Friday, August 31, 2007

Diana's Dead

TOWM's quote of the day comes from Reason Online - a a piece by Michael Young on the anniversary of Princess Diana's death:

So why will many people turn embarrassingly lachrymose this August 31, unloading bushels of clich├ęs explaining why we're memorializing a one-dimensional socialite with so little to be memorialized for?

That is a damn fine question. All the boo-hooing over Diana makes me hate the general public almost as much as Jesus bumper stickers and blue laws. Honestly, what the hell?

I put that very question to my girlfriend at the time it happened, actually - since she was one of these Diana "supporters" (no small contribution to the total lack of respect I eventually felt for her that led to the breakup). The answer I got was inane to an almost unbelievable degree. "Because she was a nice person done wrong by bad people, and everyone feels sympathy when nice people get taken advantage of."

Oh, Christ, where to even begin?

First of all, I doubt very seriously that Diana was a particularly "nice" person. From what I gather from the inevitable little bits of info that worm their way in despite all my best efforts to ignore the story, "nutcase" might have been a better term for her. But the point is surely that no US citizen who's spent one or two summers in Britain is plausibly qualified to determine whether or not Diana was a "nice person." We have enough trouble deciding whether our own acquaintences are "nice" people, so let's please please please reserve judgement when it comes to those we've never met and the details of whose lives are known to be distored through a lense of media wishful thinking anyway.

Second of all, and much more importantly, no matter how "nice" Diana may or may not have been, she surely doesn't deserve sympathy on the grounds people are giving it to her. So her husband cheated on her and was mean to her. It's as if no one has ever heard of this happening before! If you really want to feel sorry for someone for having made a bad marriage choice, sit on your front porch once in awhile, eh? It won't take long to find a candidate object-of-sympathy. But what's especially perverse is the sheer number of people laboring under the willful delusion that Diana's marriage counts as a marriage like any other. It doesn't. She married into royalty, for cryin' out loud! That's a JOB, people - it's not a lifestyle choice. When you become the wife of a future king, you are not accepting a role as a loving wife and mother, though of course it's nice if that happens too. What you are accepting is a role as a public figure. It is your job to put on a good face for the nation. If you are unwilling to do that, then you're not qualified for your position, and your husband would be right to divorce you. A little bit of cheating is so completely par for the course in royal marriages that you really have to wonder what fairy stories people have been reading instead of history books to come to the conclusion that Diana really even had it bad at all.

But I guess the main point is just that modern people shouldn't be interested in the lives of royals in the first place. It's ironic, really, that anyone is. Monarchy made a certain kind of sense at a particular point in history. People would do well to remember that back when it did make sense, common people weren't really allowed to snoop in on the lives of royals at all. Indeed, it would have been a capital offense in most places to even suggest the kinds of things that so many people seem to feel qualified to say openly about Charles et al today. Fascination with the lives of royals is only possible because they are no longer royals in any real sense of the word. So - move along, people, nothing left here to see. Now, I don't want to imply that there aren't plausible arguments for Constitutional Monarchy in its modern version because there are. I don't personally happen to agree with most of them, but I have heard intelligent people argue convincingly that a state needs a detached watchdog, a preserving force rooted in national tradition that checks the excesses of legislative whim. A monarch can serve this role much the way the Supreme Court does (or, rather, is supposed to) in the United States. Fine, as far as that goes. But even on this argument, a royal is a public official and nothing more. What goes on in their bedrooms should hardly be relevant to anything.

But of course my ex-girlfriend's explanation is just an excuse - a convenient cover for what I suspect is the real reason so many people - most of them women and gay men - feel so much "sympathy" for Diana. What's really going on is that the whole Diana story appeals to little girl fantasies that the people doing the crying have never bothered to grow out of. Some rich man is supposed to come out of nowhere, give them everything they ever wanted, which includes making them the object of envy for other women everywhere. Clearly, this hasn't happened for any of them. But to them, that is an imperfection in the world - and not in themselves. It's an abuse of term to call something an "ideal" that has no moral value (indeed, is IMmoral - because it holds up the unearned as a standard) - but Diana's story is just proof to them that the world doesn't live up to their "ideals." And that is comforting in the same sense that any self-righteous worldview is comforting.

The world is apparently supposed to work something like this. There is a certain class of people who are virtuous and desireable, objects of admiration by sheer virtue of having been born. And then there's this other class of people who are so enamored of the first class of people that they go out and build things and create wealth, etc. And it is "right" that they should build things and create wealth just to please the member of the first class of people. And of course if you hold this worldview then you are a member of the first class of people, whose job it is simply to exist, and not the second class of people - you know, the ones who do the work.

Now this is a basic human fantasy. We all dream of having it easy, and of being born so god-almighty special that people just do things for us just 'cause. And I guess the difference between a Diana-sympathizer and a normal human being is that the Diana sympathizer never grew up and gave up on the fantasy, while the rest of us eventually came to terms with the fact that we have to earn our keep.

Alright - well, some will be wondering why people like Paris Hilton are so universally despised, then. Why is Diana a heroine while people jab and cheer when this other "never-worked-a-day-in-my-life" heiress gets slapped down with jail time for a minor offense? It's pretty simple, I think: because Paris Hilton has never apologized for her easy life. She flaunts it, in fact. Everything about her rubs it in your face that she's born rich and you're not, you work and she doesn't, she can fuck whoever she wants and get away with it and you can't, etc. And frankly, this is why I like Paris Hilton a LOT better than Diana. At least she has the virtue of not being a hypocrite. Her "job," to the extent that she has one, is to fill up the celebrity gossip columns, and that's what she does. She doesn't soothe people's insecurities by pretending to be some kind of misused saint. It's really hard to have sympathy for someone, like Diana, who knows that life is unfair, and who further knows that she has benefitted from this and feels guilty about it, but isn't inclined to actually try to address the cause of her guilt by making life more fair, so instead she tries her best to win the public's favor by building an image as a charity worker so that she doesn't have to feel guilty (because if the little people don't mind...). It's a lot easier when it's someone like Paris Hilton who just doesn't feel guilty in the first place - or, if she does, is at least honest enough to admit that she's not going to give up her comfortable life, and so she makes the best of the actual situation. I'd much rather, in other words, get an honest "fuck off" than a hypocritical plea for friendship.

So Diana's in the ground, and I couldn't care one way or the other. I never met her - so there's really nothing for me to differentiate her from all the other rotting corpses on the planet. She means about as much to me - no offense - as your dead grandfather (though of course I'm upset about mine).

I will say this for the world: today the crowd only numbered in the hundreds. We're at least spared the scores of streets lined with cheering adherents to the "I'm special and noone else is" philosophy this time around. I would like to think that's because the world has grown up a bit since 1997 - and I'm optimistic enough to believe it actually has.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Less Guns, More Bias

This article is a nice study in the subconscious bias against guns that makes gun control laws possible. It concerns the recent fatal shooting of an 11-year-old boy in England that has "shocked" the country. Naturally the press can't help but mention that the reason drive-bys on 11-year-olds in Britain are "shocking" is because the country has very strict handgun control laws:

Britain outlawed the possession of handguns in 1997 in response to the massacre of 16 children, and the country has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the world - 0.04 slayings per 100,000 people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey for 2004. The rate is roughly 100 times higher in the United States: 3.42 gun murders per 100,000 people.

Lines like this really make you wonder, sometimes, whether some gun control advocates actually believe that gun control will completely eliminate gun homicide. Why would anyone be "shocked" that ANY violent activity continued to occur after being outlawed? I mean, it's not as though rape is legal, and yet if I'm not mistaken it continues to occur every year, right? If someone tells me that a mugging occurred in my apartment block, I'm hardly going to be "shocked" that muggings continue to occur in the US in spite of the law. "A MUGGING???? NO. FUCKIN. WAY. DUDE. That shit's ILLEGAL!" Riiiiiggggghhhhttttt.... But that's precisely the point: if it doesn't shock anyone that other types of violent crime continue to occur after being banned, why is anyone shocked that someone got killed with a gun in Britain after the 1997 ban on guns?

I think one of the more frustrating things about the gun control debate is that what we might call the Brady camp is pretty disingenuous in their approach. Pressed on the issue, I have no doubt that they would admit that their schemes aren't ever going to eliminate gun crime completely - but they certainly don't mind people getting that impression from their campaigns. For example - take a look at this Brady Center Report on Guns-in-Schools laws. We're barely in the second paragraph when we get this bit of willful naivite:

The Brady Center's new report: No Gun Left Behind: The Gun Lobby's Campaign to Push Guns Into Colleges and Schools blows the whistle on the gun lobby's strategy [of legalizing guns on university campuses] and explains how, far from saving lives, it would dramatically increase gun violence risks to college students and trample on academic freedom. Drugs and alcohol use, plus suicide and mental health issues, all peak for people 18-24. Let's not add guns into that volatile mix.[emphasis in original]

It's as if they honestly think that allowing guns on college campuses would result in the first recorded incident ever of a gun being found in the hands of a suicidal teenager. Please! "Add guns into the mix?" Newsflash, kids: guns are already "in the mix." Legalizing guns on campus doesn't "allow them into the mix" for the first time ever. The strategy is to make sure that it's not just the crazy kids who have them. (Not to mention - how, exactly, does the existence of guns "trample on academic freedom?" They don't get around to addressing that issue until near the end of the article, and when they do, it's comedy. Scroll down and have a look.)

But here's my beef with the article on the gun slaying in the UK:

The rate is roughly 100 times higher in the United States: 3.42 gun murders per 100,000 people.

OK, granted. Gun crime is higher in the US. But surely this isn't the relevant issue. Even if gun control is actually effective at reducing gun crime (which it probably isn't - note that this BBC report on crime in the Midlands, published 7 years after the 1997 handgun ban, opens with the line "Gun crime has doubled in the Midlands in the last 7 years."), so fucking what? Reduction of one privileged category of violent crime is still a long way from eliminating violent crime - and I think most people, given an honest look at the numbers, would prefer to live in a society with a high gun crime rate (since gun crimes are rare in ANY country, including the notorious U. S. A.) if that meant they had a comparatively lower rate of more common violent crimes (like rape, stabbings, assualts, etc.). It is sheer folly to measure the success of a crimes policy ONLY on ONE category of violent crime!!! The truth is that the prevelance of guns prevents other types of crime - the kinds of crime more likely to happen to innocent bystanders, in fact. And indeed, the overall violent crime rate in the UK is MUCH higher than that in the US. You are, for example, much more likely to be assaulted, robbed, have your car stolen or your house broken into in the UK than in the US, and roughly equally likely to be raped. For my part, I'll take my chances with gun crime. The current gun homicide rate in the US is 3.5 per 100,000. That's 0.0035% of the population. You could, if you liked, shave a bit off of that and go with the UK's rate, which puts your chances of being killed by a gun at 0.00004%, if you really wanted - but you're only going from "vanishingly small" to "vanishingly small." In exchange for this, you would dramatically increase your risk of being assaulted, mugged, having your car stolen or your house broken into - things that are already significantly more likely to happen to you in the US than getting killed by a gun. If this is your idea of an intelligent tradeoff, I have some economics classes I'd like to recommend you take.

Historically speaking, the UK has always had a much lower crime rate than the US. For the first time in history, this is no longer true. Though the homicide rate in the US remains higher, and though the rape rate in both countries is roughly at par, other categories of violent crime are now more prevelant in the UK than the US. More importantly, the overall US crimerate is falling dramatically and has been since the end of the 1980s while the crime rate in the UK gets worse year-by-year. This is in spite of British guns laws.

I said "in spite of." I actually suspect it's (at least partly) "because of." And I further suspect that it's no mere coincidence that the US crime rate started to fall just as the trend of issuing concealed carry permits took off.

The bottom line is this: the shock value of guns is all the gun control lobby has going for it. Without sensational emotional appeals to people's sense of fear at seeing a gun, they've nothing to go on. For whatever reasons, the drive-by shooting of a kid in a playground makes the national news and has everyone "shocked" and "crying," whereas the gangrape of a girl in her own home during a robbery doesn't. This is extremely fortunate for the gun control lobby. It is considerably less fortunate for the rest of us, who have a more realistic sense of the word "safety" that includes freedom from all types of violent attack that could befall us, and not just the ones that make for good headlines.

I hope the people who called for gun control after the Virginia Tech shooting are paying attention to this story. The message is simple: gun control will NOT eliminate such incidents, and you are a complete blathering idiot if you expect it to. What gun control will do is give the rest of us absolutely no way to defend ourselves against such things. No thanks.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bad Analogy Fest August 2007

The Mutt email client's tagline:

All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less.

Well, that's kind of how I feel about analogies.

If you pick at it, you can find something wrong with any analogy. Obvious, right? When you're comparing two things that are not the same, there's bound to be some relevant dissimilarity. That doesn't make analogies useless, it just means you have to use them in good faith - both as speaker and as listener. An analogy will carry you as far as it will; it's never enough to complete an argument. All analogies suck, in other words, but some definitely suck a lot worse than others. And no analogies suck worse than those that are superficially convincing. This week, I ran across two sterling examples.

Exhibit A is this essay by IU's own Douglas Hofstadter. It's meant to be ... well, in the author's own words:

Perhaps this piece shocks you. It is meant to. The entire point of it is to use something that we find shocking as leverage to illustrate the fact that something that we usually close our eyes to is also very shocking. The most effective way I know to do so is to develop an extended analogy with something known as shocking and reprehensible. Racism is that thing, in this case. I am happy with this piece, despite-but also because of-its shock value. I think it makes its point better than any factual article could.

The specific MO is to imagine an alternate-universe version of English where pronouns were based on race rather than sex in an attempt to "shock" the reader into realizing that our own use of sex-distinguished pronouns is sexist. Their use of "whe" and "ble" is to our use of "he" and "she" etc. etc. But anyone with half a brain can, I believe, see how disingenuous this "clever" setup is. It ties its own rope with the very device it uses: the fact that racial pronouns are shocking to us and sex-based ones are not well illustrates that using "he" as a universal pronoun does NOT actually offend anyone or cause them to think only of men in the general cases. The "y-part" of Hofstadter's analogy strikes us as racist because is is in our English. Refering to a "spaceman" as a "spacewhite" sounds very exclusive - but only because the word "white" in the language in which the essay is written only ever refers to caucasians in its race-relevant usages. If it were a universal pronoun, like "he" is in English, it would obviously take on an inclusive meaning when applied in its general sense, and would therefore cease to strike us as racist.

When you really think about it, Hofstadter's analogy is about as disingenuous as they come. Distilled to its essential mechanics it goes something like this: "Take a word that has two meanings ("he"), directly compare it to another word that only has one ("white"), and then be shocked by the abuse of the second word which is being used as though it had two meanings when really it only has one, which of course isn't at all the same thing as using another word that has two meanings as though it did, in fact, have the two meanings it really does have. Conclude from this that the first word, which has two meanings, must really only have one, your daily linguistic experience to the contrary - you know, because the second word that I cherry-picked right off of the dingleberry bush in my ass happens to only have one meaning."

I suppose Hofstadter is also one of those morons who think that "there" only ever means "not here," and that it never has a purely expletive useage as a grammatical placeholder. I guess when people say things like "I have read Remembrance of Things Past in French," Hofstadter gets confused because he doesn't understand what a "read Remembrance of Things Past in French" is that someone could possess. Unaware, as he apparently is, that functional categories often coopt their pronounciation from existing lexical content words, Hofstadter has no doubt spent hours pondering what to him must be the very deep question of what "it" is that's doing the raining when someone tells him "it's raining, Doug." And I guess if we asked him along on a fishing trip on the Gulf of Mexico, the first thing he would do would be to go to the Mexican Consulate to apply for a visa.

In fact, "he" is just a function word. It is, alternately, the pronounciation of the third singular masculine pronoun, and also the pronounciation of the third singular universal pronoun. For someone who jokingly refers to himself as pilingual, it is remarkable that he wouldn't have noticed that the same string of phonemes often serves multiple functions in a language, and that this phenomenon is especially prevelant in functional category paradigms.

But enough about His Haughtiness. Exhibit B is even more disingenuous. This one's a recent column on abortion by the conservative columnist I'm reluctantly starting to hate: Mike Adams.

In his heyday, Adams was a great read. He was witty - and more importantly, his victims were the members of the campus leftist orthodox propaganda machine - a group that needs regular public pummeling. I think there is little more hypocritical in American society than these people who, out of one side of their mouths, talk about university as a great mind-opening, idea-sharing experience, a "marketplace of ideas," and then out of the other side routinely fail, denounce, humiliate, blackball and otherwise punish anyone who doesn't absolutely agree with everything they say. Kudos to Mike for taking them on.

But of course it's all pointless if you end up becoming a demagogue yourself - and dear Dr. Adams is on the fasttrack. Recently, his columns have become increasingly religious and, as is often the case with religion-based arguments, replete with straw mans.

Consider this recent column about abortion. Here the device is a comparison with Michael Vick's hobby of torturing animals - indeed, ambition - to torture as many animals in as cruel a way as possible.

I also dreamed that before long there was an organized movement to make dog-fighting legal. The feminists were outside of courthouses wearing t-shirts and holding signs that said "Keep your laws off my doggie," "My doggie, my choice," and something I couldn't understand about a case called "Rover v. Wade."

Right - so we're supposed to apply our shock and horror at the animal torture that goes on at dogfights and somehow equate this with abortion, coming, in the end, to the conclusion that if there are laws against the former there should also be laws against the latter.

But just like with Hofstadter's analogy, this one is flawed on its face to anyone who cares to take a second look. The disingenuousness is on display in turns of phrase like "keep your laws off my doggie" and "my doggie, my choice." In the original slogans, the word "doggie" is being subbed for wasn't "baby," it was "body," in fact. But Dr. Adams is trying to draw an analogy with babies, not bodies. The baby in an abortion is to the dog in a dogfight - because that's the "thing that's being tortured," no?

Fine, as far as that goes - it's just that it doesn't go very far. When arguing against an opposing position, you cannot hope to be convincing if you simply ignore the main points of that position. And you'll be even less convincing if you not only ignore the opposing position's main points but in fact claim that they are something else entirely - accusing your opposition of something they've never advocated, as in this case.

For Adams' analogy to work, babies would have to be things that people went out and acquired fully formed, be completely separate from the mother's body at all times, and freely transferable to other "owners" at all times during the pregnancy (which, remember, is taking place fully outside the mother's womb in Adams' fantasy world). People would never, ever acquire babies by accident, nor would they ever have babies forced on them through rape. Babies would always and in all circumstances be things that they willfully went out and bought, trained to behave in a certain "entertaining" way, and then killed for sport.

In other words, things would have to be so different from the way they actually are in the real world as to be virtually unrecognizable.

Now, I guess the point of Adams' analogy is to try to focus our attention on the injustice done to the "victim." But that is patently a point that supporters of legal abortion do NOT dispute. You will not find anywhere a supporter of legal abortion who advocates as a "fun thing" that a woman go out and get pregnant and off the little critter just for shits and giggles. They pretty universally agree that abortion is an ugly affair to be avoided if at all possible. Most abortion counsellors are well aware of psychological trauma that it causes in some people, and this is something that they should and do factor in when giving advice. They support legal abortion on the principle that a woman has the right to decide in what way her body is used. A new life may not gestate there without her consent - and they righly recognize as oppressive any regime that requires people to give up their bodies in the service of another in this way. In that sense, being for legal abortion is (as Dr. Adams well knows) fully compatible with legal opposition to dogfighting. Because after all, what happens in a dogfight is that you take another's body and use it for fun in a cruel way without its consent. NO ONE would EVER support abortion as something that people should do for sport. Abortion is a last resort for unplanned circumstances. No one denies that the killing of the baby is gruesome. They simply maintain - wholly plausibly - that there is no other way to secure the woman's rights once the pregnancy has begun. It's the mother's body, and the existence of another life inside it does not diminish that fact. If abortion only ever involved the fetal victim, as Dr. Adams is sneakily trying to suggest with his "analogy," then the political issues surrounding it would be a nobrainer: OF COURSE it would be illegal! But it DOES NOT only involve the "victim." It involves the mother too. And trying to write her side of the equation out of existence with a poorly constructed analogy is about as pedestrian an argumentative strategy as one can adopt. Confronted with an issue which is NOT clear and NOT simple, Dr. Adams dreams of a world where it were clear and simple, and where his side were clearly and simply the only available moral position. Too bad for him and his feeble editorial that the rest of us live here and not in his tidy thought experiment.

What's hurtful about the whole thing is the (not-so-)sly suggestion that any woman seeking an abortion is on a moral par with troglodytes like Michael Vick. Michael Vick is the kind of person who goes out and purchases an animal for the SOLE PURPOSE of causing it as much pain as he possibly can - because he's the kind of person who enjoys watching other creatures suffer. There was no part of his motivation that was outside of this: all he did he did for the sake of causing pain. If Dr. Adams thinks that EVEN ONE woman seeking an abortion has a similar motive, he's clearly off his rocker. It's as if he thinks that patients at abortion clinics regularly say things like "Yeah, doc, I know the procedure is less invasive now - but I'm gonna go ahead and wait three months and have that partial-birth abortion, just because those are so much more satisfying. And I want you to film it in HD please, so I can watch it over and over and over again, 'cause I'm the type o' bitch that really gets off on watching people suffer." I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no abortion clinic anywhere in the world has ever had such a request.

What's really "shocking" about both of these essays is not the analogy employed, as their authors smugly choose to believe, but rather the number of suckers out there in the world who get taken in by this kind of second-rate writing. Dr. Hofstadter's essay is available online and turns up instantly on a quick Google search decades after it was written. This very week I heard it spoken of in approving terms by a professional Linguist - i.e. someone who is really trained to know better. Dr. Adams' editorial, for its part, has a 4-star popularity rating on, which tells me he's not hurting for approving readers either.

I get what's going on. People have opinions, and they like hearing arguments in support of those opinions. Everyone likes being told they're right, and the more shocking the argument, the more convinced they feel that they are on the side of good; it's all the more fun if you're the "good guys." But it's an empty feeling if the argument itself doesn't work, as these two clearly do not. And while good fun is good fun, and it's fine to preach to the choir to vent now and then in private, public discourse should really operate on a higher standard. So let me just beat this dead horse a bit more: universities should really, in place of diversity training and campus climate seminars, require all freshmen (if they're going to require core classes at all, I mean, which I'm not sure they should) to acquire some basic critical thinking skills. I would suggest that Drs. Hofstadter and Adams will have many essays on file that such courses can use to neatly illustrate logical fallacies to be avoided in intelligent discourse...