Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Are we gonna have to go through this every year?


People magazine, which has been getting it wrong for 17 - make that 18 - consecutive years now, considers Kate Hudson attractive. Last year it was Drew Barrymore, which is already bad enough. But at least Drew Barrymore is cute. Kate Hudson?

No, no, no, wrong, and no.

It is well-known, but not widely acknowledged, that the most attractive person in the world is Jennifer Connelly, and has been since about 1986.

Feeling Sorry for Obama

Out of character though this may sound, I actually feel a bit sorry for Barack Obama in the wake of yesterday's press conference disowning Jeremiah Wright.

Don't get me wrong. Obama's full-scale, and belated, disassociation with Wright means that an unmistakeable hit has been scored. I have no desire to see this substance-free, condescending, feel-good smooth-talker sworn in as the next president of this fine country, so if this controversy is causing him trouble, then good. It helps that the controversy itself has merit. This isn't a Lewisnky "Scandal" redux, where some poor, but essentially private (yes, yes, I know, "sexual harrassment" is illegal, but no one ever managed to convince me that any of what happened was against Lewinsky's will at the time it happened), choices on the part of the president were taken WAY out of context to back him into the corner that resulted the lie that caused his impeachment. That was a setup - and based on things that are ultimately irrelevant to leadership competence. This thing with Obama isn't that.

This thing with Obama, unlike a candidate's private extra-marital affairs, is relevant. It is within the limits of acceptable public scrutiny. This would be the case even if Obama hadn't made it the stuff of public discourse by titling his autobiography after a line in a Wright speech: We the People, knowing that our politicians present false faces to us during election time, are entitled to attempt to infer from a politician's voluntary associations how he will actually behave in office. If you're running for president, your church attendance record is fair public game. And if your church attendance record suggests that you are an unpatriotic bigot - as Obama's unambiguously does - then the public is entitled to hold that against you when it goes to make its choice.

That said, and as much as I agree that Barack Obama is not a good choice to head the executive branch, I would like to make the case that he is, in one sense, a victim of circumstance.

In "The Speech" - in which Obama initially defended his association with Wright in spite of the pastor's inflamatory comments - Obama said that this was an opportunity for the nation to confront realities about race. I agree - though Obama and I are not talking about the same "realities." And when Wright himself said two days ago that attacks on him were attacks on culture of black churches, I agree even more strongly. Where I disagree is that this is an acceptable defense. The culture of whites and white churches has been under attack for some time. Why should black churches be immune?

The fact is that the culture of black churches is rotten in exactly the way Wright's speeches imply. Do I know this first-hand? Not exactly. I have never been a member of a black church. But I did grow up in North Carolina, and after a while the signs are unmistakable. There were too many times in high school when a black person I knew from class would pretend not to recognize me if we crossed paths outside of school and other black people were around. Once or twice and you can explain it away. You know, "the sun was in his eyes" or somthing. When it gets to be a pattern, you come to know that the black community suffers from more "institutional racism" today than whites ever dreamed of. And the pattern is only confirmed when you turn on the TV and watch one Rodney King and Tawana Brawley and Duke Rape Case after another, where prominent members of the black community make statements that carry the unmistakable implication that the facts of the case and the public interest in seeing justice done are somehow less important than black people's feelings.

This is a community failing. It doesn't exist at all on the individual level. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist; Wright's comments two days ago are yet another reason we can't pretend it doesn't.

And so I feel sorry for Barack Obama. In disowning Wright, he did the right thing. It would never have been enough for some people, of course - because for some people nothing ever is. But it would have been enough for me -- if only Wright hadn't forced his hand in the way that he did. The sad thing is, Obama was getting away with it. Some Republicans dragged up some of his mentor's statements - the kind of thing that would have easily buried a less talented speaker. But Obama is quite talented, and he managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a carefully-worded speech that played on some of the sensitivities of the community. He was getting away with it, until Wright decided not to let him. And one can only assume that Wright decided this. He is, after all, only nationally prominent because a large section of the public objects to Obama's association with him. Going on the air and repeating exactly the kinds of things that put Obama in the hotseat can hardly be something he imagined would help.

Why would Wright want Obama to fail? Why set him up to fail? Why not just wait a couple of months until after the election? Is this all about the spotlight? Wright wants it, saw his chance, and damn the consequences for Obama? Maybe. But Wright has already had a successful career and is retired from it. This isn't exactly the point in one's life where he grabs at the spotlight.

No, I have an alternate theory. This will be objectionable to many, but I do believe it. My theory is that black leaders like Wright - the manic street preachers of the community (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton et al) - are ironically but unmistakeably the interest group in this country that has the most to lose if we elect a black president. One thing that Obama's brain-free college kid supporters get right about him is that his election would send a powerful signal (they like to use hyperbolic adjectives like "powerful" alongside noncommital phrases like "send a signal") that America is putting its racist past behind it. And if that happens, what will the manic street preachers have to talk about? Make no mistake, Wright sold Obama out at a crucial point in the campaign for profit - because the profession he devoted his life to (racialist rabble rousing) becomes obsolete if Obama wins.

So I feel sorry for Obama, just as I feel sorry for anyone who gets stabbed in the back by his erstwhile allies. But I don't feel sorry enough to vote for him. He made a choice when he decided to associate with such people, let him suffer the consequences. If the public can be gullible once, then Wright does us a valuable service by not letting it happen twice.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

KINDLY Give me my Cigarettes Now

CARPE DIEM has two interesting posts on Russia. The first has to do with smoking and obesity. Basically, the author sits around in Moscow looking in vain for a fat man. And also for a non-smoker. And then he wonders whether smoking has something to do with Russian thinness. Indeed. It's funny how obvious things like this sometimes take a really long time to occur to you. But I can remember going to Korea for the first time and being equally shocked by how thin everyone was - and that's saying a lot, really, since I was just off the plane from Japan! One of my Japanese friends and I - when he came to visit - spent a long time puzzling over why, while people are generally thin in Japan, you do occasionally see real lardasses, but there simply aren't any fat people at all in Korea. But IT'S THE SMOKING, STUPID! OF COURSE! In retrospect it seems so obvious. Because while we were busy talking about that, we also noticed that there was a lot more smoking going on than in Japan (which also says a lot). (And yes, there is statistical evidence to back up my claim that Koreans smoke a lot more than Japanese. The link goes to a WHO site that claims a smoking rate of 67% for Korea and 51% for Japan.)

Now here's a comparison between Russia and Spain. The second one has to do with customer service in Russia, which the author claims has not fully recovered from the Soviet era. He starts with an annecdote about the opening of the first McDonald's in 1990 in what was then still the Soviet Union. The elaborate training program focused on customer service, a novel concept in a commuist nation. One teenager in training is supposed to have asked, confused, why he should be nice to the customers since he was the one with the hamburgers!

The Soviet Union has been gone for 17 years now. I was in Barcelona in 1998, 23 years after Franco died - which, if you figure the 2 year transition period, put it at roughly the same timespan. What immediately shocked me was how terrible customer service in general was. I went abroad swearing not to be one of those annoying Americans who constantly complains about how much better things are supposed to be at home - but I just couldn't help it. There's indifference, and then there's downright rude, and these people were the latter. I resolved to keep a stiff upper lip about it, but one of my German friends, when we were out of earshot of any Spaniards, let me off the hook by bringing up the subject himself. He'd been there for two years already and still hadn't gotten used to it - and this is a German we're talking about! He explained to me that it had to do with the Franco period - that in a dictatorship the shoe is totally on the other foot, and since the economy is controlled it's the suppliers who have the upper hand. You get in the habit of bribing shopkeepers for favors, and so the mentality sets in that the shopkeeper is the one keeping the customer afloat, rather than the other way around. At the time I just sort of nodded but couldn't really see the point. Surely even in a dictatorship profits are important, right? But now I read this about Russia and I wonder - because that was exactly the attitude in Barcelona when I was there. When I bought something from someone, it was as if the shopkeeper had done me a favor. Strange.

Which all makes me wonder ... when was Indiana ever a dictatorship? Because damned if that's not exactly the impression I get here a lot of times too. I can remember one time me and all 32 years I'd been on this planet at the time walked into Marsh (a grocery store) wanting to buy beer. The cunt behind the register apparently gets her kicks carding people and wanted to see two forms of ID - which is ridiculous. I get that I look young for my age, but I'm nowhere near looking under 21! At best, she needs to do a cursory check to fulfill her legal obligations, but TWO forms of ID??? So I asked her if she was serious, and she said she was and acted irritated. I held up my license, which is behind a plastic screen in my wallet, and then turned it over to show her my student ID. She insisted that I pull each out and hand them to her. "Are you enjoying this?" I asked. She said "Sir, do you want the alcohol or not?" To which I responded "Do you want my money or not?" Honestly, there are plenty of stores in town that sell beer! But it's constant here. Customer service just blows. I miss the South.

Friday, April 25, 2008

More Pronoun Rankings

In response to my response to his post on pronouns, Mr. Tweedy has more to say on the subject. Specifically, he acknowledges, based on my evidence, that the underlying problem of pronoun ordering in conjunctive phrases is complex - though of course the point of his original post was just some random observations about certain limited colloquial forms, so no harm no foul.

To get at the solution, he (helpfully) goes through all the combinations of pronouns joined by "and" in subject position - marking each on a well-defined scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is (roughly) "most acceptable" and 5 is "not at all acceptable." (Actually, it's not quite a full factorial typology: he leaves out cases like "I and me" where forms matching in person and number are differentiated by case alone. This is understandable, since discourse situations that involve these forms are rare. If I were going to do a real study on this, I'm not sure whether I would choose to include them or not. Probably I would, for completeness, but there's no doubt they introduce a confound.)

Based on this, he concludes that

It looks like, if you're only going to inflect one, then it's better to put the nominative inflection on the first (and so structurally nearest, if you're assuming a conjunctive phrase joining the second to the first) item and leave it off the second than it is to do it the other way around.

He goes on to add that nominative marking on the first item is optional in colloquial speech, and that nominative can apaprently spread to the second item in a conjunctive phrase, but that it's generally not a good idea to mark the second item nominative if the first item isn't so marked.

But he acknowledges that he still lacks an explanation for why things like "*I and Frank went to the movies" are so terrible. After all, this has a nominative item structurally preceeding an item that's ambiguous for case.

So there are still some pieces missing - and in fact I think I have an idea what they are.

Taking Mr. Tweedy's ratings (though, I hasten to add that I definitely disagree with a number of them - for example (j1) "We and they went to the movies" is REALLY BAD for me, but it gets a clean bill of health from Mr. Tweedy) as input, I wrote a short program in Python to organize the data around features. Specifically, it takes all the input cases and scores a "violation" for the particular ordering based on the rating Mr. Tweedy gave it. So, for example, for "I and him went to the movies" (Mr. Tweedy's item b6), which Mr. Tweedy gives a 5 (I agree), the program adds 5 to the total violation score for 1 >> 3 and n >> o and s >> s- where 1 and 3 are obviously person markers, "n" and "o" are "nominative" and "objective" respectively and "s >> s" just means that a singular form preceeded a singular form. "You" was obviously a bit tricky to handle this way - but since this is just a sweep for fun over a single "subject's" grammaticality judgements, I simply encoded it as "b" (for "both") for singular/plural and nominative/objective. Some more thought is probably warranted there.

In any case, these are the results (where high scores are worse - like in golf).

For singular vs. plural:

b >> s: 7
s >> b: 9
b >> p: 12
p >> b: 14

p >> p: 22
s >> s: 35
s >> p: 36
p >> s: 38

So it doesn't look like there's much of an effect for singular vs. plural. It seems to be better to put singulars before plurals, and "you" before either (maybe?), but the effect isn't very strong. The only thing of interest here is that singular seems to be bad in general. I mean, if you have it paired with a plural, then better to put it first, but best of all is don't have it. So, proposed OT constraints (because I do think this problem warrants a constraint-ranking solution, and NOT a derivational/rule-ordered solution) would be:


  • *SINGULAR (no idea how this one actually functions, of course!)

For nominative vs. objective:

b >> n: 8
n >> b: 10
b >> o: 11
o >> b: 13

n >> n: 22
o >> o: 25
n >> o: 33
o >> n: 51

So Mr. Tweedy's speculation that the first element should be nominative is CORRECT. However, it seems that better still is just to have both in the same case. So right, nominative before objective, but there is also a case concord preference, and it seems to override the "nominative first" rule. Better to have both items in objective case than the first in nominative and the second in objective. (Note: I'll bet, however, that there's an exception to this → don't have two of the same form one after the other - i.e. no "he and he went...") You was again problematic. It seems best to put "you" before items of either case (stress on "seems;" there's no real way to know what's going on with "you" and case).



But (and this is the piece of the puzzle that Mr. Tweedy seems to be missing in his most recent analysis) the most striking result had to do with person.

2 >> 3: 7
3 >> 2: 7
2 >> 1: 12
1 >> 2: 16
3 >> 1: 41
1 >> 3: 58

This seems to show the clearest preferences. 2nd and 3rd person don't seem to care which order they come in relative to each other. But both 2nd and 3rd person like to come before 1st person, and this is especially so for 3-1 pairings. If you simply add up the totals for each in the first position, then 2nd scores a 19, 3rd scores a 48, and 1st scores a whopping 74. Of course, if we do it the other way round and look at second position, 2nd has a 23, 3rd a 65, and 1st a 53, so one could make a case the other way (i.e. 3rd strongly dislikes being last, 1st too, and 2nd doesn't much mind). But there are reasons to think that the ranking is, in fact, 2 >> 3 >> 1. This is because, taken as an ordering on pairs, 2 is definitely supposed to come first. It fares better than either 1 or 3 on individual pairings. If you think of it then as a problem of ordering the other two, having established the ranking for 2, then 3 is clearly supposed to precede 1.

And that, in short, is the answer to why "I and Frank went to the movies" is so bad, even though Mr. Tweedy is right that nominative should precede objective (keeping in mind, of course, that we don't really know what case "Frank" is in - the point is just that there shouldn't in general be a problem with nominative forms coming first). Because there's another constraint that says "don't put 1st person in front of 3rd person." This equally explains cases like "He and I went to the movies" being acceptable whereas "I and he went to the movies" is bad, even though both are nominative-marked. It's also, presumably, why I would have given "We and they went to the movies" a 5 (though I admit I'm puzzled why "They and we went to the movies" is so terrible - a 4 on my personal scale). I suspect Mr. Tweedy actually agrees. Marking that sentence 1 was no doubt a case of hypercorrection on his part (after all, these constraints are based on HIS judgments).

I'm willing to bet, in fact, that the constraint on person is more important than the constraint on case. But I'm hitting my lazy zone, so I'm going to leave it aside for now.

A couple of things to keep in mind with all this. First, these ratings really only reflect Mr. Tweedy's personal grammar. Since he is a native English speaker, it's highly likely that it agrees in large part with everyone else's grammars - but of course the only way to tell for sure is to survey a bunch of people. That is, in fact, something that I would like to do eventually - but not just now. Second, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are other conjunctions besides "and," for example, and I wonder whether it's different for different conjunctions? Third, no care was taken here to balance out the typology. To do this kind of survey for real, I would have to make sure that each form showed up in the test the same number of times - which is obviously a headache when you're dealing with hugely ambiguous forms like "you."

But it's nothing if not interesting. I declare the problem solved to my personal satisfaction. Nominative should precede objective, 2nd person should precede third person which precedes first, and the person ordering is more important than the case ordering, and the ban on case contours explains cases like "He and me went to the movies" being worse than "He and I went to the movies." The rock in my craw is "They and we went to the movies," which is just BAD. Better than "We and they...," but honestly not by much. However, I think there's an obvious explanation for this one that has nothing to do with the constraint ranking: simple semantics. "We and they" implies "we," and so most people no doubt choose to say "we" (or possibly "we all") in these cases. The constraint here is just *POINTLESS CONSTRUCTIONS.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Use for Facebook

So it turns out Facebook is useful for something. A friend sends in an email link to the "Lexicon" function, which tracks word frequencies over time. I tried it for "center" vs. "centre" and got an interesting sort of result. The two words show a frequency curve that pretty much exactly matches, with "center" being more frequent than "centre" - except at one random point last November "centre" was briefly more popular. I account for the striking similar curves by chalking instances of "centre" up mostly to typos. But that doesn't explain last November. Sudden influx of Brits onto Facebook that month?

The next one I did was "color" vs. "colour." Nothing to report there: both hold steady, with "colour" significantly less frequent. When I tried with "tire" vs. "tyre," it didn't even return a result.

Sociolinguists must think this is the cat's meow.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Eine kleine Nachtsyntax

Mr. Tweedy has an interesting entry today on language use. Well, 1/3 of it is interesting, anyway - the part about the use of 'I' vs. 'me' in formal and informal English.

I seize on this because it happens to be one of my biggest pet peeves about the way some people speak English (no surprise to anyone - for all we Linguists go on about being anti-prescriptivists, we ALL find ways to justify nevertheless being annoyed at how some people speak). Namely - people who overuse 'I' rank in at just barely more tolerable than those who overuse 'whom' in my registry of demons.

On the whole, I agree with Mr. Tweedy's analysis - so jump over and have a look if you have the time. The gist of it is this:

  1. Frank and I (subject)- fine in both formal and informal English

  2. Me and Frank (subject)- fine in both formal and informal English, though the form in (1) is preferred in formal contexts

  3. Frank and me (subject)- bad in formal English - strangely worse than (2) informal English as well

  4. When in object position - 'I' form is NEVER acceptable

The data is(are, whatever) correct, of course - but I'd honestly never noticed the 'Frank and me' vs. 'Me and Frank' effect - whereby the first is somehow worse than the second - in informal English before. And in fact, if you'd asked my opinion without pointing that out to me, I would've predicted just the opposite. Reason being - as Mr. Tweedy points out (though not in precisely these terms) - accusative (more properly, 'objective') case seems to be the default case in English. When someone asks you "Who wants candy?" your response is invariably 'me,' rather than 'I.' Now, as Tweedy points out, it's natural to say 'I do' (and in fact, 'me do' is completely ungrammatical) - presumably because the tensed verb(-placeholder) 'do' assigns nominative case to 'I.' Meaning that as a standalone lexical item - the first person singular pronoun is probably 'me,' and it only changes to 'I' in a specifically case-marked form; objective case is default in English.

So in a conjuntive phrase, I would rather expect the second member to be the unmarked one.

Mr. Tweedy thinks differently, and argues for an "end of phrase" effect for case marking. Basically - the second item in a phrase is more likely to be marked. So if it's "Me and Frank went to the movies," then "Frank" gets marked because it's second, but of course this marking is vacuous for proper names (indeed, any specified nouns) in English. And if it's the other way around, then "me" gets marked, and this time we can see the marking: it turns up as "I."

I think he would've been on more solid ground arguing for a "closest conjunct" effect (basically, whichever is closer to the verb gets marked), and here's why.

First of all - let me take issue with the second part of his justification. As (further) evidence for his "end of phrases get marked" thesis, he cites the case of "Jon's and Bob's car" vs. "Jon and Bob's car." Both are OK - point being, we mark the end of the phrase obligatorily, the first member optionally. Actually, I think this is a misanalysis of this particular case. In fact, in the "Jon's and Bob's car" case, it's that BOTH "Jon" and "Bob" have phrasal status. Witness things like "The king's money" vs. "The king of France's money" vs. the completely ungrammatical "The king's of France money."
Now try it with "King and queen." "The king's and queen's of France's money" simply won't do. BUT - we can say "The King's and Queen of France's money" - it's just that we understand it to be the case that the King is not the King of France (actually, no one is, but never mind ;-), but rather some other King, and "of France" modifies only "Queen." Why is this so? Well, presumably because "King" and "Queen of France" are members of separate phrases. Reality is that we're allowed only one 's marking per phrase. So if we're coordinating two items with 's on them, we're really coordinating two (single-word, in this case) phrases.

But so far I'm just nit-picking. This still works for Mr. Tweedy's explanation, right? Because in the case of "[Frank and I] went to the movies," then we can analyze "Frank and I" as a phrase and say that only the last item in it is case-marked, right?

Well, yeah, but how, then, do we explain all of this:

  1. OK: He and I went to the movies.

  2. BAD: Him and I went to the movies.

  3. BAD: I and Frank went to the movies.

  4. BAD: Me and he went to the movies.

  5. OK: Me and him went to the movies.

It's easy to see that the whole thing comes tumbling down. Mr. Tweedy's theory, as stated, can get away with number (1) - although I've given reasons to doubt that marking ever shows up (even optionally) on the first item in a phrase. But let it go - he gets an explanation for (1). But if his explanation is right, and the first conjunct can optionally be case-marked, then what's wrong with (3)? Why can we optionally case-mark 'him" as "he" in (1), but not "me" (as "I") in (3)? Likewise, according to this theory, (2) - in which case marking is only on the second conjunct - should actually be better than (1), and yet it's worse. Mr. Tweedy could get around this, maybe, by claiming that "him" isn't the default form of "he" the way "me" is the default form of "I" - but he would still be unable to explain example (4). He would CERTAINLY be unable to explain how (4) is possibly worse than (5) (in which there is no nominative case marking on the second conjunct), and yet (5) is better than (4)!

So Mr. Tweedy's missing some pieces here.

Not that I have an alternate explanation myself. Conjunctive phrases are NOTORIOUSLY difficult to handle in standard Syntax. But here's my oh-so-modern Minimalist suspicion: there is some truth to the idea that pronouns in English are clitic-like. Notice that "order in the phrase" plays a role for what you can and can't get away with, but that it doesn't map onto all pronouns in the same way. That's a big clue that we're dealing with peculiarities of the lexical items themselves, and not any kind of nice syntacitc generalization about English. Rather - it seems to be a PF-level effect. "Pronounce this this way here and some other way elsewhere." And in the case of "I," it's sort of a "pronounce me last" effect. Synactically it's a full member of the conjunct phrase, but phonetically it can only be pronounced last. (Note this holds even in the hypercorrected forms - when people say crap like "I feel the magic between you and I." Even those troglodytes can't get "I feel the magic between I and you!") More evidence: note that (5) gets really bad all of a sudden if you swap places: "BAD: Him and me went to the movies." There are some dialects where you can get away with that, but in the standard dialect it's right out. Again - the ordering effect seems to be a peculiarity of the lexical items - not anything deeper than that. "Me" just likes to be first is all. Still not convinced? Try these two on for size:

  1. He and him are good friends.

  2. Him and he are good friends.

Neither is particularly good, but dontcha like (1) A LOT better than (2)?

I'm telling you - all it is is an ordering effect, no different from, say, the fact that in Romanian, all the object clitics go in front of the auxilliary - bucept the feminine one, which randomly goes after the main verb.

  1. L-am vazut.

  2. N-am vazut pe nimeni.

  3. Am vazut-o

(1) and (3) are "I saw him/her" (respectively). (2) is "I didn't see anyone." It's there just to show that clitics in general go in front of the auxilliary - it's only the feminine (accusative) one that's weird and goes after the main verb.

I think something similar is at work with pronouns in English. There are no revealing syntactic principles at work here - just like there is no deep reason why the feminine clitic is the odd "man" out in Romanian. It is that way ... because it just bleedin' IS that way! The solution for English pronouns in conjunctive phrases is a simple PF-side constraint ranking problem. It's one of those times when Optimality Theory really is the way to go in Syntax.

Oh, NOW it's bad...

Under today's "Are you fucking kidding me?" category: Stephane Dion is hot under the collar because the Tories were caught overspending their elections limit by $1million - aprox. 5.5%.

Don't get me wrong - it all seems very shady. The way I understand it, party headquarters tranfered funds to the coffers of 67 or so local candidates who were under their spending limits. I don't know much about elections law in Canada, but I gather that would've been OK if the candidates had spent the money on their own campaigns. Instead, they claimed deductions on the surplus and then transfered it right back. Somehow this was supposed to escape the RCMP's notice...don't ask, doesn't make much sense to me. Sounds like the kind of thing that would've easily turned up on any run-of-the-mill government audit - but this is a new story, so I guess details will surface as it goes on.

I would just like to say that, wrongdoing or no, it's awfully rich of the LIBERAL Party to be whining about this.

Dion said the money could have influenced the outcome of the January 2006 election, which saw the Grits ousted from power and the Tories form a minority government.

"Yes, it may have had an effect," Dion said. "We'll never know for sure, but you don't cheat for nothing. You cheat because you want to have an effect. You want to have more voters for you in an illegal way."

I'm scratching my head trying to figure out how a measly million dollars is supposed to have been decisive in an election that the Tories were winning handily until the last couple of weeks. More than that, I'm scratching my head trying to figure out how the "Sponsorship Scandal" and "You had an option, sir" Party suddenly grew a conscience about these things?

I will make a prediction, though. In the end this hurts Harper and the Conservatives ... not one whit.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Who's Joe Queenan?

I was generally unaware of who Joe Queenan was before I read Samizdata today. What an oversight!

The link goes to an interview with a guy full of great one-liners spitting vitriol about things I, too, love to hate. In fact, my bone to pick with the Samizdata piece is that they zeroed in on the wrong quote. Surely it should've been this one instead:

But, Bill Clinton has all of the hypocrisy of baby boomers and all of the false sense that if you simply say the right thing, it's like you did something.

Quoted for the bit about saying the right thing, not the specific reference to Clinton (whom Queenan goes on to defend a bit). Right on! Ok, ok, I realize it's bit rich to be saying this on a blog - but that's hit the nail right on the head about what's wrong with political discourse these days.

One of these days I'll sit down and write a compendium of all the undergraduate writing errors that slowly eat away at the precious time I have on this beautiful planet by poisoning me with a bitter vinegar hatred of everything living. The number one worst thing that an undergraduate can do, and of course therefore never fails to do, is use the word "utilize" every goram time. As though there were some phonological process in English whereby taking an ordinary verb and using its meta-aspectual form rendered your writing sophisticated. [-ize] → [+ize]/  [+ intellectual], or something. But if that's number one, then number two is surely clawing for moral approbation from your reader by using ever-stronger adjectives. Like when people say of a racist "I believe in free speech, so I defend his right to spout his vile and disgusing opinions." Just fucking tell me about your support for free speech you twit - I don't have to know that you, like 99.99% of everyone else on the planet, actually takes the extremely normal position of disapproving of racism to even greater heights to get the point there, sport. Call it Tori Spelling syndrome - because my favorite mass media example (with "Islam is a religion of peace" in close second) comes from her gushing about the gay wedding she officiated.

"It was so beautiful as I united Tony and Dex as life partners in love. They wrote their own beautiful vows and there was so much love surrounding them that there wasn't a dry eye in the driveway! ... It was a magical evening of pure love."

So you're saying it was beautiful? And that there was love?

In second place for Queenan's cool lines is this one:

But, [Katherine Powers] really, really hated ["Balsamic Dreams"]. And when I saw her review I thought, "Bingo. This is great. This is really cool. I hit the target. Some old lefty, movement person in Boston hates the book because I made fun of Jimmy Carter or the old hippies." It's better than people liking it. That's an exhilarating feeling.

Eff-n right it is. I would much rather watch some smug leftist sputter with indignation than I would get applause from a room full of the like-minded. Some people deserve to be made angry.

So, maybe I'll pick up one of his books someday. Though I strongly suspect I'm too lazy...

Whoop Dee Doo isn't a Platform

Sometimes people you hate say things you like. The link goes to an article about the campaign in Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton was taking a swipe at Barack Obama by promising

"I don't want to just show up and give one of those whoop-dee-do speeches and get everybody whipped up," she said. "I want everyone thinking."

OK, so we all have our guilty pleasures. I don't mean to suggest any kind of support for Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama seriously gets on my nerves - and for exactly that reason.

There's a bumper sticker from the last campaign that I think of when I hear Barack Obama speak. It reads "'Yee-Haw!' is not a foreign policy" - a criticism of Bush, obviously. The idea being that you can't just say "freedom" endlessly and talk about how great America is and expect things to work out. At some point you have to get your hands dirty and work with the world as it really is - and that's a complicated thing that doesn't admit of a one-size-fits-all solution. Well, that's more or less how I feel about Barack Obama. You can't just say "hope" and "unity" endlessly and expect things to work out. At some point, it doesn't hurt to outline a program.

I wonder, actually, how many people with those "Yee-Haw" bumper stickers are now canvassing for Obama? Wouldn't it be fun to know?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Chivalry's Dead Beacuse YOU Killed It

I firmly believe that the main reason why feminism isn't taken seriously is that it's so often oblivious to its own double standards. If there's one complaint that men have made loudly, clearly, and consistently about feminists since the 70s, it's that they are singularly incapable of playing fair about "liberation." For example - although there are notable exceptions, it's a rare thing for a feminist organization to seriously campaign for the inclusion of women in Selective Service registration. Another thing you rarely hear is complaints from feminists about the "underrepresentation" of women in professions like trash collection and sewer line maintenance. Again, no doubt there are some feminists of integrity who consider this an issue on par with the corporate glass ceiling, but for the most part it's hard to divorce oneself from the idea that women's organizations are simply gunning for more privilege.

In pop politics, we usually hear this complaint in the context of chivalry. Men are rightly confused here: women get angry when we whistle at them, and yet they still expect us to do the asking for dates. We're not expected to pay for everything anymore, but generally speaking, you're expected to pay for the first couple of outings. What gives?

This attitude was on full display in today's paper. The link goes to a column by Rachael Goldberg that is a muddled mass of contradictions essentially amount to "I want chivalry when I want it, not when I don't."

She takes as her starting point an incident when she was shopping with one of her male friends. He'd put some water bottles on the bottom ledge of the shopping cart, and she politely asked him to lift them for her. He politely asked her to do it herself, which she did - much to the chagrin of the checkout girl, who commented that chivalry was truly dead.

"Honey, did that boy just make you put that up there?" I nodded sadly. "Yes, yes he did." And the cashier replied, "Wow. Chivalry really is dead."

Now - let me go on record saying that I definitely don't mind lifting water for girls. My problem here isn't with the assumption that men should do these things, but rather with the double standard Goldberg goes on to express.

Being chivalrous can include all these horrible masculine stereotypes of men needing to be strong and needing to protect and save women. This in turn implies that women must be weak and need protecting. And you know me: The eternal gender-rights advocate does not support any of that.

Well, one wonders, if you're an "eternal gender-rights advocate" who can't abide those "horrible masculine stereotypes of men needing to be strong and needing to protect and save women," then WHY THE HELL DID YOU ASK THE GUY TO LIFT THE WATER FOR YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE?

While I don't mind lifting water bottles - my arms are strong enough for it - an offer to help out would have been appreciated.

Why? If you don't mind lifting water bottles, then why not just do it? On what basis should he have offered to help? Apparently, if this is to be believed, because it's "common courtesy."

It's not about being weak or strong. It's just about being a nice person who is considerate of others. And in such a misogynistic society, being considerate of women is something that's always needed.

In other words, what we're in the presence of here is someone who wants her water bottles lifted for her without the assumption that men are stronger than women.

Well, sorry, but NO. It doesn't work that way. If we're in a situation where a man and a woman are in the grocery store, and the woman is closer to the water bottles, and we have no underlying assumptions about the relative body strength of men and women, then we go to the default system: the closest person in a state of physical health does the lifting. That's how it would work among an all-male group, that's how it would work among an all-female group, and if we're true believers in equality, that's how it works in mixed groups as well. If, however, we're in a mixed group and the rule shifts from "nearest person does the lifting" to "nearest male does the lifting," then we're implicity adopting social roles. Again, for the record, I don't have any particular problem with these social roles. What I have a problem with is my having to keep up the shit end of the stick while Miss Princess gets to pretend that we're completely equal.

Equality means "same standards apply." It doesn't mean "standards apply and don't according to the whims of the female." It CERTAINLY doesn't mean "standards apply and don't according to the whims of the female, and she reserves the right to make moral judgements about her friends based on standards she hasn't made clear to them."

So - Rachel Goldberg: get over yourself. I think you'll find that chivalry is far from dead - it's just that it's dead for you. And that's as it should be: chivalry is a system for people with manners - something that derives from social expectations. If your social expectations are "people do nice things for me, and I am inconsiderate of them," then you have completely failed to internalize the system. We - all of us - get to pick one of two attitudes to chivalry. Either we like and expect it, and thereby consent, to some non-trivial degree, to the social roles that give rise to it, or we don't like and don't accept it, and thus we carry our own water. Even the women.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Excuses, Excuses

As we've all heard, Pope Benedict has been in town, and has apparently spent the last three days apologizing for all the sex abuse scandals we've been hearing so much about. To that exent - kudos. It's certainly an improvement from his predecessor.

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: while I do believe that Catholic priests are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than other segments of the population, I do not believe the problem is nearly as severe as the media has made it out to be. Investigations have shown that the rate of abuse in the United States is slightly higher than that for the population in general: about 4% of all priests are believed to have been involved in abuse. There are, of course, two good reasons to assume it is probably a bit higher. One is the usual suspicion that reports of this kind tend to understate the scope of the problem. This is no fault of theirs - simply a consequence of the methodology. The other is the nature of the priesthood itself. Normal people do not commit to a life of celibacy. This isn't to say that a good many (the overwhelming majority, one assumes) of priests do not embrace celibacy for the "right" reasons (for the record, I'm with George Michael on this one: "Sex is natural, sex is good; not everybody does it, but everybody should."). But it's also reasonable to assume that this is a profession that is likely to attract paedophiles, as it affords an opportunity to associate with children, an explanation of one's bachelor status, and it used to also afford relative freedom from suspicion for exactly this kind of wrongdoing (though this last point has obviously changed quite a bit in recent years). People with normal sexual appetites obviously face a much higher bar to entry into the priesthood, and so one can assume that they are less likely to be "called."

Still, it's likely that the scandal has been overblown. The rate of estimated priestly abuse is only a bit higher than that for the general population, and for obvious reasons the stories of priestly abuse are more likely to be sensationalized in the media than stories of abuse by people from other walks of life. Abuse by a priest is a huge, and uniquely hypocritical, betrayal of trust: it makes for good copy.

No, the real offense of the scandal isn't that there are paedophiles in the priesthood (of course there are!), but the fact that the Church's reaction has largely focused on controlling the PR fallout more than addressing the problem. In that sense, Benedict's "profuse" apologies are too little, too late, even if welcome.

But there's also another, more important, sense in which his apologies strike one as a bit insincere, and that's in his insistence that the problems needs to be viewed in the wider context of secularism and the over-sexualization of America.

This response from the Church is wearing thin (it was a favorite of John-Paul II's). It's singularly inappropriate for this scandal, and people need to start saying so. Here's why.

First - the Church can hardly afford itself the luxury of styling itself a "victim" of secularization. Its mission statement is to resist this trend, after all. It's a bit like a prostitute complaining that all she ever does is fuck. Well, right - that's your job. If you're looking to form meaningful relationships with your clients, you're in the wrong line of work. Likewise, if you're a "victim" of secularization, you need to see a priest, not be one. Ditto the "over-sexualization of America." What does this have to do with anything? I suppose next if a priest turns out to be dealing drugs to teenagers, the Church will blame this on the American "drug culture?"

There's a reason we hold people claiming to be moral authorities on subjects to a higher standard. It's the same reason I've argued that Hillary doesn't get a free pass for faulty memory. It isn't that her claim that she "misremembered" the incident in Bosnia is automatically false (though I admit I suspect it is). It's that she's in a position where she doesn't get the luxury of using this excuse. Priests are the same way. If your job description involves telling other people how to live their lives, then you don't get to be "one of us," sorry. It's the same way that I, as a linguist, can't be forgiven for assuming that everyone who speaks with a southern accent is an uneducated. I know better. It's my job to know better. Some yokel from Michigan who thinks this can plausibly claim to have been misled by the ignorant stereotypes that characterize his community, right. But not if he's gone to school and studied the subject!

Now, I get why the Church doesn't wanna defrock the people involved in these scandals. By the goofy parameters of their belief system, being a priest is a calling from God - no grounds to question it. Fine. Likewise, they're committed to a hugely pessimistic view of humanity in which we're all inherently flawed creatures; they actually expect everyone to screw up. So when priests do it, no big deal to them, right? Right BUT - whatever you believe about a person's calling and whatever you believe about sin and redemption, surely it's in line with Church doctrine that someone who shows he has a proclivity for a particular kind of sin be judged weak in the face of relevant temptations? And surely there's nothing "unchristian" in worrying about the safety of potential victims? Rape isn't a sin like any other, after all. It's not something like lying, that pretty much everyone does semi-regularly. Rape is an extraordinary thing - and especially so when children are the victims.

Maybe Benedict's profuse apologies signal an actual change in intent and policy. Maybe. But if he's taking up the tired line that "society" is to blame, I think it's more likely that he just talks better than the other fellow.

Letter to a Christian Apologist

For the past couple of weeks, Mike Adams has been publishing a series of anti-atheist columns - especially a series in response to Sam Harris and his book Letter to a Christian Nation. It is, in particular, the third installment that I want to take issue with.

Dr. Adams references a number of statements by Harris that are, admittedly, a little dopey, if taken at face value - in particular, this one:

Consider:every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.

It isn't too difficult for Adams to point out the differences between Christianity and Islam, not only in terms of their fundamental beliefs about God and the Universe, but also in terms of how the two religions view each other. But it's here that I think Adams has missed the point - and indeed, that I think a lot of modern defenders of Christianity have missed the point. It's true enough that Islam, as written, is much more violent and less tolerant than Christianity. And it's equally true that the reality of the two religions today is that Christianity is much less violent and more tolerant in practice than Islam. Let's make no bones about it: I would MUCH rather live in a Christian nation than a Muslim nation. But the operative word in the previous sentence was "today." It hasn't always been the case that Christianity was generally peaceful and relatively tolerant, and this despite its much-vaunted teachings.

Adams writes:

Indeed, for many Muslims the decision is made out of fear of the consequences of rejecting Islam. Many are not even familiar with basic Christian arguments or the evidence supporting them.

Accepting Christianity, on the other hand, is far more likely to have come from a rational appraisal of the evidence. And it is far less likely to have come from the threat of the sword.

Ah, but it wasn't too long ago that this simply wasn't the case. And no, we don't have to dig all the way back to the Middle Ages to find examples. Indigenous peoples were being forcibly converted to Christianity less than 100 years ago. Even in Europe, where such practices had ostensibly ceased, the cases of people who made public conversions in the 1800s and early 1900s out of fears for their careers and social standing are numerous. The point being: whatever Dr. Adams thinks it says in the Bible hasn't stopped Christians from behaving like savages in the past. It didn't even stop renowned scholars of the Bible from advocating savage treatment for non-believers. Consider this passage from St. Thomas Aquinas:

With regard to heretics there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death. (source)

Aquinas goes on to say that the Church is merciful, and that a man can be forgiven for rejecting its teachings - BUT

...wherefore [the Church] condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.

Have a look at the link and you will see that this is based on reasoned Biblical argument. And why not? Jesus himself, in the Parable of the Pounds, seems to advocate the killing of those who reject the Church's teachings. Specifically, Luke 19:27 warns:

But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Granted, this is the King in the story speaking, not Jesus directly, but it is hard to read this parable any other way than that the King is a stand-in for Jesus. Most interpretations would have this death order apply only after the Second Coming, when the Kingdom of God is manifest. That is, only to those who reject Jesus once they are certain He is real. Fair enough. But this is nevertheless a scare tactic of the kind Harris was talking about when he said that Muslims and Christians have the same reasons for believing in their respective religions. Harris wasn't, one presumes, asserting, as Mike Adams disingenuously imples here, that Christians and Muslims have exactly the same beliefs about Jesus. Obviously such an assertion would be nonsense. But he seems to be CORRECT that both religions rely on scare tactics and ghost stories to keep the faithful in the fold.

Another statement of Harris' that allows Adams to claim he is speaking in contradictions is this one:

The Jains preach a doctrine of utter non-violence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe,they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition.

Adams points out that Harris stated earlier in the book that all religions are on the same footing for him - he rejects Christianity and Islam equally. Here, however, Harris seems to be claiming a kind of moral superiority for Jainism - something inconsistent with his earlier blanket rejection of religion.

Or is it?

Technically, yes, I suppose it is. And to the extent that Harris' earlier claim was meant to say that all religions are equally bad, let me go ahead and publicly disagree with him. Some religions are better than others. But I think I understand what Harris is getting at with this point, and I agree with it, so let me defend it. It's true that some religions are better than others, but it doesn't follow from that that any of them are ultimately good for humanity. It's rather like if you go to any lower-middle class street in the US and have a look at everyone's bank accounts, you will find that some people on the street are better-off than others, but that none of them are exactly wealthy. Jainism can be more peaceful than Christianity and still a bad idea - because it leads people to believe goofy things about the universe without reason (or, as Harris charitably puts it, "...Jains believe many improbable things about the universe..."). But I think the real point here is to serve as a preemptive response to the kind of argument that Adams just gave: i.e. that Christianity and Islam are not equivalent because Christianity, as written, is less violent than Islam. And since we just saw Dr. Adams give exactly that argument, we would really want to know what his response to this is. So, Dr. Adams, if Christianity is better than Islam because it does not convert people through threat of violence as Islam does (never mind that it did just that for large portions of its history), then why is Jainism not better than Christianity by this standard? That was a clear question put to you, the believer, by Harris, which I notice you have sidestepped.

Now, I imagine what Dr. Adams will eventually be reduced to saying is simply "Jainism isn't true; Christianity is. That's why Christianity is better." But of course this is a completely useless response to anyone who hasn't experienced some kind of revelation. And that, indeed, is precisely Harris' earlier point when he says that Christians are Christians and Muslims are Muslims for the same reason. That reason is a wilful belief in things for which they have no independent evidence.

Indeed, Adams flatly contradicts himself on exactly this point not two paragraphs later. Taking this quote from Harris:

Anyone who believes that the Bible offers the best guidance we have on questions of morality has some very strange ideas either about guidance or morality.

Adams responds

The two key words are "best" and "we." There is, therefore, a superior moral code by which "we" can all live. But it does not come from God. So what is the source of this superior moral code to which we may all subscribe?

In other words, Adams' earlier statements to the effect that Christianity was superior to Islam because it left believers free to their own conscience turn out to be the kind of things that, by his own code, he cannot direct at non-believers anyway. That is because - if this response is to be believed - Adams thinks that people who have no religion (who do not know God) have no basis for moral judgement. What's good for the goose isn't, apparently, good for the gander. It's fine for Adams to assert, based on the moral code that comes from his belief in God, that Christianity is superior, and for him to couch this in objective terms that non-believers can presumably also relate to, but when it comes time for a non-believer to criticize Christianity, then suddenly morality is something that only Christians have, because it "comes from God." Of course, it's possible that Adams believes that morality comes from God, and that all people, as God's creations, have an inkling in their internal makeup as to what its precepts are, and that they can judge religions on this basis and come to the conclusion that Christianity is the True one. That would be a respectable, Kantian approach. But in that case, the criticism still applies: Harris, as a creation of God under Adams' belief system, presumably has access to this set of standards, whether or not he acknowledges that it comes from God.

Of course, I suppose Adams' point here is to offer some kind of sly "proof" that God exists - by asserting that moral truth can only come from God, and that if Harris is basing his position on moral truths then either he covertly believes in God or he has some difficult questions to answer about where morality comes from. Which is far enough as far as it goes - just that it doesn't go very far. Just because an atheist has difficulty explaining where something like morality comes from, ultimately, is hardly an argument against atheism. Religion has it easy here: whatever in the universe is unexplained can be brushed away with reference to "God," despite no knowledge on the believer's part of the mechanism that underlies it. If we asked Adams where moral precepts come from, he would no doubt say they are the "Will of God." But this is useless. Knowing that moral precepts are "God's Will" tells us nothing about how they work or why they are the way they are. Adams and people like him simply push their explanation onto something external-but-mysterious. "It is not for us to question God." To the extent that he can give indepdent justification for why God chose this or that moral over another, then Adams believes in some kind of standard outside God by which to judge morality, and thus must admit that he and Harris can have a discussion about it. If he reduces all morality to God's whims, then his source of morality is no less mysterious than Harris', and this is therefore not a valid basis for criticism.
But I'm being too charitable. Mike Adams, simply put, is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Morality is objective, available to everyone whether or not he shares' Adams' belief system so long as Adams needs it to be to convince them of Christianity's superiority, but once they turn it back on him, suddenly morality is something only Christians really have access to. This is exactly the behavior I was talking about a couple of days ago with regard to Frank Turek and his book "I don't have Enough Faith to be an Atheist." It's a typical believer's trick - because on a level playing field they don't have a chance in a battle of rationality and they know it.

The last trick up Adams' sleeve is another common deceptive tactic that Christians pull.

Sam Harris' opposition to slavery is due to the role the God-inspired Bible has played in shaping our Christian nation. Christianity taught America that slavery is wrong,and America taught Sam Harris that slavery is wrong.

Technically, I suppose this is a form of the genetic fallacy. If cultural opposition to slavery in the US has its roots in Christian teaching (which, fair enough, it does), then it cannot have been the case that there are other plausible sources of moral opposition to slavery? I cannot for a minute accept that Adams honestly believes this. More to the point, Adams is deliberately ignoring the role that Christianity also played in justifying slavery. Using the Bible passages that Harris quotes, no small number of Christians came to the conclusion that God had no particular objection to the institution. More accurate would be to say that certain subsects of Christians were behind the anti-slavery movement, not necessarily the bulk of the religion as a whole. Which is true, really, of just about any number of other policies in American history, both good and bad. Adams, of course, would prefer to cite only those instances where Christianity has informed modern moral consensus, such as in slavery, and ignore those instances where it was on the other side, such as in Prohibition or subjugation of natives, etc. Again with the tilted playing field.

For what it's worth - I agree with Adams that Christianity deserves more credit for its pivotal role in ending slavery from modern liberals. To listen to a lot of them, you would think that Christianity were the Source of All Racism - which it clearly is not. My main bone to pick here is that you cannot conclude inevitability from historical fact. In layman's terms - it may well have been the case that Christianity played a role in getting slavery abolished, but one can hardly conclude from this that Christianity was necessary to the Abolition of slavery, or that Abolition would never have happened without it. More likely is just that when you're confronted with a situation where the overwhelming majority of the population is Christian, then you more or less have to speak in Christian terms to get them to behave as you want. Let's imagine, for a minute, that we go to Africa and want to persuade people not to forcibly mutilate their daughters' genitals, as is the custom in some Islamic regions. Well, since these regions are heavily Islamic, then we can hardly make a moral appeal to the practitioners without invoking Islam. We would have to couch our arguments in Muslim terms in order to be heard, it's safe to say. Let's say we're successful in persuading the population, by use of some Koran-based argument, that genital mutilation is not what Allah wants. Now flash-foward 100 years. What Dr. Adams is doing with slavery is essentially what anyone in these countries would be doing in response to an atheist on the subject of genital mutilation. The atheist quotes whatever scripture it was that seemed to have justified the practice to people in the past, and the Dr. Adams-analogue responds by saying "Ah, but it was ISLAM that stamped out the practice" - completely ignoring the role that Islam played in justifying the practice for so many years before it decided to switch sides. So it probably is with slavery.

In any case, Dr. Adams' diatribe here is poorly reasoned, as usual for his Christian rants.

The point of interest to take away, of course, is the same as a couple of days ago. Christians seem to be suddenly concerned about their image as irrationals. This was not always the case. Indeed, in the past, the line was always that reason would only take you so far - a leap of faith was necessary for real salvation. Now they're selling off faith and attempting to present themselves as the reasonable parties - picking on people like Harris in the hopes that the public will come to see atheists as the unreasonable party. To the extent that this strategy is successful, it plants the seeds for its own failure. Few, if any, Chrsitians come to the faith by process of reason, for the very obvious reason that God is NOT obviously manifest in the world and it is NOT obviously true that Jesus raised from the dead to redeem the world from sin. There is no rational argument which leads one to this set of beliefs, nor is there even a rational mechanism by which Jesus' death would accomplish such a feat. The belief system itself is not internally consistent once accepted, and there is no process of reason that even leads one to accept it to the exclusion of others in the first place. If Christianity is now trying to appeal to our reason, it is playing a losing game - something I hardly think it would do if it were not showing signs of getting desperate.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When Bad Slippery Slope Arguments are Good

From today's paper: a story that demonstrates why "bad slippery slope" arguments are not always bad.

Actually, to be fair, I should say that very few philosophers and students of rhetoric consider slippery slope arguments to be ATB bad. It's just that the slippery slope argument is similar enough to the continuum fallacy that "bad slippery slope" arguments are easy to make. Fair enough, I agree, so no intention to dispute that point here. It's just that in online discussion groups, I see the phrase "bad slippery slope" argument used as a synonym for "slippery slope argument" often enough that I do wonder whether the average citizen thinks there is a such a thing as a "slippery slope fallacy?"

But I digress. The article in question is about yet another Second Amendment Foe using the anniversary of the VATech massacre as a platform. In this case it's IU alumnus (alumnus!) Jeffrey Schauss organizing what he calls two "Time of Remembrance" events - one of which is on campus.

He claims the events are "non-political," but OF COURSE they're political. You hardly organize a memorial for people you don't know unless this matters to you in some way, and it's hard to see in what way this matters to anyone not directly affected unless it's out of some kind of concern for public safety. That concern can take many forms - but there are two main ones: there is my position (make guns legal on campus so that students have time to respond faster than the clearly ineffective campus police, saving lives), and there is Schauss' (ban guns because gun bans are known to be effective against psychotic students bent on massacre ... wha???). I like to think of them charitably as the "reasoned" and "emotional" positions. And any gullible instinct you may have to take Schauss at his word that he's "just remembering" and "not advocating" are laid to rest by statements like these:

"This is a community coming together to say 'We want peace, we want safety, we want to support our law enforcement,' Schauss said. 'People are interested in community safety; they're interested in making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons."

Any time someone is speaking for what "the community" (whoever THEY are) wants, you know he's pushing an agenda. And it's no accident that his reading of what "the community" wants is "to support our law enforcement" and "making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons." Because you see, in my case (and I assume I'm a member of the community?), both of those statements are true only with HUGE qualifications. For one thing, I don't support "our law enforcement" taking away constitutional liberties, nor do I support them enforcing a policy which leaves me essentially defenseless against attacks from the likes of Cho Seung-Hui. It's the same way I don't support law enforcement doing random searches of the property or person of people not under reasonable suspicion of lawbreaking - like, say, at seatbelt checkpoins. Effective law enforcement is a sine qua non of a free society, but it is even more so of a totalitarian society. Someone has to watch the watchers; Schauss is glossing over non-trivial issues here. Ditto that bit about "making sure dangerous people don't get dangerous weapons." Right, ideally, dangerous people wouldn't have dangerous weapons. But what a facile thing to say! While we're floating on clouds and dreaming about the way things ought to be, we might as well say we have an interest in "making sure there are no dangerous people." If taking weapons away from dangerous people makes them less effective - a point which can hardly be denied - then it is equally true that taking weapons away from law-abiding people makes them less effective. So right, to the extent that we can keep dangerous people away from dangerous weapons without compromising my right to defend myself against - you guessed it! - dangerous people, then I'm all for it. But dang if that ain't a huge qualifier!

Then there's clincher:

"When you realize that this is something gun laws might have made a difference on, it really tears at your heart," Helmke said. "We make it harder to buy Sudafed at the grocery store than to buy a gun. We make it harder to get a job at McDonald's than to buy a gun."

That's not Schauss, but rather his friend, Paul Helmke, a Brady advocate.

I could skip over the obvious - but why, when it's so much fun? "When you realize that this is something gun laws might have made a difference on..." HOW, exactly? What do gun laws do to prevent school massacres? Nada. Nothing about the restriction against guns on campus (which was in effect at the time of the massacre) stopped Cho. It's been argued that people with Cho's mental condition should be prohibited from purchasing guns - so maybe it is in this sense that Helmke means that gun laws might have prevented the massacre. Well, guess what? Current federal gun laws DO prohibit people like Cho from buying guns. In other words, neither the federal ban on gun purchases by people "adjudicated as a mental defective" nor the unconstitutional Va Tech campus ban managed to prevent this. Score exactly ZERO, NULL, NADA for gun bans, in this case, so no, Mr. Helmke, I don't feel particularly obligated to join you in your fantasy "realization" that "gun laws might have made a difference" here.

The point is his next statement. "We make it harder to buy Sudafed at the grocery store than to buy a gun. We make it harder to get a job at McDonald's than to buy a gun." Alright - let's go ahead and get the obvious out of the way. There is no constitutional right to buy Sudafed at the grocery store. Neither is there a constitutional right to get a job at McDonald's. There IS a constitutional right to own a gun. "...the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." They couldn't possibly have made it clearer.

Even so, what comes to my mind when someone points out how hard it is to buy Sudafed at the grocery store and get a job at McDonald's isn't "why isn't it harder to buy guns" so much as "why are these things difficult to begin with?" And indeed, I can't think of a good reason. Ok, granted, I can begin to see why getting a job at McDonald's is more difficult. The manager, after all, will want to make sure he's hiring worthwhile people, which does tend to necessitate checks to disqualify certain individuals. But Sudafed? WHY is it difficult to buy Sudafed? Is it difficult to buy Sudafed? ... ???

In any case, let's imagine that it is, in fact, difficult to buy Sudafed and to get a job at McDonald's because of legal regulations. You see the point. Whenever the hypothetical regulations went into effect, there was someone like me standing around saying "why do we need regulations against Sudafed? Let the government regulate this, and soon they'll be regulating more and more, because we'll have weakened the threshold as to what regulations the public finds acceptable." And there would've been others saying "Please! That's a bad slippery slope argument. Nothing about regulating Sudafed is going to lower the public tolerance for regulation."

But damned if Helmke isn't sitting here right now arguing that the fact that we tolerate (probably imaginary) regulations on Sudafed and jobs at McDonald's should lead us to tolerate regulations on gun ownership too.

There you have it, folks. Slippery slope arguments aren't always bad. Sometimes, it really is the case that people use past wedges in the door as arguments for widening the breach. If regulations on Sudafed, a substance mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, can be used as an argument for restricting a right that is enshrined in the basic law of the land for the very real concerns of self defense and resistance to tyranny, then we are in the presence of sterling proof that slippery slope scenarios sometimes really do come true. Enemies of freedom like Helmke can, do, and will again exploit small steps to argue for more draconian intrusions in the future.

These arguments have, of course, been made before. For the 109-page authoritative version, see (Volokh 2003). For the authoritative version of a bunch of opportunisitc cowards trying to sneak in restrictions on your rights and freedoms by tugging at your heartstrings through a covert political event masquerading as a vigil, be sure and check out Jeffrey Schauss and Paul Helmke at one of their two "Times of Remembrance." Maybe while you're there take the opportunity to remember all the lives guns have saved. Then please, go out, buy a gun, learn how to use it, and remember Va Tech by joining the NRA - the one organization that has done more than any other to keep you protected against people like Schauss and Helmke - and Cho.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I Wish to Register a Complaint!

Eventually I'll learn to quit while I'm ahead.

So what happened is this. I was trying to install mod_python on my iMac under Leopard. To make a long story short, it appears to be well-known that there are problems with mod_python on Leopard. But the two links go to what appear to be fixes, so no issues, eh? Actually, the page I ended up using was this one, just because it looked more detailed.

It worked.


Some background: the problem, in a nutshell, is that Apache2 is set up to be 64-bit capable on Leopard - but the default compilation of mod_python gives you a 32-bit version. Well, more specifically, mod_python itself is happy being 64-bit, but the c compiler will compile relevant portions for 32-bit architecture unless you override it. So, after ./configure-ing in the normal way, you have to monkey with the src/Makefile to get gcc to compile for 64-bit architecture and - presto! It works, right?

Erm - not exactly. Which is to say, yes, it did. But then I ran into two other problems with the particular program that I needed mod_python to run.

The first of these involved - something that gets built at compile time for mod_python. This helpful forum link explained how to do it. The problem, and fix, were the same as before: needs to be 64-bit, only the default installer doesn't make it that way, so you have to go monkey with the dist/ file as described. It worked, no complaints.

The other problem was specific to my program again - it imports a module called bsddb - a database utility - that while it apparently is installed by default with most Python distributions, it might maybe not be on Leopard.

Rather than use the crazy instructions from the previous link (though I'm regretting it now, let me tell you), I decided just to reintall Python. There's a new version of 2.5 out as of maybe a month ago, and it couldn't hurt, right? After all, the new version on the Python downloads page claimed to include bsddb this time 'round.

Bucept it did hurt. I reintalled Python, and suddenly the clever compile hack of compiling for all three architectures didn't work anymore. Bugger!

And of course, it continues not to work, even though I've pointed my Python simlink back to the old version of Python. So this is completely frustrating. Somewhere along the line something horribly obscure got changed, and I know I'm gonna have a helluva time figuring out just what it was.

All of which goes to show - I should've just quit while I was ahead. I should've been satisfied once I had mod_python itself working, and then worried later about getting the bsddb module installed propertly.

Kicking self.

Although I would just like to add - Apple does have a lot of nerve advertising how well Apache and Python, among other things, supposedly work on the new operating system, and then not including basic things like mod_python and bsddb. It really does sort of defeat the purpose of buying a Mac if even Linux makes it easier to get a LAMP-P-as-in-Python system up and running. The whole point of Mac in the OS X generation is supposed to be that it gives you all power of UNIX with all the niceties of a well-integrated interface. And yet, now that Linux has evolved to the simplicity of the sudo apt-get install program phase, you really start to wonder what all the nice Mac interface is for if it just keeps you cut off, in the end, from the cool open-source stuff (or else makes it a headache to install).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Questions Already Answered

One book that keeps surfacing in columns I read is Norman Geisler and Frank Turek's I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. It's a Christian apologetic book aimed at the masses, and judging by the reviews it gets on Amazon, it's doing a pretty good job with them.

It would be interesting to do a survey of Amazon reviews and try to draw generalizations from their distributions, actually. One pattern I suspect we would find useful is a class of books that get a large number of 5- and 1-star ratings (with few, if any, in the mid-ranges) - and I guess what that pattern would mean in the case of pop science books is exactly the kind of book this one seems to be: convincing to anyone unschooled on the subject, an obvious fraud to people with some background.

Alright, but "fraud" is a strong word - so I owe an explanation. If clicking on the link to Frank Turek's website isn't enough (as it turns out, although he's styling himself as a missionary these days, he's actually a sales consultant. Hmmm....), consider the main argument of the book - implied by the title but also available to read here. Scroll down the page a bit and you'll see an essay called "Turning the Tables on the Atheist" that lays out the three basic subparts of the argument. You'll see immediately why I choose my words as I do: these arguments have already been refuted, not once, but repeatedly, and the refutations are so obvious that it's sort of amazing anyone had to bother first time, actually. But this is the stuff the religious are trotting out these days, so let's go through it again.

(1) Everyone is religious. Yes, that's right, the old bait-and-switch technique. We use the word "religious" in a stylized way - a way that differs in important details from the common use - and get our listener to agree that they are "religious" by this specialized definition. Then, later in our argument, we can switch back to the more common useage, tricking the listener into associating himself with qualities implied by the common use that he actualy rejects. Here's how this works in this case:

If we define religion as someone's explanation of ultimate reality - the origin, operation, meaning, and destiny of all things - then everyone is religious, including atheists.

See - the stylized definition. Most fair listeners will be willing to grant this definition for the sake of discussion - but in common parlance we don't use the word "religious" this way at all. It's certainly true that most religious people are concerned (at least superficially) with these things - but when we describe someone as "religious" in common conversation, we are generally refering to the fact that their "explanation of ultimate realtiy - the origin, operation, meaning and destiny of all things" has a supernatural character. What Turek is defining here as "religious" is actually just "having a worldview." The fact that atheists also have worldviews is patently NOT what's at issue in a defense of religion against atheism. No atheist that I'm aware of denies having opinons about "ultimate reality." Rather, we simply choose not to accept a supernatural dimension to this reality until such time as someone can show us it must be there. So already Turek's approach is dishonest.

(2) Everyone is a fundamentalist. Same trick, right? A fundamentalist is apparently now a person who

...has fundamental beliefs about why things are the way they are and how we should live in light of that.

Alright - so yes, by this definition I am a "fundamentalist." But again, this is hugely beside the point. What's at issue isn't whether I have "fundamental beliefs" - again, something no atheist I know of has ever denied having - but rather whether some of my fundamental beliefs are grounded in a random decision to believe everything written in a book of dubious authorship without backing evidence, or whether my fundamental beliefs are exclusively those that express the nature of the universe as I've encountered it. I opt for the latter.

(3) Everyone has faith. And here it is again.

If we define faith as believing something that lacks complete evidence, then everyone has faith.

True. But that's the rub - no one actually defines it that way. Faith, as most people use the term, is belief in something regardless of the evidence for or against it. It's a wilful belief, rather than a belief based on evidence. And indeed, it's a will to certainty. It isn't the same as scientific beliefs, which scientists themselves are the first to admit are always contingent. Some scientists may hold irrational, emotional attachmens to their claims, but this is seen by the scientific community as an individual failing. Science itself is ever skeptical - even of its own conclusions. This isn't the same thing at all as a religious tradition that encourages people to believe in an afterlife despite having been given no solid reason to do so, for example.

Now here's the switch:

Everyone is some kind of religious fundamentalist, and everyone has a certain amount of faith. That means that the seventy-five percent of churched students who reject the Christian faith after high school are implicitly adopting another faith, one with its own set of fundamentals and religious beliefs. Of course, few realize that. They think that they are becoming beacons of rationality by rejecting Christianity.[emphasis mine]

I've put the actual phrase in itallics to pinpoint it. Up to this point, we've been using sylized definitions of the words "religious," "fundamentalist," and "faith" - definitions which imply no conflict with being a "beacon of rationality," indeed are tailored to include purely evidentialist, rationalist worldviews. But here, at the end, we suddenly switch back to the situation where "religious," "fundamentalist," and "faith" conflict with this - i.e. back to their standard definitions. Use one definition to reel your audience in, then switch, having tricked them into associating themselves with things they actually reject.

So yes, Geisler and Turek are frauds, and this is the most transparent of all smarmy salesman tactics, actually.

But it was already obvious from the title, in fact, what line they were going to take - and I honestly don't know why believers bother with this one. The idea, of course, is to claim that atheism places harsher demands on its "believers" by requiring them to affirm a negative. That is, "atheism" is supposed to be "faith in the non-existence of God." Well, so far as it goes, apologetics are right that this belief would take a lot more faith than most of what Christians believe. But of course, that's a moot point because there isn't an atheist alive who holds that particular belief. We all admit the logical possibility of God's existence - we just haven't seen any evidence that it's actually true. Atheism isn't an affirmation of our rejection of God, and God enjoys no priviledged status over all the other things that we don't believe in for lack of evidence. He's on par with unicorns, Santa Claus, ghosts, Atlantis, what have you. It isn't that I categorically deny that there are unicorns in the world - it's just that I've seen no evidence for them, and it seems likely that if they existed that I would have by now, so I proceed under the assumption that there are no unicorns. This isn't a leap of faith, it's just the default position on the subject. Show me a unicorn, and I'm happy to revise my worldview. So it is with God.

What's so frustrating about this line from religious types is that it works both ways. If being an atheist is an absolute belief in the non-existence of God to the exclusion of admitting even the logical possibility of His existence, then being religious must mean having an absolute belief in God that denies even the logical possibility of His non-existence. But there is no such religious person alive. Religious people constantly talk about struggles with their faith. There are whole bookshelves in Christian bookstores devoted to the subject. If they're allowed to conclude from my lack of absolute certainty that I'm one of them, then surely I can conclude from their lack of absolute certainty that they're one of me too, eh? So if we're playing fair here, then all religious people are atheists. But of course we're not playing fair.

And that brings me to my point. The fact that these tired old arguments are being trotted out yet again another time already - but for the bestseller list this time - is actually a hopeful sign. It shows that religion is losing its hold on society. (You didn't think the priest class was going down without a fight, did you?) People who know they're winning generally don't risk cheating. And this argument, simply put, is cheating. It's holding your opponent to a set of rules ("you have to have 100% certainty what you say is true or else you lose") that you yourself don't play by ("of course, if I struggle with my faith I'm still religious").

Childish. and. pathetic.

If this is the best they got, then religion must already be in a state of terminal decline. Mike Adams, whose column I linked above, was recently whining that UNCW wouldn't help him advertise a visit by Frank Turek to campus. At the time I read the column, I agreed that UNCW was being unfair. Universities are, after all, supposed to be forums for open discussion, and so hosting Turek should fall under their mission statement. But that was before I knew much about Turek. Now that I know he's a fraud salesman hocking a book (I wonder if he's actually a Christian at all?), I can see why UNCW declines to help him advertise. That said, I think now more than ever that UNCW should host a debate with this man, advertise it, and encourage students to attend. And this is, indeed, because I am an atheist and would like other people to become atheists too. Because I have enough "faith" in humanity that this will not be convincing to anyone in the long run. Indeed - it will have the opposite effect. It's like a ticking time bomb in people's minds. Turek stands up on stage and feeds them these feeble lines - using "faith" and "fundamentalist" in ways clearly irrelevant to his topic. And either there's someone facing him across the podium who can punch a hole in it right then and there - or else a lot of students walk away honestly thinking that atheism takes more "faith" than Christianity. It's only a matter of time before they try this line on someone who knows better - someone who will calmly point out to them that being skeptical about God takes no more faith than being skeptical about unicorns, and that in any case if any amount of skepticism automatically disqualifies a belief then Christians are every bit as atheist as atheists are Christian. And indeed, the burden of proof is always on the person adding to entites in the universe - always on the person asserting the existence of a non-obvious thing. Atheism is the default position: we don't have to prove our case; they have to prove theirs. All of which, really, is basic philosophy 101 stuff. These are obvious truths, and being such Tureks' new "conversions" will eventually have to admit them - and then what they'll remember about where their Christian beliefs came from is this cheap guy with his scripted mannerisms and snakeoil arguments, and they'll wonder what they were thinking.

So keep it coming. Social change is slow - but if religious types are already trying to make US out to be the "faithful," then they're really running out of con games. Faith was always their schtick - their trump card. In the past, they always presented it as a virtue - a bullwark against the Devil's deception, the cure for rational doubts, etc. If they're throwing out faith like a hot potato - what do they really have left? Nothing. Because you can't believe in the literal truth of a 2000-year-old book of dubious authorship without faith. You can't believe in miracles without faith. You can't, in general, believe in things for which you have no direct evidence without faith. If Christianity is selling off faith, they'll soon have nothing left to prop themselves up with. Interesting times we're living in.Interesting times we're living in.

DIal A Different Cliche, Sam

Sometimes things just fall into your lap. As a nice followup on some griping about Gender Studies a few days ago, a story about a publicity whore suing to have Hillary disqualified as a presidential candidate. His reasoning? The exclusive use of masculine pronouns like "he" in the Constitution means women aren't qualified.

Guess he's never heard of a universal masculine.

Fortunately, the courts don't seem to be taking this seriously. OF COURSE women like Hillary are included in the universal "he" used in the Constitution. The immediately preceding link, in fact, goes to an article with a whole host of examples of purportedly feminist women using the universal masculine to refer to themselves. And the article itself gives an even better example: Susan B. Anthony, refuting this selfsame argument in 1870, points out that if the universal "he" in the law books doesn't include women, then no laws prohibit women doing anything - they're free to steal, murder, etc. - generally carry on as they please.

OF COURSE "he" in legal texts includes women. Just as it does everywhere. What's more - Gender Studies professors know it and have simply dreamed up this issue as a way to have something to talk about, rather than having to learn statistics or go to medical school or in general acquire any of the time- and brain-intensive skills that would be par for the course in any serious attempt at a "Gender Studies" Department.

Click here for a typical example of the kind of logical confusion that too much fretting over this issue causes. The link goes to an essay by a female professor who makes a habit of using a feminine universal. That is, she says things like "Every dog has her day." Annoying, but so far, fair enough. But then she frets because in some cases her use of the feminine universal might exacerbate sexist stereotypes.

So, in-class discussion may turn to a testator's ability to put assets into trust because a beneficiary's money management skills are suspect. I might wish to say (using masculine pronoun), "if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can adequately manage his property, the testator may choose to put that property into trust." And my instinct is to flip the gender of the pronoun. But if I flip the gender there, I'm suddenly bringing up sexist notions about women who are unable to manage their property -- "if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can manage her property . . ."

And so she admits that

This means that my universal pronoun usage is not consistent. For positives and neutrals and gender-neutral negatives, I use the feminine universal; for potentially-gender-problematic negatives, I use the masculine universal. ... It creates a weird double standard, with positives and neutrals and gender-okay negatives getting one treatment and potentially-gender-problematic negatives a different treatment. It sends a negative message of its own, that I'm okay with a masculine universal sometimes.

Which really does beg the question of what's wrong with a masculine universal that's right with a feminine universal? Honestly, if you're in a position to believe that using one pronoun ('he') is sexist, then surely it follows from that that it's equally sexist to use the other? How could it fail to be? Well, I suppose a practitioner of this bit of wilful sexism would defend himself by saying that "society" (whatever that is) is generally sexist in favor of men, so until such time as roles are equal, we'll prefer to use a feminine universal instead, as a way of fighting the good fight. Fine - but what then? To the extent that this is an effective method of fighting sexism (which I do not for a moment believe), then the day will eventually come when we've achieved full gender equality (that time is now, but never mind). WHAT THEN? At that point, how do we know which to use? Will the government set up some kind of ethereal web spider that crawls the web, tallies up references to people by gender, decides whether they've been equally proportioned, and assigns a universal pronoun for the day based on what it's gathered? You know - maybe along with the stock quotes and the weather forecast at the bottom of the screen on the Today Show there will be a "Universal Pronoun: Masculine in the morning, with a 20% chance of feminine in the evening?"

What rot. If there's to be gender-neutral universal given the tools we have, then there are essentially two choices. (A) Pick one or the other and stick with it. (B) Use "they" instead. What you cannot plausibly believe is that you're fighting sexist stereotypes by adopting the non-universal form and using it as though it were the universal - bucept in cases where you don't feel like it for arcane political reasons. That this woman even has to raise this issue is proof that too much thought has been put into this issue.

Another example of a similar absurdity comes from a 1927 Canadian Supreme Court Ruling to the effect that a Emily Murphy could not be a magistrate because she was not a "person" as defined by the British North America Act (the document that was passing for a Constitution in Canada at the time). You see, the BNA apparently used "he" in the singular and "persons" in the plural, implying that the use of "he" had been deliberate and therefore excluded women. So women were apparently not legal "persons," which should have been a bit of a puzzle for Canadians since women had been voting there since 1918.

If you're laughing at the reasoning here, that's because it is indeed funny. "He" has among its uses that of a universal pronoun - period. And in fact, despite Geoff Pullum's spirited defense of the Canadian Supreme Court's grammar knowledge, the fact is that in the Canada of the time, as its foremost legal authorities really ought to have known, the universal masculine was legally enshrined as such, having been declared so by an 1850 Act of British Parliament (and hence legally binding in Canada, at it preceded the 1867 Confederation). Granted, it might not be a perfect choice for such a pronoun. I do think there is often a garden path effect associated with masculine universal forms - meaning that people get two readings for it (the male-specific and the unversal ones) simultaneously, and that this might cause parsing problems in certain situations. But this would hardly be the only example of such an ambiguity in English (or any language, for that matter). Language is nothing if not adaptable - and people are certainly capable of learning to use a masculine pronoun as a universal consistently, even if not everyone does it currently.

Certainly, to address the question at issue in this post, the tradition of American law understands the distinction between a universal and a gender-specific masculine. That is why, for example, it was necessary to phrase the fourteenth amendment provisions related to voting in such a way that they specifically refered to "male citizens" or "male inhabitants," as in, for example, section 2:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

The inclusion of this kind of language in a document that otherwise refers to "persons" and "himself" and so on would hardly have been necessary if the authors were not well aware that universal masculine pronouns had a universal interpretation. If "he" always meant "male," in other words, why wouldn't they simply have said "he" here, as they do in every other part of the document? Because "he" doesn't reliably mean "male," that's why.

Now, are there problems with the masculine universal? Certainly - but they are parsing problems, NOT political problems. To the extent that the universal masculine creates a garden path effect, it's cumbersome, true enough. But it is not "oppressive" or even "confusing" by any stretch of the imagination. It would be nice if there were a universal that were not phonetically identical to the masculine form, granted - but to wring one's hands overly much worrying that the universal masculine has measurable social consequences is to suffer from all sorts of deterministic delusions, not the least of which are etymological.

Look - words change and evolve in their meaning. Paying too much attention to where they came from is a recipe for all sorts of confusion. To cite a common example, I am in the habit of "dialing" phone numbers, even though I haven't used a rotary phone in at least 20 years. Even back in my childhood, when rotary phones were still not entirely uncommon, I experienced no cognitive dissonance talking about "dialing" numbers on our pushbutton phone. The point is that it doesn't bloody matter that the construct "dial a number" comes from days when you literally did just that - it is a context-specific way of talking about entering a number. It doesn't reflect "pro-rotary" bias in English any more than universal "he" reflects gender bias. To take this a bit further, when I lived in Japan, both forms of "dialing" were actually in common use - but NOT on the basis of which kind of phone you used (indeed, I think I only saw one rotary phone the whole time I was there - in the late 90s - and I'm not sure it was working). Rather, older people habitually said mawasu ("dial") whereas younger people preferred kaku ("enter, punch in"). Now let me ask you a question. Suppose I wanted to conclude from this that Japanese people are technologically cleverer than Americans because they've updated their langauge to reflect changes in the technology? Would that sound like a solid argument to you? Of course not, nor should it. You would insist, before drawing such a conclusion, that we look at all kinds of other factors, most of which would have nothing to do with language at all. And so it is in the case of the universal masculine in English. When Americans talk about "dialing" a number on their cellphones, no one honestly imagines that there are rotary cellphones in use, or even that Americans are confused on this point! And when Americans talk about "every man for himself," no one honestly imagines that the speaker believes females are not supposed to take care of themselves.

The whole thing is a farce. And the courts, fortunately, seem to agree. The article ends with this bit from legal scholar Jonathan Turley:

Turley described the masculine pronoun argument as part of "urban mythology" that is spread on blogs and the Internet.

"It's a fun subject for blogging, but it's not very compelling on a legal basis," Turley said.

Right - a fun subject for blogging. I've had fun. Now let's do stop worring about oppression built into our pronoun system and insist, if we may, that Gender Studies researchers get real educations and find more serious projects to work on in the future.