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Two Reasons I Should Start Studying Finnish Again

1. I was looking to see what other blogs listed "geography" as an interest in their profile, and there seemed to be an unusually large number of them in Finnish.

2. Juha-Mikko Ahonen cited my post about New Zealand's gay marriage bill. While the post seems to be based on the New Zealand Herald story rather than my comments thereupon, I'm still curious about what it has to say. The site has an English version, but the two versions appear to have different content.

Then again, if the prospect of reading the original Kalevala didn't motivate me to stick with it, I doubt a few blogs will. And there's always the temptation to try out the Indonesian book that Alex left me.


Is Goodrich The New Brown?

This cartoon seems kind of counterproductive. In it, a public school teacher begins a lesson on "modern marriage," at which point most of the class disappears because "Their parents placed them in other schools." Given the popularity of drawing parallels between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement, it doesn't seem helpful to the cause of traditional marriage (which the cartoonist supports) to threaten that the reaction to changes in marriage will resemble the "white flight" that followed school integration.

Hobbes Vs. Hobbes

Today I learned, much to my chagrin, that there is at least one instance of Bill Watterson being unable to keep his characters' philosophies straight. I ran across thise quote from William Joes:

To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, this is what men will always do.

The source points out that a similar sentiment was expressed by Hobbes. After Calvin declares that he's going to stop doing his homework because his self-esteem shouldn't depend on accomplishments, the tiger replies "So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they're already met?" (The Days Are Just Packed, p. 23)

I was a little confused, though, because one of my favorite strips involves Hobbes expressing just the opposite idea. In response to Calvin's question, he declares that if he could wish for anything in the world, he'd want a tuna sandwich. Calvin exclaims "A sandwich?!? What kind of stupid wish is that!?! Talk about a failure of imagination! I'd ask for a trillion billion dollars, my own space shuttle, and a private continent!" Then, in the final panel, we see Hobbes smugly eating a sandwich and saying "I got my wish." (There's Treasure Everywhere, p. 44).

Granted, Calvin switches philosophies as well, and far more radically -- in the first strip, Hobbes isn't proposing anything as grandiose as a private continent. But Calvin isn't supposed to have any actual philosophical commitments. As demonstrated in the strips about postmodernism and psychobabbble, Calvin uses philosophy as rationalization.

(UPDATE: Added the cite for the second strip -- I'm embarassed by the laxity of my Calvin and Hobbes recall, as I had clearly imagined that strip as being from before Watterson broke free of the tyranny of standard Sunday panels, which would have put it in one of the books I don't have. I also added a new paragraph about Calvin's inconsistency.)

Healthy, Expensive, Forests

National Forests Fall Victim To Firefighting

The proposed auction of new logging rights here [Kaibab National Forest] reflects a shift in the federal government's forest management priorities that disturbs environmentalists, who say it is giving the timber industry access to previously off-limits forests under the guise of reducing the danger of wildfires. And though the timber sales produce revenue for the Treasury, the cost of administering the auctions is forcing the U.S. Forest Service to defer other conservation projects.

... Jim Matson, a southwest-area consultant for the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, said the timber industry "can't afford to subsidize the nation's forests."

These timber sales come at a cost: The Forest Service's timber sale program lost $947 million between 1992 and 2001, says the public watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Federal officials are scaling back elsewhere: Just this month they decided to postpone a year-long project aimed at protecting the Anderson Mesa in Arizona's Coconino National Forest because they did not have the money. "It's common knowledge a lot of dollars have been reprogrammed to address the fuels-reduction issue," said Carol Holland, the Coconino National Forest's analysis group leader.

The timber industry can't afford to subsidize the nation's forests, but it can afford to be subsidized by the nation's forests.

American Polity

It seems to me that Aristotle would be rather pleased with the sort of government we have in the modern United States. For example, he favored giving the rich a greater voice in politics (so as not to treat unequals as equal), which -- despite the best efforts of John McCain -- is the case in modern America. He believed strongly in the need to have a broad formal franchise, in order to keep the masses from rebelling, but he hoped to set up the system so that only the rich and "good" would have the practical opportunity to get involved. The low level of voting shows that we've managed to create a system where, though everyone technically can vote, only half of us find it worth the bother (and voting in the US is far less of a bother than the forms of participation that Aristotle envisioned). He was full of praise for the middle class, a sentiment appropriate to a country where everyone thinks they're middle class and politicians pander relentlessly to that. And he thought the best states were those dominated by rural people, which parallels both the structural (the electoral college and Senate give Wyoming and Montana outsized influence) and rhetorical (people from the rural heartland are real Americans, unlike those urban elites) features of American politics.

Of course, Aristotle would have some disagreements with our system, notably our lack of slavery and formal gender equality. He'd also find our praise of "hardworking" people baffling, as John Kerry on a skiing trip is more his idea of a good politician than George Bush cutting brush on his ranch.
UPDATE: I forgot a key point. Aristotle favored forcing the best people to hold office whether they like it or not, so he would have found the self-promoting campaigns we have to be unseemly.


Bad Judgement

While I'm posting about Hugo Schwyzer, I should jot myself a note about another topic that he writes about often -- the barriers to emotional intimacy between men. As someone who thinks of himself as getting along better with women than men*, the issue hits close to home. Schwyzer's theory is that the problem is a fear of judgement. Men hold other men accountable in a way that women don't, and so difficulty being intimate with other men is a defense mechanism against being judged.

I think there's some truth to that, but in my case -- and I very much doubt I speak for all men in my situation -- it's a bit more complicated. The reason I feared** being judged by other men is that I objected to the likely criteria of that judgement. It's not that I didn't want to be held responsible, it's that I didn't want to be held to what I saw as the typical male standard of responsibility. To put it in terms of crude stereotypes, the prospect of a mostly-male social circle raises the specter of being expected to leer at girls who meet a socially-defined beauty standard, being expected to demonstrate knowledge of and interest in professional sports, etc. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to enforce this sort of undesirable machismo. They may judge me for being rude or making stupid mistakes, but those are judgements I find legitimate. (Indeed, if I were looking for a tough-love judgement, the person who springs to mind as the best source in my current social circle is a woman.) Similarly, I tended to be more at ease around older men, because I percieved them as having a better, more mature set of criteria (and a positive judgement from, say, a pastor or a scoutmaster could vindicate me from negative judgements by peers). My gut feelings obviously overestimated the degree to which my male peers would judge me by stereotypically macho criteria, but the feeling has been with me.

*Thinking back, though, it turns out that my social circle has only been predominantly female at Clark and on the Brunching Board -- elsewhere it's been even or predominantly male. Then again, I've tended to be more emotionally distant than average from my friends of both genders.

**I speak in the past tense because, despite the fact that my social circle is more female than ever, the feelings I'm describing were strongest back in high school.

Does A Man Need A Man?

In what may be the first post someone else has written entirely in response to me, Hugo Schwyzer elaborates on his frequent contention that men need emotional intimacy with other men. This post is a response, but it's not a rebuttal per se -- it's more a clarification of where I think our perspectives diverge.

The crux of Schwyzer's argument rests on the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and the fact that we often need the latter (though of course the former is useful in its own way). We get a certain special kind of help from sharing our problems with someone who has shared that kind of experience. In principle, then, we agree. The disagreement is over the extent to which gender is decisive in determining the possibility of empathy.

He uses the example of his friend "Craig," who came to Schwyzer for help after cheating on his wife with a stripper. Schwyzer claims that his experience as a heterosexual man means that he can empathize with Craig's situation more than a woman could. In the comments, Lynn Gazis-Sax backs Hugo up by pointing out that, while she can empathize with the temptation to cheat, unlike Schwyzer and Craig she doesn't understand the temptation to cheat with a stripper (as opposed to, say, an old flame).

Total empathy is impossible, because no two people have had exactly the same experience in all details. While Schwyzer can empathize more with Craig than Gazis-Sax can, he can't totally empathize, since unlike Craig he's never followed through on his temptation. But imagine if Craig had a second potential confidante in addition to Schwyzer -- a woman who's never been tempted by a stripper, but who has actually committed adultery and had to repair her marriage afterward in the way that Craig is trying to do. Assuming that for whatever reason Craig can only go to one of them for help, it doesn't seem prima facie obvious to me that "tempted by stripper, but hasn't cheated" is more similar to Craig's situation, and thus more conducive to empathy, than "not tempted by a stripper, but has cheated."

I also wonder how much the experiences of the genders diverge. I'm a man like Craig and Schwyzer, but I find myself better able to empathize with Gazis-Sax's temptation to cheat with an old flame than Craig's temptation to cheat with a stripper. It's hard to make a quantifiable scale of what types of people individuals are tempted by in order to see how uniform men's versus women's experiences are. But I tend to see the diversity within genders as greater, and the boundary as fuzzier, than Schwyzer does (or at least, I focus on the diversity and fuzziness more).

Last but not least, there's the old nature/nurture question. I won't deny that people today may often need the help of someone of their own gender, but my instinct is to see such cases as socially constructed. Our highly gendered society foists certain classes of experience on men but not women (and vice-versa), leaving people with only their own gender as a source of empathy. Obviously there's some small set of empathy topics that are naturally gender-specific (no man will ever be able to empathize with the issues surrounding menstruation, for example). And perhaps a fair number of topics would continue to be roughly correlated with gender in any society. Where Schwyzer and I disagree is on the strength and significance of gender as a determinant of the possibility of empathy, now and in the future.

For Happiness

Against Happiness

Researchers found that angry people are more likely to make negative evaluations when judging members of other social groups. That, perhaps, will not come as a great surprise. But the same seems to be true of happy people, the researchers noted. The happier your mood, the more liable you are to make bigoted judgments -- like deciding that someone is guilty of a crime simply because he's a member of a minority group. Why? Nobody's sure. One interesting hypothesis, though, is that happy people have an "everything is fine" attitude that reduces the motivation for analytical thought. So they fall back on stereotypes -- including malicious ones.

... Some have worried that happy people tend to be apathetic and easily manipulated by political leaders -- contented cows, so to speak. In Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel, "Brave New World," the working classes are kept in docile submission by a diet of drugs that render them universally happy. In the real world, however, there is little evidence that happiness creates complacent citizens; in fact, studies show that happy people are more likely than alienated people to get politically involved, not less.

There is one bit of the world that happy people do see in an irrationally rosy light: themselves. As the British psychologist Richard P. Bentall has observed, "There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental events (often to the point of perceiving completely random events as subject to their will), give unrealistically positive evaluations of their own achievements, believe that others share their unrealistic opinions about themselves and show a general lack of evenhandedness when comparing themselves to others." Indeed, Bentall has proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder.

I haven't read the studies in question, but it seems to me that reversing the proposed direction of causality in the two anti-happiness findings I quoted (the "prejudice" and "control" findings) would make a good deal of sense. And it would make them consistent with the anti-Brave New World finding.

It seems logical that, if you accept malicious stereotypes about others -- particularly ones that justify the way things are -- you might be happier with the world. Malicious stereotypes pump up their holder. Since stereotypes are widespread, there would also be a positive effect from the easy social acceptance that comes from shared assumptions.

Stereotypes are also a form of control -- they give you simple and comprehensive answers about the world, improving your ability to (think you) get a mental handle on what's going on around you. This brings us to the control finding. The basic premise of the public participation literature that I've been reading is that people like to have control. Involving the public in environmental decisionmaking is good not only for the pragmatic reasons of "two heads are better than one," but also for the procedural reason that people are more satisfied with the same decision if they feel that they were part of making it. So it stands to reason that if people feel in control (whether or not that feeling is justified), they'll be more happy. It could even be a motivation for self-deception as to your level of control.

Coming back to the anti-BNW finding, it seems that being politically involved would make you happier, because it would give you a feeling of control. The inverse would be true of being uninvolved. A belief in stereotypes -- defined broadly as any simple story about how the world works -- could boost political involvement by making the holder feel that there is an easy answer, and thus action is likely to be effective. Malicious stereotypes could be especially useful in this regard, as they pick out a convenient cast of villains.


NZ Marriage

New Zealand gave initial approval to its Civil Unions bill on Friday. It's no wonder it passed, when opponents were offering quality arguments like this:

MP Dail Jones said gay couples could not enjoy life as much as different sex couples.

How do you even respond to that? Luckily there were some examples of better reasoning from the opposing side, notably pointing out that the way the bill is presented uses semantic tricks to try to avoid a straightforward debate over gay marriage.

Godwin's Blog

Part of the reason I haven't been posting much lately has been a bout of deep cynicism about politics and the people who comment on it. One thing that's come out of this is a theory about the significance of the political blogosphere.

We like to think we're engaged in rational discourse, making arguments that the other side will listen to and learn from. But that rarely happens, particularly among the more overtly political participants. The popularity of comparisons to the Nazis is a good example. It's not that Nazi comparisons are totally beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse, it's that Nazi comparisons are percieved to be totally beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse. Making Nazi comparisons is pragmatically stupid if you expect to engage in communicative action. The surest way to make sure your opponents dismiss what you have to say is to say "Bush is like Hitler!" or "Michael Moore is like Goebbels!" -- even if those comparisons are actually useful or enlightening.

So are we all just idiots who can't see how we're failing to make any progress? There's certainly a good deal of naievete out there. But I think we're making a different kind of progress. The point of most political blogging is expressive. We post to get things off our chest, and to validate our feelings by setting them down in a coherent manner. If we can attract a partisan crowd of readers who cheer us on (or who prove that the other side is a bunch of idiots by lashing out at us), so much the better. Nazi comparisons are great for this. They're polarizing, reducing uncertainty as to where people stand. And they're extreme, so they give the satisfaction of really letting rip, refusing to hold back out of politeness (even when they're obvious exaggerations).

Expressive action is often a response to a feeling of powerlessness. Your typical blogger -- a middle-class white American -- is not exactly among the most marginalized people in this world. But the sheer size of the political apparatus means any individual can easily feel overwhelmed and frustrated, reading about things that he or she hates but can't change.

Note that people with actual political power rarely blog, and never do it well. Even Howard Dean, whose campaign made it seem like blogs could have some instrumental value, isn't himself a blogger. Consider, though, where the strength of his campaign came from -- a body of people who had felt disengaged from and cynical about politics, who could suddenly go to a comment thread and see a hundred people posting "Go Dean! We have the power!"

The impact of blogs on who gets elected and what bills get passed will remain relatively small. But the blogosphere will be sustained by its success in making frustrated people feel validated.


Healthy Logging

Baucus: Agency Hasn't Used Wildfire Prevention Legislation

Legislation that gave the U.S. Forest Service authority to thin trees to reduce the risk of wildfire has gone largely unused, Sen. Max Baucus charged Wednesday at a Senate hearing.

"I don't think the Forest Service has done a very good job," said Baucus, D-Mont. "I think there's something wrong up there. I don't know what it is, whether it's management, dollars, lack of mission or guidance. But they're not getting the job done we all thought they would."

Baucus, who helped pass the Healthy Forest Restoration Act last year, said the Forest Service has used the law to thin only about 12,000 acres in Montana's nine national forests. Baucus acknowledged there was a slight increase in the number of acres treated between this fiscal year and fiscal 2003, but said the area is still small. Baucus was especially critical of the Forest Service for not thinning any land in the Flathead National Forest, site of several fires last summer.

So Healthy Forests is a failed bit of handouts for the logging industry. But not to worry -- the Senate is working on sweetening the pot:

Witnesses also told a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee that the federal government will have to make such projects profitable enough for local and regional timber companies expected to do the work.

Subcommittee chairman Mike Crapo and several witnesses, including the Bush administration official who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, raised the possibility of commercial timber sales or mixing less valuable underbrush and marketable larger trees.

"I know that some are probably a little uneasy about me bringing up a commercial connection here. We built a lot of our common approach to get the Healthy Forests Restoration Act passed by staying away from the commercial arguments," said Crapo, R-Idaho.


Ideology Vs. Ethics Vs. Science

Joe Carter and Rusty Lopez aren't happy with John Kerry's recent speech wading into the science issue. Kerry said:

First, we need a president who will once again embrace our tradition of looking toward the future and new discoveries with hope based on scientific facts, not fear. That's what presidents are supposed to do. Franklin Roosevelt built great national laboratories. Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences. President Eisenhower established the White House Science Advisor. President Kennedy started America on the path that ended up with a man setting foot on the moon. And President Clinton helped lead us to a map of the entire human genome. Presidents think big and dream big. And nowhere is it more important to do so than crossing the new horizons of science and technology.

I am proud that today 47 Nobel Laureates have sent an open letter to America in support of my campaign and our cause to invest and lead the world in science. As president, I will listen to the advice of our scientists so I can make the best decisions. Their reports and evaluations will be open so that you can make informed decisions as well. This is your future and I will let science guide us, not ideology.

... And finally, we must lift the barriers that stand in the way of stem cell research and push the boundaries of medical exploration so that researchers can find treatments that are there, if only they are allowed to look. And we should do this while providing strict ethical oversight.

... If we pursue the limitless potential of science -- and trust that we can use it wisely -- we will save millions of lives and earn the gratitude of future generations. We have the potential to do so much good while at the same time meeting some very practical challenges -- lowering health care costs and creating new jobs.

Carter and Lopez take Kerry's condemnation of placing ideology over science as a indication that Kerry embraces scientism, that he thinks we ought to pursue scientific advances without regard to the ethics of the experiment or of the use of the results. But when Kerry says "ideology," he does not mean (as Carter claims) "ethics." He means "factual views distorted by incorrect ethics." The problem with Bush's limits on stem cell research was not that Bush had ethical scruples about the research, it's that 1) his ethical scruples were misguided, and 2) he distorted our factual knowledge in order to bolster his ethical position (by misrepresenting the number of viable stem cell lines).

Carter is correct to point out that Kerry is naive about the ethical integrity of scientists. But in claiming that scientists are ethical, Kerry is repeating what Carter and Lopez think he's denying -- that ethical restraint on science and technology is important.

Indeed, Kerry's arguments for more science are explicitly ethical. He's not pushing science for the sake of science. He's asserting certain ethical goals -- curing disease and improving the economy -- and then saying that certain scientific advances are necessary to achieve those ends. It's a thoroughly instrumental view of science.

The main thing that Kerry is getting at by saying he'll put science before ideology is point 2 above. The charge against Bush is that he's gone to the opposite extreme from scientism. Rather than thinking that science is unbound by ethics or can give you ethical answers, Bush acts as if science should be bent in order to support his ethical positions. Kerry's point is that unbiased knowledge of how the world actually works is a necessary part of good decisionmaking, along with solid ethical precepts. His comment that "their reports and evaluations will be open so that you can make informed decisions as well" is a promise not to pursue the correct ethical outcome by misrepresenting the facts. That's a far cry from saying he'd throw ethics out the window.

(Of course, none of this means that Kerry will actually do any of what he claims. I expect that he'll be better than Bush, but he's still a successful politician. Ethical scruples are not a fitness-enhancing trait in the political world.)

God The Parent -- When We Grow Up

Hugo Schwyzer's recent post on the idea of "God the Father" got me wondering what that metaphor really means. The usual connotation of the term "God the Father" is an idea of benevolent rulership. The parent uses his greater wisdom to look out for the interests of the child, and in return expects obedience and deference. There's certainly an important element of that in the Lord's Prayer -- we ask God to provide our "daily bread," and agree that "thy will be done."

But "child" has two meanings -- "young person" and "descendant." We remain our parents' children in the second sense even after we cease to be children in the first sense. In Biblical society, which was something of a gerontocracy, changing the former didn't necessarily change the latter. A 40-year-old would still be expected to be as deferential to his or her parents as a 4-year-old. But in modern society, that does not seem to be the case. The traditional parent-child model only applies when one party is a child in both senses. As adults, we honor our fathers and mothers by treating them as equals, maintaining a loving relationship without the element of unilateral deference that is appropriate when one party is not deemed fully competent. Indeed, even during childhood, the parents' actions are oriented toward this eventual emergence of the child as a fellow citizen. The well-being that parents foster in their young children includes the skills for independence. Unfortunately, too often the achievement of independence is confused with the dissolution of the parent-child relationship rather than its maturation and a condition of its continuance.

To model the God-person relationship on the relationship of a parent to a young child seems, in the context of our modern system of parenthood, to presume eternal adolescence on the part of the person. I find the alternative -- the idea that we grow to a responsible spiritual indpendence, that God wants to prepare us for not needing to make ourselves totally subservient to his direction -- a more attractive religious concept. It also resonates with a post from a while back (either on Philocrites or the old Right Christians; I can't find the reference right now) about how, far from being literal and infallible, the Bible contains (is meant to contain?) the seeds of its own critique.

Perhaps the idea that "God the Father" is a benevolent patriarch demanding unquestioning obedience (which is his by right and by virtue of his superior knowledge) is not accurate, and that the expression should make us see God in a different light. Or perhaps it means that the expression has become outdated, that our modern experience of the parent-child relationship no longer evokes the correct understanding of God. I also wonder whether the same sort of reconsideration should go on with respect to the idea of "Christ is to the church as the husband is to the wife," given the increasing and desirable egalitarianism of heterosexual marriage.



If you're going to be making history and all, can't you at least come up with a better name than "SpaceShipOne"? You can at least afford to stick a couple spaces in there.


Gay Marriage In The Other Down Under

NZ Mulls 'Gay Marriage Bill'

New Zealand's civil union bill, dubbed the gay marriage bill by its critics because it allows same sex couples legal recognition of their relationships, was introduced in parliament yesterday.

... Asked if she would have rather had a civil union, [Prime Minister Helen] Clark said: "Yes, I would. Because that would appeal to me more but that's a matter of personal choice".

When you report that the Prime Minister of your country would rather be CUed* than married, it would help if you noted what the difference between the two is. So I dug around on the New Zealand Herald site and found this:

The only difference between a civil union and marriage was the name and that same-sex couples could not get married.

So what we're dealing with is a triumph of symbolism over substance. A lot of pro-same-sex marriage people seem to like this approach, at least from a pragmatic point of view. It allows you to give same-sex couples all the rights that they lack. But it also allows you to say "marriage is between a man and a woman" and "we're not redefining marriage." If I were a social conservative, I'd be insulted. It implies that I'm happy with word games, that all I really care about is the sanctity of the word "marriage."

I'd rather be honest with my opponents. I want the legal substance of marriage for same-sex couples, and I won't stoop to hand-waving about the sanctity of marriage in order to sneak it into law. If you want to treat same-sex couples as less deserving than opposite-sex ones in non-legal contexts, I'm sure you can tell the difference even if both relationships have the same legal name.

*Is the full form "Civil Unioned," or "Civilly United"? On the "it's 'RBIs,' not 'RsBI'" theory, which I disagree with but which seems to be standard, I suppose the former is proper.

**I want to avoid getting into the debate over what Marx really said. Marxist exegesis rivals the Biblical in contentiousness.

What Is William Raspberry Afraid Of?

William Raspberry seems to want me to agree with Hunt Stillwell (see previous post), since the very day after I posted my rebuttal he comes out with a column titled Understanding Their Fears. It's a case of poor headline writing, as Raspberry doesn't manage to understand anyone's fears -- rather, he uses the "they're afraid" hypothesis to explain the actions and beliefs of "serious-minded people working to impose their will (especially their religious views) on the rest of us." The category includes people who are anti-gay marriage, anti-school prayer, and anti-public-manger-scenes. And most importantly, it includes Michael Newdow and those who support his case to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now Raspberry agrees> with Newdow on the merits, even going so far as to admit that "In God we trust" is also unconstitutional. Yet for whatever reason (I'll try to refrain from speculating), he insists on seeing Newdow's campaign as motivated by some sort of irrational fear.

Raspberry goes on to insist that a little Establishment never hurt anyone, and atheists should suck it up the way non-Muslim foreigners do in the Middle East. If he's right that "imposing your beliefs on someone" (by which he seems to mean "basing public policy on your beliefs) is the result of fear, it seems we could just as easily ask "what is Raspberry afraid of?" More easily, even, as Raspberry admits that his preference is at odds with logic.

Raspberry's answer is the strange claim that a religion-neutral Pledge imposes atheism, while a religion-affirming Pledge is actually neutral. Thus, he's not open to his own fear argument.

Eventually, Raspberry resolves his tension by endorsing the Supreme Court's non-decision of throwing out the case on a technicality. I happen to agree that that was the best outcome (and perhaps Raspberry would be pleased to learn that my motivation is fear -- fear of the enormous backlash that would have followed a Newdow victory, and fear of the mischief that could be wrought if the First Amendment were weakened to uphold "under God"). But you can get to that conclusion on the merits, rather than Rasberry's path of wondering aloud what kind of fear drives someone to accept the logical conclusion.


Understanding The Enemy

Joe Carter links to a post by Hunt Stillwell arguing that:

Attempting to understand the behavior and thought processes of someone whose conceptual scheme has little overlap with your own is simply not cognitively possible.

Stillwell doesn't give much in the way of evidence for this conclusion, instead moving on to try to understand the thought processess of these amateur psychoanalysts he's criticizing. Now, I agree that the punditsphere is filled with terrible straw-man renditions of the writer's opponents' thought processes. It took me quite a while to wean myself of the habit of imputing bad motives to my opponents when I began writing my newspaper columns. And it's doubtless true that in many -- perhaps even most -- cases, the reason people explain their opponents' thought processes is to frame them negatively and to shore up their confidence in their own position.

But I have great difficulty accepting that that's all that can ever happen. To do so would seem to pull the rug out from under any attempt at communicative action wider than partisan collaboration (which would mostly serve to shore up one's own position). We could shout at, but never convince, each other. Stilwell is in fact deeply pessimistic about the possibility of communicative action:

Even if we could reliably reason about their thought processes, I'm not sure it would do us any good. In the end, we'd disagree with them no more, or no less, and we'd still want to make sure that our, and not their, principles were enacted.

If you set about trying to understand how your opponents think with the assumption that your view is entirely correct, then it is quite possible that the project won't do you any good. You might learn something that allows you to outfox them. But to come out of it with the potential for greater agreement, you need to go into it open to that possibility. You need to grant that there is some form of intersubjectively shared reasoning capacity, and that both you and your opponent are interested in using it properly to get closer to the truth. In this sense, we have to make a good faith effort not to resort to psychosis as a part of our explanation of how our opponents think (e.g., claiming that they've been brainwashed, or they're just prejudiced, or they're repressing something, etc.). People being what they are, there's an element of psychosis in the explanation for nearly all our beliefs. But it's far too tempting, easy, and counterproductive to grab that sort of argument (in part for the reasons Stillwell discusses).

The number of times that understanding how your opponents think will result in resolution of controversy is of course small. The human mind is a weak instrument. But there are benefits to be picked up along the way. First is respect. In my experience, one of the best ways to find that people who disagree with you are not venal and stupid is to make a good-faith effort to understand why they think what they think. Perhaps for some people it's immensely satisfying to be able to think of their opponents as objects to be defeated*, but I find it much more fulfilling to be able to see them as rational agents. It can also earn respect from your opponents. For example, I know I'm much more inclined to respect and listen to a social conservative who appears to grasp why I support same-sex marriage than one who spouts off about me being in the grip of postmodern moral relativism, or one who is unwilling to use any arguments that don't depend on the unshared assumption of Biblical literalism.

Second, consideration of others' thought processes helps to improve our own. It's similar to the way that one of the best ways to sharpen your understanding of English grammar is to learn a foreign language. This is not only about becoming more astute at backing up your conclusions, but also about potentially reshaping them in light of how things look from a different perspective. To return to the language example, the foreign language can help you see flaws in your native tongue. But again, this assumes that we go into the project aiming at having the most justified opinion, rather than with an assumption that we've already settled on the correct opinion.

Perhaps in some cases your opponents' worldview is just too distant from your own, and your resources (in time and cognitive ability) are too small, so you'll never be able to really understand how they think. But the only way to know you can't is to assume for the sake of argument that you can, then try and fail -- though even that is only a tentative falsification of the "can" hypothesis.

*This is probably the most parsimonious explanation for the level of vitriol in the blogosphere.

The Wedge Fizzles

According to this story in the Washington Post, the outcry against gay marriage has been muted, failing to energize the grassroots despite the best efforts of conservative religious leaders. Tom Schaller at Daily Kos is optimistic, reading it as a sign that measures like the Federal Marriage Amendment are far-right schemes that won't resonate with an increasingly gay-friendly country. The evangelical leaders quoted in the story seem to make the same assessment of the facts, though of course they're not happy with the situation.

But I think a more pessimistic interpretation may be in order. It's not that Americans are gay-friendly and thus can't get worked up about the threat of same-sex marriage. It's that they figure that traditional marriage is nice and secure -- two out of every three Americans oppose marriage equality -- and therefore doesn't need much energy put into defending it. It's hard to fault them for that attitude when you have things like this going on:

Democratic campaign consultant Bob Doyle said that, like [Stephanie] Herseth, most of the Democratic candidates in this year's tight congressional races in the South and Midwest "have taken this issue off the table" by supporting a constitutional amendment. In the presidential race, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic challenger, has said that he opposes gay marriage but does not favor a constitutional amendment.

Same-sex marriage can't be a wedge issue that energizes the base if there isn't a candidate taking the "pro" side. Bush and Kerry's positions aren't identical, but it's hard to get people whipped up over a procedural matter of federalism and Constitutional integrity.



Stonehenge Study Tells Pagans And Historians It's Good To Talk

More understanding among all sides in the great Stonehenge debate might be made if the world was shown images of how the site is experienced by visitors today rather than only its imagined past, suggests new research sponsored by the ESRC. ...

But the project, co-directed by Dr Jenny Blain of Sheffield Hallam University and Dr Robert Wallis of Richmond University, London, admits this would undermine the very potent and almost universal need for Stonehenge to remain 'essentially preserved', shrouded in mystery, and the ancient guardian of a hidden past.

... For many pagans, prehistoric sites are not ruins but living temples or sacred sites. They feel drawn to these places to perform seasonal rituals or to observe astronomical events. Many pagans, including Druids, accept the 'preservation ethos', regarding such things as stone circles, barrows and iron age forts as artefacts of pre-Christian paganism, and therefore sacred.

... The study points out that archaeologists investigating the religious significance of sites rarely consider rituals of the present day, dismissing them as invalid. Some heritage managers speak directly with pagan and other groups, and may even attend festivals, yet this is seldom recorded officially.

-- via Witches' Voice

This resembles, in some ways, the dual symbology of Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia (all my posts today come back to Australia, it seems). For non-Aboriginal Australians, the Rock represents the wild and weird outback, whereas for the local Aborigines Uluru is a physical expression of a mythological system. In the Uluru case, though, it's the people with a secular viewpoint who want to use it (climbing up it), while the religious people want it preserved.

I entirely agree that in the case of Stonehenge (as in so many other cases) archaeologists need to be willing to listen to the modern people linked to the things being studied. Unfortunately, archaeologists tend to have a narrow view of what they're listening for. In my research on NAGPRA, it seemed that the arguments that carried the most weight were those that showed how repatriation can improve the development of archaeological knowledge -- for example, by building trust that enables archaeologists to tap into traditional knowledge. Those sorts of benefits are important, but by themselves they don't make a very strong case. In the Stonehenge case, I'm not sure how much the pagan community could teach archaeologists about what they're interested in qua archaeologists (i.e., how people used Stonehenge thousands of years ago). Modern pagans' knowledge of ancient Stonehenge is based on what other archaeologists have found, and on a reconstructed heritage guided by the religious needs of the present rather than a methodology that would be valid to scientists (not that that makes pagans' views categorically bad -- if I thought that, I'd have to throw away the book of Genesis).

What's needed is for archaeologists to be able to recognize more that artefacts are not just artefacts. They have other uses and meanings. What pagans can tell archaeologists is that "preserve it and study it" is only one of the things that can be done with Stonehenge, and it should not have a monopoly on the site. The beliefs of people 4000 years ago are not the only and essential meaning of the site.

Pagans can also tell archaeologists what becomes of their findings. Scientific knowledge doesn't just sit there, it becomes used by people. Pagans are an important consumer of knowledge about Stonehenge, but archaeologists tend to be less able to understand their needs and practices than those of the general public who see Stonehenge as a mysterious relic. Archaeologists may even be able to act as a sort of liaison between the two groups, as the general public tends to look to archaeologists for information (even as their desire for a site "shrouded in mystery" conflicts with archaeological goals of acquiring knowledge), so they could put information about the site's origins in the context of its continuing existence as a living religious site.

Greenhouse Down Under

Following up on an earlier post, it looks like Australia produces 27 percent more greenhouse gasses per capita than the US, making Oz the world's worst offender. The per capita emissions have gone down, mostly because the rate of land clearing has declined. John Howard says Australia is dealing with climate change "the smart way," which I can only interpret as meaning "smart people have other priorities, such as protecting the mining industry, that are more important than climate change."

Fire And Water

Wake Up Sydney - Life Is Only Going To Get Thirstier

... Since Sydney was first settled its residents have overexploited and befouled one water supply after another, expanding the city's reach to the point that pressure is now on to flood another massive valley, this time Welcome Reef, on the Shoalhaven River.

... In the next few weeks a specially appointed Government panel will present the Premier, Bob Carr, with advice on how Sydney can reuse and better use its water. The panel's deputy chairman, Clean-Up Australia's founder, Ian Kiernan, says bluntly that calls for a new dam are "bullshit".

... FROM next month, developers will be required to design homes to be 40 per cent more water efficient. They can score points towards obtaining building approval by landscaping with native plants instead of lawn. As landscaping accounts for nearly a third of household water use, there is even a suburb-by-suburb list of best natives to use.

Gotta love that Aussie straight talk. It will be interesting to see how well the city deals with the problem. Given my interests, one of my first thoughts was to wonder what effect water-saving landscaping would have on fire safety. It's something I'll need to look into. Doing research on fire makes it easy to lose sight of the other values people are trying to balance when they make decisions about their property.


Kiosk Time

I'm not a fan of the way Blogger unexpectedly changes the size of the little input box for posts while I'm typing in it. The final stages of the irrational box-widening are especially aggravating for those of us with chronically limited monitor resolutions. So I say: to the Kiosk!

Liberalism Or Rationalization?

It's been a while since I've done any anti-same-sex-marriage argument deconstructing, so I figured I'd take on and article whose title -- "The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage" -- made it sound like it might have something fresh to offer. The author, Susan Shell, builds her argument on two tired old points -- 1) marriage is about biological procreation, and 2) marriage equality constitutes the illiberal forcing of one group's opinions on another.

She draws an analogy between same-sex marriage and attending your own funeral:

Once one grants that the link between marriage and generation may approach, in its universality and solemn significance, the link between funereal practices and death, the question of gay marriage appears in a new light. It is not that marriages are necessarily devoted to the having and rearing of children, nor that infertility need be an impediment to marriage (as is still the case for some religious groups). This country has never legally insisted that the existence of marriage depends upon “consummation” in a potentially procreative act. It is, rather, that marriage, in all the diversity of its forms, draws on a model of partnership rooted in human generation. But for that fact, marriages would be indistinguishable from partnerships of a variety of kinds. The peculiar intimacy, reciprocity, and relative permanence of marriage reflect a genealogy that is more than merely historical.

Seen in this light, the issue of gay marriage can be reduced to the following question: Is the desired union between homosexuals more like a marriage between infertile heterosexuals, unions that draw ultimate psychological and moral sustenance (at least symbolically) from the experience of human generation; or is it more like insistence on attending one’s own funeral — a funeral, one might say, existing in name only?

In attempting to reconcile the historic/cultural fact that marriage does not exclude non-procreative heterosexual couples with the supposed historic/cultural fact that the essence of marriage is procreation, she loses her grasp on the possibility of using the potential for unplanned pregnancy as a dividing line between two types of intimate relationships. If all that's needed for proper marriage is an analogy with, or drawing on of, the procreative model, then there seems little reason to exclude homosexual couples -- particularly those who acquire children.

Shell goes on to recognize that, in fact, the legal and cultural trappings of marriage are not all aimed at promoting proper "generation," by advocating broadly-defined civil unions that couples of any gender or level of sexual intimacy should be able to enter into, in order to form a partner bond:

Most, if not all, of the goals of the gay marriage movement could be satisfied in the absence of gay marriage. Many sorts of individuals, and not just gay couples, might be allowed to form “civil partnerships” dedicated to securing mutual support and other social advantages. If two unmarried, elderly sisters wished to form such a partnership, or two or more friends (regardless of sexual intimacy) wanted to provide mutually for one another “in sickness and in health,” society might furnish them a variety of ways of doing so — from enhanced civil contracts to expanded “defined benefit” insurance plans, to new ways of dealing with inheritance. (Though tempting, this is not the place to tackle the issue of polygamy — except to say that this practice might well be disallowed on policy and even more basic constitutional grounds without prejudice to other forms of civil union.) In short, gay couples and those who are not sexually intimate should be permitted to take legally supported vows of mutual loyalty and support. Such partnerships would differ from marriage in that only marriage automatically entails joint parental responsibility for any children generated by the woman, until and unless the paternity of another man is positively established.

As for the having and raising of children — this, too, can be provided for and supported short of marriage. If two siblings need not “marry” in order to adopt a child together, neither need two friends, whether or not they are sexually intimate. Civil unions might be formed in ways that especially address the needs of such children. The cases of gay men who inseminate a willing surrogate mother, or lesbians who naturally conceive and wish to designate their partner as the child’s other parent, can also be legally accommodated short of marriage, strictly understood, on the analogy of adoption by step-parents and/or other relatives. As in all cases of adoption (as opposed to natural parenthood, where the fitness of the parent is assumed until proven otherwise), the primary question is the welfare of the child, not the psychic needs and wants of its would-be parents.

If we can grant same-sex couples so much of marriage, what remains to make the marriage/civil union distinction important? Shell argues that the presumption that the husband is the father of any child the wife bears makes all the difference. That paternity judgement fundamentally makes opposite-sex relationships -- even infertile ones -- a totally distinct species from same-sex relationships. But if we can extend that hypothetical right to opposite-sex couples who will never use it, why not extend it to same-sex couples? It makes a great deal of sense, as I see it, that if a married lesbian gets pregnant, her wife should be prima facie to be the legal parent of the child -- i.e. the person assumed to be responsible for the child's care upbringing -- to exactly the same extent that a married man is prima facie assumed to be the legal father of any child his wife has.

Returning to the same-sex couples versus opposite-sex infertile couples issue, Shell argues:

American citizens should not have the sectarian beliefs of gay-marriage advocates imposed on them unwillingly. If proponents of gay marriage seek certain privileges of marriage, such as legal support for mutual aid and childbearing, there may well be no liberal reason to deny it to them. But if they also seek positive public celebration of homosexuality as such, then that desire must be disappointed. The requirement that homosexual attachments be publicly recognized as no different from, and equally necessary to society as, heterosexual attachments is a fundamentally illiberal demand.

... The deeper phenomenal differences between heterosexual and homosexual relations are hard to specify precisely. Still, these differences seem sufficiently clear to prohibit gay marriage without denying gays equal protection under the laws. Gay relations bear a less direct relation to the generative act in its full psychological and cultural complexity than relations between heterosexual partners, even when age, individual preference, or medical anomaly impede fertility.

It boggles the mind how she can, in one paragraph, argue that it is "fundamentally illiberal" to base our laws on one conception of how similar same- and opposite-sex relationships are, then in the very next paragraph argue that we should base our laws on the fact that it just "seems" (to her) that the two types of relationships are different.

If treating same- and opposite-sex marriages equally is an illiberal forcing of one person's opinions on another, then any definition of marriage is similarly illiberal. The quest for neutrality among opinions in this case is pointless, so we're left to debate the substance. And on the substance, I think that: 1) the institution of marriage provides a useful legal and social framework for establishing a long-term bond between two adults, which enables them to better carry out tasks potentially including child-rearing; and 2) same-sex couples can have as much or as little need for that framework as opposite-sex couples.

I hate to psychoanalyze people, as it too easily turns into ad hominem rather than consideration of their arguments. But after reading Shell's piece, and seeing how she accepts so much of the case that sex and marriage are about more than sperm-meets-egg and is finally reduced to retreating into a vague affirmation that expanding marriage rights just "seems" wrong, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the article is an extended attempt to rationalize a gut feeling.

Getting More Women In Congress

Echidne notes that, while the US has pushed for provisions in the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions requiring 25% female representation in the legislature, our own Congress falls short of that mark. This got me thinking about how one would implement such an affirmative action plan (i.e. one that establishes a degree of representation by fiat, rather than through incentive and outreach) for an elected body, as opposed to the typical use of affirmative action in situations with a centralized hiring/admissions department.

In a proportional representation system, it's easy (This page suggests that just switching to proportional representation, even without any explicit affirmative action requirement, will bost women's representation). Parties already write up their list of candidates, so you simply require them to include a certain proportion of women, distributed through the list with a certain regularity. But what about a geographical constituency system such as we have in the US? I'm not among those progressives who thinks that we should move to an entirely proportional representation system, because I think there are merits to having a legislator with a close connection to your community, and it seems that geographical constituencies make it easier for outsider candidates to get in, and for mavericks who don't toe the party line. (My personal preference would be to leave the House as it is with additional controls on gerrymandering, while shifting the Senate to proportional representation).

One option, paralleling the strategy under proportional representation, would be to require parties' slates of candidates to include a certain proportion of women. There are two problems here. One is that, since coordination between parties is unlikely, we'd get a fair number of opposite-sex races, and thus the gender balance in the resulting legislature would be vulnerable to the electoral choices of voters. It's likely that men would win a disproportionate number of the opposite-sex races, both because of sexism in the electorate, and because parties would tend to fulfil their female quota by running women in the other party's "safe" seats, seats disproportionately held by men. The second issue is that this increases the power of the party. In order to ensure the correct proportion of female candidates, a central party authority would have to select the whole slate. This would hurt outsider candidates, since the people selected would be those who have "paid their dues" and ingratiated themselves to the party leadership (certainly this happens already, but we at least have formal openness). Social scientists have also found that women, non-whites, lower-class people, etc. who have attained power in the modern US tend to be those who have learned to think and act like male white middle-class people. Any system that strengthens the party hierarchy would seem to exacerbate this phenomenon, resulting in a situation in which the distribution of X chromosomes in Congress would be much more diverse than the distribution of perspectives and interests and the distribution of opportunity for aspiring legislators.

Another possibility would be to assign certain districts as "women's districts." The FEC would say "districts 2, 6, and 10 must elect a woman, the others may elect anyone." This would avoid giving the parties additional power, as any woman could throw her hat into the primary or general election ring. The downside would be that it restricts some voters' and candidates' choices more than others', by singling out some people and requiring that they be represented by a certain type of person, while their neighbors in the next district benefit from a geographic accident. We might reduce this unfairness by making a rotating system, in which the "women's districts" would be reallocated every so many terms. There would be problems here with term limits (unless legislators are limited to a single term) -- some politicians would be kicked out of office simply because it was time for someone of a different gender to have the seat.

We might also consider a hybrid geographic-stakeholder style constituency system. A stakeholder constituency system* is one in which defined interest groups are assigned seats for their representatives, as in the case of the New Zealand Parliament, where Maori people may vote for a separate group of designated Maori seats rather than their general proportional representatives. So we might, for example, consolidate our electoral districts into half the number, then within each district elect a male and a female representative. This system would work much less well when there are multiple affirmative action programs going on (gender, race, class, etc.), or when the threshold of representation is less than "proportional to the population" (e.g., if we just wanted to ensure at least 25% female representation, rather than requiring 50-50). The degree of aggregation required would destroy the geographic specificity of the districts, moving us toward a more pure stakeholder system.

*No idea if this is the actual name for this kind of thing.

UPDATE: This appears to be Echidne's source. Interestingly, the article claims that women don't suffer significant bias in elections, so the main issue is getting qualified women to run.

Shell Wakes Up

Oil Chief: My Fears For Planet

In an interview in today's Guardian Life section, Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, says we urgently need to capture emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which scientists think contribute to global warming, and store them underground - a technique called carbon sequestration.

... His words follow those of the government's chief science adviser, David King, who said in January that climate change posed a bigger threat to the world than terrorism.

"You can't slip a piece of paper between David King and me on this position," said Lord Oxburgh, a respected geologist who replaced the disgraced Philip Watts as chairman of the British arm of the oil giant in March.

... [Greenpeace spokesman Robin] Oakley said a gulf was opening between more progressive oil companies such as Shell, which invests in alternative energy sources including wind and solar power, and ExxonMobil, the biggest and most influential producer, particularly in the US.

-- via The Hamster

Between Oxburgh's statement and Oakley's broader perspective, I'm considering revising my list of "most evil oil companies" -- the ones I avoid buying from unless my car is about to die. Currently the list includes ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and Shell. I do wish this news had gotten out a few weeks ago, though. That way I could have hit the Shell station right next to the on-ramp of the Garden State Parkway, rather than driving halfway across town to go to Hess (which, along with BP-Amoco and Citgo, is on my "least evil oil companies" list -- the ones I'll go out of my way to patronize).

It remains to be seen how much action will accompany this rhetorical recognition of the problems of climate change. It's also important to remember that climate change is not the only significant environmental impact of the oil industry. Certainly oil companies are in a good position to invest in alternative fuels, but the main impetus for a reduction in oil use has to come from the makers of vehicles and from consumers (the government, of course, can play a role in boosting the right choices by those actors).

Environmental degradation around drilling sites has been extensive, particularly in the third world (Shell's operations in Nigeria are notorious). Oil companies build roads and pipelines through wilderness areas. Carelessness and the use of old, porly functioning equipment lead to large oil spills into surrounding land and waterways. If it's not cost-effective to pump natural gas, they burn it off in thousand-degree flares that run 24-7. The social impacts can be immense as well. Oil concessions are handed out without regard to the interests or consent of the local people, and the military often acts as hired goons for the oil company. The environmental destruction and pollution affects people indirectly by disrupting the ecosystem services they depend on, and directly by harming their health.

BP recently earned praise for designing a well in west Africa that preserved the biodiversity of the surrounding area. I'd like to see more oil companies addressing that sort of impact, in addition to climate change.


The Anti-Cult

Rivka presents some good evidence that the fastest way to deprive a word of meaning is to use it as an insult. In this case, we see the word "cult" being applied to Unitarian Universalism. It's understandable that people with a strong commitment to a revealed-truth religion would have issues with UUism, but to call it a cult? There have been a thousand definitions of "cult" proposed (in response to this exact sort of sloppy derogatory use), but as I see it the word "cult" evokes elements like extreme dogmatism, subordination of the individual to the collective, and disengagement from the wider world (which is percieved as irredeemable by human action). In the links Rivka provides, UUs are criticized for their lack of these cultic features. UUs are too committed to the fallibility of the human intellect and value diversity, and are thus unwilling to acknowledge the eternal truth of Jesus. UUs place final authority in their own conscience, rather than accepting the authority of the writers, translators, and interpreters of the Bible. UUs are interested in progressive social causes and have adopted the moral views of the secular culture (such as acceptance of homosexuality).

But in a certain way I think the word "cult" in its more restrictive sense captures some of what some other Christians think about UUism. There's a sense that the anti-cultic manifestations of UUism are established through an underlying cultishness. It seems that the only way someone could resist faith in Jesus is that they're in the grip of some other ideology, some ideology deeper and more controlling than Christianity. UUs have been brainwashed into believing they can think freely, as it were. Jesus proclaimed freedom from hell, which is a powerfully liberating message -- provided that you believe in hell. Psychologically, UUs are already liberated. But if you believe that they remain spiritually bound, they seem doubly trapped -- headed for hell for their lack of faith, and unable to even see the need for salvation.


Over at George W. Bush's blog, they've got a Journeys with John feature that tries to put some local color into their criticisms of Kerry. Under "Pennsylvania," I see they're trying to play both the Pat Toomey card and the Arlen Specter card -- complaining on the one hand that Kerry wants to raise spending and taxes, and on the other that he wouldn't direct enough pork to PA.


Sustainable Australia

Coal Remains King In Solar Age

A national energy strategy unveiled by the Prime Minister offers $700 million in incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but will slash $1.5 billion from fuel tax and continue heavy reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Declaring the Federal Government was responding to the threat of global warming "the smart way", John Howard insisted the country was right to exploit its fossil fuels to secure economic prosperity.

... The Greens leader, Bob Brown, said Mr Howard was spending $32 on polluting energy for every dollar spent on renewable energy. "It's absolutely retrograde, it's backward. We're not even paddling water here," he said.

Mr Howard said it was not in the national interest "to lock up and leave undeveloped our natural resources. As an efficient global supplier, we need to be positioned to meet growing demand while also moving to a low-emissions future."

This is a pretty typical center-right environmental package -- a few showy token bits of high-tech sustainability coupled with broad boosts for old "dirty" industries and practices. I kind of like Howard's justification for it, though -- basically "it's there, so we might as well use it up before we move on to the next thing."

If Australia's worried about its international economic standing, a major national push toward sustainable technologies seems to be a good idea. It's a small enough country that it would be able to experiment more readily, having less infrastructural inertia to overcome than a bigger nation like the US. There would be the knock-off effect of helping to stem the country's brain drain by creating incentives for domestic scientific development. And rather than simply running out its resource endowment advantage and waiting to cross the sustainability bridge when it gets there, Australia could position itself to be at the forefront of the inevitable global shift away from fossil fuels, well able to export its model for a tidy profit.

Flag Follies

Hatch Resumes Push For His Amendment Against Flag-Burning

The stage is being set for an election-year battle over Sen. Orrin Hatch's latest effort to amend the Constitution to outlaw flag burning.

While passage of the amendment remains unlikely, Hatch is moving quickly to move the amendment through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, preparing it for a fight before the full Senate. The measure was originally scheduled for committee consideration Thursday [June 3], but Hatch postponed it until next week.

... Hatch said that if the amendment is approved by Congress "the nationwide debate over state ratification will be one of the greatest public discussions in American history."

They're considering weakening the First Amendment to deal with an incredibly rare act that harms nobody besides a few over-sensitive patriots. If this is going to be "one of the greatest public discussions in American history," then we have an incredibly lame history of civic discourse.

UPDATE: It looks like New Zealand is dealing with this issue as well. The linked story makes the interesting claim that outlawing flag-burning makes the act more powerful, as the flag-burner has to engage in civil disobedience as well as offending people's sensibilities. Perhaps that explains why some on the far left seem to secretly hope that the government cracks down on their protests and subversive writings -- it makes it seem like they're taking a more radical stand against the system. I, on the other hand, would like my acts of expression to stay nice and legal even at the price of non-radicalness. About the only thing that could make me want to burn a flag is if they made it illegal to do so. The USA should earn my respect, not demand it from me.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

John Kerry is not being overshadowed by Bill Clinton's book. But he is being overshadowed by all the commentators talking about how he's going to be overshadowed by Bill Clinton's book.


René Descats and Jürgen Dogermas

I don't post them often, since -- as a total non-expert -- I don't have much to add. But I'm fascinated by stories like this one about animal intelligence:

German Pet's Vocabulary Stuns Scientists

In the first experiment, the researchers put 10 of Rico's toys in one room and Rico [a border collie] and his owner in another. The investigators then instructed the owner to order Rico to fetch two randomly selected items. As Rico ran into the other room and began searching for the items, he could not have picked up any hints from his owner because the owner was out of sight.

In 40 tests, Rico got it right 37 times, demonstrating he had a vocabulary comparable to dolphins, apes, sea lions and parrots that have undergone extensive training.

... "This tells us he can do simple logic," Fischer said in a telephone interview. "It's like he's saying to himself, 'I know the others have names, so this new word cannot refer to my familiar toys. It must refer to this new thing.' Or it goes the other way around, and he's thinking, 'I've never seen this one before, so this must be it.' He's actually thinking."

Unlike Phillip Carter (from whose post I got this story), I'm more of a cat person than a dog person. (Unfortunately, between my landlord's paranoia and the rarity of my trips home, I'm more of an aspiring cat person than a real one*.) So I wonder whether cats could match dogs on the intelligence score.

It seems like the stereotypical cat-dog difference could be an issue here. Dogs are "man's best friend" because they're pack animals. They come to see humans as their pack leaders, who they're eager to please and to learn from. So dogs have a built-in incentive to do their best at whatever test we create for them. Since the test is being designed by humans to look for signs of "intelligence" as humans understand it, it's bound to be an anthropocentric test. Consider a detail like the use of spoken language for giving Rico instructions, as opposed to something -- a code of head-nodding or a bee-like dance, perhaps -- that he could "speak" back to us directly (a la the use of sign language with apes). Being a dog, Rico is predisposed to make the effort to think like a person. Cats, it seems, would be less likely to care about helping us with our tests. We'd have to put more effort into learning Cat rather than relying on teaching them Human.

Some of Carter's other links refer to the phenomenon of dogs coming to resemble their owners (tragically, in the case of the dogs at Abu Ghraib). That dogs would do this is easy to understand -- being pack animals, they have an inbuilt capacity for socialization. Cats, on the other hand, are naturally solitary. This raises two questions:

1. How much of cats' famed aloofness is learned, how much is imputed, and how much is natural? We know that humans often become what others expect them to be. And of course we tend to see what we expect. So it seems possible that cats could be more doglike, but their owners have unconsciously trained them to act more like "proper" cats. The reverse may hold true with dogs -- that their individuality is often stifled because their owners emphasize their sociability, effectively brainwashing them.

2. Initially, I thought that cats' lesser sociability might be a factor suggesting that they would be less intelligent than dogs. As solitary animals, they would have developed less need, opportunity, and capacity for learning from, and communicating with, each other. But of course, that need not be the only type of intelligence. Dogs, like humans, exhibit a basically discursive form of intelligence, of the type described by late modern and postmodern thinkers like Habermas. Cats, on the other hand, may posess a more monologic form of intelligence, resembling early modern or classic Enlightenment ideas about the solitary mind introspecting and interacting with an objective environment. In other words, Descartes wanted to be a cat.

*I'm also an aspiring rabbit person, although I've thus far heard nothing to indicate that rabbits are particularly intelligent. A Google search turns up some stuff, but it's mostly anecdotal, and I'm wary of people's tendency to anthropomorphize things that are important in their lives (like a pet).

Urinal Reform

Flash No-Flush Urinals Spark A Lav Affair

Woollahra, Waverley, Manly and Randwick councils are considering swapping the water now used in public urinals for small new-age cubes that promise to stop the smell, keep the urinals clean and save 70,000 to 100,000 litres of water for each urinal every year. Made from bacteria, the blocks are said to keep urinals cleaner and less smelly.

... Desert Ecosystems, the South Australian company that makes them, claims "a blend of naturally occurring microbes ... removes the cause of urinal odours without the use of water" and reduces stains on urinals.

... The water bill for the toilets is $6000 a year, he [Manly water cycle management officer Paul Smith] said, compared with about $400 a year for the microbe blocks. "We haven't had any negative reaction or any reaction at all, to be honest," he said.

... Cr Excell admitted it would be harder to save water in women's toilets, although it might be possible to dedicate some toilets to "number ones, and some to number twos".

Aussies are good at getting little environmental details right. They're on the verge of eliminating plastic grocery bags, and now they're working on non-flushing urinals. As for the toilets and the problem of "number twos," while I was down there I saw a state-of-the-art composting outhouse at FitzRoy Falls National Park, so perhaps that technology can be adapted for wider use.


St. Ronald

I'm getting tired of hearing complaints about all the Reagan hagiography. But I'm not tired of all the Reagan hagiography, because I haven't encountered enough of it. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to broaden my reading.

More Currency Reform

I don't get the hostility some people feel toward the $1 bill. I personally find it more convenient to carry around some little pieces of paper than more coins. The only disadvantage I see is that vending machines sometimes don't recognize old beat-up dollars. But we could fix that by moving to Australia-style plastic paper money, which retains all the advantages of real paper money but is less likely to be made unreadable.



Guest-posting at Crescat Sententia, Anthony Rickey contends that we should do away with the term "homophobia." I'm sympathetic to the upshot of his argument:

At least as it has come to be used, 'homophobia' has become a method of avoiding debate ... to speak of 'homophobic religious teaching', or a 'homophobia scale' that measures ones political positions on gay marriage and the legality of sodomy (to take two of the top Google hits) is merely to say that there is no rational, ethical, or religious argument that can be made in favor of these positions. Again, not merely that one disagrees with them, but that they are absolutely unsupportable and beyond the bounds of reason, a stance that is at once both dismissive and massively overconfident.

Of course, claiming that one's opponents are beyond the bounds of reason is hardly unique to the pro-gay-rights movement -- consider the way terms like "socialist," "fascist," "racist," etc. get thrown around.

But I think there's a role for the word "homophobia." It captures an important motivation behind anti-homosexual behavior, specifically a feeling of aversion or disgust. These sorts of motivations can be useful if we cultivate ones that make it easier for us to act in morally right ways. Human psychology doesn't give us much room to act in a Kantian "duty for the sake of duty" fashion. We have to bridge the gap between motivational facts and justified norms by attempting to align the former with our best understanding of the latter. The word "homophobia" draws attention to the type of motivational fact typically associated with the moral norm that homosexuality is bad. It is needed because motivations and justifications often don't match up. As much as I try to develop homophobia-phobia so that my reactions will tend to be consistent with my beliefs, there is a bit of latent homophobia in my psyche that I have to be aware of.

Rickey points out that we don't talk about phobias in the case of other moral positions, e.g. decribing those who oppose alcohol as "oenophobes" and the pro-life movement as "abortophobic." But perhaps we should (as well as finding other words for when important motivational responses draw on other emotions). My stance against alcohol is a personal preference rather than a moral injunction, but it does manifest itself motivationally as a fear of or aversion toward intoxicating beverages (in terms of their effects and taste). Certainly much pro-life imagery, such as representing the fetus as a fully developed child and showing gruesome pictures of abortion procedures, seems designed to both express and foster abortophobia.

The validity of homophobia as a psychological condition is dependent on the validity of the moral arguments that would justify its effects. As Rickey suggests, it's damaging to the quality of debate to reason in the other direction -- to take the fact that someone holds anti-homosexuality views as evidence that they're simply rationalizing their homophobia. Certainly that is true of some people (and a similar situation holds for any moral stance you care to name), but we need to do our best to appeal to the normative side of a person's psyche. Talk of "homophobia" is therapeutic, not discursive, and ideally would come after the people talking have come to some agreement on the moral status of homosexuality.

Diesel Bonus

Study Ranks Bush Plan To Cut Air Pollution As Weakest of 3

A research firm that the Bush administration commissioned to analyze its plan to lower emissions from coal-fired power plants compared the plan with two competing legislative proposals and concluded in a report released Wednesday that the administration's plan was the weakest.

At the invitation of the environmental coalition Clear the Air, the international research firm Abt Associates, which often conducts studies for the Environmental Protection Agency, used the same methodology in assessing all three. It found that the administration's plan, called the Clear Skies Act, would save as many as 14,000 lives but that the other bills would save more - 16,000 in one case and 22,000 in the other.

The findings, included in a report, "Dirty Air, Dirty Power," were immediately attacked by industry groups as a "repackaged" argument that focused on only one source of emissions. The administration's chief environmental policy adviser echoed the criticism, saying that the administration plan provided benefits as part of an overall strategy to meet air quality standards that were more stringent than ever.

"You can't just look at power plants alone to understand the program," said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "You could say Clear Skies doesn't go as far as the other bills, but Clear Skies combined with our new standards on diesel goes further than both."

-- via The Hamster

The response from Connaughton is strange. Do the other two power plant proposals prevent us from implementing new diesel standards alongside them? It seems to me that if pp1 > pp2 > pp3, then pp1 + d > pp2 + d > pp3 + d. Objecting that pp3 + d > pp1 > pp2 is apples and oranges.


OSP on Reagan

Posting will be light for the next few days. In the meantime, I've posted a bit on "Ronald Reagan -- The Man, The Myth, The Eulogy" at Open Source Politics.


Political Ecology of Madagascan Fire

Wildfire Fuels Debate Over Land-Burning In Africa

The sense among conservationists, he [biologist Chris Birkinshaw] said, is that current rates of burning "are too frequent and impoverishing ecosystems." He hopes the current study will help reveal an answer to the question of how much fire is good for Madagascar's biodiversity.

... When the French colonized Madagascar in 1896, administrators, conservationists, and scientists sought to control the rates of burning to stem the loss of forests and prevent soil erosion.

... However, [political ecologist Christian] Kull said anecdotal evidence and government data suggest that rates of burning have remained consistent for the past century. This burn rate serves Malagasy needs to renew pasture, fight brush encroachment, and prevent the buildup of fuels, he said

... "The ideal frequency of burning is unknown and would depend on the desired abundance of fire-tolerant versus fire-intolerant species—something that is probably subjective. But presumably one would want to approach the natural state," Birkinshaw said.

According to Kull, determining the ideal rate of burning is a complex process. Madagascan farmers "use fire to shape biodiversity to their needs. From a botanical perspective, this probably means less species. But from a human perspective, this is what we do," he said.

It's a longer excerpt than I usually do, but I couldn't have invented a nicer example of the role of political ecology than the one this article gives. For the biologist, the usefulness of fire is still suspect, subject to further scientific tests. He takes the ecological criterion of maximum biodiversity as his standard. On the other hand, the political ecologist looks to the welfare and practices of people, seeing environmental quality as relative to human needs. This is not to say the biologist is all wrong -- human needs and values change, and biodiversity is one that has been growing in significance. Good ecological science is important for critically appraising the effects of our practices. But it is also crucial to remember why we take biodiversity to be significant (i.e., it's a value brought in by humans with a certain orientation), and to remember that we're dealing with an inhabited landscape.


Sad News from Worcester

According to this week's WoMag*, somebody knocked over the statue of the Boy with the Turtle.

*Scroll down to the second story.

Romance of the Blogs

It's interesting how romance is still so often seen as the basic form of relationship between members of opposite sexes.

The other day Matthew Yglesias posted the results of a survey claiming that women are poorly informed about politics and don't blog about it. In the comments to Yglesias's post, Trish Wilson -- who strongly objected to his framing of blogosphere gender differences -- warned him that:

If you keep going around saying that women are "ill-informed," which has an air of saying they aren't very bright, you're going to spend most of your twenties and thirties alone.

The connection is made from the other side as well. Responding to Daniel Drezner's post on the issue, commenter Zathras (quoted at Diotima) threatens uppity feminists like Wilson with romantic oblivion:

Lots of guys would not date a woman who went on like that; why would they want to read her blog?

Now, I can understand this sort of comment as a last-resort pragmatic argument, since the only interpersonal relationship that a heterosexual person requires a member of the opposite sex for is a romantic/sexual one. But otherwise it's strange. While some qualities are valuable in both a romantic partner and a blogger (and a friend, and a boss, etc.), the former relationship shouldn't be the model for the latter. I don't (consciously, at least) pick female political bloggers to read based on their datability. If I were to write a post that insulted women, the main problem with it would be that insulting broad categories of people is typically wrong in and of itself and that it would hurt my blogging prestige and readership, not that it would potentially deprive me of a date (even if it would in fact do that as well).

Gas Prices

Kevin Drum has a frightening little chart showing that, for the last 20 years, American gas consumption has been pretty much unaffected by price changes. This seems to call into question the "high gas prices are good for the environment" argument, and suggests that when the crunch finally hits, it's going to hit hard. On the other hand, there was a dip in consumption during the early 80s, so perhaps we'll hit some sort of threshold at $2.50 or $3.00 per gallon when people will finally stop whining and start walking.


Fire Funding

GAO Report Blasts Wildfire Fighting Budget Effort

The report, commissioned by Wyden, Craig and other members of Congress, identifies problems created by the practice of transferring funding from one project to another within agencies when those agencies have insufficient budgets for fighting wildfires.

For the last two years, federal agencies charged with preventing wildfires have been forced to borrow funds from other, unrelated projects to pay for firefighting. This shell game leaves vital fire prevention projects – such as hazardous fuels reduction and watershed restoration - underfunded and undone, which contributes to continuing fire dangers.

... The report cites that neither the Forest Service nor the Department of the Interior have adequate data or tracking mechanisms for the effect of continued interagency borrowing for fire fighting. It also recommends setting aside off-budget funding specifically for emergency purposes, either in agency-specific accounts or in a government-wide account.

The full report is here. I may have more comments in the morning. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised to hear that the Forest Service and Interior have poor data on their own operations.

Leave A Penny

It looks like William Safire has hauled out that old staple of feel-good reform: abolition of the penny. It's a convenient cause to champion, since you can tap into a vast reservoir of public annoyance, without having to dip your toe into the divisive and morally challenging waters of social injustice.

I'm personally neutral on the issue, or perhaps mildly in favor of abolition if only to save the nation's public swimming pool snack stand employees the hassle of being confronted by little kids with huge piles of wet pennies after the Fun Day penny-find. But I wonder why the reform has to come from the top. If pennies are such a burden, you'd think private choices would have started to make the penny obsolete.

To some degree this is happening. Every time you drop a penny and don't bother finding it, you strike a blow against the coin. Take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dishes help, as do charity penny collection jars*. But if pennies are such a pain, why don't more people just refuse to take them? Pay to the nearest nickel, say "keep the change," and leave. People occasionally did this when I worked as a cashier, and I simply created an informal take-a-penny-leave-a-penny stash. If more people did likewise, the annoyance of the penny would be greatly relieved. The fact that they don't suggests that, despite the whining, people really do think pennies are worthwhile.

There's room for retailers to take things into their own hands as well. If stores can refuse to take $50 or $100 bills, they can certainly manage to ease pennies out of their system. They needn't even ban pennies outright, as hardly any customer will voluntarily offer pennies if they don't have to. They just need to make a store-wide policy of rounding off prices to the nearest 5 cents. It could be a good advertising gimmick. I can already hear the radio commercials -- a wimpy-sounding man groans under the excessive weight of all the pennies he has to carry, when his excessively perky wife suggests he shop at such-and-such a store, where they don't use pennies. The store could even sweeten the deal by raising their prices a few cents, then pledging to always round down. The main problem here seems to be the vertical segregation of tasks -- the cashiers, who are most aware of the penny problem, have no input into marketing and store-wide policy. Score one for socialism, as collective ownership of the enterprise would make the necessary communication more likely.

These reforms may not cut into the main thing that seems to anger Safire -- the time the mint wastes making pennies (though perhaps reduced demand from stores could help). But it answers the most common source of anti-penny sentiment.

*I don't know how effective these are at raising revenue, but their continued popularity suggests this is one argument in favor of retaining the penny. Indeed, the penny's very percieved worthlessness can be its strength, as it's easy to part with into a charity bucket or a piggy bank, but in the long run it adds up into a seeming windfall.


Indians vs. Archaeologists

For a site with an archaeology name, it's been an awful long time since I posted about archaeology. Today Witches' Voice comes to the rescue, pointing to a mediocre New York Times article about a dig in California:

Developer Unearths Burial Ground And Stirs Up Anger Among Indians

... many Native Americans are outraged that the bones of their ancestors are being dug up from the ancient burial ground, known to the Tongva tribe as Saa'angna and filled with the skeletal remains of people whose predecessors hunted and roamed across Southern California 7,000 years ago or more. Archaeologists here believe it is the largest excavation now going on in the country.

The skeletons, most of them female, are being removed for the development of Playa Vista, a complex of condominiums, apartments and townhouses, some selling for more than $1 million. The burial grounds, which were discovered late last year, stand in the way of a proposed stream that opponents call a drainage ditch and that the developer more elaborately calls a riparian corridor.

... [Togva tribe observer Jordan] David said that at least three of the approximately 70 archaeologists and osteologists had quit because they were unhappy about what they were being asked to do. Mr. David said some archaeologists had shown "appalling disrespect to the people who have passed."

He said one archaeologist had waved a carved bone tube used to draw out sickness or bad spirits and had exclaimed, "Oh, look, I can do magic!" A supervisor told her to stop, he said.

It's not clear from the article how deep the Indians' opposition goes. The initial comments are general enough to suggest an overall opposition to archaeology, but the article goes on to focus on some abuses so egregious that even the archaeologists are angry. This may be an attempt to evoke sympathy for the Indians on the part of the reader. It may also be a case of opposition to particulars leading to a more general opposition. The opinions of the Indians may have been open to revision at the outset, but first-hand experience with a bad dig hardened them against the whole archaeological enterprise. It certainly sounds like cooperation between the two sides has been minimal. One disgruntled archaeologist reports being ordered not to speak to a tribal liaison, and the description of what will be done with the remains, while obviously meant to be conciliatory, sounds as if it was all the archaeologists' idea, rather than an agreement worked out with the tribes. Proactive involvement of Indians from day one has helped to generate much goodwill at other sites. Then again, it may not have been possible if the tribes started off implacably opposed to unearthing their ancestors and unwilling to give seeming approval for a lesser-of-two-evils situation (if they even see scientific study as better than obliteration under the developer's bulldozer). I'd be interested in how these initial countacts played out, but the reporter didn't ask.

Incidentally, if corporations want to know why we insist on creating "command and control" regulations rather than pursuing the kind of voluntary compliance programs that the Bush administration is so fond of, we need look no further than this all too typical bit of rhetoric from the developer:

George Mihlsten, a lawyer representing the Playa Vista development, said the company was not legally bound to consider the Tongvas' wishes because they were not members of any of the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes. The Tongvas acknowledge that they do not have federal recognition but said their cemetery should be respected nonetheless.

If you're going to dodge moral questions by turning them into legal questions, then we'll have to come at you through the legal system.