Saturday, March 06, 2004

Haiti and Iraq

Reality, as I like to say, may not be coherent; but it is stringy. The current Bush administration claims that it can do whatever it likes to the prisoners in Guantanamo because technically the base is located on Cuban rather than American soil and neither our constitution nor international law apply to those imprisoned there. This casuistry is not new. It was invented by the first Bush administration to cover the detention and brutalization of Haitian refugees back in 1992. The only difference, if it is indeed a difference, is that the mistreatment of the Haitians has long since been documented in detail whereas we don’t know what’s going on these days in Guantanamo, anymore than we know what horrors are being committed in our name in Iraq.

Friday, March 05, 2004

One-A-Day Brand

After obsessing over picky details and exquisite subtleties for years, newly minted PhDs can be counted on to terrorize their students for a year or two with pointless displays of erudition and the dreaded oral footnote. It usually takes a while to recognize that you’re doing very well if you communicate a single important idea in every class meeting and that 30 significant concepts a semester is a highly worthwhile goal. Learning is a physiological process that takes time and sleep. To speak like a chemist, the volume of input is not the rate-limiting step.

In the spirit of this observation, I offer a single thought:

Many historians and analysts have noted that periods of increased immigration have typically coincided with eras of reaction in the United States. Conversely, when immigration abates and formerly despised newcomers become familiar neighbors, Americans become more progressive because they are eager to help those perceived as their own kind. The complacent assumption behind many versions of this cyclical theory is that new groups will indeed eventually be assimilated. However—and this is the thought of the day—the process of assimilation always depended upon the dynamism of the American economy. It required exponential growth to absorb the millions who came. Failing some new economic revolution of the scale of the settlement of the empty lands of the west or the industrial revolution, why should we expect the new immigrants to be integrated into the American system except as the domestic representatives of the wretched lower caste of the neoliberal world economic order? And what kind of politics goes along with a huge, permanent underclass?

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Believing is to Hearing what Lying is to Speaking

If God really is dead, then nothing is permitted since there’s nobody around to do any permitting. And that’s not just a logical deduction. Historical experience suggests the same thing. It isn’t the skeptics and liberals who demonstrate bloody resolve or commit the great historical crimes but those who operate in the service of History, Race, Allah, Yahweh, or some other absolute authority. There aren’t that many Raskolnikovs but there are lots and lots of Rasputins. Indeed, the most cogent objection to rationalism has always been that it makes people timid.

Most believers are neither ax murderers nor crazed monks, of course; but they do demonstrate a notable proclivity for lesser offenses. In particular, they lie efficiently and often because they lie with a good conscience. Those of us who do not possess the teacher’s edition of the book of life, the one with the answers in the back, tend to be careful about what we say because nothing supports our word except our own uncertain lights and whatever integrity we can muster. Meanwhile, the faithful have a highly convenient “for the sake of which” that covers all infractions and a host of motivational speakers to bolster their self esteem. So they talk to each other and themselves as one talks to children, promoting all sorts of things they know to be false because they assume that it’s for a higher good if not a higher truth. And even when they don’t open their mouths, they dissemble with their ears by listening approvingly to falsehoods.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Accessories After the Fact

Did American military personnel kidnap Aristide? As usual, the press is asking the wrong question because the answer to the right question is not so easy to pettifog. Showing up with heavily armed men and making threats can perhaps be represented as a rescue, at least by PR professionals with experience in the tobacco industry; but there’s no way to spin the fact that our government has worked for three years to oust another elected leader in favor of unelected and violent oligarchs. The coup has our fingerprints all over it as, of course, everybody knows but very few care so long as the miserable and despised Haitians don’t try to come here. Aristides’ removal itself may be of minor direct benefit to the Bush regime, but it has the considerable merit of making the American public complicit in a violation of international law.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Drip, Drip, Drip

The Bush administration continues to stack the deck by appointing its ideological allies to important scientific commissions, in this case the group that advises on stem-cell research. (reference)

If you only hear about one or two of these moves, you may believe that critics of the regime are just paranoid. Allow me to make the Baysian point that this kind of sweet reasonableness makes perfectly good sense when dealing with sweetly reasonable people but not when you aren't.
The Suppressed Fifth Chapter of Ecce Homo: Why I am so fat

Recently published research shows that television leads to obesity in small children not so much because of the hours they spend in a motionless trance before the screen, but because of the irresistible advertisements for junk food they are exposed to. As one of the researchers commented in a radio interview, kids under seven believe everything they hear and see. Presumably adults do better; but tendency of people to believe what they hear is very strong. Under laboratory conditions, grownups may be capable of distinguishing between image and reality; but they seldom do so in the wild. You frequently read that the great thing to learn is how to learn, but it is just as important to learn how not to learn. My field research indicates that the second lesson is seldom successful.

I recall a freshman who was unhappy because he had to read the Republic. “What’s with this old stuff? Plato didn’t know about relativity and quantum mechanics like we do.” World-class naïf that I am, I responded, “Gee, I didn’t even know you were a physics major.” But if it is common for particular people to act as if they somehow possess the knowledge and capabilities that actually pertain to a few specialists, it is even more common to define humanity generically in terms of characteristics that are seldom in evidence in the day-to-day behavior of individuals. Is man a rational animal? Not very damned often. As Piaget showed, at a certain age people become capable of what he terms abstract operations and can, therefore understand why a tall beaker doesn’t necessarily contain more fluid than a short one. In the real world, however, individuals do not routinely function at this level, which is perhaps why wine makers go on putting a dimple in the bottom of the wine bottles.

Being rational means, if nothing else, having fully human language; and people certainly do talk. But while adult speech certainly can not be boiled down to a congeries of stimuli and responses as B.F.Skinner used to claim, from a natural history perspective a large proportion of our discourse does consist of bouncing ready-made phrases off one another. The creative aspect of language production, the human ability to produce an indefinite number of grammatical sentences at will, is seldom strenuously exercised; and as with music, most of the creativity on display is a matter of performance, not composition. The real problem, however, is not that new and relevant statements are not uttered often enough but that they aren’t heard often enough. Fully human speech reception requires the activation of the same capabilities as speech production. It is easier to react like a pigeon in a Skinner box and assimilate verbal input to a short list of expected signals, thus becoming a perfect victim for the reinforcement schedules of the political and corporate manipulators.