A post with no links

Because I can't figure out video.

If you haven't had a chance, the past two days of the Daily Show have been very much worth watching, in my estimation.  The night before last, Obama pointed out how friendly Obama has been to Bush-era policies regarding rendition, detention, Gitmo, etc.  Last night, he ran through the litany of former Presidents who urged us to end our dependence on oil.  In both cases, the point was pretty clear.  Obama is somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon–yet we still have to have a debate with Fox News (and I would add the Washington Post Op-ed page, etc.) about whether Obama is a communist, a socialist, or a fascist.  Seriously.  I can't explain this.


The caricature of the Tea Party type holds a sign and calls every single government action "communist."  Please tell me how this caricature is not on display here:

Today's evidence suggesting sluggish job creation might give pause to a less confident person than Obama. But pauses are not in his repertoire of governance. Instead, yielding to what must be a metabolic urge toward statism, he says the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is yet another reason for yet another explosion of government's control of economic life. The spill supposedly makes it urgent to adopt a large tax increase in the form of cap-and-trade energy legislation, which also is climate legislation, the primary purpose of which is, or once was, to combat global warming, such as it is.

For the uninitiated, "statism" means "any increase in government activity."  That is a charitable interpretation (on my part).  Because the other one would be "communism," which wouldn't make this any different from the average Tea Party screed about health care or guns. 

So let's get this straight. 

  1. An under-regulated and unmonistored private industry, which enjoys by the way subsidies of all sorts (highways, etc.) incentivizing its products, caused what appears to be a calamity affecting the economy and ecology of entire region, if not the world.
  2. One contributing factor to the disaster was lax oversight.
  3. Therefore, this is not an argument for government regulation. 

That's really silly I think.  If we have an argument for effective government regulation, even if it requires "statism" (God is that term dumb), then this is it. 

On the other point in the paragraph, by the way, oil is dirty in the procuring (seeMexico, Gulf of) and dirty in the using (see Warming, Global).

The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong

Some of you may remember the recent case of Mark Souder.  He was the latest in a string of Republican social conservatives to go down in a sex scandal (with a female staffer).  Pardon the pun, but it turns out one of our favorite deep thinkers, Michael Gerson, worked for him way back when.  Aside from cheating on his wife, turns out Souder's a nice guy or something, which leads Gerson to meditate on the meaning of morality:

Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

I think I agree with this stuff.  There is a lot more to morality than what one does with one's private parts.  And indeed, the "pleasure of putting other people in the wrong" is up there for me in the list of bad things. 

Gerson continues:

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.

I don't think anyone (serious) fits the description of "moral liberal" here.  The failure of self-righteous jerks like Gerson's former boss does not mean the values those self-righteous jerks hold are empty.  That's like a logical fallacy or something (play along at home–name that fallacy).  And I think attributing such sloppy thinking to non-existent opponents is a kind of "putting people in the wrong."  Moreover, it's just dishonest arguing.

But it gets worse.  Gerson seems to think that there is a stark choice–live among the inconsistent, but strident proponent of that old-time morality, or be a moral relativist.  He'd be first of alll hard-pressed to find moral relativists of the type he suggests anywhere.  Second, granted their existence somewheres, it doesn't follow that they are the only reasonable alternative to moral hypocrties.  That would indeed be a logical fallacy.  Can you guess which? 

h/t Alicublog

A link

Here's an article worth reading.  A sample:

A powerful thunderstorm forced President Obama to cancel his Memorial Day speech near Chicago on Monday—an arbitrary event that had no affect on the trajectory of American politics.

And another:

Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.

Reminds me of this meta-news story story.


Lately I've been thinking of making some modifications to my usual practice here.  One thought is that I should wander into some of the darker corners of the internet (by which I mean the National Review or Ann Coulter's website–if she has one, but she probably does).  One reason for this is that it's a sure bet you'll find something really silly.  Another reason is that I confess I sometimes think I'm guilty of the philosopher disease: shoddy and imperfect public discourse is too uninteresting to bother with (oddly enough, this disease produces two contrasting sets of symptom: (1) ignoring shoddy public discourse while engaging in the same; (2) being overly charitable to shoddy public discourse because it's not worth one's time to look at crappy arguments).  Well, crappy arguments exist, they really do.

And you don't need most of the time to leave the hallowed pages of the major dailies to see them.  Take this little gem from our favorite paralogist, George Will:

The name "progressivism" implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

The cheerful assumption is that "evolving" must mean "improving." Progressivism's promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism's premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.

Funny.  "Liberalism"–Will's usual name for the hollow man brigade he attacks–implies and endorsement of the "Founding" ("liber" means "free" or "book" or "child," well anyway).  Nonetheless, this has to be one of the sillier things he's written of late.  In the first place, a progressive, I would imagine, does not define his view tautologically, as Will says.  I think rather they have a pragmatic definition: are things working better, as in, "did you make any progress on the problem of the oil spilling in the Gulf of Mexico? " "No, we've made no progress.  Time has marched forward, so we have progressed into the future mind you, but we haven't made any progress with regard to our goal of an oil free Gulf of Mexico."  See, it's just not that hard. 

Second, in that phrase he quotes from the SCOTUS, evolving does mean "improving."  Oftentimes, however–at least in a scientific context–it doesn't. 

These objections of Will's are just silly.  Besides: didn't the "Founding" leave much to be improved upon?  After all, we had to declare that corporations were persons.  Also women.  And African Americans.


So by now everyone knows that oil is being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate higher than 0 gallons.  That's bad for all involved.  What lessons do we draw from BP's epic failure to be regulated?  Let's ask David Brooks:

Everybody is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis. In the late 1970s, the hostage crisis became a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself.

Well if by "everybody" David Brooks means "everybody on Fox News and in the Right Wing think tanks David Brooks listens to," then, yes, everyone is comparing this unrelated thing to Hurricane Katrina.  In any case, the real parallel doesn't seem to be the Hostage Crisis either.  By all accounts, the Iranians had something to do with that (and it wasn't an accident).  (Funny thing: the other day George Will said that BP's failure demonstrates the failure of the regulatory system–rather than the failure of specific regulators). 

Brooks is drawing, I think, some pretty weird conclusions from the tandem failure of BP to control their own mess and of the government to make sure they don't make a mess in the first place.  What this fiasco tells me is this: BP ought to have to get some kind of permit and submit to some kind of honest inspection if they are to put everyone's oysters at risk. 

Indeed, perhaps it's time for the extreme socialism Obama has been advocating.

(For the humorless, the last sentence is a joke) 

Personal virtue

Charles Krauthammer wonders:

Here's my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?

Ooo, Ooo [note–how does one write that Horshack noise?] pick me: "because oil, an increasingly scarce, difficult to procure, and fundamentally dangerous commodity must be the basis of our energy policy."  Or perhaps I could put this another way:

 Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not the basis for a sound energy policy

That's Dick Cheney, mocking the idea that our energy policy (in May of 2001) ought to consist entirely in fossil fuel procurement.  Anyway, it's echoed in Krauthammer's attitude toward environmentalism:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That's right.  Blame those same environmentalists who have been saying, for quite a while now, that "conservation" (only one aspect, by the way, of the view mocked by Cheney–no one argued that conservation was the basis of a sound energy policy) is a public virtue–precisely because of spills such as these.  

*made some minor edits.

Agnotology and Sophistry

As I understand it, agnotology, the scientific name for "epistemic closure," could be taken in a couple of different ways (Or, in the words of the Stagirite translated by Moerbeke and pondered upon by the Angelic Doctor, agnotologia dicitur multipliciter).  First, there is the purposeful production of unreasonable doubt:

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

I think this is far too narrow.  In the first place, it's my guess that not many of those who promote the views discussed above actually believe them to be false.  To this extent I think the Tobacco Industry analogy does not  work.  For on that analogy, the Tobacco companies made efforts to suppress knowledge about their harmful products–they engaged in other words in deliberate propoganda.  

Second, I think what is really at issue in agnotology is the aura of complete unreasonableness associated with a certain set of beliefs or views.  Otherwise science-believing, antibiotic-taking individuals will suddenly seize up when a select set of scientific hypotheses fall under discussion.  Germ theory of disease?  Fine.  Plant Hybridization?  Fine.  Global warming?  Science can't prove anything!

For this reason, I'd say we have a problem primary of selective skepticism.  So the the problem is primarily one of unreasonable ignoring.  This, I think, is a process question.  So agnotology ought to focus on the sophistical mechanisms of ignoring. 

Epistemic Closure

Some conservative fellow wrote a piece a while back using that phrase, "epistemic closure," to describe his fellow conservatives.  It sparked a grand discussion.  The phrase is meant to explain how it is that whole legions of alleged well educated individuals lock themselves into intellectual absurdities, such as the falsity of anthropogenic climate change, that lowering taxes on the rich increases tax revenues, that conservative and industry-friendly health reform proposals are socialist, communist, or fascist, and so forth. 

There is an entertaining discussion of this on Crooked Timber (first here, then here, then here), although the author (John Quiggin) prefers "agnotology" to "epistemic closure" (with good reason, there's a book on the phenomenon).  Go read Quiggin's posts.  The second of them asks the question as to whether the left is guilty of the same degree of agnotology.  His answer is no (I think he's right about this–in the long comments section, no one could satisfy the accusation of tu quoque). 

So what does he recommend?  This:

And as the agnotology/epistemic closure debate has shown, awareness of these facts is increasing. As they become more and more evident, there has been a steady trickle of defections from the intellectual apparatus of the right, some of them quite surprising. With the facts now openly admitted, we can expect to see more.

What does this imply for the left, and particularly for intellectuals on the left? First, as I’ve said, I think it spells an end to any idea that there is value in engaging in discussion with smart people on the other side. It’s impossible to be a smart (and honest) movement conservative, since you have to assent (overtly or tacitly) to all sorts of stupid and dishonest things. Take, for example, a discussion of health care. Whatever arguments someone opposed to Obama’s policy might come up with, if they line up with the Republican position, they are relying on lies about death panels and socialised medicine, repeated by their most prominent leaders, to carry the day. There is simply no point in pretending to engage such a person in honest debate.

Indeed.  I agree.  But ignoring them won't get us anywhere.  They and their silly ideas dominate what passes for public discourse in this country.  Besides, ignoring them plays right into their driving narrative: elitist liberals look down on us.


Your argument is invalid

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