Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Deathly Hallows

Well, I've just (finally!) finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I enjoyed it. I think I still prefer Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though, as this latest one dragged a lot, seemed pointless in places, and had a plot that, frankly, felt stitched together at times. You were transported from scene to scene so quickly that the whole thing feels like it suffers from massive continuity errors (whether it actually does or not).

I'm agnostic about the series as a whole - in the camp who thinks of it as "enjoyable, but nothing really deserving of the massive fan base it has." So rather than muse on hidden meanings and such, for now let me just complain about the couple of things I didn't like:

Spoilers Begin Here!

One of the things I really liked about this final book was that it's written like a test of faith. Rowling deliberately paints Dumbledore in a bad light, and we're not told the truth about Snape until the very end. That is, I think, in keeping with the main theme of the book - which is the same as that of the Wind and the Sun: "Kindness effects more than severity." Harry's turning Kreacher around is this in microform - but it is also ultimately the reason he wins against Voldemort. Voldemort discounts love - and so isn't able to see where Snape's loyalty really lies.

The test of faith comes in whether we are willing to trust that Dumbledore was right or not. I guess very few people will have seen Snape's rehabilitation coming, though in retrospect it's obvious that this is the way things would have turned out. It's the only trick she really could've had up her sleeve.

I have always liked Snape - and I was immensely pleased that he turned out of have been betraying Voldermort and not Dumbledore. Had things not turned out this way, in fact, I would have simply rewritten the book in my head so that they had. Most of all, I feel vindicated for some of my earlier comments!

But I said I was going to complain - so enough of the encomium. One thing that undermines this whole thread, I think, is the fact that Snape's patronus is a silver doe - just like Lily Evans'. Such an outward sign of Snape's love for Harry's mom sort of ruins it for me - because it makes Dumbledore's task a little too easy. We the reader have to take a leap of faith about Dumbledore - and I get the impression that we're meant to be impressed with his perspicacity - but Dumbledore need make no such leap. He has literal, physical evidence that Snape is on his side. And, well, that lessens the whole thing for me. It's a bit like that stuff in the last book about the unbreakable oath. When you have a spell that guarantees someone will keep his word - you sort of have to wonder why there's any such thing as trust left at all in this world!

Spoilers End Here

But alright - getting that fairly minor complaint off my chest is all I wanted to write about it for tonight. I will have more to say on it later.

Empty Versus Null

So I've been having a lot of fun this summer teaching Introduction to Linguistic Analysis. I admit I wish attendance was higher - but it's the summer session, so what can you do? Those students who do come are by and large bright and inquisitive - they ask the right kinds of questions - and really, being thrown for tough questions is a teacher's greatest reward.

When you ask people what they get out of teaching, they usually say sentimental things about "reaching people" or "shaping minds." And I guess those things are nice, yes. But what I like best about it is that teaching something, like programming it, forces you to really look closely at the subject - from fundamentals up.

This is hugely important! It's easy to get complacent about what you know and locked into "established wisdom" in your field. Teaching it to novices can give valuable perspective.

I got a question like this today. I was teaching X-Bar Theory - the idea that all phrases in natural language have the same essential structure. And of course, one of the problems with such a theory is that we postulate lots of positions in the structural representation of a phrase (or sentence) for purely theory-internal reasons - just to keep all our phrases consistent with the template that we want to believe in. In more detail - all phrases are assumed to have a head (a single item which determines the type of phrase), a specifier and a complement. Complements are usually arguments (like the direct object of a verb) - things that are required for grammatical purposes. And specifiers are usually modifiers of some kind. But not all phrases have obvious specifiers and complements, and so attempting to draw syntax trees sometimes leaves us with a lot of "blanks" in the structure that are not being used. The theory assumes they have specifier and complement positions - but not every phrase needs to use these positions all the time, and so we're left with blanks in our structure trees.

Of course, sometimes we want to say that positions are filled even though they're not pronounced - and this notion is a big problem for some people to grasp, counterintuitive as it is. In these situations we sometimes say that there is a "null" item - an item that occupies a place in a structural representation but is not actually physically present (which in the case of language means "pronounced" or "written").

One of my students today wanted to know what the difference is between a "null" item and an "empty" position. Why can't we just say that null items are "empty" too?

I think it's a very good question for an intro student to be asking. Of course - I have an answer. But trying to phrase the answer just right for him got me thinking - and it's this kind of thinking, I believe, that is the real reward for teaching.

The answer is that null items occupy positions that the theory needs filled, whereas "empty" positions are cases where there's really no theory-internal reason to believe that anything needs to go there. To give an example: notice that the article system in English has a "hole:"


This is the kind of situation where we want a null item: because there's reason to believe that NOT pronouncing a determiner in front of a plural (or noncount) noun actually means something. NOT saying "the" or "a" (or "some" or "these") is what indicates indefinite plural. That is, there is a position in front of noun phrases where determiners go - and NOT putting something in that position is just as meaningful and grammatical, in some cases, as pronouncing an existing determiner.

The same is not true, say, for adjectives. There is no sense in which choosing not to modify a noun implies anything. There are are a potentially infinite number of adjectives that could have been used to fill the position ahead of the noun - and the fact of our choosing none of them doesn't narrow it down to the last remaining (but tragically unrepresented) meaning or any such thing.

So in the case of the missing adjective, the position is simply "empty," nothing implied. But in the case of the indefinite plural determiner, it is the fact of not pronouncing anything in the position that gives us the meaning we're after. This is what "null items" are for.

Granted - lots of syntacticians get carried away with such theory-internal invisible placeholdes. One of the dangers of allowing invisible (read: unpronounced) items, of course, is that you can really explain anything this way. The theory is too powerful, and the explanations it gives thus strike some as hokey.

To the extent that Linguists get carried away with the theory's technology (to the point, say, of assuming an ACTUAL null item in the mental lexicon that people bother to "learn" and then "not pronounce") - this impression is certainly valid. But provided we stay aware of the difference between a placeholder in a theory and an actual postulated item "in the world," there's really no way to deny the existence of null items. The important thing is just not to get to carried away with the word "item."

Well, explaining this today in class sort of pushed me further away from HPSG and further toward Minimalism. I've been slowly drifting this way for about a year now - having started out very anti-Minimalist, but gradually coming to see the point of it all. (Nothing, by the way, has done more to improve my impression of Minimalism than this book.)

One of the attractive things about HPSG was always that it wants to only deal with items we can "see." That is, it takes as one of its tennants NOT postulating (as far as it can help it) the existence of purely theory-internal items. It builds syntax up from what can be seen on the page, as it were.

Going over the distinction between null items and empty places today, though, this struck me as a terrible prejudice. It hit me when joking with the student asking the question that "language" had nothing to do with "speech" that in some important sense I really believe that. Language and speech are separable things - and given such a philosophy of language, there's no real reason why I need to be overly attached to "the signal" when building up my theory. Really - it isn't the job of syntax necessarily to account for why people pronounce what they pronounce in the way they pronounce it. What syntax is meant to do is simply lay bare the grammatical structure of what gets pronounced - as a means to developing an algorithm that derives and all and only the grammatical sentences of a language. If we have reason to believe that a certain thing - say determiners - play a crucial role in the structure we're aiming for, and if the complete lack of a determiner in some cases "means" something determiner-like, then there's absolutely nothing wrong in syntax with putting a "null item" in the place where the determiner would have gone. Just because such an item isn't pronounced doesn't mean "it" isn't playing a role in the structure we need.

Theories like HPSG, I think, lose sight of what it is that they're primarily charged with. It's constituency that matters. It's grammaticality that matters. It's the grammatical template that matters. It isn't primarily the words that matter (though of course they are of crucial importance). If we can build a (theoretical) machine that generates the right sentences, and it does so through use of a "null item," then it is enough. And if you're ending up with the right pronounced sentences through use of such a thing - then in some important sense it doesn't matter that it's "there," since it isn't pronounced anyway. Indeed, there isn't a syntactic reason to steer away from null items at all! The only reason is science theoretic: so as not to needlessly multiply entities. But if there's a need?

And indeed, it begs an interesting question. Like any theory of syntax, HPSG needs to deal with things that aren't necessarily always "on the page." That is, it has to assume, at the very least (and it does!) some syntactic properties of words pulled from the lexicon that explain their distribution - i.e. why you can't say things like *Hat my is on table the. And in some important sense these properties are "invisible" too - we simply induce their existence based on distributional facts. So HPSG's attachment to only dealing with things that you can "see on the page" amounts to an assertion that anything abstract you postulate (and all theories of syntax MUST postulate such things) must be tied to items on the page. Which is all well and good, of course, and useful as a constraint on the power of the theory - but it doesn't seem like a thing motivated by principle. Is there any principled reason to draw the line here? I can't see that there is.

Anyway - this is one of my frustrations with the direction Linguistics is taking. There's a big push to make the field more "objective." As though that would be a good thing. Some fields simply aren't primarily physical - and to treat them as though they were, or to conflate objetivity with materialism, is a mistake. Dealing in abstractions, provided they are motivated by data, does not mean a field lacks objectivity. What syntax has to account for isn't a physical thing - and so I do wish that some syntacticians (me included) would get less worried about trying to please the wing of the department that only beieves in what it sees directly.

Two Great Qualities No Political Theory Should be Without

But you're a Mac user - you should hate Microsoft!

This comes courtesy of a student of mine who likes to follow me after class and argue politics. I like arguing politics too - so I usually don't mind obliging. But it's a one-sided game with him. He's of the species of humanity who likes to throw tricky questions people's way to see if they'll be able to stay consistent - so our "discussions" are usually me answering his questions. He told me that he likes "arguing with Libertarians," and I guess this is because we put a high premium on philosophical consistency. One of the many things I like about being Libertarian, indeed, is precisely this: it isn't a policy-by-policy pragmatic philosophy at all, but a real philosophically-grounded system of thought.

But hearing the retort quoted above reminded me of two things about Libertarianism I like even more.

The first of these is that it's tolerant - and I firmly believe that is has the distinction of being the only school of political thought that can truly make that claim. If tolerance means roughly "live and let live," then it is safe to say Libertarians are the only group willing to put their money where their mouths are on that score. Take the example above. We were actually discussing how the ethanol subsidy is massively driving up food prices - nothing to do with Microsoft at all. But he quickly changed the subject to CEO compensation. I assume he was going to try to make the case that all the surplus cost of misguided feelgood environmental policies could be passed on to CEOs in the form of paycuts. So I suddenly found myself defending the idea that although I personally agree that Bill Gates is vastly overpaid, he is free to earn whatever Microsoft is willing to pay him (and that this anyway has NOTHING whatever to do with ethanol subsidies that I can see, but such is the train of thought of a Sociology major...). This is when he cut in with the line quoted above.

Simple answer: I DO hate Microsoft - at least, Microsoft in its present incarnation. But what does that have to do with how much Bill Gates earns? Is the idea that I might just not like their products so novel? And what does what Bill Gates earns have to do with what CEOs in general earn? Last I checked, all CEO compensation packages were negotiated individually between those individuals and the companies they work for. And what, for that matter, does ANY of this have to do with the government's ill-thought artificial inflation of the price of corn this year?

But this is exactly my point: to a Socialist, all these things are connected - and that's because Socialists are about as intolerant as they come. To a Socialist like my student, simple preference for Macs is apparently enough to justify the government dictating how much Bill Gates is allowed to earn. The fact that I think Microsoft is bad value for the price is meant to be enough to count on my support for anything they want to do to take the company down a notch. And while I guess that Socialists are the biggest offenders here, I just want to stress that the Fascists and Conservatives really aren't that far behind on this kind of thinking.

Yes, I do hate Microsoft. But I'm willing to live and let live. I express my disapproval by not buying their products. I express my disapproval by trying to persuade my friends not to buy their products. But I don't actually go so far as to MANDATE that people not buy their products - that's a completely different thing. The government is not an instrument for enforcing my buying preferences!

And that - once upon a time - was what "tolerance" was. It was "you go your way, and I'll go mine." It meant that you could disapprove of something without lobbying to ban it. It meant that you could publicly disapprove of something without lobbying to ban it. But these days, I'm not sure if it means that anymore. These days, when you hear someone talking about "tolerance," usually what they mean is "publicly state your complete and unconditional approval of homosexuality or you're fired." Or they mean "publicly state your complete and unconditional approval of affirmative action or you're fired." What they seem to never mean by it anymore is "think what you like, just stay off my turf." Indeed, the whole "tolerance" movement these days is anything but: it is a blatantly intolerant, forced acceptance of a certain set of preferences and prejudices over another. (And yes, they do indeed go so far as to enforce it.)

I like being a Libertarian because we're tolerant in the good, old-fashioned sense. I don't have to like Microsoft to recognize its right to exist. And I don't have to like homosexuality particularly to come to the conclusion that gays have the right to keep on keepin' on. There are, in fact, quite a number of things that I downright just plain don't like that I'm perfectly willing to keep legal.

And yes - as far as I know, Libertarians are the only political group that thinks like this. All the others - well, there just isn't enough time to scroll through all the examples. Conservatives want to ban porn, or marijuana, or alcohol purchases on Sunday, or polygamy. They're not content to let citizens make their own choices on these scores - they disapprove of it, ergo it has to go. Ditto the Socialists. They like gays, and it's not enough just to say so, they want it to be a punishable crime to discriminate against them. They want actual penalties for so-called "hate speech." They want tax money to go to fund art they like. No one can be allowed to smoke if they don't. They want tax money to go to pay for abortions - as though that's not the kind of thing a citizen of conscience should be allowed to refuse to contribute to! ET CETERA.

Which brings me to the other, related, thing that I really like about being Libertarian: Libertarians are realists. That is, we recognize that the world isn't perfect and is never going to be. When all is said and done, what underlies my student's assumption that anyone who hates Microsoft would support government regulation of its internal payscales, I think, is the desire to see everything functioning completely fairly. He's right that Microsoft is a blight. In an ideal world, people wouldn't buy its stuff, and Bill Gates wouldn't be worth a fraction what he is now. And I guess the difference between him and me is that he thinks the government can and should do something the make the world perfect. It should twist and tweak until there are no more overcompensated CEOs, no more successful companies peddling inferior products, etc.

It sounds all very nice - but it can't and won't ever work - and the "other thing" that I like so much about Libertarianism is that it accepts that. This bit about payscales is a typical Socialist tactic. But the idea that anything could ever be completely fair from a global point of view is transparently a fantasy. Any simple thought experiment will confirm this. Take, for example, the fact that in capitalist societies people have to negotiate for their pay. I guess this means that some people will get paid more than they are "really worth" and others less. I mean - superficially it's really convincing to say things like "negotiation skill isn't what they're being hired for - it's unfair that smooth talkers are able to negotiate better contracts on their speaking skills alone when it's really ability that drives the company's engine!" There is, I think, no way to counter this. They're right - it IS unfair. Pay SHOULD be based on merit alone - and negotiation skills sometimes DO play more of a role than they should. But my questions is - what is to be done about this?

The answer, pretty clearly, is "nothing," because all the "things that could be done about it" are worse than the situation itself. Consider what we could do. Rather than allowing people to negotiate for their own salaries - we could do what the Germans do and have centralized payscales that improve primarily with seniority. But it's easy to see that this is even less fair than the system we're replacing - because it COMPLETELY fails to reward merit. What else could we do? Well, I suppose we could implement a recommendation system - whereby new hires get paid what their mentors think is right. But again, it's hard to see how this wouldn't develop into an even further-reaching "good old boy" system than the one we're complaining about as personal connections became more important than merit, etc. The truth is, there's no way out. Life isn't always fair - and Libertarians (and Conservatives as well, I have to admit) accept that. We know it's futile to twist and tweak and hope for a perfect result. Instead, we let the market run and hope (and are usually justified) that it will come up with the nearest thing to "fair" available in the natural world.

Alright, maybe that's a lot to read into one retort in a not-so-serious discussion. But it got me thinking - and those were my thoughts. I am happy with Libertarianism as a philosophy because it is tolerant and realistic - and those are important virtues in a political philosophy. But of course this also illustrates the high bar to entry for Libertarianism into main-stream discourse. That is because people say they're tolerant, and they say they're realistic, but actually they don't know what these things mean. And I guess before Libertarians can have any success as a political movement, we first have to cure people of their annoying predilection for wanting to twist and tweak and meddle until things are "perfect."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Reading about Venezuela under Chavez, you get the impression that the situation gets more predictable every day. His latest assurance to the public, for example, is that private property will be respected.


Kinda reminds me of Chomsky's favorite line - about how the renaming of the "Department of War" in 1947 to the "Department of Defense" was supposed to be a subtle signal that its real purpose would now be to wage war. Orwellian doublespeak. Somehow I don't think Chomsky's going to write any papers about how what Chavez really means when he says "private property will be respected" is that there will be no more private property.

In some important sense, after all, there already isn't any in Venezuela. The government has already nationalized all the banks, brazenly seized a television station that it found ... inconvenient ... and regularly fixes prices in shops. Now Chavez is saying that he wants a constitutional reform that will "expand the concept of ownership," but of course there's nothing to worry about because it will still respect private property "as long as proprietors and investors respect the law." Alright, I'll give anyone three guesses as to what's coming next - and you're a dumbass if you use all three.

As long as proprietors respect the law? Whatever can THAT mean? 'Cause if I'm not mistaken, it's sort of status quo around the world that property-owners have to respect the law, eh? So...

Oh, right, and I almost forgot to mention this lovely bit of line-item commentary from our beloved liberal media:

Critics accuse Chavez of steering this oil-rich South American nation toward Cuba-style communism, and many wealthy Venezuelans fear second homes, yachts or other assets could be seized.

Gee - that's not so bad then, right? Second homes, yachts? Heh - somehow I don't think that's all they're worried about...

Add a dash of the characteristic socialist stupidity -

I'm going to begin a fight against the mega-salaries," Chavez said, adding that no public servant should make more than $7,000 a month. Most Venezuelans make minimum wage - roughly $250 a month.

- and you get a country that's really about to go bottoms up any time in the next decade. Let's think about this... Amidst a frenzy of nationalization, we're going to cut government salaries? Yeah - nothing about that will encourage anyone to abuse their newfound powers of property seizure, nope! They'll simply take their massive paycuts like the patriots they are and... Which is to say nothing of bribes - and this in a country where everyone is rapidly becoming more dependent on the government. I mean, you'd almost think he was studying Soviet mistakes so he could repeat them deliberately.

Oh, yeah, and in other news, foreigners who don't like him will be deported. Imagine GW pulling that stunt! But this is super-rich, coming from the guy who went to the UN and called Bush "the devil" - right there in New York City. It's also super-rich coming from the guy who was recently "deeply offended" that anyone thought he was trampling on free speech rights when he shut down that TV station that didn't like him.

"How long are we going to allow a person - from any country in the world - to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?" Chavez asked during his weekly television and radio program.

Well, gee, how does "forever" sound? Foreigners come to the US all the time and say roughly the same; the last thing we do is prove them right by punishing them for it! So this is Chavista "free speech" - freedom to say anything you want ... bucept if the government doesn't like it. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the "expansion of the concept of ownership" will mean something like own anything you want ... bucept if you use it in a way the government doesn't like.

Why, why, WHY is this crap still going on after an ENTIRE CENTURY OF PROOF IT DOESN'T WORK???

I will close with a quote from a great defender of Capitalism:

How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin.

The sad thing is - I think Chavez understands Marx and Lenin just fine - he just doesn't care 'cause he's the one holding the reigns. What's too bad is that the masses of South America don't seem to. I guess we'll repeat this painful lesson yet again, then.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wasn't What it Could've Been

Mr. Tweedy has avery interesting entry on the latest Harry Potter movie. Mostly, he complains about it:

So Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix turned out to be a horrible disappointment of a movie. Despite the fact that the jump, cramped plot was incomprehensible without reading the books, it deviated from the real story at every turn.

I haven't actually finished the book. I listen to the Harry Potter books in German - usually on my way to sleep. I've started "Orden des Phoenix" several times, but haven't yet managed to stay awake much past the trial scene. I did see the movie, though.

While I can't fairly say how it compares to the book until I've finished it, I suppose, it seems pretty obvious that this was, as Mr. Tweedy says, a pretty poor abridgement.

Of course, it's unfair to expect a movie ever to live up to a book. Movies have their own strengths, but I think it's still rare that one manages to outshine the book it's based on (barring, naturally, those like the Shining where the whole point is to take a second-rate book and make it what it might have been). And in this vein some of what Mr. Tweedy says may be asking too much. For example:

They also screw up Kingsley, who's made out to be a humorous, ethno-rock-looking african guy (in my opinion) rather than the serious, terminator-looking guy I expected to see... let's not even start on Tonks, who might as well have bent over forwards for Harry from the get-go, when I get no feeling of the sort that she's a pedophile flirt in the books.

Again, I don't really know to say from the book - but I think it's sort of inevitable that stuff like this happens in the transition to the screen. The people who make the movie will not necessarily have imagined things the way you did, and there just isn't enough time in a movie to develop all the characters in the way they deserve to be developed. I don't mind rolling with it a bit here.

But as for the plot, I can't really fault anything Tweedy says. For example:

They never explain what Harry saw in his dream before they (very quickly) rescue Arthur Weasley... so it's an arbitrary attack that cramps the movie even more instead of helping unravel the (mangled) plot

Right. That scene didn't make a whole lot of sense to me - so I'm glad to hear it (apparently) gets a better treatment in the book. It seemed like it should have a been a major turning point in the story, but (in the film, anyway) it just came out of nowhere and didn't seem to carry the weight we were supposed to attach to it.

Similarly, Hagrid wastes all that time showing them Grawp and getting them to promise to take care of him, but then that's it.

Yes, this really annoyed me too! What a pointless scene! I'd've said they only included it to show off their CGI prowess, except that the CGI wasn't really very impressive at all! Total waste of screen time, this.

Cho Chang 'betrays' them 'with verita serum', which is COMPLETELY wrong... her friend just betrays them anyway, and isn't sorry about it in the least bit... Cho and Harry argue because Cho turns out to a bit neurotic and using Harry to get over Cedric. The thing with Chang is so stilted and quick that they could have skipped those minutes too.

This was easily the most annoying part of the movie for me. What should be an emotionally involved plot development - betrayal (or, in this case, "betrayal") by a romantic interest - happened so fast you might've missed it if you weren't paying attention. There was barely any emotional buildup, very little in the way of an explanation, as good as no screentime devoted to how Harry deals with this, no resolution whatever, and a completely unconvincing aftermath.

There are one or two comments I'm not so sure of, though:

Snape seems to have an ounce of concern for Harry... I love Alan Rickman, but Snape's just not... well... shitty enough in this movie

This is actually something I liked. One of the more interesting things about the books for me has been the disconnect between the way Snape treats Harry and the fact that Dumbledore stands by him all the same. That means there's more to Snape than meets the eye: he's misunderstood in some way. I took Snape's flicker of concern to be the first layer peeled off of that particular onion: a welcome development.

As for Trelawney's firing... again: what was the point of dragging us through more of her supposed incompetency if we weren't even going to appreciate that the seemingly omniscient Dumbledore (who is played as if he's an old buffoon) is going to tell Harry that she made the prophecy about him?

Again, I can't say how this stacks up to the book - but I thought this scene was effective in the movie all the same for another reason: it drives home how inhuman Umbridge (PERFECTLY played by Imedlda Staunton) is - in contrast to Dumbledore, whose strange behavior toward Harry is still unexplained at this point in the movie. The scene therefore serves a kind of double purpose - it's also a "wink" at the audience that Dumbledore still is who he always was.

But OK, aside from those two minor quibbles - Mr. Tweedy's review is right on point. It was a tedious movie, and it definitely has the feel of something cobbled together ahead of a deadline rather than an artful condensation of a a worthy book. They could have done much better.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Independence Day

And so another Independence Day rolls around. Happy birthday USA!

I wonder whether Democracy Now! will be "celebrating" again this year by having famous actors and actresses read journal entries from radical leftists who hated America. 'Cause last year their show was all about all the things the US has done wrong (or "wrong" in many cases, since I don't share their Socialist worldview).

Of course, a great chunk of their broadcast last year was eaten up by reading from victims of slavery and racism. And indeed, slavery and racism are blights on the history of this country - can't disagree with them there. But I DO take issue with the view that America itself was somehow conceived in racism and slavery, or that we're forbidden from being proud of our history because of these things.

There's no space here to take on the whole race-baiting industry, of course, so I'll stick to one interesting and appropriate inconvenient truth. The link goes to the original draft of the Declaration of Independence - which was penned by Thomas Jefferson, well-known slave-owner:

he[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce:[11] and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

And there is also this - some meditations on black people (also by Thomas Jefferson) which concludes:

I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

In other words, if slavery was with us from the beginning, so was guilt about it. So was the recognition that it was wrong, and the hope that it would soon be abolished. And real history vindicates this view: the United Kingdom DID soon abolish slavery - perhaps the first time in history a real attempt had been made to stamp it out. And the United States soon followed suit (though not without a bloody Civil War, of course).

None of this is to say that this nation doesn't have racial sins to atone for. It is just to point out that much of the finger-pointing that "Democracy Now!" and the rest of the "blame America" crowd like to indulge in is only possible from the perspective of the present. From the perspective of the times in question, the United States was quite liberal, and was in fact a leader in the crusade AGAINST slavery and racism (though the UK has a better record here). Slavery remained legal and common in the rest of the world outside Europe and North America well into the 20th century.

In any case, if the lefties want to spend the 4th pointing the finger as usual, they would do well to remember that historical changes rarely are the result of an overnight realization that this, that or the other thing is immoral. The realization itself may come to us in a flash, but our ability to change the status quo doesn't operate on the same timescale. I myself am going to spend the 4th doing classwork as though it were any other day. But this isn't meant to be a reflection on my patriotism. I love this country - not because I was lucky enough to be born here, but because it is the nation that has done more than any other to keep the political ideals of Classical Liberalism - in my opinion the only civilized and humane political philosophy - alive and well. And yes, in spite of everything, I think our record on race and slavery confirms that this country has, though most of its history, been a beacon for individual liberty in the world.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dominion Day

Canada is 140 years old today. Happy birthday.

I Never Saw a Purple Flag...

Reading up on the Australian flag (for no reason) today, I came across an interesting (if pointless) little fact: apparently no national flag currently uses purple (source), which is kind of surprising considering how popular it is in heraldry (on which vexillology is supposedly based). Not surprisingly, I guess, some of the proposals for a replacement flag for Australia include purple. You can see them all (or, at least, a great number of the most popular ones) here.

It turns out that my favorite country is also considering a flag change, though the public seems less enthusiastic about it. Which is ironic (or, actually, not, given who we're talking about), considering that their proposed new flag is actually kind of cool. And really, if you're going to have trouble distinguishing Australia and New Zealand (and their flags do look almost exactly the same, after all) - you err on the side of Australia, right? I mean, there's over three times as many Aussies as ... well, whatever New Zealanders - excuse me, Aotearoans - are.

But back to the main subject - isn't it kind of interesting that out of all the national flags in the world, and with a more or less limited number of colors to choose from (according to the guide linked above, flags should only use black, red, green, blue and purple, with white and yellow being considered "metals" and not colors), NO ONE has bothered to use purple? Or, actually, I guess the better question is why, given a clear preference for not using it, purple is still considered a "vexillologically correct" color for flags? Maybe it shows up in lots of regional or locality flags or something.

I never saw a purple flag,
I do not hope to see one,
And because I'm not a fag,
I'd rather see than be one!

(With completely insincere apologies to the original purple cow poem.)

Who Am I? I Know, I'll Ask my Friendz at BigGuv!

Alright, well, this is news to me, but probably shouldn't be suprising, really:

Spain is at the forefront of equality legislation and has since March allowed transsexuals to legally change their gender without having a sex change operation.

What a load of rot! Legally change your gender without having a sex change operation??? Whatever will they think up next? I get more and more convinced with roughly each passing second that about 90% of the "complexities" of gender are entirely imaginary.

Alright, so someone out there explain this to me, please. What could POSSIBLY be the point of having your gender legally changed without having a sex change operation? Is this maybe so on the off chance the person is arrested they'll be put in prison with girls? Or so that they can take advantage of some perky female-only welfare handout? Because otherwise, I can't really see what the legal consequences would be.

This has got to be the best example of the childishness of the GLBT rights movement I've seen to date. So you think you're a man trapped in a woman's body (or whatever else). Well, that's just dandy. It is, of course, your business, and if that's the way you feel, then who am I to say you're not? But why do you need for THE GOVERNMENT to know? I mean, honestly, what is it with GLBT people that they think that nothing under the sun ever really happens or is really true without a government stamp? I get SOOOO SICK of hearing the argument in favor of gay marriage that people just wanna "affirm their love." They do? Really? Well great! Peachy! But what does this have to do with THE GOVERNMENT? Honestly, about the last people I think of when I think of "love" are politicians and the police! And I really, honestly, don't need the "male" box checked on my birth certificate to know I'm a man! That bleeding scrap of paper can say what it likes: I am what I am.

This stuff is so ridiculous at this point that I can't believe it even makes the (serious) news anymore, let alone actually moves real legislation through the diet! Which Spanish MP stood up and said "Si, senor Speaker, I have a bill I'd like to propose - we're gonna let people change their genders on their birth certificates for no reason, you know, just if they want to?" And what hundreds of others thought "GREAT IDEA! I mean, I guess we should be worried about unemployment or healthcare or the integrated European immigration policy or something, but why the hell not? We'll let people legally change their genders just for shits and giggles. 'Cause that's what we here in the government are all about - good times and fun parties!"

When are these people going to get it through their heads that the government doesn't exist just for vanity plates and welfare handouts? This "issue" of whether your birth certificate accurately reflects your "gender" is not an issue at all, really. The birth certificate should record what the doctor sees when you come out (in the original sense) into the world. If the doctor sees a penis, you're "male." If he sees a vagina, you're "female." And if you come, with time, to feel your "gender" doesn't match your "sex," well that's all fine then, feel free to identify with another gender. But what you physically were at birth should stay in the "sex" blank on your birth certificate. Why there is even a "gender" blank at all is beyond me (since what 2-minute-old has a gender identity yet anyway?) - but if there is one let's just remove it. Nowhere does it need to be recorded for any reason what "gender" (as distinct from "sex") a person is. And it seems to me that even those who go through and get a sex change operation need to keep their original sex on their birth certificate. After all, that's the sex they were when born! It isn't as though surgery were retroactive! (I guess cancer would be a lot less painful if it were... Just think of the paradox. "I've removed the tumor, Mr. Smith, which means you never had it. Which means I can't have removed it, since it was never there for me to remove. Which means...Dear God, the universe is going to fall into an infinite regress loop!") Maybe they could just stamp the birth certificate with something that says "some facts noted here have changed, see Vital Statistics for clarification."

In any case, I find it deeply offensive that GLBT people think that the government paper-pushers should cater to their self-esteem issues in this way. They need to grow up and learn that the government isn't a Giver of Identities. Your legal identity is NOT the same as your personal self-image, nor was it ever intended to be, nor should it be. Or - maybe - "offensive" isn't the right word. "Frightening" is probaby a better one - because it's symptomatic of the fact that people are coming more and more to see the government as a kind of deity. It provides them with manna from Heaven when they don't want to work, it tells them who and what they are, it alone (apparently) can give sanction to love, etc. That's frightening.