Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sociopathic Design

So, I'm slogging through yet another "scientist said/creationist said" article on the upcoming court battles over trying to sneak creationism into schools via the Trojan horse of Intelligent Design, feeling depressed over the absurdity of it all, when a possible compromise occurs to me.

It seems clear that the creationists have set up a false dilemma here, trying to make it seem that finding any fault with evolutionary theory somehow makes their ancient mythology more respectable by default. What's more, it's clear that the figure of a loving, personal father-figure God is the keystone of this particular myth. If it weren't for the tantalizing idea of a happy afterlife with this loving God, no one would be clinging so desperately to it to begin with (and it's interesting to note that this particular vision of an afterlife is nowhere near universal).

But why does the Intelligent Designer have to fit this mold? What reason is there (I know, I know, if reason had anything to do with any of this, we wouldn't be having this discussion) to assume that any deity with the ability to create a universe has to fit our limited conception of "good" or "pleasant"?

If we're going to insist on anthropomorphizing this hypothetical Designer, what if we secularists postulate in response that He/She/It is more like, say, a mathematical genius in terms of intellect, but cold, aloof and distant emotionally? Like a John Nash, or worse, a Ted Kaczynski? All the brains but no conscience - why is that any less valid of an archetype to build a God around? Think of all the time formerly devoted to discussions of theodicy that this view would save!

There's no science involved in this case, so they couldn't use a perverted version of it to obfuscate their aims. I just think it would be refreshingly honest (and amusing) to see people fall back on the real reason behind their defense of Bible study-as-science: the inability to emotionally accept such a bleak viewpoint, as if the universe needs their permission to be the way it is.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Art Appreciation

I discovered this amazing work of art this morning, just sitting at the end of a rural driveway. Curious place for an exhibit.

Now, you might think, “Oh, come on. It’s an earnest but empty gesture in a culture known for an overabundance of sentimental platitudes, full of kitsch and banality, signifying nothing. It’s a garbage can, ferchristsakes.”

Two words for you, my friend: Ceal Floyer. Go argue with her £30,000 of prize money. At least the work that I stumbled across doesn’t hide behind disingenuous attempts to make superficiality appear as some kind of all-inclusive, everything-at-once deep meaning. No, our anonymous artist has a very sharp point to make. It is meant to draw blood. When that becomes clear to the observer, it is readily understandable why she or he has a desire for anonymity. We do not live in tolerant times.
But enough gloomy history. Let’s focus on the message of this piece and take heart in our artist’s raised fist to an unjust world.

At first, I thought perhaps the artist had been reading Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times, and that this work was a skewering of the Patriot Act. We have deliberately trashed our freedom in a moment of panic, in exchange for cheap sparklers and trite clichés on the Fourth of July. Dystopian slogans arose in my head. “Deposit Freedom Here” suggested itself to me. “Freedom is Untidy. Don’t Let Stuff Happen – Keep the Fatherland Clean”. I imagined days of infamy being memorialized in state-sponsored patriotic marches (oh, wait, that actually did happen. Shit.) The straightforward blue plastic background, reminiscent of clear summer skies from my youth, seemed to speak to me of innocence and lack of guile, and the jarring incongruence between that and the sinister malevolence of creeping, star-spangled fascism (represented by the streaks of mud) caused a poignant ache in my heart, a sense of anomie. I thought of the noble, Enlightenment-inspired intentions behind our ideas of free speech and democracy, betrayed by the usual cowardly culprits, fear, greed, and heartlessness, and my blood began to boil.

Then a more ironic interpretation occurred to me. Maybe this artist was making a satirical comment on our gluttonous consumer society, in the tradition of Adbusters. A society that consumes worldly resources far out of proportion to its population. A society where an individual getting their news from could see this story and this story less than a year apart. After all, close to 40% of eligible voters didn’t participate in last year’s Presidential elections, one of the most significant events of our time, but we always seem to find time to take in more useless celebrity gossip. Maybe “freedom” means nothing more to the average American than the freedom to buy stuff, which can then be conveniently disposed of once the novelty wears off, never to trouble our beautiful minds again. Stick me behind a barbed-wire enclosure a mile away from where the President is speaking, but you’ll never prevent me from expressing my spirit! Give me liberty or give me ersatz!

And maybe both are correct. Or maybe the point is just to provoke thought in the first place, which in itself is a victory over the forces of reaction. So I salute you, brave artist. Your effort did not go unappreciated.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Fun With Etymology

I recently read a fun book concerning a subject that I'm sure would be extraordinarily popular in high school: the etymological roots of foul language. I've long wondered about what seemed to be a too-frequent-to-be-coincidental phenomenon; namely, the fact that many of our most vicious insults are sexual terms. (And I'm still amazed at the apparently unconscious knuckle-dragging attitudes behind ostensible "compliments" like noting an act of courage or integrity by a woman by referring to her having "balls", as if by her actions, she's become an honorary guy. Congratulations, toots!) Why the fluid interchangability of love and hate, sex and violence? Is it something peculiar about Americans, with our infamous neurotic attitudes about sex? Well, apparently not:

[Fuck's] most likely etymological roots are in English's Continental partners - the Latin futuere (or pungere or battuere), the French foutre, the German ficken. All these words follow the pattern of having two contextual meanings: the first, a physically violent one (to beat, bang, hit or strike); the second, to engage in sexual activity...Richard Dooling says that fuck is related to a widespread Germanic form (Middle Dutch fokken, Norwegian fukka, and Swiss focka), all of which have striking, thrusting, pushing-type meanings.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

It's Not a Belief

Do me a favor.

Stop referring to evolution as something to believe in.

The distinction between taking something on faith and provisionally accepting something based on much experimentation and empirical evidence (which can be examined by anyone willing to invest the time and energy) is absolutely crucial. Let's not obliterate it here by making it sound like the listener is being asked to choose between two equally inscrutable belief systems.

Make me happy. Make
George Lakoff happy. Be a little more rigorous in how you choose your terms. Too much is at stake.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Republican War on Science

I saw Chris Mooney on the Daily Show last night promoting his book, and it reminded me of something else I noticed recently.

Regnery is coming out with a new book in November in their "Politically Incorrect Guide to..." series. We've already seen American history (in the first book) and Islam and the Crusades (in a recent book) filtered through a far-right ideological lens, so now it's science's turn, apparently. In the wingnut version of history, we learned, among other things, that the Marshall Plan was a failure. In the book about Islam, we learned that the Crusades were fought in self-defense (but then again, a large chunk of Americans probably still think we attacked Iraq in self-defense, so that might not raise too many eyebrows). What kinds of esoteric secrets about science (oh, wait, maybe I should start using scare quotes - "science") have been hidden from us by the liberal establishment? I can't wait to find out!

Anyway, back on Earth, these fuckers are seriously out to create a shadow version of everything that could be vaguely described as conventional wisdom. It doesn't matter how counter-intuitive their attempts, or how utterly banal the assumption they're attacking - they're determined to fight for every inch of intellectual territory, to turn basic reality on its head at every opportunity, forcing us to have to revisit basic issues of knowledge, epistemology, and kindergarten ethics. Through the looking-glass, it was actually a good thing to stick thousands of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps just because of their ancestry. The spoiled rich kid who snorted coke and was a cheerleader at Yale before dodging the draft through joining the TANG (before deciding that even that was too much) is actually a manly man, the fearless warrior-leader, while the guy who volunteered to fight and got wounded is actually a wimp who shot himself in the leg just to get a Purple Heart (leaving aside for now all the other vets who have met the smear machine for not staying put in their roles as inanimate lumps of clay to be used as patriotic props during Dear Leader's speeches). Christians are a persecuted minority in a country that's roughly around 80% Christian. Feminism has made things worse for women. The right wingers who are in charge of all three branches of government, much of industry, much of the media, the military, and many religious denominations are powerless to defend the culture against a coterie of liberal arts professors who are much more interested in heeding the siren song of their navels rather than leading political revolutions in any event.

They are not "conservative" in many ways at all, they're radical revolutionaries. In fact, the idea that conservative is the polar opposite of liberal is just flat-out wrong. Conservative is the opposite of radical. Liberal is the opposite of authoritarian. What makes modern Republicans so dangerous is the way they combine radicalism and authoritarianism. They don't need to be right, they don't need to convince anyone of the truth of their claims. All they need to do, like some sort of psychotic cuttlefish, is cloud the water with ink enough to make the issues impenetrable to any but the most dedicated, sow enough dissension, create enough confusion and doubt to make most people throw up their hands in despair and disgust and abandon the attempts to find any capital-T truth. "A pox on both your houses", goes the slogan, as everyone from the scientific community to a group of fanatical activists to front groups for big business are assumed to be cloaking an ulterior motive, nothing is what it seems, and "truth" is whatever has the will and power and Machiavellian scheming talents to survive the war of all against all. They've created a wondrous mishmash of social Darwinism and postmodernism, and the cherry on top is that these people have been accusing us on the left of being the ones to undermine truth and goodness with our nihilistic relativism for ages now. They don't care if you agree with them as long as you stay out of their way. Apathy is a friend to the status quo, the defense of which is perhaps the only thing they seem to have in common with Burke - but even then, that's only because they happen to be the ones in control right now. And we've already seen over the last decade how much they foam at the mouth when they're not in control. I imagine they will not go gently into that good night again when it comes back around.

Monday, September 12, 2005

And So It Begins

‘In doing this you will cause pain to many people’ – I know; and I know also that I shall have to suffer twofold for it: once from pity at their suffering, and then through the revenge they will take on me. Nonetheless, it is no less necessary that I should do as I do.

— Nietzsche