Livejournal Feed

February 27, 2006

Looking at our referral logs, I noticed that somebody has been kind enough to set up a Livejournal syndicated feed for IP (and, I am told, one for comments). So for those readers who hail from Livejournal, you can get your fix there.

(N.B.: Please don’t comment on the Livejournal feed. We won’t see it if you do, and the comments will disappear if the feed updates and removes the posting. Follow the link and make comments on the IP site.)


February 26, 2006

In response to Urizen’s response on my own post, I felt the need to explain myself to those of you who came away with similar impressions as Urizen did.
My intent was not to dismiss the problem, and I never claimed to. In fact, my post was meant to stress the importance of combating the problem, not writing it off as offsetting penalties. My point was that one should not come away from the Mahablog post with the mistaken impression that there is something inherently rightist about hateful rhetoric. I acknowledged and even accepted the post’s point that the current political climate is such that the most egregious examples are coming from the right. (“I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right … is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left.”)

My point was (and is) that hateful rhetoric and action always exist, and they easily attach themselves to extremism. The fact of the matter is that in modern America, extremism on the right is far easier to attach to than that on the left. This was not true, though, during the Vietnam war, or more illustratively, in any bloody revolution you care to name. Mahablog claims that “the Right works a lot harder at cultivating hate than does the Left.” I disagree – I believe that the hate from the right has simply caught on better than hate from the left. In particular, I think that it’s not case of working harder, but rather of one having an easier time of spreading hate than the other.

The important distinction (and one that I will expand upon in an upcoming post, though not in this context) is that the empiricial evidence presented in the Mahablog posting are symptomatic, but care must be taken to infer the correct diagnosis. While I’m never one to object to “examining the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred”, I think it’s dangerous to jump to the conclusion that the ideals of the right are what cultivate hate before reasoned investigation. I am willing to guess that the real reason rightist hate is so much more prevalent is in the willingness of people today to embrace far right hate than far left hate, in large part because the right found a “righteous” cause to attach its (more hawkish) rhetoric to, which gave the unscrupulous on that side the opportunity to start the proverbial snowball rolling.

Eliminationism, Vitriol, and Partisanship

February 26, 2006

In case you missed it, on Friday Demosthenes posted a bit of commentary on Mahablog’s Patriotism v. Hate Speech post, the latter of which I found via the incomparable Dave Neiwert. Aside from strongly encouraging you to head over to Mahablog and check out the post in question (and whatever else you stumble upon—there’s a lot of good stuff over there), I’d like to say two things.

First off, I must confess to being a bit mystified by a couple parts of Demosthenes’ response. The allegation that the post in question is “heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples” seems to me to miss the point entirely, given that the thesis of the post is that a) hateful political rhetoric isn’t something we can dismiss by saying both sides do it in equal measure, and b) the difference between the hateful rhetoric on the two sides is qualitative, not merely quantitative. The original post notes, parenthetically:

One occasionally runs into some fairly ghastly examples of eliminationism coming from the extreme Marxist fringe — marginalized even by most of the Left — and from juvenile anti-Bush protesters with poor judgment and worse impulse control. […] I’m saying I don’t see eliminationist rhetoric from people who are prominent enough to have some following among liberals, progressives, or Democrats or who hold prominent elected office or positions in the Democratic party.

This is a more or less empirically-oriented point that cannot be reasonably dismissed as a product of slant or bias. It is both qualitative and quantitative, I suppose—there are demonstrably fewer instances of eliminationist rhetoric on the left, and what examples can be found of such rhetoric on the left aren’t typically from prominent voices (pundits, politicians, significant bloggers). Far from “[dismissing] certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand,” Mahablog rightly notes that there is in fact rhetoric on the extreme left that is probably as bad as that on the extreme right, but that the groups espousing such views cannot reasonably be considered part of the mainstream left in the same way that extreme right-wing views have taken hold of “mainstream” Republican politics (and even when such views are supposedly not part of the mainstream, the rhetoric is adopted by that same mainstream, such that the end result is pretty much the same).

Mahablog and Demosthenes are both right when they distinguish between the right wing and conservatism. Mahablog says:

I don’t want to put all conservatives in the same boat here. Traditional conservatives whose ideas are based in conservative political philosophy certainly can, and do, find much to criticize in liberal political philosophy and in many progressive policies enacted in the past (not many progressive policies around at the moment to take potshots at). What must always be understood is that the hard heart of our current political Right is not conservative.

The crucial point here, I think, is that the right has been effectively divorced from political conservatism. Rather than being at heart a political philosophy, the right has become a monolithic cultural machine, based on manipulative and hateful rhetoric for the sake of political expediency (and, y’know, advancing the causes of big business and evangelical Christianity—the other big business). This disconnect is relevant in all sorts of ways, from the abandonment of fiscal conservatism and small, efficient government to the embrace of jingoistic foreign policy and the erosion of individual rights. These are all things worth pondering, but the point I want to make here is simply this: right-wing political orthodoxy of the 21st century has only a remote connection to conservatism as a political philosophy. It is, more than anything, about the sort of overly reductive, “you’re with us or you’re against us” dogma that has been so prevalent since 9/11. It is about nationalism over patriotism, to the point where any position of criticism can be dismissed as unpatriotic and treasonous. In this way, there is an ideological connection between the right and eliminationist rhetoric. As long as political conservatism has been so completely abandoned in favor of neoconservative/theocratic “culture wars” nonsense, it’s just not enough to say that there’s no connection between rhetoric and “underlying attitudes.” Yes, the hateful rhetoric is primarily a product of “the current political climate,” but when genuine political philosophy has been replaced by dishonest and combative fear-mongering, we must examine the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred. We can agree, I think, that any sort of fundamentalism is objectively bad by definition (being an abandonment of reason in favor of orthodoxy), whether it comes from the left or the right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the right culpable for being the source of the overwhelming majority of hate-masked-as-politics.

Secondly (and more succinctly), I want to embrace something Demosthenes said in his closing paragraph:

Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints.

A lot has been said about the information age and the paradigm shift it ushered in (and may still be in the process of ushering in). The ubiquity of the internet and the other mass media has made it amazingly easy for almost anyone to access an overwhelming number of facts and opinions, more than one person could ever hope to sift through on his or her own. Often the facts are misrepresented or the opinions masquerade as facts, and with the breaking down of traditional media hierarchies, there is an increasing amount of uncertainty about who to trust. The sad reality is that most people don’t have the critical thinking skills to weed out the bad information and the misleading rhetoric—and many of them don’t really care to try, so they trust the first or the loudest voice they come across. As it turns out, the loudest voices are usually the least credible.

This is all the more reason for us to embrace rationality and the teaching of critical thinking skills. It is also a reason for us to stand up to the politicization of science, the gutting and manipulation of education, and the dishonesty of media pundits. People need to have some basic ability to evaluate the credibility of information and opinion, especially these days, else democracy goes down the shitter. And we should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to weed out bad information and dishonest commentary.

Informed participation, not just participation, is the name of the game.


Hate speech

February 24, 2006

So, I have yet to post anything since my introduction, and for that I apologize. Rest assured, Party faithful (all, um… two of you), I have a few things in the works. Once other things settle down a little in my life, they will be attended to quickly. However, in the interest of getting the juices flowing, so to speak, here’s a quick link for your perusal.

Urizen forwarded me a link to an interesting indictment of “righties” hate speech, as opposed to “leftie” rhetoric. Now, I’m not quite ready to declare that the fundamentalist right is inherently more hateful, even in rhetoric than the fundie left. The post itself, annoyingly, dismisses certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand. I do, however believe that at this juncture the fundamentalist far right (which the post rightly distinguishes from “conservatism”, in any real sense of the word) is much stronger, much more vocal, and much more mainstream than the fundamentalist far left. Personally, I don’t feel this inherent in the underlying attitudes, as much as with the current political climate.

The main reason I’m mentioning the post, though, is that it does give some excellent examples of the mentality that the Intelligent Party was created to combat (albeit heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples). It cites some very intelligent talk about “eliminationism” and the dangers inherent in eliminationist rhetoric.

I believe that we live in a time where, more than ever, the free flow of information is possible. However, let us all take care to remember that as the great philosopher Stan Lee said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints. Whether these viewpoints come from the right or the left, and no matter what pretense they enter under, be it “patriotism”, “revolution”, “security”, or “equality”, we all share a responsibility to take things at more than face value.


Locke Part Zero

February 22, 2006

I promised myself I’d get the first of the Locke posts up tonight, so I suppose I should at least scratch the surface. I’m about a quarter of the way through the Second Treatise of Government, but my first comment has virtually nothing to do with Locke’s political philosophy. The preface to the Two Treatises, while it focuses mostly on outlining the purposes of the work (to justify the ascension of William of Orange after the Glorious Revolution, and to demolish Sir Robert Filmer’s arguments for the divine right of kings), has a nice little nugget on philosophical discourse that I think is worth reproducing here.

If any one, concerned really for truth, undertake the refutation of my Hypothesis, I promise him either to recant my mistake, upon fair conviction; or to answer his difficulties. But he must remember two things.

First, That cavilling here and there, at some expression, or little incident of my discourse, is not an answer to my book.

Secondly, That I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of these worth my notice, though I shall always look on myself as bound to give satisfaction to any one, who shall appear to be conscientiously scrupulous in the point, and shall shew any just grounds for his scruples.

It seems to me that we would do well to take this to heart as a disclaimer for modern political and philosophical discourse. It also occurs to me that this sense of philosophical essaying as being essentially a back-and-forth enterprise is largely absent in the present day, at least in a substantial sense. Where Locke specifically outlined his willingness to respond to criticism of his arguments, most discourse today (at least outside of academic philosophy circles, which I don’t know quite well enough to speak for) either ignores/marginalizes reasoned opposition or comes out swinging, combativeness for the sake of combativeness. Obviously modern Western society—and America above all—follows a highly adversarial paradigm, from capitalism to party politics to adversarial justice systems, but Locke’s suggested dialectic seems a hell of a lot more reasonable than what passes for debate these days.

Having studied 17th and 18th century satire fairly extensively, I do realize that there was as much flamethrowing and vitriol back then as there is now, if not more so, but the context is different; back then, it was primarily the literary/political elites doing the verbal sparring, but now it’s every Joe and Jane Schmoe with an opinion. “Partisan politics” is an easy target, but where this stuff really matters the most is in the public domain, in the culture and the media and the day-to-day conversations that make up people’s lives. Not to say that we wouldn’t benefit from more rational debate in the legislature, because of course we would, but now more than ever the idea of a civil but critical examination of people’s arguments is something we need. Much more than we need sophistry and vilification.

Locke would make a fairly decent poster boy for the Intelligent Party, I think.


Of Pandas and Petitions

February 21, 2006

Kenneth Chang’s NYTimes offering today, “Few Biologists but Many Evangelicals Sign Anti-Evolution Petition,” is a bit of a breath of fresh air. As PZ says, it’s encouraging to see a journalist avoiding the “50-50 representation of competing viewpoints” pitfall and actually critically examining the claims of one side. What did he find? Only about a quarter of the signers of the Discovery Institute’s meaningless petition are actually biologists:

And even the petition’s sponsor, the Discovery Institute in Seattle, says that only a quarter of the signers are biologists, whose field is most directly concerned with evolution. The other signers include 76 chemists, 75 engineers, 63 physicists and 24 professors of medicine.

Chang goes on to point out that “of the 128 biologists who signed, few conduct research that would directly address the question of what shaped the history of life.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point that the Discovery Institute is and always has been grasping at straws, attempting to claim that a unified base of expert scientists challenges modern evolutionary biology. As we can see, their base is neither unified nor expert, but consists mostly of people with an ideological axe to grind and no particular knowledge of biology. I don’t doubt that chemists, engineers, physicists, and professors of medicine are generally intelligent people, but I certainly don’t acknowledge their expertise on questions of biological science.

In point of fact, the Discovery Institute and its predecessors have consistently been forced to whittle down their claims to the point of meaninglessness. Even with such a watered-down statement as the one on their petition, they’ve only been able to gather a little over 500 signatures over the course of five years. By comparison, as Josh Rosenau points out, the NCSE’s Project Steve (a petition expressing support for evolutionary theory, signed only by scientists named Steve/Stephen/etc.) has over 700 signatures to date. For another point of comparison, the Clergy Letter Project (a letter that, among other things, urges school board members “to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge”) has been signed by over 10,000 clergy members.

As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that creationism and ID are at best fringe positions with no legitimate scientific standing. These are not points of argument within the scientific community, but rather artificial controversies introduced by external parties with a broader and more sinister agenda. It’s nice to see that more people are starting to realize these things, even if it’s disappointing that the lunacy has been indulged for so long.


Misguided Metaphors and the Perversion of Ideals

February 21, 2006

In recent years, some people have noted the increasing importance of metaphor in public discourse, and the way changes over time to these metaphors (whether deliberately imposed or not) affect discourse, politics, and human experience. This is, like many but not all politically-oriented problems, something that happens on both sides of the aisle, as a natural consequence of political rhetoric (since politics is about, among other things, expressing complicated issues in simplified terms so people can make decisions without being paralyzed by their own ignorance). I’d like to focus for the moment on two terms that have undergone such a shift in meaning as to become almost trivial: tolerance and equality.

Both of these concepts have been held up as cornerstones of liberal democracy for a couple centuries, and rightly so. Liberal democracy is founded upon the universality of human rights—the “for all” is just as significant as the “liberty and justice.” The existence of such rights is great in and of itself, but it’s meaningless if it’s reserved for some arbitrarily chosen group of people. Rights are only rights as long as we can effectively take them for granted (not that we should) regardless of our socioeconomic status, race, gender, country of residence, religion or lack thereof, etc.; if there is a possibility of arbitrary abridging of these rights, they are more accurately described as privileges. Moral values must be universally applicable, as I’ve said, but they also must be universally applied. From these ideas are born the concepts of equality and tolerance.

In the case of equality, there has been a transition over the last few decades from equal respect and opportunity to a sort of enforced, end-result sameness. The idea that “all men are created equal” has been taken out of the context of inviolable natural rights and placed in a bubble of thick-headed literalism, wherein the constructs of fairness and impartiality are applied in deeply flawed ways. This manifests itself in the obvious political and social ways, namely affirmative action, and this is certainly something I’ll get to in future posts (the steadfast pursuit of affirmative action policies has been one of my main quarrels with the Democratic party, as thoroughly as I tend to align myself with progressive/liberal points of view), but it is also present in a more abstract sense: the equality of ideas.

(More below the fold.)

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