dave. You only hit three out of the four marks. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that your joke is almost as taboo-stompingly offensive as any quip can be!

It is also, in this television era, still remarkably tame. Anyone who has turned on Comedy Central or Adult Swim can easily find material much more offensive (to say nothing of disgusting) than Letterman's line. Need proof? Try Googling "Hillary Clinton", "snuke", and "South Park". Or "Family Guy", "AIDS", and "barbershop quartet". How about "Moral Orel", "wet dream", and "God"? Or forget the three-word combinations - how about "Chappelle Show" and "black bush"? "Sarah Silverman Program" and "abortion"? Or if you're more interested in focusing on fare offered by the main networks (although "Family Guy" technically counts as one of those), look at how "The Simpsons" was accused of smearing the good name of the world's fifth largest country by Googling "Simpsons" "Brazil" and "sue"?

My point here is that David Letterman's joke, though certainly R-rated (or at least solid PG-13), was hardly outside of the norm for television. As Hilllary Clinton, Christians, Republicans, pro-choicers, pro-lifers, Brazilians, and everyone who has ever had AIDS has been forced to accept, "the sound of tireless voices is the price we pay for the right to hear the music of our own opinions" (the quote comes from Adlai Stevenson, my political role model, during his 1952 run for the presidency, my favorite presidential campaign). In other words, whether you find these jokes to be hilarious or morally repugnant, the people who created them have the same right to speak their minds in the name of comedy as you do in the name of condemning it.

Initially this was what Sarah Palin did in response to Letterman's joke, and it was perfectly acceptable. She referred to his comment as "sexually perverted", assuming (or choosing to assume) that he was referring to her 14-year-old daughter Willow (the one accompanying her to New York City) and not her 18-year-old daughter Bristol (the one who wasn't with her in the city but whose sex life has been foisted upon the American people at the insistence of Palin's PR department). Letterman responded by pointing out that he "would never, never joke about raping a 14-year-old" and assuring Ms. Palin that "these are not jokes made about her 14-year-old daughter", before apologizing for the joke about 18-year-old Bristol as being " "ugly", "cheap", and "in poor taste". This was his right, just as it was Palin's right to continue harping over the issue well after he had offered his apology (apologies are not easily forthcoming from a man of Letterman's status either), and just as it was Letterman's right to apologize a second time, one week later, by saying that the joke was "beyond flawed" and offering sorries to Bristol Palin, Willow Palin, the entire Palin family, and everyone who had ever been offended by the joke. Finally, it was Palin's right to accept that apology, and to even accept it with phoned in sanctimony: "On behalf of all young women, like my daughters, who hope men who 'joke' about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve."

While my choice of language probably makes it clear whose side I am on in this debacle, the problem here is that Palin has done more than simply object to Letterman's comments: She and her supporters have used this incident as a cause celebre for the right-wing movement, orchestrating protests, circulating online petitions, and throwing their hefty political clout around, all for the purpose of getting Letterman fired from CBS. While the right to boycott and even rally against an individual whose ideas you find offensive is acceptable for private citizens, it becomes much more questionable when it is done by a high-profile political figure, former vice presidential candidate, sitting governor, and de facto leader of an entire ideological movement... especially one who has made no secret of her intention to run for president in the near future. Indeed, this is the very reason why most politicians, liberal and conservative alike, usually refrain from launching full-scale war against individuals who express opinions. Public disagreement? Absolutely. Vitriol and insults and attacks and name-calling? Pour some more on! But since the days when Richard Nixon wiretapped Woodward and Bernstein, it has generally been acknowledged by politicians on both sides of the aisle that it's one thing to merely criticize or even verbally condemn people who say things you don't like, and quite another to actually try to punish them. Once you enter the latter territory, you run the risk of creating a climate in which it is off-limits to say anything of which the government does not approve.

Yet Palin's movement goes on unabated. With the aid of sympathetic conservative radio host John Ziegler, she has created a website, firedavidletterman.com, which serves as the focal point of her booming movement. Already Olive Garden Restaurants and Hellmann's Mayonnaise have pulled their advertising plugs from Letterman's show, in response to Palin's pressure. When Letterman, who apparently has learned nothing of Palin's character by now, offered them a time slot on his show to address the matter more directly, Palin's family spokesperson responded by saying:

"The Palins have no intention of providing a ratings boost for David Letterman by appearing on his show. Plus, it would be wise to keep [14 year old] Willow away from David Letterman."

This incident would be disturbing in its own right, but it fits neatly into a pattern that traces all the way back to when Palin was mayor of the remote Alaskan village of Wasilla (population 9,000). While there she attempted to fire a local librarian for refusing to ban books that she, Mayor Palin, deemed unfit for the shelves, among them Pastor, I Am Gay by the Reverend Howard Bess (she was only stopped when a town outcry forced her to back down; the family has since "discredited" the story by pointing to internet rumors that exaggerated its details and claiming that those individual fabrications made all reports of the matter unreliable). As Governor of Alaska she fired a state official, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, for refusing to take action against a an ex-brother-in-law she resented. The church of which she is a member is well-known for condemning anyone who doesn't share the specific political and religious views of its practicioners as being not only dissenters, but outright espousers of evil to be shunned and punished.

What I am basically saying are two things:

1) David Letterman needs to stop apologizing and start taking the offensive. Maybe the joke was inappropriate, maybe it wasn't; that is a matter of personal taste, and thus subjective. That said, it was simply a joke, did not harm the Palin family in any measurable way, and therefore should not be responded to with punitive measures, such as those for which the Palins are now pushing. For that to come from any group constitutes intimidation; for it to come from a family with lofty political ambitions comes perilously close to censorship. Censorship IS wrong, and objectively harms not only Letterman, but everyone else, for once it is made punishable for one man to speak ill of the Palin family, the precedent is set for similar consequences to be incurred by anyone else who in the future incurs Sarah Palin's wrath. For his own sake as well as for that of some of America's most basic values, David Letterman needs to put his deferential technique to a close and start fighting.

2) Sarah Palin's behavior here cannot be dismissed as relevant only to this specific incident. In light of her other activities - as mayor, governor, and now the leader of a national movement - it is a clear precursor to how she would handle any form of dissent if she became president.

America has had leaders with that mindset before, most notably John Adams, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon (George W. Bush, while breaking Constitutional freedoms with the Patriot Act, to the best of our knowledge abused it primarily for the purpose of achieving foreign policy and national security goals, not domestic political ones). When Adams decided that criticizing the president was wrong, and made his opinion law with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, hundreds were thrown in jail merely for speaking out against the president. When Woodrow Wilson did the same thing with the Sedition Act of 1918, hundreds more were thrown in jail, including perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who even remained incarcerated while running for president in 1920 (an election in which he picked up almost one million votes, or more than three percent). The consequences of Richard Nixon's efforts to stifle media opposition are well-known, from his hounding of Watergate-breaking reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to his attempts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg (the reporter who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers that exposed government deception in promoting the Vietnam War to the American public) by having secret agents break into his psychiatrist's office and expose files on his mental illness.

Yet behind each of these past presidents, as well as today's presidential aspirant, was a force that most people would rather ignore - the ardent support of an outspoken and zealous bloc of supporters. John Adams had in his corner the entire Federalist party (now long defunct), which had control of the American government at that time but which feared the rising popularity of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Woodrow Wilson had the support of Americans who were whipped up by our involvement in World War One into a frenzy of misguided patriotism, the kind best rebutted by Robert La Follette at the time when he remarked that "I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But sir, the right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war." Even Richard Nixon had the support of the right-wing zealots in his own base (many of them the ideological antecedents of Palin's current followers), who felt that Nixon was protecting America from the cultural and moral degeneracy of the countercultural movement and the New Left, and decided that any measure which could be undertaken to stop them was thus appropriate.

Thus what frightens me about Palin is not merely the evident brazenness of her conviction that all who say things that she doesn't like ought to suffer a penalty; it is the fact that she has so many devoted followers who believe precisely the same thing, and are willing to take action to see to it that her will is done. In light of recent events, I'm not sure what prospects is more terrifying - that of what would happen to America with Sarah Palin as president, or what it would say about America if it was willing to elect her in the first place.

Two Stupid People in Belgium

Stupid people...


First, let me make it clear that I do not have a problem with body art. I think tattooing is not only a legitimate, powerful, and often beautiful means of visual self-expression, but I also believe that the professional and other social stigmas held against those who choose to tattoo their bodies are inconsistent with Western culture's respect for individual liberty and value for the arts. That said, the two main actors in the hilariously ridiculous melodrama that unfolds in the above-mentioned article are painfully stupid.

For those of you who haven't bothered to read the piece, it tells the story of an eighteen-year-old Belgian girl who went to a tattoo parlor and came out with fifty-six stars on the left side of her face. According to the teenager, she fell asleep during the procedure and didn't find out about her new visage until she woke up outside of his shop; according to the tattooist, she specifically requested the fifty-six stars and only complained when her father and boyfriend reacted negatively to the aesthetic consequence of her inking (the boyfriend apparently dumped her). Either way, he is now being sued to within an inch of his life by the girl and her family.

Now why do I say both parties involved are painfully stupid?

1) The girl. There is nothing inherently stupid about wanting fifty-six tattoos on your face (although it would be advisable to think such a plan through before implementing it), but there is something supremely stupid about her obviously spurious claim that she never wanted them in the first place. How does someone doze off during a loud, uncomfortable surgery that wildly vibrates your flesh while forcing an unnatural pigment into your skin, particularly when it is performed with minimal anesthetic and involves your forehead, the areas near your eyes, your cheekbones, your nose, and your chin? For another thing, how exactly did he mistake "three stars near the left eye" for "fifty-six stars all over my face"? How did she get moved from the tattoo parlor to some other location without being made aware of it? Considering that it would probably take a lot less time to tattoo three stars then fifty-six, wouldn't the very fact that she was there long enough to be able to fall asleep in the first place have suggested a problem? Finally, how can she account for the eyewitness (another customer) who saw the entire incident, and attests to the fact that the girl specifically requested fifty-six tattoos? While I am not in favor of dishonesty, I at least want my liars to be reasonably intelligent in their fabrications. Transparently shoddy fibs annoy the piss out of me.

2) The tattooist. Why oh why oh why did you ever tattoo fifty-six stars onto a human being's face without first receiving written consent from them that specifically attest to their requesting that precise procedure? I don't care if the Belgian laws require it or not, it would seem like such a practice would be basic common sense, for business as well as legal reasons. Personally, if I were in this industry, I would require such paperwork before I perform any work on a client, be it a tiny heart above the ankle or a recreation of the Tree Man from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights on the forehead. Yet even if you decide that covering your ass isn't necessary for the more innocuous procedures, it certainly makes a heaping helping of good sense when doing something so serious as putting fifty-six stars on the human face. After all, what would you do if the client decides to tell an obvious lie about what she requested after-the-fact because she isn't pleased with the result, even if it was what she legitimately wanted? What then? Hmmmm? I personally don't know, but then again, I don't have to find out. This moronic tattooist will.

To the tattooist's credit, he seems to have recognized the error of his ways and wishes to rectify his mistake. The teenager, on the other hand, appears to be sticking by her dumb-ass story (by the way, even if that story is true, she is still an idiot for falling asleep while someone was carving ink-stains into her face). I don't know how this will resolve itself, and only in the most frivolous sense do I actually care. Still, I think this was at least a mildly amusing rant.

And there you have it: Two stupid people in Belgium.

The Genesis of Identity

Below is an e-mail I sent to several of my closest friends in reaction to an article in "Scientific American" that profoundly rattled me. I have decided to post it here, along with the response it elicited from one of those friends.

Matthew Laszlo:

What do you all think of the implications of this article? I personally find them startling (in an unpleasant way) for several reasons:

1) The scientists here all blithely assert that there is an absolute correlation between IQ and intelligence, which was certainly not the impression that I had been left with. It seems to me like they are making this claim because without it, they will have no basis for any of their subsequent assertions.

2) At one point a scientist says that in the future, magnetic resonating scans of the brain will be able to tell as much about a high school student's intelligence in ten minutes as an SAT Test does in four hours. Does anyone else see ominous harbingers of a "Brave New World" in that prediction (which he seems to make with pride)?

3) In general, I am disturbed by the idea that intelligence is innately genetic or environmental. While I am hardly a spiritualist by nature, I do believe that there is something intangible and thus unquantifiable, which for lack of a better word I will call a "soul", that is responsible for the development of human thought, identity, personality, character, intelligence, etc. Certainly this "soul" interacts with biology and environment; that cannot be denied. But why is it that all of the scientists in this article fail to even address the possibility that there could be an intangible essence to the human mind that accompanies these other two factors? Certainly this is not a religious cop out; scientists ranging from Rene Descartes to Stephen Jay Gould have all said essentially the same thing, and neither of them could be accused of being religious fanatics. It has always been my opinion that the scientific method, and the body of knowledge acquired therein, is the only means of learning about the physical world, which at its most fundamental level is made up of matter and energy (and when we are talking about biology, of genes). That said, anything that is NOT physical (matter and energy, of which even genes are ultimately composed) would seemingly be impenetrable using the type of empirical methodology utilized by scientists. Assuming that my feeling here is correct (and it may very well not be), there would be one of two possible conclusions that could be logically deduced from this - either the world is nothing but matter and energy, or there is more to this world than matter and energy, and thus more than can be understood by science. I personally have always felt that the Cartesian axiom Cogito ergo sum is proof of the latter's truth. Any thoughts?

- Matt

PS: If you can, share this with any scientists you know. I would LOVE to get some well-informed feedback to add to my layman's thoughts! http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=searching-for-intelligence-in-our-genes&offset=12



The article's content struck me as disturbing as well. Interestingly,when I read phrases such as measuring intelligence, or genes that determine a higher or lower intelligence, the first words that came to mind were "superior intelligence," "eugenics," "master-race,""Nazism." These scientists will have to be careful with the kind of words they use when discussing the measurement of a child's intelligence, lest ordinary citizens find the language incendiary.
In 9th grade biology, I remember watching a documentary on the cloned sheep back in '97, and many people warning about the dangers of cloning a human being - the possibility of racist fanatics cloning their own master-race. My 10th grade biology teacher Mr. Raisher, a Jew with a keen sense of humor, reassured the class about the science of cloning, "Don't worry, they're checking for swastikas."

I am in agreement, and find the article quite unsettling.


Laszlo's Addendum:

The struggle between religion and science for the mind of man has persisted furiously and without pause for millenia, reaching the height of its intensity with the dawning of the modern enlightenment five hundred years ago and continuing unabated to this day. Broaching this subject puts me in an all-too-familiar bind - should I elaborate upon it with the depth that it deserves, and thus turn my blog into a veritable doctoral thesis, or should I hope that my own mind and heart will be satisfied with a brief disquisition?

Fortunately I am not going to have to make that decision on any lofty intellectual or ideological grounds; practically speaking, I have neither the time nor the energy (thanks to a lingering flu bug) to expound upon this all-important matter at great length. Suffice to say that my views can be summed up as follows:

1A) One of the foremost enemies of intelligent, logical thought is dogmatism. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "a fixed... belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without any doubts", dogmatism has throughout history hindered mankind's progressive intellectual development. Examples of dogmatism's pernicious effects can be seen in every time period and among all cultures, and in spheres of knowledge ranging from political ideology and philosophy to religious opinion and science. Those who possess dogmatic views generally do so because they are certain that these views are inviolable in their moral correctness and/or factual accuracy, and as such should never be challenged. This goes against the grain of what the founder of Western philosophy, Socartes, believed was the key to pursuing real truth: "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing."

1B) The key to seeking truth is to follow a three-step process:
- No matter how much you know, there will always be more that you don't know.
- You should always attempt to learn as much as you can about that which you don't know, and challenge that which you think you do know, so that you can come as close as possible to perfecting your understanding of how the world works (science, history), your appreciation of what it means to be alive (philosophy, history, and the countless various arts), what you believe the meaning of life to be (philosophy, art, and religion), and what you want to do with your own brief time on this earth (you).
- No matter how much progress you make in fulfilling the objective of Step Two, there will still always be far more that you don't know then there will be that you do know.

1C) It is impossible to follow that three step process, and thus arrive at any meaningful conclusions about truth, unless you first accept that no point-of-view should ever go unchallenged. This does NOT mean, as some less rigorous scholars choose to interpret it, that everything we believe to be true is automatically false; indeed, very often a viewpoint when thoroughly challenged winds up emerging from the ordeal far stronger and more inviolable than it had been before it underwent that brutal procedure. What it means is that any opinion that goes without question, no matter how seemingly sound, can be wrong, and on that one wrong view can be built an entire edifice of ideas which are destined to either crumble from the inadequacy of their premises or become oppressive because they continue to stand in spite of the rot that lies at their foundations.

2) Everything that we know, at its core, has to be taken on faith. Our first knowledge of the world comes from the realization of our own existence - Cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am. This and this alone is what we know to be true, because it is logically impossible for anyone to disprove our own existence. We know we are, and that is that.

From there, the second realm of knowledge comes from what we detect in our immediate experiences through our physical senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), our emotional senses (love, hate, joy, fear, etc.), our intellectual senses (deductive reasoning, artistic understanding, etc.), and the memories we develop/knowledge we learn as a result of the aforementioned physical, emotional, and intellectual senses. The information acquired from these senses appear inviolable, but how often have they been proven wrong? How often do our memories of the past wind up being grossly inaccurate, despite our certainty? Have there not been hundreds of tragic cases in which malfunctions of the organs or brain has caused people to see what isn't there, hear what isn't making sound, feel what has no physical form? Can't our emotions often lead us in one direction even when common sense and reality ultimately tells us that another is correct? Haven't perfectly executed logical reasoning methods led to assumptions about reality - the earth is flat, the earth is the center of the universe, the heart contains the mind, the bumps on your skull determine your personality - that have eventually proven flat wrong?

In short, apart from knowing for certain that you exist, there is nothing else that you can absolutely know is true without question. HOWEVER, it is impossible to function in this world, much less attain a modicum of happiness, without being able to take for granted that certain things are true. In part this is for the purpose of sheer survival - we touch fire and recoil in pain, and thus have to take for granted that this wasn't a fluke and that fire truly is dangerous. In part this is because life becomes unliveable if fail to trust even our most basic physical, emotional, and intellectual senses: How can appreciate the caress of a loved one if we don't even know for certain that there is an emotional being there, like ourselves, capable of feeling love and who loves us? How can we even feel confidence in expressing any opinion if the very fibers of those points-of-view are constantly open to being undermined? Indeed, how can we pursue truth about anything apart from our existence if every fact relating to something else is immediately open to question?

The way to bring about a reconciliation to this dilemma - i.e, to make it so that we can enjoy life and learn about the world while accepting the implications of the unreliability of our senses - is to take for granted that which our senses first teach us unless a logically sound reason is presented indicating that we should question it. Once a logically sound reason is presented that suggests we should question something we believed we knew as a result of our physical, emotional, and intellectual senses, we should then study that reason in depth until it either forces us to revise or replace the original opinion, or else winds up failing to hold water and thereby reinforces the original opinion.

From there we finally arrive at the third realm of knowledge - everything that we know not through our own direct experience as interpreted through the three kinds of senses, but which we are taught by external sources. Those sources range from our parents and other family members to friends and teachers, from clergymen and schoolteachers to the authors of the books we read (fiction as well as nonfiction) and the experts we see and hear on television. Even more so then the knowledge acquired through direct experience from the three senses, this is knowledge that must fundamentally be taken on faith - how do we know that the information which we receive from others is reliable when we ourselves have not had any direct exposure to it, and thus lack the personal means of attesting to its accuracy or lack thereof? Once again, the means of reconciling this dilemma lies in the calculated risk. Through some means or another, each person decides which external sources apart from their own immediate experiences they will choose to trust and which ones they will choose to hold in suspicion or outright disregard. While it would take me far too much time to explore in depth the mechanisms by which people decide which sources they deem reliable and which ones they do not, suffice to say it is a combination of social pressure, personal prejudices, the influences of other people during their formative childhood years, and genuine rational thought.

While non-social creatures would either lack this third means of acquiring knowledge or else would have a very limited exposure to it, human beings - because they are social - have a very highly developed sense of the third form of acquiring knowledge. As such, the conclusions each human being draws about how the world works (science, history), their appreciation of what it means to be alive (philosophy, history, and the countless various arts), what he/she believes the meaning of life to be (philosophy, art, and religion), and what he/she want to do with his/her own brief time on this earth are all an extraordinarily complex mixture of what he or she has learned from his/her second and third realms of experience and knowledge.

All of this is very fine in the abstract, but how does it pertain to the topic of the Scientific American article? As I see it, the ideas of that article are based on the premise that the human mind is ultimately the product of heredity (genes and biology) and environmental factors, but that there is no third element - a soul - involved in making a human being human. Instead, it operates on the assumption that the mind, and with it the accompanying personality, is entirely the product of heredity and environment. It believes this for many reasons. One is that the impact that heredity and environment have on the development of the intellect and personality is indisputable, which causes many of them to assume that these factors are one and the same with the entity they are attempting to understand, dismissing outright the possibility that they merely influence it. Another is that a "soul", if it does exist, by the very nature of the properties it is known to possess, would not be a physical entity (i.e, something composed, at its most fundamental level, of matter and energy), and since the methodologies used by scientists to understand the world depend on empirical deductive techniques honed for the observation of the physical world, it becomes impossible for many scientists to accept the possibility that anything other than the physical could actually exist. A simpler way of putting this would be to say that if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; in this same sense, because there is no explanation in the world of atoms and energy for why certain physical matter possesses sentience, the assumption is that this could only be because the causal connection between physical matter and sentience has not yet been discovered, rather than the other logically sound possibility (that one does not exist) being acknowledged. Finally, I think there is a prejudice that many scientists have against religions as a result of the centuries-long battle between them. To be fair, it is a battle that religious individuals have more often than not initiated, and the overwhelming majority of the atrocities committed (both against the mind and against human rights) have come from religion against science, and not the other way around, making the resentment felt by many scientists against religions more than understandable. That said, these same scientists are committing one of the same grave errors that their religious counterparts often make when dismissing ideas that have religious overtones to them out-of-hand; they allow their personal passions and prejudices to interfere with their objectivity in pursuing truth, and thus dismiss what logic suggests might be so (logic needn't suggest that something IS so for it to be worth exploring, only that it MIGHT be so) because of bias rather than reason.

My opinion is that human identity is an infinitely complicated mixture of heredity, environment, and the soul. The first two elements, though exponentially more complex than anything else yet studied or understood, are both finite and tangible (this because they are part of the physical world), and thus capable of being understood by science. The third element, the soul, is intangible and not part of the physical world, and thus capable of being neither detected nor understood by science except insofar as its features are discernable through advanced comprehension of heredity and environment. Because the soul is individual, I believe that no impersonal methodology, scientific or otherwise, can be proscribed onto another human being in order to tell him or her how to understand it. Each person can best decide that on his/her own - some through religion, some through philosophy, some through the arts, some through science, and most through a complex combination of all the above, one rendered infinite because it involves the human soul. And what does all of this say about God? In my opinion, when God made man in "his image", God was not referring to a corporeal form, but rather that of the mind and soul. That is God, and the closer we come to understanding our own souls and those of all other life forms, the closer we come to understanding God. I also believe that the relationship between the brain, the rest of the physical body, the environment, and the soul is like that of perpetually overlapping spirals, with each remaining independent of the other yet constantly intersecting and even merging with one another, and thus in deep labyrinthine ways influenced by one another. Finally, I have no idea what happens to our souls and identities when we leave this life, except that they are preserved (as by their nature they can never be erased, although disease that impair the means by which they are "transmitted", if you will, into the physical world, like Alzheimer's Disease, can distort their "reception").

That is my opinion; it is not one that I can prove via the scientific method precisely because, if it is true, it would be incapable of scientific verification. That said, this does NOT make my opinion inherently illogical. One of the great fallacies of our generation is the conflation of science with logic; what must be understood is that science is merely the application of logic to the physical world, but that the fact that the instrument has been used so superbly in one area of existence doesn't mean that the lessons it draws from that area can be extrapolated onto others. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, the best way to reconcile this is through NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria: There is a "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to...the supposed conflict between science and religion.", one where the magisterium of science is used to discover "the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry."

A final thought: You may have noticed the three dots that I put out after "a fixed" when quoting the Cambridge definition of dogmatism. There was, sadly, a very good reason for doing this; the individuals who wrote that entry felt the need to add "especially religious" after the term "a fixed", thereby muddling the otherwise perfectly clear explication they had provided. Considering that dogmatism is an abstract term, meant to apply to ANY set of views that are expected to be held without question, it was unnecessary for the Cambridge Dictionary's writers to single out religious views for opprobrium.

PS: I just read an article about identical twins and the often awesome similarities between those who were separated at birth. Presumably these similarities suggests that the personality is predominantly genetic, yet I have two problems with the reports that draw this conclusion:

1) Why do so many of them cite things as being similar in identical twins who were separated at birth that have nothing to do with their DNA? For example, one report touts how two female twins, though separated at birth, both gave birth to two boys and a girl. That is indeed a remarkable feat - yet isn't the gender of a child determined by the chromosomes of the sperm cell (which can be X or Y) produced by men, and not those of the egg cell produced by women? Another article talks about how two male identical twins wound up marrying two different women, each of whom had the same first name. Is that implying that there is something in our genes that makes us feel attraction to people with certain specific names (it would be a bit more plausible if they said that both men were attracted to women with the same hair color, body type, or personality traits, but really - the first name)? A third news piece breathlessly described how two identical twins separated from birth in Minnesota liked to drive a light-blue Chevrolet to Pas Grille beach in Florida - where is the specific gene, or even set of interacting genes, that served as a commercial plug for this beach resort to such an extent that it was in the DNA of both men to spend their money there every year? Indeed, how are there so many anecdotes about different pairs of identical twins separated at birth in the first place? I didn't know there were that many identical twins out there, to say nothing of those separated at birth, and to say nothing of those who after being separated at birth find each other, and to say nothing of those who after being separated at birth and finding each other decide to make their stories public record (the awkward construction of this sentence was intentional). I am not saying that all studies involving separated identical twins should be outright dismissed. My suspicion, however, from what I have read about identical twins separated at birth that ARE plausible, is that many personality attributes are shared amongst the two individuals - how their minds work, consequent professional interests, individual talents and even interests, etc. At the same time, there are great personality differences, not only when among those identical twins who are separated at birth, but even among those who stay together their entire lives. As Stephen Jay Gould points out when discussing concerns about cloning, "Eng and Chang, the original Siamese twins and the closest clones of all, developed distinct and divergent personalities. One became a morose alcoholic, the other remained a benign and cheerful man."

2) As Stephen Jay Gould points out, these studies also fail to acknowledge the many differences that these individuals have. Rather than conclude this article with my own words, I think it best to end it with those penned by the late great scientist in 1997:

A preference for either nature or nurture swings back and forth into fashion as political winds blow, and as scientific breakthroughs grant transient prominence to one or another feature in a spectrum of vital influences. For example, a combination of political and scientific factors favored an emphasis upon environment in the years just following World War II: an understanding that Hiterlian horrors had been rationalized by claptrap genetic theories about inferior races; the heyday of behaviorism in psychology. Today, genetic explanations are all the rage, fostered by a similar mixture of social and scientific influences: for example, the rightward shift of the political pendulum (and the cynical availability of "you can't change them, they're made that way" as a bogus argument for reducing government expenditures on social programs); an overextension to all behavioral variation of genuinely exciting results in identifying the genetic basis of specific diseases, both physical and mental.

Unfortunately, in the heat of immediate enthusiasm, we often mistake transient fashion for permanent enlightenment. Thus, many people assume that the current popularity of genetic determinism represents a final truth wrested from the clutches of benighted environmentalists of previous generations. But the lessons of history suggest that the worm will soon turn again. Since both nature and nurture can teach us so much - and since the fullness of our own behavior and mentality represents such a complex and unbreakable combination of these and other factors - a current emphasis on nature will no doubt yield to a future fascination with nurture as we move towards better understanding by lurching upward from one side to another in our quest to fulfill the Socratic injunction: know thyself.

I think the best way to conclude this piece is with the words of Elyse Schein, an identical twin who was indeed separated from her sister at birth (as part of an extraordinarily inhumane social experiment from a renowned child psychologist). When asked how her experience affected her perception of identity, she said:

I think we were both troubled by the thought that our identities might have been interchangeable. We each wondered, “If I had been raised by your parents and you had been raised by mine, would I be you and would you be me?” It took three and a half years of our getting to know each other to realize that that is not the case. Identity is not simply genetics plus environment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Contemporary Menippean Satires

According to the website 'yourdictionary.com', a Menippean satire is defined as:

Me·nip·pean satire (mə nip′ē ən)
a form of satire that is indirect and nonrealistic in approach and that consists typically of a loosely organized narrative
incorporating a series of dialogues between representatives of various points of view

This term is most often used in reference to classic literature, be they classics in the literal sense of the word (Apocolocyntosis of Seneca and The Satyricon of Petronius) or work that is more recent, relatively speaking (Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift and Candide by Voltaire). Yet when I flip through the fare offered by Cartoon Network's late-night programming (cleverly dubbed "Adult Swim"), as well as some of the more popular shows from Comedy Central and Fox, I cannot help but think that Menippean satire is alive and well, and indeed would be widely recognized as such were it not for the prejudices of those familiar with the term.

My temptation is to elaborate on this at length. Sadly, I know that an analysis worthy of this thesis would require far more time, detail, and verbiage than I can afford to expend. That is why I shall instead list the shows to which I am referring. Whether you wind up watching them for the first time after reading this blog post, or have seen them before and are now attempting to view them afresh, my hope is that this article will cause you to look at them with a new perspective. The absurd narrative structures, zany off-color comedy, and scattershot yet oddly insightful social criticisms that could be found in the aforementioned literary works is also present in TV shows like Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Superjail!, Reno 911, The Boondocks, Xavier: Renegade Angel, The Sarah Silverman Program, and above all others in quality and historical significance, The Simpsons. This is only the short list, and there are no doubt worthy entries which I have inadvertantly omitted. My larger point is that I suspect we are living in a veritable golden age of Menippean satire, and are merely pressed too closely against the stained glass window of our own times to distinctly make out its image. There is a strong connection between that which we laud from the distant past and that which we take for granted in the present. This is just a thought of mine, but one I deemed worth posting.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Obama Needed To Apologize

Sneering Republican and other right-wing commentators, from Rush Limbaugh to Sean Hannity, have derisively referred to President Obama's Cairo speech as an "apology tour". The implication here was that it was wrong for the United States of America to exercise humility in the messages it sends to other countries, a concept that only makes moral sense if you assume that America has not committed any major transgressions against the peoples of other lands.

Yet the specific apology that Obama did articulate - namely, the one to the people of Iran for America's role in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq - was undoubtedly a great transgression, one that worked to the detriment not only of the Persian people, but of America and its allies in the Middle East (most notably Israel). How so?

Let us step fifty-seven years back in time. Iran, having only recently thrown off its colonial shackles, is led by Mohammed Mossadeq. In the entire Muslim world, he is the only leader whose ascent to power was brought about not by blood or corruption, but by a legitimate democratic election. In a region where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism run rampant, he alone among Islamic rulers not only recognizes Israel's right to exist, but openly celebrates it. Most important, at a time when America was trying to extend humanitarian political principles into the "Third World", Mossadeq is a leader whose government, though far from perfect, makes undeniable efforts to expand the freedoms of and achieve meaningful socioeconomic betterment for all of its people. Less than half a decade after President Truman's brave recognition of the State of Israel first compromised America's standing with the Muslim world, Mossadeq's Iran represented our nation's only worthwhile ally.

Yet Mossadeq made one mistake: In 1951 announced a plan to nationalize Iran's oil fields so that the profits produced therein could be used for the benefit of his countrymen, rather than for the British oil companies that then controlled them. While this plan certainly posed no threat to the American, Israeli, or general international welfare (and indeed it is hard to imagine other nations not advocating similar acts should they find themselves in comparable circumstances), it did alienate the British corporation which had been fleecing Iran for decades. Hence when the Anglo-Iranian oil company approached President Truman in 1952, they did so with a request that he use America's military might to launch a coup d'etat against Mossadeq and install in his stead a leader more amenable to their corporate interests. Of course, they were prudent enough to recognize that any revolution which implicated them could have disastrous geo-political ramifications; as such, they suggested that Mossadeq be deposed in a CIA covert operation, one that would appear at face value to spring organically from the Iranian people rather than any foreign entity.

To his credit, President Truman refused; to the world's misfortune Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did not. Under Eisenhower's orders the covert overthrow of a democratically elected foreign leader (dubbed Operation Ajax) was launched and successfully executed, with Kermit Roosevelt (the son of former President Theodore Roosevelt) serving as one of its leaders. Although Mossadeq did manage to spend the last fourteen years of his life in exile (as opposed to having been murdered on the spot), the leader America installed in his stead - a brutal tyrant named Mohammed Reza Pahlevi who called himself The Shah - would run his nation into the ground for the nexty twenty-six years, so much so that it planted the seeds for the revolution of the dangerous theocratic rebels who still rule that nation today.

None of the presidents who have presided over this land for the past fifty-six years - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush - have openly acknowledged, much less apologized for, America's role in destabilizing the region and destroying that country. When he spoke in Cairo on June 5, 2009, President Barack Obama became the first chief executive to do this. While the significance of this piece of history may seem minimal to most Americans, it has had vast and (for the most part) tragic consequences for Iran and the Middle East. It is high time that America apologized for its actions here, not merely because humility is more often than not an admirable quality, but because we must pledge to never again allow the cupidity of the Western world's less savory entities to override our good judgment.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Obama's Health Care Plan

Robert Reich sums up my position on the health care battle perfectly:

Jewish Reaction to Obama's Speech


Actually it is the authors of these articles who have their information wrong. While the desire to re-settle in the ancient holy land has indeed existed for Jews as a more abstract concept for millenia, it didn't manifest itself as a viable political movement until the 19th Century. There are several underlying causes for this:

1) For thousands of years - from the Roman diaspora of the first century A.D. through the Napoleonic Wars - the vast majority of Jews in the Western world tended to live in densely populated neighborhoods in and around major European cities. These neighborhoods were known as ghettos (a term coined in Venice), and because of the hostility with which Jews were treated by the outside world, an insular lifestyle developed within those ghettos that caused Jewish history to develop almost parallel to that of the rest of the European world, with the two worlds intersecting only when persecutions occurred (which was almost every year, and often quite bloody) or when external pressing circumstances (wars, plagues, et cetera) made it inevitable. That changed with the gradual emancipation of the Jews from their ghettos and their consequent integration into the social, political, and cultural lives of the nations in which they lived. Once that happened, the Jewish community as a whole began to develop a distinct awareness of a potential political identity as part of the larger Western world, and that awareness - when fused with the nationalistic fervor that was sweeping across Europe at the time and the humanitarian sentiments that had been stimulated by the American and French revolutions - ultimately resulted in a more tangible desire for a homeland of their own.

2) A moral as well as purely political justification for a homeland was injected into the equation with the wave of anti-Semitic persecutions brought about by the Russian pogroms of the late-19th Century, the Dreyfus Affair in late-19th/early-20th century France, and countless other lesser known but equally disturbing anti-Semitic movements that convinced many of West's finest thinkers that the creation of a separate nation for Jews was the only way to bring about an end to such oppression. Theodore Herzl was the most famous advocate of this point-of-view, which he came to after witnessing the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus firsthand. The Holocaust was the final act that made it seem clear to the rest of the world that a Jewish state was necessary to bring about an end to history's longest on-going ethnic prejudice, although it must be made clear (as Obama did) that it was only the culminating event, and not the sole catalyst.

In my opinion, there is a unique and largely undiscussed for Jewish sensitivity to the remarks made by President Obama in Cairo, one that cuts to the core of the American Jewish experience. The American ideal, as every citizen of this nation knows in his heart, is that of human freedom and equality of rights; the Jewish identity, as every Jew knows in his mind and with his viscera, is that of being victimized and oppressed. When you take a group that has personal oppression as such a strong part of its identity and move it to a country that has as its core value the championing of human rights, what you end up with is a community that will defy demographic logic and adopt a strong left-wing political character as part of its collective sense of self. That is why you find an average of three-out-of-four Jews supporting the liberal Democratic party over the conservative Republican party in every presidential election since 1928, despite the fact that as white well-education white-collar professionals who on average earn much more than most Americans, Jews should vote Republican (as do all other groups who fit those demographic criteria). That is why, even as pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC strongly supported President Bush's war effort in Iraq, polls consistently showed that Jews were more opposed to the war from an earlier time than any other religious or ethnic group in America. That is why Jews are more pro-choice than any other religious group in America, more pro-gay marriage than any other religious group in America, and participated in the anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s far out-of-proportion to their numbers. All of this traces back to a key aspect of the American Jewish identity - the idea that no matter how economically successful, socially influential, or politically powerful any individual Jew may be, he or she is always at heart a member of an underdog group, and thus morally obligated to throw his or her lot in with other underdogs, wherever and whomever they may be.

In light of this mindset, it becomes easy to understand why some Jews dislike Obama's speech. The idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressors, the valiant champions of human freedom becoming its extinguishers, the long-standing opponents of Southern segregation and South African apartheid becoming the perpetrators of their own form of apartheid, does not sit well with the American Jew's sense of political self. It goes against the grain of how we view ourselves. Can we still consider ourselves one with the oppressed of the world if one of our most prominent communities in the modern world is guilty of such wrongdoing? Does that negate the thousands of years of previous persecution, or somehow make it so that we can no longer claim that by-and-large we are history's victims and not its villains? How do we reconcile who we have been for thousands of years with the human rights violations being committed by Israel today?

There are two ways of addressing this problem. The first is by pointing out that only an anti-Semite of the most vile sort would believe that somehow the wrongs committed by Israel makes less valid or tragic the persecution Jews have suffered throughout the world over the millenia. If indeed a ledger is to be kept for our small tribe, with one column chronicling the sufferings we have endured at the hands of others and the other recording the sufferings that we have forced on others, the former would so outweight the latter that it would literally take five thousand more years of Palestinian oppression just to make them even (sixty years is a drop in the bucket when taken into comparison). Anyone who says that the essence of Jewish history is no longer that of the perennial victim, but is now that of the victimizer - or who attempts to even minimize the injustices and suffering borne by the Jewish community, both past and present - is either an idiot or a bigot, and in both cases is exposed by his own ignorance to be unworthy of further consideration.

The other point that needs to be made is that Jews are human, and like all human beings, can make mistakes. While it may be an uncomfortable fact, the reality is that Israeli Jews are guilty of oppressing Palestinian Arabs, be it by building ever-growing settlements on their land, by forcing them to labor under humiliating legal restrictions, by reacting to terrorist attacks with force so disproportionate that it forces hundreds of innocents to pay for the evil of a few transgressors, and in general by behaving toward the Palestinian Arabs in a manner sadly similar to the way in which South African whites treated South African blacks during apartheid.

This is not to say that Israel hasn't also been the victim of disgusting atrocities at the hands of neighboring Arab countries and Palestinian terrorist groups, or that it hasn't contributed much which is positive in science and culture to the modern world, or that it isn't a stalwart ally (as President Obama has often pointed out) to this country, or that it isn't a thriving democracy which (ignoring its mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs) actually has a glowing human rights record when it comes to the government's relationship with its own citizens (far better than any other nation in the Middle East). Nor does it change the fact that many critics of Israel, on the left and on the right, in this nation and throughout the world, use anti-Zionism as an excuse for anti-Semitism, first by focusing Jew-hatred solely toward the Jewish state but then finding clever ways of extending it toward the Jewish community as a whole. All of these statements are true, and are frequently cited by Israel's defenders when that nation's errors are pointed out. Yet none of these truths change the fact that the situation faced by Palestinian Arabs is a grave moral wrong, and that the actions of Israel's government is in many ways responsible for those wrongs. While many American Jews recognize this and thus demand change in that region, many others enter a state of denial, and instead take to shooting the messengers who speak this truth, and rationalizing what they know in their hearts to be wrong by rewriting history and spinning the present. That is, in short, why President Obama's speech has stirred up such a negative reaction among American Jews - by criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinian Arabs, he appears to flout a key element of the Jewish identity. Because that aspect of the Jewish identity has long been flouted by real anti-Semites (who after all can't justify hating Jews if they admit that Jews are one of history's longest-standing victims, and therefore generally spin or outright lie about this fact), it is easy to simply say that Obama's perceived flouting of it makes him at best a naive fool who is playing into the hands of the Jews' enemies, and at worst a bona fide anti-Semite.

The problem is that this simply isn't true. Although some critics of Israel are anti-Semitic, many of them, including President Obama, are not. Although the overwhelming fact of Jewish history has been the oppression of our people, that doesn't mean that we aren't guilty of being oppressors in this situation. Most important of all, if human suffering is being forcibly endured anywhere in the world, then it is incumbent upon all men and women to fight to bring that suffering to a close, and to end all of the injustices which are responsible for its initial perpetration. American Jews, because of their unique identity, have historically have met this challenge with a consistency and strength that gives us justifiable pride; with Israel we face our toughest moral challenge. I hope that our reaction to the message of Obama's speech will ultimately be a positive one, so that when we look back at this chapter of our history, we will see that moral challenge as one which we not only met, but transcended.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Otho's Sacrifice

In my article "Favorite Fives", I mention the suicide speech of the Roman Emperor Otho as being among my all-time favorites. To better explain this sentiment, which at face value must seem at the very least quite puzzling, I should provide a backstory to the address.

After the death of Nero, the Roman Empire underwent a year-long civil war, during which time four men - Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian - fought for and obtained imperial power. It was a bloody conflict, with Galba being the hand-picked favorite of the Senate, thereby making him both the first to reach the throne and the first to be murdered in the name of it; Otho being popular due to his close proximity to Nero, a man who was as loved by the common people as he was loathed by the aristocracy; and both Vitellius and Vespasian having a shot at ultimate power due to their command over large, powerful armies. Although many hoped that peace would come to the empire after Galba was assassinated in order to bring about Otho's ascension, the new emperor was quickly confronted with an attempted coup by Vitellius, whose armies were ransacking and pillaging villages from Germany to Italy as they made their way to the palace in order to depose Rome's newest ruler.

Battles were fought between the armies of Otho and the soldiers behind Vitellius, and there was every reason to believe that Otho could emerge triumphant. Yet in a decision that shocked the world, Otho decided that blood should not be shed in the name of making him the most powerful man in the world. After delivering the speech which I posted below (first in the original Latin, and then with an English translation), Otho took his own life and begged the entire world to stop its fighting and allow the empire to see the peace which had so long eluded it during the final years of Nero's reign.

In an indirect sense, Otho's wish was granted. His death did not bring about an immediate peace, as the armies of Vespasian confronted those of Vitellius almost immediately after the latter's coronation, with the ferocity of the fighting being among the most intense seen in Roman history. That said, as soon as Vespasian defeated Vitellius (and the world's benefit, since Vitellius had been a horrible ruler), he did usher in an era of peace and good government throughout the Roman Empire. Either way, Otho's willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice - not only of his own life, but of what had doubtless been a dream-come-true - remains among the noblest in recorded history.

Hunc animum, hanc virtutem vestram ultra periculis obicere nimis grande vitae meae pretium puto. quanto plus spei ostenditis, si vivere placeret, tanto pulchrior mors erit. experti in vicem sumus ego ac fortuna. nec tempus conputaveritis: difficilius est temperare felicitati qua te non putes diu usurum. civile bellum a Vitellio coepit, et ut de principatu certaremus armis initium illic fuit: ne plus quam semel certemus penes me exemplum erit; hinc Othonem posteritas aestimet. fruetur Vitellius fratre, coniuge, liberis: mihi non ultione neque solaciis opus est. alii diutius imperium tenuerint, nemo tam fortiter reliquerit. an ego tantum Romanae pubis, tot egregios exercitus sterni rursus et rei publicae eripi patiar? eat hic mecum animus, tamquam perituri pro me fueritis, set este superstites. nec diu moremur, ego incolumitatem vestram, vos constantiam meam. plura de extremis loqui pars ignaviae est. praecipuum destinationis meae documentum habete quod de nemine queror; nam incusare deos vel homines eius est qui vivere velit.

This spirit, this courage of yours, must not be exposed to further danger. That, I consider, would be too high a price to pay for my life. You hold out great hopes, in the event of my deciding to live on: they merely serve to make death finer. We have sized each other up, fortune and I. Nor must you calculate my reign in terms of time. It is harder for a man to observe moderation in success when he thinks he will not enjoy it for long. Civil war began with Vitellius, and with him lies the responsibility for our embarking on an armed struggle for supremacy. I too can set an example by preventing its repetition. Let this be the act by which posterity judges Otho. Vitellius shall live to have the society of his brother, wife and children: I require neither vengeance nor consolation. It may well be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously. It is not for me to allow all these young Romans, all these fine armies, to be trampled underfoot a second time, to their country's loss. Let your devotion accompany me, just as if you had in fact died for my sake — but live on after me. I must not impede your chances of survival, nor you my resolution. To waste further words on death smacks of cowardice. Here is your best proof that my decision is irrevocable: I complain of no one. Denouncing gods or men is a task for one who is in love with life.