Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Joe vs. the Logical Volcano

Joe Klein, furiously humping Glenn Greenwald's leg:

Greenwald -- who, so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world -- has laid out the incredible notion that the liberation of the Kurds, which Jeff celebrates (and so do I, and so do civilized people everywhere) as a happy byproduct of George W. Bush's dreadful war in Iraq, can be compared to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland . . . .This is obscene.

Joe Klein, previously:

"I'm entirely depressed about the state of my craft. Newspapers and magazines are losing readers, young people aren't reading them. You know, I watch as my colleagues get laid off and fired -- it's kind of like being gay in 1982, half the people I know are dying, they're being, you know, they're being cut off."

Joe really, really seems to be unclear on the concept of analogies.

Monday, June 28, 2010

No, Nothing

Figure-and-ground, then, constitute a relationship -- an inseparable relationship of unity-in-diversity. But when human beings become preoccupied with concentrated attentiveness, with a type of thought which is analytic, divisive and selective, the cease to notice the mutuality of contrasting "things" and the "identity" of differences. Similarly, when we ask what we really mean by a fact or a thing, we realize that because facts are divisions or selections of experience, there can never be less than two! One solitary fact or thing cannot exist by itself, since it would be infinite -- without delineating limits, without anything other. Now this essential duality and multiplicity of facts should be the clearest evidence of their interdependence and inseparability.

The naive idea that there is first of all empty space and then things filling it underlies the classic problem of how the world came out of something. Now the problem has to be rephrased, "How did something-and-nothing come out of...what?"


I thought Ron Rosenbaum was somewhat of an idiot last year. It is with a heavy heart that I say unto you that eight months later, he's still an idiot. PZ already said most of what needs to be said, but I thought this part could been seen as the fatuous essence of Rosenbaum's tirade:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

I can't speak for anyone else, believer or not, but leaving aside the fact that I have no problem admitting that I don't know the answer, I don't particularly care. Life as we know it exists, and that's good enough for me. Postulating a single cause of it all only makes us ask how that itself could have been uncaused. Even asking the question "why" poses the risk of taking for granted the existence of purpose as we understand it where there is none to begin with. The absence of an absolutely certain answer does not therefore mean that any alternative that someone can dream up is equally valid; some possibilities are clearly more likely than others. And even if we do assume that science and logic can't answer the question, how does that change the fact that absolutely nothing we do know about the universe suggests the existence of any God worth the name? Science doesn't have the answer, I don't think it ever will, therefore possibly God, therefore agnosticism, Q to tha E to tha muthafuckin' D?

Listening to Rosenbaum deride the limitations of logic in an essay filled with this sort of fallacious reasoning makes me think of the kind of person who calls tech support, screaming about their shitty computer that won't work, when they're too stupid to check and see if it's plugged in first.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

U.S.UCK.

One emailer wrote:

I’m actually having a little bit of an existential crisis with this US-Ghana match—I really appreciate the Ghana team and two of my most fantastic colleagues are Ghanaian. I’ll have to muster every little ounce of fleeting nationalistic sentiment I posses to cheer for team USA.

I suggested he watch the game on ESPN. That experience will drive even the most die-hard American fans into Ghana’s camp.


That's really funny. At one point, perhaps when Ian Darke, the British half (!) of the broadcast team, said late in the game that he and his wife would celebrate with champagne if the U.S. managed to eke out a win, I found myself wondering if that idiot from Gawker had put up a post complaining about the ridiculously pro-U.S. cheerleading from the commentary booth. If I had a million dollars to bet, I'd put it all on "No".

It honestly doesn't bother me too much, because most of the commentary is just inane chatter anyway, from the useless trivia and statistic-mongering that passes for analysis in the studio, to the actual patter during the game. I usually just tune it out for the most part. But really, listening to Darke and John Harkes ceaselessly attempt over 120 minutes to give themselves pep talks after the U.S. fell behind early yet again was a bit tiring. It didn't help that most of the game, especially the first half, was some of the most sleep-inducing shit imaginable. I've taken antihistamines that didn't make me feel that drowsy. I agree with what Silverstein said before -- I don't view sports as just another excuse to have the same old political arguments, so I don't root for or against teams based on those issues. The U.S., though, is just frequently excruciating to watch. I don't hate watching them because of George Bush or our foreign wars or anything like that, I hate watching them because they simply reek. I can't count how many times I saw four or five players just standing around like spectators when a teammate had the ball in the midfield. No runs off the ball, no sharp passing, just terrible stuff.

Anyway, as far as the chatter goes, Harkes's Joisy accent is the hardest thing for me to tolerate. He was one of many kids from New Jersey who formed the core of the U.Va. teams when Bruce Arena was the coach there during the eighties and early nineties (with Bob Bradley as his assistant). Another one of them became my high school coach several years after his college career was over, so listening to Harkes reminds me all too much of the angry tirades we had to hear then.

Hopefully, now that the U.S. is done, the worst of it is over.

Update: Hahahaha. To answer my own question, no, of course not, the idiot from Gawker was not at all bothered by hearing a steady stream of rah-rah biased pom-pom waving from supposedly neutral announcers, but he was terribly vexed by a blatant example of malingering from a Ghana player late in extra time, even though the referee adds additional time to account for such things, and despite the fact that it didn't affect the outcome anyway. Given that such displays of bad sportsmanship are indeed worth getting angry over, however, I assume my good friend is also boiling hot over other examples, such as Landon Donovan's periodic playacting (I seem to recall one particularly impressive corkscrew dive in the first half after a routine knock on his ankle) and his frequent attempts (not just in this game) to urge the referee to issue yellow or red cards to opposing players - the equivalent of being a whiny snitch or a tattletale in regular life - or seeing Jozy Altidore, built like a tank, going down faster than a slut's knickers, as the Brits like to say, at the slightest contact.

What's that, you say? He couldn't care less? It's only a problem when other teams do it? All that matters is that he was deprived of a chance to bellow AMERICA FUCK YEAH WOOOHOOO BABY SUCK IT FOREIGNERS!!!!

What a shock. Well, at least he managed to refrain from calling for cruise missiles to be launched at Ghana. Baby steps, baby steps.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Herd, I Heard Discouraging Words

So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?


Ahem! Some reclusive genius on the Internet once said:

[...] Yes, they certainly can publish a blog or even a book through a place like Lulu.com, but as anyone who has toured the blogosphere knows, there's a whole lotta nobodies out there with a whole lotta nothin' to say (and I certainly include myself in that description). Nobody has the time and patience to sift through the oceans of misspelled and poorly crafted essays and novellas online, just like nobody sits and listens to countless thousands of mp3s of various garage bands online. Anyone who does will be quickly begging for editors, publishers, anything to force some sort of Spencerian survival of the fittest into effect.

More good stuff from Miller's essay, though:

People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
[...] Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in "The Long Tail") and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book "The Art of Choosing") have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren't utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.

I make an effort to find different writers and bloggers on a regular basis; I've always hated how insular so much of the blogosphere is, with most people linking to the same few sources over and over again. But it's unfortunately true that there are many days when I spend hours looking to see if anything interesting has been written about this or that topic, only to end up weary and dejected afterward, with nothing to show for my effort. Sometimes it's because there's nothing but drivel out there, other times it's because there's simply too much to go through.

And I laughed at this part:

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.

I'm still sometimes horrified to realize that countless hours of reading online has made it so that I sometimes have to stop and consciously think about how to spell certain words or form certain phrases because I've seen them done incorrectly so goddamned many times. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a real editor.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Full Metal Jackoffs

I finally read about it to see what all the hubbub was about, and came away unimpressed. Your mileage may vary. But Digby and her commenters are outraged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal doesn't respect the president's authoritah. There's a lot of overcompensating dick-swinging going on, a lot of demands for Obama to unscrew McChrystal's head and shit down his neck and prove once and for all that Democrats can be just as macho and virile as anyone else, but I still don't have any sense of what they think "the strategy" is that McChrystal is undermining with his dolschtoss. Does this mean that we're not going to be blowing up more civilians with drone attacks? Is this going to add some irreparable cracks to the imperial foundation? And I'm supposed to be upset about this? I guess they can't find a clever way to call for endless sacrifice of "blood and treasure" in the name of laptop and BlackBerry batteries, so they're reduced to spouting authoritarian platitudes about the chain of command and the need for America to face the world with a united resolve, etc.

It's not really a surprise, of course. Digby, of course, supported Wesley Clark's bid for the presidency in 2004, which was based entirely on him using his status as a four-star general to challenge the authority and execution of Bush's wars (and back then, much of the tepid criticism of the wars was that they were being waged "incompetently"; apparently, mass murder is fine for some people as long as it's done efficiently with a minimum of fuss and bad press). The entire pwoggie blogosphere spent the rest of that year stroking themselves into an jizzlobbing frenzy over what a "war hero" John Kerry was in Vietnam, and how serving as a foot solider in a national shame of a war made him the best choice for being Commander-in-Chief of two others. And when those efforts were all for naught, they spent the next few years desperately hoping for any other dissidents in the military brass to come out and openly denounce Bush and Cheney, while railing against them as traitors for outing a brave, honorable CIA agent (!) who was only trying to protect us from Iran and their nuclear weapons by gathering legitimate intelligence. Now that Republicans are out of office, the rhetoric has shifted away from the immorality of our foreign policy toward what Digby likes to call "the optics": how does this play in Peoria? How does it affect Obama's re-election chances? Does this reinforce the media narrative about Democrats being wimps and hippies? Oh, if only the Villagers would quit being mean to Democrats! Lost in the shuffle is any concern for what, exactly, we're doing still stumbling around in the Graveyard of Empires to begin with.

As Glenn Beck might point out, there's only thirteen letters separating "D" from "R", which is the same number of letters in the word "authoritarian"! Coincidence? Or numerological truth?!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Omnipresence

At the start of every game so far in the World Cup, the commentators always take a moment to say something along the lines of:

"We'd like to welcome the men and women in uniform serving around the world who are watching today's broadcast of the FIFA World Cup in 175 countries on AFN, American Forces Network. Hope you enjoy today's broadcast."

We have at least a token military presence of some sort in 175 countries? I realize that doesn't necessarily mean soldiers and bases and tanks and warplanes, etc., but still. There's only about 195 nations in total!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Something Monastic

For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader.

[...] I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private.

[...] What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing—that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld—is becoming harder and harder to comprehend.


I, of course, don't have to worry about the possibility of publication, so it would seem like cheap posturing if I were to claim that I wouldn't want a huge audience even if I had the chance to attract one. Well, call me a poser, then, because it's true!

Seriously, though, I do agree with his points. Even as a simple blogger, I can see the truth of what he's saying. When I first started doing this, I really had no idea what I was doing or why. I was "raised" on the political blogs; in fact, writing about politics and current events was the purpose, maybe even the definition of blogging as I understood it. I knew that there were people who wrote in a much more personal manner, but I couldn't for the life of me understand why anyone outside of family or close friends would want to read what amounted to an online diary. Very few people are talented enough to write compellingly about their personal lives, even if they do lead interesting ones.

I quickly realized that I didn't want to be just another political blogger, but at the time, I didn't have the confidence or even a good sense of how to write about other topics, so I took a hiatus for a couple years and spent the time trying to find different writers who wrote about offbeat topics, to help me envision the possibilities this format contained. When I finally decided to get back into it, I made up my mind that I was just going to write whatever I felt about whatever I wanted, serious or silly, coherent or surreal, and I wouldn't make the slightest effort to attract an audience. Fortunately, that seemed to do the trick for me, and I was able to find somewhat of a voice of my own, free of the expectations of an audience or a desire to please one. Before, when I felt an urge to keep up with some standard, to talk about the same topics everyone else was talking about, I wasn't enjoying it at all. It was a chore. Since giving up entirely on the idea of acceptance and putting everything out of my head but the desire to write things that I can be relatively proud of, it's become increasingly enjoyable, to the point where I feel somewhat lethargic and less mentally focused when I don't get to do any writing. I actually feel energized and alert for the next day or so following a good day of writing, regardless of whether anyone else read it or not.

So even if I were able to make an actual living at writing, I would probably still maintain a pseudonymous blog just for the freedom it affords. I'm sure there are rewards to writing for a substantial group of people who largely enjoy it and give you positive feedback, but I'm content to keep secretly typing away in my tiny little corner of the Internet.

Mossy God

Einstein and Newton found God in Nature and saw science as a bridge between the human and the divine mind. (To Einstein, in a metaphorical way.) To both, to adore Nature, to study it scientifically, was a devotional act. I find it difficult to criticize this position, whatever your beliefs are. (Although I’m sure some commentators from both sides will…) Religions appear, change in time, and eventually disappear. It’s all a matter of time scale. But as long as we exist as a species, our intimate relationship—and codependency—with Nature will remain. To me at least, it’s quite clear what I should be worshipping.


I hear this sort of sentiment all the time, and I still really don't know what it even means. Most invocations of "nature" as some sort of higher ideal or guiding principle are either examples of romanticism or tautological nonsense. As always, Nietzsche said it best:

You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!

Seriously. You all do realize that it's not all sunsets and mountain vistas and tranquil oceans, right? Nature itself is one of the strongest arguments against any anthropomorphic notion of a god, with most lifeforms existing to be eaten as individuals before going extinct as a species. Like the man said, the sheer wastefulness, the indifference, the immense cruelty that would be psychopathic if there were any agency behind it -- what exactly is there to worship in that? What sort of universal principle (or mind) do you think you're gaining insight into by studying it? And how does this supposedly transcend the divide between science and religion when countless scientists and laymen are content to study nature without a need to mysticize or glorify it?

You can find inspirational examples of beauty, harmony and order in all sorts of things -- music, for example. But if you're talking about any sort of religion or worship deserving of the term, very few non-intellectuals are going to be interested in pantheism, Deism, Gnosis, or any other vague, abstract principle. They want a God that loves them back (or at least claims to). They want the Sistine-Chapel-finger-pointin'-motherfucker. This just seems like a weak attempt to redefine an attitude of devoted scientific inquiry as "religious", nothing more than semantics.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

De Omnibus Dubitandum

David Hume showed that we never know anything with absolute certainty. We try our best to gather and process all the relevant information when we need to make a decision, but we can never possibly plan for every single contingency, and we can never have access to all the pertinent facts, so we just do the best we can, shrug and leave a little bit to chance. Even people who couldn't care less about eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers or the intricacies of epistemology intuitively understand this in the course of their everyday lives. We don't know for certain that we won't be one of the tens of thousands of people who are involved in a fatal accident this year, but we confidently get behind the wheel every morning anyway. We don't know for certain that we're going to live beyond tomorrow, but we make plans for what we're going to be doing in five years. Provisional knowledge is good enough.

Except when it comes to belief in God, it seems.

A frequent objection to atheism I've heard is that there's something particularly dangerous about claiming to be reasonably certain that there is no immortal soul or personal, loving god or gods and living one's life in accordance with this. I can only think of two reasons for this.

One would be the general idea that knowledge is a good thing in and of itself, there is something undesirable about living in a benighted state, and that we should always seek to reduce confusion and ignorance. Therefore, if someone thinks atheism is simply incorrect on the merits, it's natural for them to want to bring it to attention. The problem is, all the good arguments are on the side of disbelief. Nothing we know points to proof of a soul or a god other than wishful thinking, which of course is no proof at all. And as many have pointed out, apologists haven't really come up with any worthwhile variations of the basic (and flawed) arguments for God's existence that we all learned from people like Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, whereas science and logic have continued to draw on human experience and expanding knowledge to keep chipping away at theological reasoning. It's perfectly fine if you think I'm wrong, but simply asserting it to be so isn't good enough.

It's more likely, though, that the objection is rooted in the mentality best expressed as Pascal's Wager (which has many flaws of its own). That is, having been raised in a largely Christian culture, we've absorbed the idea that there is a personal god, and he happens to be a fanatically insecure psychopath who's just aching for the chance to make a horrible example out of anyone who questions or defies him, however mildly. Openly doubting his existence, of course, is the gravest insult one can offer him. Even those who think they've rejected the strictures of traditional religion still seem to harbor this psychological remnant. Better to just pay lip service to the old bastard and avoid unwanted attention.

It's really stunning when you stop to think about it, how we've normalized such an insane point of view, how we've become accustomed to such a crippling weight upon our minds. In any other instance, what's the worst that could happen if one makes a mistake in reasoning? Having to admit being wrong? Feeling a sting to your ego? Why wouldn't that also hold true if it turned out that we do indeed have an immortal soul, and we end up meeting God after we die? Why wouldn't an atheist be allowed to say, "Well, what do you know? Boy, do I feel stupid now!" Even tyrants, you would think, would enjoy seeing a former opponent bow and scrape and proclaim their mistake for all to hear. Why would it not be good enough that I did the best I could with the mind I had to make sense of the information I was presented with?

And even if it were true, and our soul lives on after death, and there really is a father-figure type of God waiting to grade us on our performance while alive and punish us for making mistakes -- why would you want to believe in such a being? Why would you want to accept being ruled by someone with a personality that would get him imprisoned or institutionalized in human society? Wouldn't you want to rebel against such a state of affairs?

Actually...

Martin Tyler is an English "football" commentator and was one of two ABC announcers during this afternoon's England-USA World Cup game. After the American goal that tied things up, Tyler repeatedly—and condescendingly—cried foul.

Right away, Tyler declared the goal a "howler," made a bunch of random (and, ultimately, nonsensical) "Green" references, called it "one of the softest goals you'll ever see at this level of football," and referred to American scorer Clint Dempsey as "The Lucky Man."

Even minutes after the goal, Tyler still wouldn't shut up about it. First, he said that Green had made such a mistake that it would stop him from sleeping, perhaps for the rest of his life. Then, we got a shot of the best David Beckham stank face EVER. Then, Tyler once again called the goal "a lucky break." And finally, he said, "It's not one that you see regularly. If you're watching a game like this for the first time—and maybe some of you are—that just doesn't happen. That really doesn't happen in schoolboy play, because it's tough on schoolboy goalkeepers to say that they would make a mistake like that," which basically suggested that the Americans were not only lucky, but probably never watched a "football" match before in the first place.


Really, anyone who sees this as evidence of pro-English bias from the announcer's booth has spent far too much time in the blogosphere parsing political bullshit.

Anyone who watches regular European club football, especially in the English Premier League, will often hear the term "howler" used to describe an embarrassing beginner's-like mistake. There's nothing odd or condescending about that at all.

There's nothing even remotely controversial about calling the goal "lucky". It was lucky. Again, if you actually watch more than a handful of matches every four years, you'll be able to sit through literally thousands of them without ever seeing a goalkeeper fumble an easy ground ball into his own net. I played the game all through my childhood into my late teens, and once I got beyond the Saturday-morning-little-kids kind of leagues, I can't say I ever recall seeing a goalkeeper fuck up that badly. Tyler's comments have nothing to do with disparaging the US players; they were an expression of the same genuine shock that all fans who know anything at all about the game felt upon seeing such a thunderfuckingly stunning mistake made by someone who is supposed to be one of the two or three best players at his position in his entire nation. It was, indeed, a big fucking deal. And should it turn out to negatively impact England's chances to advance in the tournament, I'd recommend putting Green on suicide watch or in protective custody; suggesting he's going to be haunted by this through sleepless nights for a long time to come is a mundane truism. How would you feel about massively fucking up at your job in front of an audience of billions?

This game was televised on ABC. Network TV, not cable. Saturday afternoon. I'm no expert, but I'd say there was a pretty good chance that a large portion of the audience was made up of people who probably would never bother to seek out a soccer game to watch, but decided, upon having it presented to them on a platter, to tune in because of all the hype or novelty surrounding the Cup, or because hey, it's our boys playing, where's my foam finger, YOO-ESS-AY, YOO-ESS-AY. Sorry, but again, I don't see what's so controversial about taking a moment to point out to all the newcomers that they just saw something that they might never see again in decades.

Besides, I would much rather listen to British announcers over our own Fox Soccer Channel personalities. Christ, how many times can someone stand to listen to them endlessly try to reassure each other and the audience that the US is respected and taken seriously by the world's footballing powers? The transparent inferiority complex is grating as hell. Hey, guys, you know what will earn the US respect? Consistently winning important games against the big boys. If this team is true at all to past form, they'll end up tying or losing to Algeria or Slovenia after having just fought England to a draw.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Beautiful Crying Game

Roy Edroso has always been my favorite source when it comes to documenting the right-wing obsession with reducing all aspects of culture to yet another political pissing contest, from food to movies to literature to rock music (so much so that I really wish he had all those posts grouped together in an easily searchable category). Today, via Jim Newell at Gawker, we find the theme again, this time in relation to the World Cup. You're never going to believe this, but it seems our conservative friends are using the opportunity to complain about all their usual bugbears.

Among the wingnut soccer fans I know, the complaints around World Cup time often center on the fact that, due to a certain number of spots in the final 32 being reserved for each region, it's not simply going to be a survival-of-the-fittest, absolute best teams in the world competition. Obviously, European teams that didn't qualify, such as Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Russia are far superior to teams like New Zealand, North Korea and Algeria (and South Africa themselves, who only qualify by virtue of being the host country). Spending most of the intervening four years kvetching about affirmative action in American society, it's easy for conservatives to switch over to moaning about deserving white Europeans (except Turkey, of course) being shafted by a quota system favorable to African and Asian teams who lack the inherent skill and work ethic to succeed on their own.

Of course, racial identification only goes so far, as most of those Yurpeans are godless socialists as well, so it's not long before I have to hear whining about supposed media bias in favor of teams like Spain, who have the gall to make the game entertaining to watch, with plenty of insinuations that they're all a bunch of weak, easily injured sissies over there, no doubt because their totalitarian sociafascist governments have banned eating meat and force citizens to subsist on tofu, granola and bean sprouts.

Here's what I don't get: politics is one of the least pleasurable things about human existence. A necessary evil, emphasis on the evil. What kind of miserable, bitter fuck do you have to be to want to make absolutely everything in your life a chance to revisit the same old political arguments, especially when they only make you upset? How pathetic is it to turn so many opportunities for enjoyment, for forgetting about all that for a little while, into another episode of railing against things that you can never change?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Service Advisory

If there should be a dearth of new posts over the next month, fear not. In all likelihood, I will still be alive and kicking. It's just that the World Cup starts tomorrow, so much of my spare time is going to be spent watching up to three new games each day, at least during the first couple weeks of group play.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Motherfucker May I

Baer: After covering the “eight rival religions,” you give atheism a tenuous position within that pantheon by adding a ninth chapter dedicated to the topic. You write that “atheism is a religion of sorts, or can be.” Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

Prothero: One argument of my coda on the New Atheism is that many atheists are religious against their own intentions. But not all New Atheists are religious. It depends on the person. But atheism as a whole would be less religious if it were less emotional and less evangelistic.

Baer: Proselytizing atheists like Dawkins have carved out a niche within a largely religious public sphere. Would a less emotional, less evangelistic atheism be capable of maintaining even this degree of influence?

Prothero: I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem. Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers.

- KTB

Oh, come on. Atheism as a type of religion? Wow, never heard that one before. Rule of thumb: when you start using false equivalencies that my brother has used on me, it's time to stop, back up, and rethink some things before you disappear down a rabbit hole.

This is a shame, as I like Prothero's writing. I've been favorably quoting him recently, and I certainly am looking forward to reading this new book. But really, what bullshit. Call me jaded, call me overly suspicious, but I can't help but suspect that some people would prefer it if atheists spent so much time soft-pedaling their statements, massaging egos and apologizing in advance for any hurt feelings that may result that they never got around to making their actual arguments in favor of atheism.

Just once, I wish one of these concern trolls would actually point out specifically what it is that the "New Atheists" have said that is so gratuitously offensive and off-putting as to hurt their cause. (I mean, it's only been about six years since Harris's The End of Faith was published, so comparing recent public opinions of atheism to the largely unfavorable ones that existed previously -- you know, when atheists were less emotional and evangelistic -- should be easy enough to do.) Unlike a lot of their critics, I actually have read what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett have written, and even Hitchens and Harris, the two more controversial members of the Four Horsemen, have gone out of their way to stress their respect for individual believers and make clear their stance on differentiating people from dogma. In fact, most of the controversy surrounding those two is based in a dishonest attempt to smear their atheism by associating it with other positions they've taken that have nothing to do with it. Harris has been hysterically accused around the web of being a fascist eugenicist for his recent attempts to argue that morality can be given a scientific grounding, and Hitchens has been on every liberal's shit-list for the last decade due to his support for the Iraq war and exhortations to invade Iran (both of which, I would argue, are rooted in his former Trotskyism rather than in any newfound neoconservatism, but that's neither here nor there). Once again, it seems pretty obvious that the real problem everyone has with this assertive atheism is the fact that its spokespeople have the effrontery to not act ashamed of themselves in public. But people are going to be offended upon being told, in any tone, that the beliefs they claim as the bedrock of their existence are false and even detrimental. There's no way around that. And like I said, the motives to make the debate all about our tender feelings rather than the issues themselves should be transparent. You can only make so much of an effort to be conciliatory before you just have to conclude that your opponent is not operating in good faith, at which point, you just gotta say "Fuck 'em".

Civility, then. I've had a variant of this discussion myself, given my status as an openly aspiritualist, atheist blogger (and a foul-mouthed one at that), with teeming multitudes of readers who hang on my every word. Shouldn't I aim to be more persuasive than abrasive? Don't I risk closing someone's mind to my viewpoint by not making a Herculean effort to reassure them that I mean no offense? Wouldn't I catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and who the fuck wants to catch flies to begin with? What am I aiming for anyway?

Here's the thing: in debate class in seventh grade, we were taught how to make calm, dispassionate arguments on topics near and dear to our hearts, and how to separate the argument from the person making it. If twelve year-old kids could handle that with a little coaching, I'm going to start from the assumption that we are all adults and can easily do the same. Plus, I simply don't have the time to preface every potentially offensive statement I make with apologies and pleas for patience and understanding. I'm trusting that you, dear reader, are willing and able to do some of the work yourself.

As for my intentions, well, I don't really have any other than to speak the truth as I see it, mostly for my own amusement. I go after targets that I have no possible hope of taking down, where I have no expectation of being able to convince anyone to agree with me, and I'm grateful to them for giving me something to test my strength against. My concept of intellectual honesty requires me to go after expressions of self-serving bullshit and bad faith, but I'm always very aware of the difference between official doctrine and the way individual believers and practitioners apply those principles to their lives, and I adjust accordingly. The context matters. I would never be rude in person to someone sharing their honest thoughts and feelings about religion because that's just needlessly crushing to put someone in a position where they can't save face.

In the context of a pseudonymous blog, though? Assuming some unfortunate spiritually-inclined person stumbles across my blog and gets a nasty shock, they can easily dismiss me as some asshole on the Internet and go blithely on their way. But maybe, if I'm lucky, I planted some seeds of doubt or nagging suspicion by just speaking plainly and honestly, and they can delve into those on their own time in a way that's comfortable to them, if they want to. Plus, I'm also aware that some of my own intellectual awakenings have come by way of being rudely shocked out of my dogmatic slumber, to quote Kant, so I honestly don't feel that being offended is always such a bad thing. Someone being an asshole for the pure hell of it is one thing, but sometimes, feeling offended by something you read is a sign of insecurity or complacency on your end, and investigating that is obviously a good thing.

I aim for some perfect midpoint, to try to identify and criticize a theme that touches on a large number of people without totally encompassing any of them. To whatever extent that's not the case, that's just due to my own shortcomings as a writer. I try to generalize enough to allow wiggle room for someone to say, "That's not me! I'm not like that at all!", while perhaps carrying away that nagging doubt I mentioned.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Toot Not-So-Sweet

Cocaine abusers — already at risk for an abnormal heartbeat, blood pressure problems, hallucinations, convulsions and stroke — can add another potential health complication to the list: rotting flesh.

In a report in the June 1 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, Dumyati and doctors from the University of Rochester Medical Center discuss two cases involving women with a history of cocaine use who came to the hospital for help when they noticed purplish plaques on their cheeks, earlobes, legs, thighs and buttocks.

Their profiles were typical of toxicity with levamisole, the doctors reported. The medication is a veterinary anti-worming agent, approved for use in cattle, sheep and pigs.

..."Almost 80% of the cocaine coming into this country has levamisole mixed in," Dumyati said.

Exactly why is not known, she said. Some say it might enhance the effects of the drug, which include a euphoric mood or "high" and a boost in energy. It also might be used to stretch the drug and increase profits.


Well, if it's a de-wormer, maybe it's to help get rid of the coke bugs.

Radical Chic(k)

Instead of dealing with anything hard, the article juxtaposes the musician’s wealth with her desire to be an outsider and promote social justice, as though those things were incompatible. I must have missed the part where we don’t want rich people to care about others.

...Instead of examples like these, which could shed light not only on M.I.A.’s effect on politics but also politics’ effect on M.I.A., the article focuses on (mis?)characterizing her lifestyle. She eats French fries? Likes olive bread? Lives in Brentwood? I don’t really care. I’m not compelled by the argument that her greatest political failure is claiming to care about people while being rich.



Money, it's a hit
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit

- Pink Floyd

Friedrich Engels was a rich kid, but Karl Marx was happy to take the money Engels earned while working for his father's business, along with the royalties from his book, Conditions of the Working Class in England, to survive and write his own somewhat influential works. Clearly, the important question was whether Engels was just slumming to raise his profile though.

Now, I'm not particularly interested in M.I.A. or Sri Lankan politics, and of course there are plenty of ready-made-for-mocking bored dilettantes who think it would be like totally rawkin' to be a revolutionary guerrilla leader and inspire the masses with their deep thoughts or cool fashions or whatevs. But Hirschberg's incredibly lazy framework is just as stupid and irritating -- a knee-jerk assumption that money inevitably compromises ideals, and a rarely-stated but always-implied notion that personal purity is more important than actions performed. I suppose switching the focus to a vague and ultimately unknowable question about what the subject really feels deep down in their heart of hearts is a way to keep an endless, pointless argument going, a way to give the appearance of transformative action while remaining comfortable and jaded. Mark Ames once acerbically noted how entrenched this mindset is in what passes for a radical left in America:

"Armed with nothing more than a movie camera, Moore shames a corporation into making a moral decision. What's odd about this sort of engagement, though, is that it avoids the hard work of forming movements that could press for change. No need for that when Michael Moore, with just his camera, microphone, and baseball cap, can come to the rescue." The envy here is so apparent that it almost makes you cringe. It worked! Oh shit! It's not supposed to actually work! Leftism is all about academic conferences and papers, not changing policy! It should take 30 or 40 years, not a few weeks or days. That is what is so "odd" - rather than "pressing for change," Moore actually changed, upsetting the olde guild.

The author of this article, Kevin Mattson, is an American academic, a left-wing Ohio University professor, so you can imagine that his life is excruciatingly dull, his impact on his frat-jock students somewhere between nil and negative-nil, and he doesn't want to think that somehow, this late in the game, he's the one who's gone about it all wrong. Moore makes Mattson and his type look like chumps and frauds - in fact, he threatens their pat jobs as much as the Right because he might flush them out of their campus offices. Mattson even admits so much: "Moore's defenders will claim I'm jealous because I lack a camera and large audience and my views are consigned to small magazines. I grant the point...I am not against humor (ask my friends). But I am worried about what happens to the vision of the left when it plays on the grounds of the sound-bite society." Yeah, if we all just set up more committees and publish more obscure articles in more obscure magazines, the Revolution will finally come. Just ask Mattson's friends, they'll tell ya.

One of the most common attacks you hear on famous advocates for causes like Moore and Al Gore is that they're filthy rich, so you can't trust anything they have to say (and how jarring it is to hear this sentiment from Republicans! I always ask my wingnut relatives, "So, you'd listen to him, then, if he gave all his money and possessions to charity and spent his time holding forth from a park bench, or would you in turn just mock him for being a lunatic?") But unfortunately, media access and the chance to reach an audience requires money, power and connections, things that tend to be in short supply when you renounce Leviathan and retreat to a hermitage in the wilderness. How often does lasting social change occur without some big money eventually lending support? It's a pretty story and all, the one about the Noble Proletariat Sustained Only By Purity of Vision and Strength of Heart, but it's also a fucking myth.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Refrain

BERLIN—Germany's national soccer team has run into a dust-up over the refusal of some of its players to sing the country's national anthem—as if losing its captain to injury weeks before the World Cup wasn't bad enough.

In recent warm-up games before the 2010 World Cup begins in South Africa next week, only a handful of Germany's ethnically diverse starting lineup have been singing, or at least lip-synching, as the national hymn, "The Song of the Germans"—a truncated version of the original that began "Deutsch land, Deutschland über alles"—plays before kickoff.

...The national team's coach, Jogi Löw, weighed in Wednesday, declaring to the tabloid that he wouldn't force players to sing if they didn't want to. "Our boys identify totally with the national team and Germany, but one also has to consider their heritage," he was quoted as saying.

...The soccer association says it discussed singing the anthem with the national players but doesn't require them to sing. "We're happy if they do, but it's up to them," a spokesman says.

...That singing the prematch anthem is considered optional in the first place stems from Germans' longstanding ambivalence toward anything that could be viewed as nationalist. For years after the Third Reich, West Germans debated what to have as a national anthem, and then whether to sing it.

..."Germans seem to have a rather different relationship when it comes to patriotism and that's truly rooted in our history," said Christian von Scheve, a sociology professor at Berlin's Free University. "In the '70s, if you watched the coverage, nobody sang the anthem."

- WSJ

I've just been pleasantly daydreaming about the Category 5 shitstorm that would erupt if any American sports team in a foreign competition refused to sing the national anthem. Can't you just visualize the talking heads across the political spectrum going incandescent with rage here in the Land of the Free?

I wonder what it would be like to live in a country that might be collectively described as "emotionally mature".

Friday, June 04, 2010

We're So Sorry If We Caused You Any Pain

Laura Bush, five years ago: "I was the librarian who spent 12 hours a day in the library, yet somehow I met George."

Paul McCartney, this week: "After the last eight years, it's good to have a president that knows what a library is."

One of these was a grievous insult to the flag, the Founding Fathers, Jesus, the Myrrhkin people, and apple pie, necessitating flagellation and an apology. Guess which one.

The Ego and Its Own

And in that regard, I guess I’m back to my original 14-year-old assertion that there’s no such thing as a selfless act. It is my brain, after all, that’s telling me what to do. But I think there is actually something different and more complex going on. Because the way it feels, when my back is hurting as I carry the kid up on the elevator and into our apartment, it’s almost as if it’s not my brain telling me what to do. It’s something else, it’s for him.


Well, if you ask people with an affinity for Eastern philosophy, they might suggest that since we're all essentially one anyway, temporary and contingent individuals made up of the same basic stuff, dependent on others for our existence and identity, there's no conflict.

But I think it's pretty well established that there are tremendous ingrained incentives for showing "selflessness" when it comes to your own children; after all, genetically speaking, they're at least 50% identical to you. While we might think it's a nice idea in theory, most of us will find some excuse not to carry a bunch of strangers around at the expense of our aching backs. And even people who do devote a substantial amount of their time and energy to helping other people in need are gaining the satisfaction of doing what they feel to be right, of trying to shape the world into what they'd like it to be. Socrates even felt that we are ultimately incapable of knowingly doing what we feel to be wrong, psychologically unable to know and wholeheartedly believe that something is the worst of available options, but choosing to do it anyway.

So I think his fourteen year-old self had it right when he was channeling Max Stirner: our self-interest, which encompasses our philosophical worldview as much as our immediate perceptions of pleasure and pain, is inextricably bound up in the choices we make. We have a name for people who exist purely to serve others, who perform actions for others' benefit with no expectation of reward: slaves.

Jesus vs. Brian Wilson

I was talking recently with a liberal Christian, when the conversation turned to the Bible. At one point, I said that I didn't see any value in trying to extract the "true" message of Jesus, given the contradictory verses that are purportedly his own words, not to mention the problem of trying to read the book as a coherent text written for the purpose of providing a historically accurate account of precisely what was done and said. He stuck to the party line, though, insisting that there is a common message of love to be found through the Gospels that takes primacy over any inconsistencies or disturbing passages. Anyway, that's standard stuff. I then said that I personally didn't find his words to be all that inspiring in the first place, to which his immediate, incredulous response was, "Not even the Beatitudes?"

In case you hellbound deviants don't have them memorized, here's a refresher:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I said that I actually preferred the Beach Boys song, "Wouldn't It Be Nice":

Wouldn't it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn't have to wait so long
And wouldn't it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together

Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through

The happy times together we've been spending
I wish that every kiss was neverending
Oh, wouldn't it be nice...

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true
Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do
We could be married
And then we'd be happy

Wouldn't it be nice...

You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But let's talk about it
Oh, wouldn't it be nice...

Same sappy, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, but with good music in this case. Did Jesus ever write any songs as brilliant as Brian Wilson? I rest my case.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

I Will Not Mention Santayana, I Will Not

Take something everyone with half a brain and/or education knows to be true - evolution, say, or the fact that many of the most important Founders were more deist than Christian - and dispute it with fallacious reasoning "backed up" by a bunch of cherry-picked facts, if not outright lies. Then, demand a "serious discussion" about whether evolution is really real, or whether America was actually founded as a Christian nation.

The only proper responses to this, of course, are to laugh at it or ignore it. Anything else is a complete waste of time that could be better spent trying to grapple with the genuinely serious issues this country faces.


If you ask me (and even if you don't), I'd say that one of the biggest wastes of time I know of is fruitlessly complaining about how things should be different than what they are. What makes this extra amusing to me is seeing how often progressives (rightly) delight in epicaricacy over the way Republicans seen determined to alienate Latinos, the largest minority group in the country, and the fastest growing. Uneducated people, though, can go get stuffed. We're too busy with, uh, genuinely serious issues, like ineffectually boycotting upscale grocery stores, to bother trying to reach them.

This arrogant complacency about settled knowledge and accepted facts, though -- see Roman Empire, Decline and Fall of, The. It took close to a thousand years for Europe to relearn, with a big assist from the Arabs, what the Greeks already knew. Knowledge is not cumulative. There is no guaranteed, orderly progression toward enlightenment. It's only been a month since I last quoted this from John Gray, but it looks like I need to do it again:

In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition...Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be.

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

Many Enlightenment thinkers accepted that scientific advance might slow down or stop, as in previous periods of history; and in that case social progress would stall as well...What none of the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged, and their followers today have failed to perceive, is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific knowledge advances.

And that last line is especially important, because despite Tristero's attempt to consign the whole phenomenon to irrelevance with a dismissive wave of his hand, there are tens of millions of Americans who get their information about the world from people like Glenn Beck. I should know; I'm related to some of them. They apparently didn't get the memo that said they were expected to have intellectually progressed beyond the knowledge their provincial-minded, illiterate grandparents had. They never will as long as people who know better refuse to "waste time" telling them any different, insisting instead that they should, well, pull themselves up by their bootstraps somehow and figure everything out on their own.