Thursday, December 30, 2004

On relief aid

Interesting post by Captain Obvious over at Tacitus, and I'm just gonna post the lion's share of it:

Well, amazingly, it seems that the blogosphere, the conservative media, and the Administration are cranking up the "Our Allies Secretly Hate Us" spin to hyper-centrifugal levels with this little soundbite. Although the Gadflyer points out that nowhere did Egeland single out the US for specific criticism, that doesn't stop Bill Sammon from giving us a classic example of How to Lie With Headlines with a piece in the Washington Times entitled "U.N. Official slams U.S. as stingy over aid". And today, Bush went on the record to miscontrue Jan Egeland's comments as a direct attack on the United States:

    "Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed. The -- take, for example, in the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. That's $2.4 billion. That's 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year, was provided by the United States government. No, we're a very generous, kindhearted nation."
(Of course, it's good to keep in mind that when government officials start throwing out numbers in press conferences, those numbers only occassionally have any relationship with reality. In this case, according to USAID's FY 2004 report, page 35, of the $10.5 billion of US aid distributed for strategic goals, only $653 million was for humanitarian response. But anyways).

Today, of course, the standard press corps script is that Egeland has "backed down" from his remarks, thus lending an air of "we were right, he was wrong" authority to the story. An example is this doubly mendacious headline from the New York Daily News: "UN Big Calls US miserly, Recants". How did he "back down"? By claiming that he was "misinterpreted". Defending one's original comments is a curious way of backing down from them.

Why is this silly brou-hah-hah important? For the simple reason that such a bristly attitude is not only reinforcing our enemy's misperceptions of the US as a recalcitrant bully, but that by also snubbing our allies, it's that much harder for us to unite with them in being a positive force for good in this world.

And most importantly, Egeland's comments have the unforunate property of being true: when measured by their ability to give (the same metric that the right cheerfully uses to insult Blue America's generosity), the western world does very poorly, and the US ranks right down at the absolute bottom. I mean no disrespect to those who do give, but we can do better than that.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Again with the bastardization of 'post-modernism'

First, the standard caveat: 'post-modernism' is such a vague and expansive word as to be referentially useless (although it has other uses - in the language of my hero C.L. Stevenson, it's a very useful persuasive definition).

Often enough, though, post-modernism is used as short-hand method to bundle together several theories that don't necessarily go together: ethical relativism, epistemological skepticism, political tolerance, ethical non-cognitivism, etc. I'm no lunatic about semantic bundling - I do it often myself. For example, when I refer to Christian fundamentalists, I'm bundling several things together, such as Biblical inerrancy, political conservatism, a belief in the legitimacy of Biblically-based law, etc. What's important, though, is that the bundler understand the contingent relationship between the traits being bundled. In other words, just because I bundle those traits together doesn't mean that the three I listed logically entail one another. There could well be a Christian that is inerrantist, is politically conservative, but doesn't think it'd be a legitimate use of political power to enact Biblically-based law.

With that said, here's a good example of 'post-modern' bundling:
But interestingly, Posner and Volokh are non-religious. So they don’t believe in the ultimate Truth of religious teachings either. So ultimately we are left with no objective grounds for moral judgments. That, it seems to me, is postmodernism-nihilism.
This is a fine example of bundling ethical non-cognitivism with ethical relativism. The claim is that P&V aren't able to 'objectively ground' moral judgments (whatever that means), and so are necessarily 'postmodern nihilists' (which presumaby means ethical relativists, dressed in the style of the day per Christian apologetics).

What needs to be explained is how we get from non-cognitivism to relativism, from the claim that moral propositions aren't T to the additional claim that you should be able to do whatever you want.

Typically, when this issue is raised, the objectivist responds: "but if there's no objective grounding for your claim that people shouldn't do X, how can you persuade others that they shouldn't do X?" This is a concern based on the efficacy of moral reasoning. One counter to this is pragmatic: it really doesn't matter whether or not I hew to the belief that morals are 'objectively grounded' (whatever that means); in the real world, people already share many, many moral beliefs. Discourse proceeds from our shared moral commitments, not from a laboriously worked-out system that is deduced from agreed-upon axioms.

Once that becomes obvious to our objectivist interlocutor, the next thing one typically hears is: "well, what do you do when the other doesn't share any of your moral beliefs?" At that point, of course, moral reasoning simply breaks down. And it's important to note that this is a feature of reasoning as such, and not of the non-cognitivist's moral reasoning. All of the Biblically-based ethical beliefs in the world are useless when the other doesn't accept those Biblical axioms. So if you try to persuade the other of the truth of the Bible through historical evidence, and the other simply doesn't believe in historical evidence, the process of reasoning simply breaks down. You can go no further.

So the efficacy of reasoning is necessarily limited to shared presuppositions. That's just a characteristic of all reasoning, and as such isn't a counterargument to ethical non-cognivitism. Or, if it is, it's also a counterargument to every belief system. In other words, we don't point to the existence of people that don't believe in God to disprove the existence of God. That's just an insane argument, as is the objectivist's argument from efficacy. Both oversell the power of reasoning; both conflate the formal limits of reasoning with the truth of what is reasoned.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, the argument from efficacy is what is used. I've only had ninety-eight discussions like this, so I have yet to see other arguments deployed.

Update: John from Fake Barn Country (on an aside, the funniest name in the blogosphere) ends on a similar note here:
I don't need to be able to convince a skeptic about the external world that I have a good epistemic reason to believe that external objects exist in order to, say, reasonably believe or know that I have hands. Likewise, I don't need to be able to convince the moral skeptics among us that unredeemed suffering is a good moral (or political) reason to oppose a practice in order for me to have a good reason to oppose preventive war. Anyone who seriously denies that premise (as evinced by both word and deed) needs more help than philosophy or enlightened public discourse can ever hope to offer. [emphasis mine]
Once the limits of moral reasoning are reached, it's the other's problem. If someone seriously questions whether people ought to be allowed to live (other things being equal), then the problem isn't mine anymore; it's theirs.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Arbitrating Sharia

Over at her blog, Michelle Malkin mentions the Canadian decision to allow Sharia to serve as the legal basis of arbitration in family disputes. This is an interesting moment for conservatives, since they've historically been advocates of the freedom of contract, and picking principles for arbitration is nothing more than a contract to be bound by the decision of a third party. In keeping with that, the Canadian decision should be seen as proper respect for libertarian principles rather than as legitimation of Sharia. Two people could contract to let the moral principles of the Satanic Bible resolve a dispute, and per libertarian reasoning (and correct reasoning, I believe) the government shouldn't intervene in their decision to do so.

Nonetheless, I think Malkin is right to be troubled by this development. As I see it, it raises questions about the 'freedom' in 'freedom to contract.' Especially since Sharia was OK'd for family law, one has to wonder whether a Muslim wife hasn't been coerced into accepting the terms of arbitration. Of course, there are legal tools to handle this (such as the doctrine of unconscionability), but the family law situation almost seems to give rise to a presumption of coercion. Ideologically, then, this may be a small problem for conservatives, since the conservative line on contracts operates by presupposing that people freely make their decisions. By contrast, the historically progressive stance has been for much more aggressive government intervention and oversight, and the expansion of protective doctrines such as unconscionability.

In turn, this ideological moment bears on the procedural aspects of law, notably regarding the creation of presumptions. At any rate, it's certainly an interesting area.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

A Christian nation?

Over at Majikthise, Lindsay looks at the notion that America is a Christian nation:

p1) The United States of America is a Christian country.

(p2) Christianity abhors usury.

(p3) Christian countries must not permit anything abhorrent to Christianity.

(C ) Therefore, the USA must not permit usury.

Suppose (p1) means “Christians comprise at least a plurality of American citizens.” On this weak reading, the argument derails, even if we grant (p2) and (p3). So what if a majority of Americans are Christians? What matters is whether a majority of Americans vote to ban usury and whether the proposed anti-usury legislation is constitutional. The weak version of (p1) doesn’t do any work. If that’s all the “Christian nation” claim amounts to, the argument reduces to a civics lesson.

After looking at a stronger version of (p1), she turns to a medium version:

Here’s a medium strength (p1) that Christians often deploy when pressed: “The constitution is based on Christian values.” This claim is too vague to sustain our sample argument.

The values of the constitution are consistent with many of the values of Christianity, but also with the values of many other religions and many secular ethics.
She's correct that medium (p1) is too vague, but I don't think that her reading of the medium (p1) is the one that best tracks Christian Reconstructionist logic. I've noticed that Reconstructionists make recourse to medium (p1)': there's a 'good fit' between the freedoms granted us by the constitution and the sense of responsibility honed by being Christian. Hence the constant repetition of banalities like 'with freedom comes responsibility' accompanied by a few scattered quotes from founders that imply that our freedoms could only be possible in a nation in which the people are Christian.

The position would be that there have to be extra-legal supplements of the law in order to integrate the individual into the society and to preclude a collapse into Hobbesian chaos.

One could see the same meme at work in the clash of civilizations, and particularly in the work of Samuel Huntington, who has the same basic thesis (except that he specifies further, and locates the supplement in the traditions of WASP Christianity). Christian Reconstructionists argue from an express Natural Law position, while Huntington's version is a bit more sociological, but they're functionally identical: democracy can't survive on its own, and needs some institutional or religious buttresses.

Medium (p1)' is still rubbish as far as truth-value goes, of course. I'm perfectly fine with the necessity of a value-based supplement, but the specificity of Christian Reconstructionism is way overdetermined. In other words, I suppose the objection to medium (p1)' is the same as the objection to medium (p1): " The values of the constitution are consistent with many of the values of Christianity, but also with the values of many other religions and many secular ethics."

All that's left to do is change the name....

....from Christmas to Festivus. Digby's right that many of us already celebrate it:

Since the family consists of Jews, Christians, atheists and sundry wierdos, our holidays are pretty much all about food. But, without knowing it, we've been celebrating Festivus for years --- particularly the sacred "airing of grievances."

According to this NY Times article, more people are choosing to formally celebrate Festivus, but isn't there already a Festivus coiled at the heart of every Christmas? I come from a family that likes debate, or else I'm sure the feats of strength would be incorporated along with the airing of grievances.

(links stolen from plastic)

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Two great posts.

Adventus has two brilliant posts. A snippet of the first:

NPR reported this morning that Christians in Iraq were afraid to go to church, affirming my conviction that irony is one of the major forces of human history.
The word freedom is hurled about quite a bit when Iraq is discussed, but rare is the moment anyone stops to think what it means.

A snippet of the second:

I've never experienced this; but a friend has told me about it....

[H]e visited an Orthodox church on Christmas Eve; one probably in Turkey or Asia....

At midnight, someone comes from behind the screen, as the rituals of worship continue, and whispers to the nearest person. Who, in turn, whispers to those around him or her; and so the whisper spreads, in a wave, across the whole space, among all the people. Very quietly, very reverently, they say to each other: "Christ is born."

Christ is born. Christ is born. Christ is born.

And once again, the miracle occurs, and once again, the word is made flesh.....

Choose your own adventure

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christ Infantilized

Via Young Hegelian is this article in the Guardian. While I think it overreaches, it's still very interesting. A snippet:

Nicene Christianity is the religion of Christmas and Easter, the celebration of a Jesus who is either too young or too much in agony to shock us with his revolutionary rhetoric. The adult Christ who calls his followers to renounce wealth, power and violence is passed over in favour of the gurgling baby and the screaming victim. As such, Nicene Christianity is easily conscripted into a religion of convenience, with believers worshipping a gagged and glorified saviour who has nothing to say about how we use our money or whether or not we go to war.....
[T]he Nicene religion of the baby and the cross gives us Christianity without the politics. The Posh and Becks nativity scene is the perfect tableau into which to place this Nicene baby, for like the much-lauded celebrity, this Christ is there to be gazed upon and adored - but not to be heard or heeded.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Levinas and Bultmann

Boring post ahead.

So, I just finished Jesus Christ and Mythology, a little collection of lectures by Rudolf Bultmann. Briefly, he was a major figure in mid-20th century theology, and famously read the Bible through the lens of existentialism. He's best known for his theory of demythologization: since some things in the Bible are problematic if taken literally (such as the end of the world that Jesus noted was imminent), we have to read them as myth and find the kernel of meaning within the myth. One thing that's fun about reading Bultmann is the philosophical richness of the text. For example, Bultmann reads the human person as ontologically split (ie, there's a self that perceives and a self which perceives the perception itself), which echoes Sartre's phenomenology.

He's also clearly indebted to Heidegger, although in ways that I found detrimental to the timelessness of his thought. Bultmann has gone outta style, and it may just be that he seems so anachronistic at times. For example, he makes a lot of hay out of the 'This Modern World!' stuff that drove Heidegger to the mountains of Germany to be a hermit. Interrogating the mode-of-being-human in this modern world, in which technology has become a kind of prosthetic extension of the body itself, is very important, but there's something kind of dated about the way he does it (same applies to Heidegger, if you ask me).

Still, the Heideggerian accent seemed almost superficial to me. Most of the substantive stuff in Bultmann's thought seem closest to Levinas, who, like Bultmann, is a thinker of the Radical Other. For both, the source of ethics and religion is the call of the Other. In other words, I don't act ethically toward you because you're similar to me; I act ethically because of your difference from me. This notion underpins Bultmann's theory of the "kerygma" of the text, which he defines as an existential relation to the text, which calls to me (to simplify: it resonates in my soul. The Bible isn't a set of propositions which are true or false, but something that calls to me from a distance and stirs me).

For what it's worth, merging Levinas and Christian theology got kind of hot in the 80s, so a resurgence of Bultmann, read through Levinas, is possible and would be kind of neat to see. That would require reading him against the grain of the conventional wisdom, but it's definately do-able.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Final as koan

When I flipped over that final exam, I remembered why I had decided to take a second class with Carl Felsenfeld. It certainly wasn't because of his dynamic lecturing style. Nope. It's the final exams he comes up with.

Ya turn it over, and there's one page of short questions, maybe 20 in all. So ya think, '20 short answers, a paragraph per, 3 hours.....I can do that.' Then you see the terse instructions: 'These can be answered in a few words. I will deduct points for being verbose.' So after 4 months of lectures, it all boils down to a few snappy answers.

Really, those first few moments are not unlike Zen training, from what I understand. There's an ambitious young devotee, who spends arduous hours memorizing ancient texts and learning to levitate and all. Finally, on the Big Day, he sits in front of the Zen master, expecting to strut his stuff, and the master starts pouring tea. He keeps pouring tea until it overflows the cup. He turns to the student and says, "You are like this cup. How can you learn Zen until you empty your cup? You may leave now."

Student: "What the fuck?"

So it is with a Felsenfeld final which, like a koan, is both disorienting and liberating.

Anyways, as you go through, it becomes less like a koan and more like an Emily Dickinson poem: short and weird, deflecting your attention towards strange corners of the room you wouldn't have otherwise noticed. Rather than focusing on the Important Issues, he asks about queer details; his questions break up the sources of law and focus attention on the shimmering surfaces of texts rather than the legal import of the reasoning. For example, he'll quote texts and ask their source; the kicker, though, is that he'll create these bizarrely poetic passages through liberal use of '...'. It's really quite odd.

And that's why I took another Carl-Class. It wasn't for the grade: I think I was too verbose last time, and have a hard time constraining that impulse even when necessary. It was for that fucking weird final.

My professor is so old.....

...he repeated a T/F question about senility.

Ok, he didn't really do that, but there were several questions about senility as a threshold for executing a will, and he did, in fact, repeat at least two different T/F questions twice.

One down, one to go on the day of finals. Best of all, I'm not hearing "The Final Countdown" or something equally idiotic loop through my brain, which is what usually happens when I take finals.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Death, taxes, and magazine articles about the Virgin Birth

At Evangelical Outpost, Joe Carter has a post on this year's Christmas crop of what-does-the-birth-of-Jesus-mean-and-did-it-happen articles. The primary target of the post is this article by Jon Meacham. Joe writes:

The primary problem with Meacham’s article isn’t that it’s unashamedly biased (though it certainly is that) nor even that he “doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” No, the fatal flaw is in Meacham’s assumption that we don’t know what he doesn’t know. Like many others in the media, Meacham simply believes that he knows more than his audience. Epistemic humility, however, is an essential attribute for all journalists who work and live in what my friend John Coleman calls, “the world of people much smarter than me.”

First, no one ever loses points with me for recommending epistemic humility, and this highlights a cool effect of the blogosphere on the role of the journalist. As has been pointed out countless times, the decentered nature of the blogosphere undermines the traditional privileged position of the journalist vis-a-vis truth. This idea has been roiling the blogs for a while, but this may be one of the better articulations, since it ties decentered fact-checking to the norm of epistemic humility. Usually, media critiques of this type just end with the warning that journalists need to do a better job of fact-checking; this, however, recommends a set of virtues that correspond to the journalist's new position in the media structure.

One small point about one of the rebuttals that Joe links to: there's a moment in Albert Mohler's response to David Van Bierna's article in Time (subscription only, I'm afraid) in which he implies that literal truth (which I'll just call logos after this) and mythological meaning are mutually exclusive. From Mohler's article:

Schaberg...argues that the virgin birth is about transmuting "a ritually taboo pregnancy into an occasion of glory in the birth of the Holy Child." In other words, there was no Virgin Birth, and it was simply an invention of the early church. (emphasis mine)

I could be making a mountain of a molehill, but that 'in other words' seems quite telling, in that it sets up logos and mythos as a binary either/or. Yet from Origen (at the latest) onward, we see the idea that mythos and logos are actually co-extensive. I'd imagine that the response to this point would be that Van Bierna himself opposes the two, and the critique is just tracing its arc through his article. In other words, Van Bierna tells the reader that mythos and logos are opposed, and he asserts the mythological meaning throughout the article, giving the reader the impression that the logos of the story is false.

That seems like a fair response to me, but if it actually tracked the reasoning of the critique, I would have expected to have seen that up front, instead of existing as a hidden or implicit premise (which is precisely the danger that Mohler continually points to in his article).

Friday, December 10, 2004

About Schmidt: The surplus of meaning

There's an interesting point in About Schmidt that is quite telling; Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) is eating dinner with the family of his daughter's fiance. Everyone is greedily wolfing down their food at dinner, and the camera informs us that the corporeality, the embodied-ness, of the gorging is disgusting. After stuffing himself, the father of the groom stands and makes a speech; he drones on and on about how special the occasion is, until, finally, his ex-wife and the mother of the groom Roberta (Kathy Bates) abruptly cuts in: "Larry, shut the fuck up."

The interesting thing is that this interjection comes as a relief. In most cautionary tales of suburbia (eg, American Beauty), this moment would be a warning shot. At that moment in the narrative, we'd become tense and suddenly understand the hollowness of the suburban dream. In this film, however, the standard suburban narrative is inverted and stood on its head: instead of tensing up, we laugh. Why?

The thing about suburban cautionary tales is that they're premised on the fundamental emptiness of the signifier. We know that in American Beauty or The Confessions the white picket fence is supposed to tell us that the family within is perfectly happy and secure; the dramatic effect derives from our discovery that this symbol is empty, pure image and no content. Despite its intended meaning, the white picket fence is an empty signifier. It signifies nothing(ness).

Flashforward to the next scene: Warren is trying to tell his daughter something that he realized in a dream, but he gets hung up on the minutiae of his dream. Instead of cutting to the chase of the dream, he gets stuck expositing all of the infinite details and their meaning. As against the standard tale of suburbia-gone-awry, his problem isn't a lack of meaning, but an impossible surplus of meaning. There's so much meaning that the gist of things gets entangled and lost in its profusion of import.

I've got a lot more textual support for that thesis (it's friday night after a day of studying, I'm drinking wine, and I'm taking notes to prove a thesis - this is why no one will watch movies with me), but there's no point in drawing evidentiary matters out, especially in this format.

At any rate, the interesting thing about the film is that it stands as the perverse inversion of the typical suburb film. This emphasis on surplusage (at times hilarious: witness the marriage montage) is what makes the film. This is probably twice too pretentious and too clever by half, but there are two nifty little twists on the theme of surplus: the first is the scene I mentioned to begin with. The theme of surplusage focuses our attention on corporeality. In Sartre's Nausea, the world is so full of meaning that it becomes disgusting. Just as in gnosticism, the body becomes this sick thing, oozing its own fetid embodiment. For Zizek, also (following Freud and Lacan), the hyper-semantic is something nauseating, too embodied for itself. Hence the thematic coherence of how we see the dinner scene as, well, gross.

The second is the premise. We have a guy in a world in which too much conceptual space is taken up; every character is a plenary of essence. All of the conceptual space is filled up with this surplus of meaning, yet what's the engine of the plot? A man navigating space in his RV. Clever, that.

See, I should totally have a public access show.

Lean Left: Recklessness in action

I mean, risking the destruction of his marriage, and all? The least he could do is respect the president's decision that marriage should be defined as a man and a woman, like the fine people at CBS.

Doesn't he know that gays want to destroy the Earth?

More on the Declaration

Media Matters reports that Sean Hannity is still claiming that a school district in California has banned the Declaration of Independence, despite being told by the teacher that it actually hadn't tried to do just that.

Obviously, reporting inaccuracies are always disturbing, but this one is especially so because Fox really seems to be throwing a lot of energy into convincing its viewers of something that patently isn't true. As I noted earlier, the real problem here is that this is probably going to solidify into an urban legend, bound to be forwarded around crackpot rightwing email circles. When that happens, it will form part of the background against which future bullshit will be judged. In other words, the next time Fox or Rush trumpets this kind of hokum, people will think, 'This [bogus] story is probably true. After all, those crazy liberals even tried to ban the Declaration!"

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Paul and Authority II: Electric Boogaloo

Over at Vita Mea, Dennis gives his take on the ground of Paul's authority:

They would preserve the writings that they believed to be inspired. And how did they test to see if something was inspired?....They chose those things that reinforced and taught and rang true with what they already were handing on ("tradition"). For each writing they had, they would compare it against the doctrines they already knew to be inspired and inerrant, and if the writings lived up to existing Christian teachings, then it survived to edify future generations.

For what it's worth, I think this is the best resolution to the question. From the standpoint of inerrancy protestantism, however, the the wisdom of the Church as epistemic guarantor probably doesn't cut it. To lay my cards on the table, though, that's precisely why I think this is the best response. The Church-as-guarantor doesn't cast so wide a net that it's just facially implausible, like some protestant mechanisms which, to the best of my knowledge, have something to do with magical powers that descend on the reader and grant her the special power to divine Paul's authority absent historical considerations. In short, Dennis's view allows for doubt, and I have to think that's a good thing. There are two reasons: first, the epistemological modesty precludes the theory that he's crazy; and for long, boring reasons, I've come to think that doubt lies at the heart of this whole Christian thing that I've slowly been slouching toward. And I don't mean it lies at the heart of the Christian project the way Original Sin does, as something to be overcome, but as a positive value around which the whole enterprise rotates (I may turn into the world's only Lacanian Christian, which I'll expand on later when I'm not in the middle of finals).

Additionally, I really like the internal coherence justification (the 'good fit' that Dennis refers to). That's actually the source of my own conflict with Paul; while some of it is just bizarre and utterly unpalatable, much of it is truly insightful and orients Christian theology in fascinating and cool ways. So that's a real source of tension for me: resolving the total coolness of much of the Pauline letters with the occasional ethical outlier.

Anyways, I wrote two papers today. I'll probably have more to say about Dennis's post when my brain stops spinning.

Why bioethics is all the rage

I'll tell you why: people are idiots, and generally incapable of understanding hypotheticals. Give them a hypothetical that's designed to isolate a particular intuition or issue, and they immediately either respond to the hypo's real-world plausibility ("but that can't happen!" they protest, brows furrowed in a futile attempt at comprehension) or rework the boundaries of the hypo in a way that effectively destroys its purpose. This was especially obvious in law school. By the midpoint of college, most of the kids had speciated into their various fields, so I was taking philosophy classes with other people that understood how philosophy worked, and how hypos were supposed to work. In law school, though, I was plunged back into the world of overly-literal people that couldn't grasp hypotheticals.

Hence the public's fascination with bioethics: here we have real-world problems that effectively isolate moral intuitions, without the cognitive burden of imagining that things could be other than they are.

All that exposition for this article (via Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost, whose take is well-worth a read) in slate about a novel solution to the stem cell debate. The solution basically creates an embryo, but the scientists manage to turn off the gene that enables the stem cells to differentiate. It creates an embryo that is only able to reproduce its blank stem cells, which are incapable of differentiation.

The cool thing is that it crisply splits two previously conjoined ethical issues: possession of human DNA, and potential to turn into a mature person. The blank embryo has the former, but not the latter. Kinda neat, really. There are tons of interesting things about this procedure and the discourse surrounding it, but those'll have to wait; this is already getting too long.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Taking Back America

Rad. I just heard a foxnews promo for Hannity & C about that teacher in CA that was forced to run his supplemental teaching handouts by the principal, so she could make sure they comported with constitutional requirements not to proselytize to students.

Ominous voice-over: "The Federalist Papers....x....y.....The Declaration of Independence...ALL BANNED! [blahblah God liberals etc.].......Take Back America!"

You could hear all those capital letters, of course. That'll be goooooood watchin'.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Worst. Law School Class. Ever.

So I just had my last class in "Fundamental Lawyering Skills." I can't emphasize too much what an unbearably bad class it was. For some reason that I've never been able to explain fully, there's an inverse relationship between the value of a class and the pretentiousness or gravity of the teacher. This class was a perfect example; it was a thoroughly worthless class, yet the teacher was insufferably pretentious and self-important.

The thing that kills me is that there's some reasonably interesting terrain to mine; there was enough to work with that we could've written some interesting papers or something. Instead, however, we were forced to write utterly banal regurgitation papers, replete with citations to such intellectual powerhouses as "Getting to Yes!"


Here I am, 27, and I'm being infantilized by a peabrained, two-bit, small-time petty crime defense lawyer. Shoulda gone to grad school.

I coulda been a contender.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Source of Totalizing Logic

Those familiar with my thinking know that I'm kind of obsessed with conceptual isomorphism between the religious right and marxian theory (somehow I even managed to convince a law school prof that I should be allowed to write a term paper on religious right homeschooling and its similarity to marxism); in other words, I'm fascinated by the way some of the thought of the religious right mirrors certain strains of marx-influenced theory.

Over at Pandagon, Ezra has an interesting post on the rationality of the Christian right. Here's the excerpt that piqued my interest:

And, unfortunately, if they say God created this book and its authority supersedes terrestrial considerations, appeals to minority protection and laissez-faire morality won't do the job.

Of course, we all have moral beliefs that trump other's interests. As the prescriptivists maintain (among whom I count myself, along with such luminaries as R.M. Hare), the central thing about morality is that it be universalizable. As Bernard Williams pointed out in his seminal Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, that's the thing that renders moral relativism fundamentally incoherent. Yet I can think that, say, sexism is wrong without feeling the need to make expressions of sexism illegal. I'll continue to think that no one should be sexist, and no one should express it even if they were sexist, but I don't think that expressions of sexism that don't harm another or their property should be illegal.

Therein lies the difference between me and the Religious Right. They seem to have an Althusserian and deterministic notion of subject-construction. The quick caricature version of Althusser is that he contended that once a subject is constructed, that subject is more-or-less condemned to think within the terms provided by the society into which it's been inserted (this is the "interpellation" of the subject in Althusser-speak).

This seems to me to be the source of the zealousness of the Religious Right's opposition to gays. Their concern is that, once a subject is interpellated within a particular way of thinking about problems, it takes something akin to Exodus International-style "deprogramming" to change their beliefs.

This, like Marxism and its offshoots (like post-modernism), flies in the face of the Enlightenment contention that reason is a source of working through issues. Once you accept the argument that beliefs are profoundly arational, the role of rationality is marginalized; it just isn't adequate to the task. In a way, though, this may be Christianity returning to its Tertullian roots of the arational and transformative power of the blood of the lamb or something.

My suspicion is that this is latently or intuitively understood by the Religous Right ("the Comrades", as they shall forthwith be called), but rarely articulated by them and even more rarely understood by those of us in the Reality-Based Community.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Abstinence only

I always figured abstinence-only programs would have some problems. Here's the proof, via Slactivist: a well-researched (unlike the programs he discusses) report on the sketchy stuff in many abstinence curricula.

Aside from the usual lies about condom failure, I'm pretty disturbed to see that schools are teaching Victorian-era gender mythology to kids. For example, one of the books includes a story about a princess that tells 'her knight' the best way to kill a dragon. I'll let the text take over:

Moral of the story: Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess.
Well, it's never too early to teach girls to be meek and submissive. If you're from 1875, that is.

And, because I don't think I could put it any better, this is Lean Left's take:

The people doing this are actually and in the literal sense of the word evil. They are deliberately telling lies to children, and doing so in a way that denies these kids the accurate information thy need to maintain their health. As an added bonus, they are also told lies about gay teenagers -- lies that serve no other purpose than to smear gays and create a false image in teenagers minds about homosexuals. Apparently, the people who run these programs don;t like gays, and cannot stand the fact that today's youth are more tolerant towards gays than they are.
As I understand it, this is more or less accurate. The new marxist paradigm of right-wing christianity proceeds from the notion that a thick self (ie, all of the traits we identify ourselves with, as opposed to a 'thin self' that would be some metaphysical soul or something) is roughly determined by the education we're given as kids. Not so interesting so far, but they also tend to include a linguistic critique that mirrors the Foucauldian and Althusserian arguments that the words we use to think about problems are ways-of-world-making. To put it in the meme-du-jour, it's critical to 'frame' the issues and to interpellate Christian subjects early and often into semantic paradigms that will determine later ethical thinking.

As Althusser wrote: "All ideology has the function of 'constructing' concrete individuals as subjects." That seems to me to capture what's going on here.