Back from our Sabbatical?

September 29, 2006

If, like me, you saw President Clinton’s performance on Fox News (1, 2, 3), you may have been surprised by many of things he said. Further, you may have been subsequently befuddled by the focus that his emotional state, in exaggerated and distorted detail, had in the media coverage of the event, rather than refutation or confirmation of the startling facts that he enumerated. If so, you’ll be happy to know that Keith Olbermann has a few things to say about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that, while I don’t watch Countdown or MSNBC at all, the clips I have seen of Keith Olberman have routinely been anti-rightist in nature, whether in the form of incisively dressing down Bill O’Reilly for some idiotic comment, or the even more ludicrous Ann Coulter. I don’t know this is selection bias on the part of people who select the clips, or whether this is his general tone, but in any either case, it hasn’t been my experience that anything he’s said has been false or not corroborated by fact. Quite the opposite, in fact — he seems ready with an army of documented facts to bolster his own position, and I think that this clip in particular channels more of Edward R. Murrow than his signature sign-off. It energized me to see a mainstream journalist going to task on what others seem either too cowed or too much in thrall, as Olbermann meta-quotes, to be frank and open about. I hope you find it refreshing, or at very least thought-provoking.



The More Things Change . .

April 19, 2006

I’ve generally avoided overtly political commentary, preferring instead to discuss more fundamental philosophical issues, but I want to comment briefly on today’s news that Scott McClellan is resigning and Karl Rove is “[giving] up his portfolio as senior policy coordinator to concentrate more on politics and November’s midterm Congressional elections.” I’m less interested in the latter than I am in the former, given that even when Rove was supervising policy, it was almost exclusively a matter of political strategy (as opposed to a more honest, less self-interested motivation behind policy implementation), so I don’t think much is really changing there. Still, I suppose the point that I want to make probably holds true in both cases.

Point being this: people and ideas are not interchangeable. In a situation like the recent so-called shakeup of White House staff, the suggestion, from a political/PR standpoint, is that by removing a prominent figure, the administration is somehow taking responsibility for and/or remedying the policies and concepts with which that person has been involved. In this case, the figure is pretty much just a mouthpiece, making the contrast between person and principle all the more clear. Taking responsibility for bad leadership or insufficient performance of a given job is one thing, but it shouldn’t be confused with changes in ideology, policy, or principle, especially given how exceedingly rare it seems to be for a policy idea to be conceived of and authored by just one person (and certainly not by press secretaries). The man or woman in a position of governmental authority often comes to symbolize in part the actions and words of the government as a whole, such that people see a “shakeup” in personnel as a real change, by the logic that the person carries with him or her the ideas of the administration, or at least some subset of those ideas. In most cases, though, these shakeups are merely a matter of finding scapegoats, dumping them to the curb, and pretending that more substantive things have changed so as to maintain an illusion of progress where there usually is none. I don’t doubt that there is at least some difference in leadership styles between Andy Card and Josh Bolten, but that transition is being very deliberately made out to be a change in more than personnel. If there are genuine differences in ideology between the old staff and the new, then fine, that’s something, but I have seen no particular evidence to suggest that there is—and there has been a near-constant (and unabashedly manipulative) attempt to trumpet these changes as a real shift in direction.

One of the many noteworthy (if not entirely original) themes tossed around in V for Vendetta is that of the symbolic relationship between man and idea. Vendetta explores the traditional wisdom that the idea is greater than the man, more powerful, far more difficult to extinguish—indeed, expressions of this idea bookend the film. The relationship, both within the film’s reality and in our reality, is more complicated than that, however; the idea is conceived, voiced, expressed, and enacted by the man, or by other men (I assume I need not clarify every use of ‘man’ by saying I’m using it gender-neutrally). I don’t mean to suggest that Scott McClellan or Andy Card are trivial, or that they don’t bear any relation to the ideas behind the administration, but typically our government is organized in such a way that with very few exceptions, the man is a slave to the idea. A very small minority within the administration crafts policy, and outside of this minority, everyone is subordinate to the enacting of the decided-on policy. This situation is not unique to the Bush administration, but they have certainly elevated it to an art form with their increasingly insular decision-making process and their unceasing refusal to listen to fact or opinion not already within the scope of the decided-on policies.

A true change of course would necessitate a change not only in the policies that have been so resolutely decided upon, but also in the decision-making process as a whole. A changed Bush administration would in theory be one that listened to its critics rather than dismissing them out of hand, one that embraced policy debate instead of claiming an unsubstantiated point of view as definitive truth, one that acknowledged the significance of objective reality rather than ignoring it. Until/unless that happens, we ought not accept the assertions that a staff shakeup is interchangeable with (or a satisfactory substitute for) a policy/idea shakeup. The symbology of leadership is not ironclad; we ought not confuse the symbol and the symbolized, the man and the principle. Eliminating the former does not eliminate the latter—rarely are ideas, even bad ones, so easily extinguished.


Edit: Alonzo Fyfe expresses a similar point (emphasis mine):

We have already been told that this shakeup does not include Rumsfeld. Instead, today, we hear that Press Secretary Scott McClellan is stepping down. This has all of the sense of a speaker, proposing poorly considered ideas based on fantasy and wishful thinking can make those ideas sound better if they switch to a different microphone. They have not yet recognized that the problem is with the message, not with the quality of the equipment used to tell it.

The Holocaust History Project

March 8, 2006

Apologies for the excessively long gap between posts. We will return to your regularly scheduled programming soon. In the meantime, some important news.

Early Monday morning, the building that’s listed as the mailing address of the Holocaust History Project (one of the best and most comprehensive resources in the fight against Holocaust denial) and that also houses the private business of THHP’s director was burned to the ground. Though there isn’t direct evidence that the building was targeted because of THHP, it is a fairly safe assumption, given that the fire was deliberately set and THHP has been a target before. From the press release:

Media Contact:

Sara Salzman


Trial By Fire: Holocaust History Project Won’t Be Silenced

In the early hours of March 6, 2006, a fire broke out at a warehouse complex near San Antonio International Airport, causing extensive damage to the offices of The Holocaust History Project (THHP), an organization that has been, for the last ten years, in the forefront of confronting Holocaust denial online, in addition to providing educational materials to students throughout the world. Arson investigators now have confirmed that the fire was intentionally set and are continuing their investigation.

It was just the latest in a series of attacks with the apparent intent to silence THHP. For the past 18 months, the THHP website has been under an unprecedented Distributed Denial of Service attack. This cyber attack began on September 11, 2004, and is being carried out by a specially modified version of the MyDoom computer worm, programmed to target the THHP web server. See the THHP statement:

Harry Mazal, the Director of THHP said, “We have been able to defend our work against these cyber attackers. They tried, but couldn’t shut us down. We have strong indications that this arson is the next step in a series of attacks against our educational and scholarly work. Although the fire caused significant damage to our offices, there is no way we will be silenced. Our web site has not been affected, and our work will continue.”

While an arson attack such as this cannot be specifically anticipated, THHP has long ago taken steps to minimize the impact of any attacks, physical or virtual. Several mirror sites ensure that even as serious an attack as occurred Monday morning will be unsuccessful in forcing THHP to go offline.


THHP is one of the largest repositories of information relating to the Holocaust on the Web. For the last ten years, an international staff of volunteers has worked tirelessly to make information on the Holocaust, and on those who would deny it, easily accessible to students, scholars, and anyone who has an interest in the truth.

Among the material on the site are essays about various events and people, scientific and legal analyses, original Nazi documents, expert witness testimony, transcripts of many of the Nuremberg trials, and the complete texts of two seminal works, Jean-Claude Pressac’s “Auschwitz” and Robert Jay Lifton’s “The Nazi Doctors.” In addition, THHP volunteers personally answer emails from thousands of students each year who are looking for information to further their studies.

The site has registered more than 50 million hits in a year. “Traffic to our site increases every year,” said Mr. Mazal, “we intend to keep adding new content to the site. Right now we are preparing the Belsen trial transcripts, and the transcript of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.”

Media questions should be addressed to:
Sara Salzman, 303-617-9412,

To Holocaust deniers and others who choose to devalue and ignore objective reality, facts are secondary to ideology. When the facts aren’t on their side, they blindly attack the opposition. Usually this is confined to the realm of rhetoric and policy, which would be bad enough, but sometimes it gets more serious.

If you can afford it, now wouldn’t be a bad time to help out. And if you’re a blogger, please spread the word, both to increase awareness of the thing itself and to give some more exposure to THHP‘s very worthy project.

Edit: Orac has a list of blogs mentioning the attack here.

Edit again: For the sake of clarification, the building that was burned down did not house any of THHP’s servers or materials. It’s fortunate that the perpetrators of this vile act were foolish enough to target a building with only a peripheral connection to THHP (though undoubtedly attacking the private business of THHP’s director has its merits, in their eyes), but that doesn’t make the act or the ideology behind it any less vile.


Enlightenment, Not Obscurantism

March 1, 2006

Via Ed Brayton: Jyllands-Posten, of recent cartoon-related infamy, has published a manifesto entitled “Together facing the new totalitarianism” and co-authored by a dozen “writers, journalists, [and] intellectuals,” including such notables as Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, and Bernard-Henri Lévy. It is a powerful and succinct statement about the global relevance of Islamism (as distinct from Islam, insofar as such a distinction can be made—Islamism being basically the projection of the Islamic belief system into the political and social arenas, i.e. the imposition of Sharia as governmental policy) as the latest in a series of totalitarian threats to human rights and freedoms, and the necessity of defeating that totalitarianism. I endorse the manifesto with as much enthusiasm as I can possibly muster. Full text below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.