In Their Genes

Don't you love genetic determinism?  Michael Medved does.  He writes:

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.

No comment necessary.

*h/t Crooks and Liars.

You’re no MLK

Guess who this is:

Like other American heroes . . . . [NAME] was not a simple figure. He inclined toward democratic socialism as the answer to poverty. In his opposition to the Vietnam War, he called America "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and thundered that God might "break the backbone" of American power. Toward the end of his short life — after years of fire hoses and attack dogs, wiretaps and bomb threats — [NAME] became increasingly isolated and depressed.

Sounds like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright–or someone equally "angry."  But no, it's Martin Luther King.  One might be tempted from such a description to rethink the universal condemnation of Reverend Wright.  In his own context, Martin Luther King said some pretty astounding things about God's judgment of American arrogance.  But where one might draw lessons from history, Michael Gerson sees only differences.  People other than King, you know, the people like the Reverend Wright (Gerson oddly doesn't use any of Wright's words in this piece on why he's no MLK), are unamerican.

Under King's leadership, the civil rights movement affirmed several principles: a belief that Providence favors justice and forbids despair; a belief that even the most bigoted whites have a core of humanity that might be touched and redeemed; a belief that American ideals were the ultimate answer to America's sins.

These beliefs were often criticized by King's contemporaries such as Malcolm X (who dismissed the 1963 March on Washington as the "Farce on Washington") and Stokely Carmichael (who argued that voting rights were "irrelevant to the lives of black people"). And these beliefs remain controversial with leaders such as Wright and professor James Cone, the father of black liberation theology. "Black theology," wrote Cone, "will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy."

The problem with this approach is not that it is political, or even liberal — the African American church has generally been both. The problem is that it leads to a dead end of anger, conspiracy theories and futility. And it ignores the deeper radicalism of the American experiment — the radicalism of full citizenship and justice for every American — that inspired King, and that will inspire others.

The problem with Wright, you see, is that he seems to claim that the American experiment (when will people stop saying that?  The experiment is over by now) hasn't produced "full citizenship and justice for every American."  How dare he.

Built on sand

George Will compares the housing "crisis" (his scare quotes) to another one of his famous pseudo crises:

The housing perhaps-not-entirely-a-crisis resembles, in one particular, the curious consensus about the global warming "crisis," concerning which, the assumption is: Although Earth's temperature has risen and fallen through many millennia, the temperature was exactly right when, in the 1960s, Al Gore became interested in the subject.

There is a big difference, someone ought to point out, between the "climate" and the "weather" or the "temperature" at any given year.  Suggesting that these are the same–and then pointing out how silly global warming is–is just dumb.  I'm not even sure if this would rise to the standard of the straw man.  At least with the straw man you have to approximate someone's real argument in order to make the deception work.    

Anyway, on the strength of this astounding misunderstanding, Will launches into an a priori, and rhetorical-question-driven, assault on the housing crisis.  He writes: 

Are we to assume that last year, when housing prices were, say, 10 percent higher than they are now, they were exactly right? If so, why is that so? Because the market had set those prices, therefore they were where they belonged? But if the market was the proper arbiter of value then, why is it not the proper arbiter now? Whatever happened to the belief, way back in 2007, that there was a housing "bubble"? Or to the more ancient consensus that, because of, among other things, the deductibility of mortgage interest payments from taxable income, too much American capital flows into the housing stock?

Where's the drooling dunce who holds the position Will ever so skillfully skewers (that's two alliterations) here?  Nowhere I bet.  People may be wrong about the nature of the housing issue–they may even exaggerate it in a bit of political hyperbole–but Will should do us a favor of describing someone's actual position rather than the a priori incoherence of a straw man's position. 

Everyday America

(I think I've mentioned this issue once before) Rare it is when columnists mention one another's arguments.  There seems to be some kind of agreement that you can't mention another columnist by  name (although I seem to remember George Will doing this to Krugman once).  So imagine my surprise when I read Harold Meyerson this morning.  He writes:

This year, we can expect to see almost nothing but these kinds of assaults as the campaign progresses. The Republican attack against Obama all but ignores the issue differences between the candidates to go after what is presumably his inadequately American identity. He is, writes one leading conservative columnist, "out of touch with everyday America." His reluctance to wear a flag pin, writes another, shows that he "has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism."

The first quote is Charles Krauthammer, the second Michael Gerson (we talked about it the other day).  In fairness to the columnists, who both write for The Washington Post, Meyerson ought to give more context.  If he did, he'd be unable to argue that they assert these things themselves.  Rather, they merely observe the fact that others will assert them.  First Krauthammer:

It wasn't until late in the fourth quarter that she found the seam in Obama's defense. In fact, Obama handed her the playbook with Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Michelle Obama's comments about never having been proud of America and Obama's own guns-and-God condescension toward small-town whites.

The line of attack is clear: not that Obama is himself radical or unpatriotic, just that, as a man of the academic left, he is so out of touch with everyday America that he could move so easily and untroubled in such extreme company and among such alien and elitist sentiments.

Clinton finally understood the way to run against Obama: back to the center — not ideologically but culturally, not on policy but on attitude. She changed none of her positions on Iraq or Iran or health care or taxes. Instead, she transformed herself into working-class Sally-get-her-gun, off duck hunting with dad.

He's talking about Clinton, hardly a Republican.  Whether Krauthammer's account of Hillary's position is true is another story.  He certainly doesn't think it's true to call Obama unpatriotic.  But he doesn't really care.  Now Gerson:

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic — a foolish, unfair, destructive charge — but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

Gerson doesn't care either.  Meyerson would have a stronger argument had he directed it at the media types who will repeat these charges in just the way Krauthammer and Gerson have.  Sure, they argue, they're not true.  But still, will everyday, real Americans–who apparently have no regard for the truth and don't read Gerson or Krauthammer–be convinced by them?

After all, if everyday Americans read Gerson and Krauthammer, they'd know that such charges are baseless.  Wouldn't they?


Religious experience

Just as my lawyer friends cannot watch "Law and Order," my doctor friends cannot watch "ER," and my military friends cannot watch "Missing in Action," I find it hard to read things like the following meditation on the philosophy of mind from David Brooks.  He writes:

In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and “the soul is dead.” He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.

That could be any number of views known as materialism (or compatible with it).  Brooks contrasts this view with the following:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

That's still materialism of a fairly decisive variety.  On the strength of this, he erroneously concludes:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Notice these descriptions are all brain-sided.  Intuitions, experience, "love," etc., all are all, on the view Brooks is describing, neurologically based.  That's still a variety of materialism. 


Another reason to fear an Obama presidency.  It's not that he's a secret Muslim (madrassa madrassa), it's that by Islamic law he actually is a Muslim:

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him.

"Convincingly" is an odd choice of term–is there some suggestion it's not true?  But don't get the idea that the author of these words thinks this is a problem for American Christians (although I can almost hear the dog whistle), it's going to be a problem for the world's Muslims:

With few exceptions, the jurists of all Sunni and Shiite schools prescribe execution for all adults who leave the faith not under duress; the recommended punishment is beheading at the hands of a cleric, although in recent years there have been both stonings and hangings. (Some may point to cases in which lesser punishments were ordered — as with some Egyptian intellectuals who have been punished for writings that were construed as apostasy — but those were really instances of supposed heresy, not explicitly declared apostasy as in Senator Obama’s case.)

The case for Obama's being a Muslim seems kind of tenuous (he was born to a Muslim father who had renounced (when?) his religion).  Had Obama ever been considered a Muslim by his father? I suppose under the notion that you can never stop being a Muslim, if that's true, then Obama will always be one.  All of this adds up to serious concerns for Obama's saftey:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

I doubt our efforts to fight the war on terrorism and export democracy and human rights (he must be kidding about that, really) could get any more "complicated" than they are.

Water Bored

Senator Kit Bond of Missouri on waterboarding:

GWEN IFILL: I just would like to — but do you think that waterboarding, as I described it, constitutes torture?

SEN. KIT BOND: There are different ways of doing it. It's like swimming, freestyle, backstroke. The waterboarding could be used almost to define some of the techniques that our trainees are put through, but that's beside the point. It's not being used.

There are some who say that, in extreme circumstances, if there is threat of an imminent major attack on the United States, it might be used, but I certainly would not favor it in any circumstance…

Is it like freestyle and backstroke swimming because water is involved?  Or is it like those things because there are different ways of doing it?  This is more than just a perverse water analogy.  It's a complete non sequitur–the question asks whether water boarding as Ifill described it is torture, but Senator Bond replies to a different question–and then suggests his reply is besides the point.  Maybe we could put this another way.

GI: Do you eat herring, Sen. B?

Sen B. There are lots of kinds of herring–pickled, creamed, smoked.  But the different kinds of herring has nothing to do with this.  My store doesn't carry herring.

Maybe there are circumstances in which herring could be sold at my store, but I wouldn't favor that. 


Perhaps Michael Gerson has suffered a twinge of guilt at his recent behavior (see previous posts).  Now has has stepped away from making an affirmative claims himself.  Instead, he puts such views in the mouths of the average American.  Such a person nearly always seems to confirm what the pundit himself or herself thinks.  The Average American finds all of punditry in re flag pan to be so revealing about Obama.  It just wasn't so much nonsense an obsessed press could not get past.  

The issue of the lapel flag pin is a good illustration. Obama's explanation for its absence — that it had become a "substitute" for "true patriotism" in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — is perfectly rational. For a professor at the University of Chicago. Members of the knowledge class generally find his stand against sartorial symbolism to be subtle, even courageous. Most Americans, I'm willing to bet, will find it incomprehensible after 20 additional explanations, which are bound to be required. A president is expected to be a patriotic symbol himself, not the arbiter of patriotic symbols. He is supposed to be the face-painted superfan at every home game; to wear red, white and blue boxers on special marital occasions; to get misty-eyed during the most obscure patriotic hymns.

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic — a foolish, unfair, destructive charge — but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

Now that strikes me as absolutely snobby–even if he says it's snobby, it's still snobby.  What's worse is that it doesn't make any attempt to support it's broad empirical generalizations with facts about how real Americans feel about flag pins and the President "embodying" patriotism.  Perhaps–just a suggestion without empirical basis (I'm a philosopher, I don't need facts)–real Americans have had enough of that.

The Power of Science

To my mind at least, the op-ed in a major national newspaper aims at a general audience–including if not composed entirely of people whose views differ from that of the writer.  The point, in fact, in writing one of these pieces is to convince people who disagree with you of the strength of your view.  Some writers, like E.J.Dionne (sorry I keep saying this–but it's true) don't seem to have a view to advocate.  Others, like Paul Krugman, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Michael Gerson (to name a few) most definitely do.  Gerson, after all, worked as a speech writer for the current President.  That's the very definition of political advocacy.

Should this political hack write for the Washington Post op-ed page?  I'm inclined to say no, because the current administration has enough paid advocates and media access (Fox news anyone?); it's hard to see in other words what Gerson, as a political hack, brings to the discussion that can't be found elsewhere–besides, his words have been driving the discussion ("axis of evil" etc.) for years now.

So when he oils up and engages the "liberal view" one can only shake one's head at the inanity.  Today he writes:

There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a "war on science."

Few things, really?  This would mean that the current administration does not disregard scientists or punish those whose views disagree with their own, cultivate skepticism about widely understood phenomena, and so forth.  The documentary evidence for those things is too overwhelming to be disregarded as faith-based (which, by the way, is a silly twist of a twist of a phrase probably excogitated by Gerson himself).  Since Gerson seems to know that claim is false, he switches his focus ever so slightly to the political debate:

For the most part, these accusations are a political ploy — actually an attempt to shut down political debate. Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled "anti-science." Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as "theological" and thus illegitimate.

Liberal views are "objective" while traditional moral convictions are "biased." Public scrutiny of scientific practices is "politicizing" important decisions.

These arguments are seriously made, but they are not to be taken seriously. Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners? In systematically getting rid of the disabled?

Harvesting organs from prisoners.  Hm.  I think Gerson is talking here about moral questions relating to science.  No one has advocated that that debate be shut down.  Nor has anyone (by "anyone" I mean the minimally reasonable but informed person) suggested that there be no debate about the practical recommendations of scientific "conclusions."

What to do about global warming?  Well, it's happening–that's what scientists say–so now it's time for a political discussion about what to do.  That's a rather different thing from denying that it's happening–which is what the "war on science" is all about.  And Gerson cannot possibly claim that there isn't a strong global warming denier movement in the Republican party.  

It turns out, however, that Gerson means to claim that because liberals embrace scientific questions of fact, that they therefore embrace scientific definitions of value.  I can't think of what the justification for this claim would be, other than that Gerson has no understanding of that distinction.  He writes:

This last question, alas, does not answer itself. In America, the lives of about nine of 10 children with Down syndrome are ended before birth. In Europe, about 40 percent of unborn children with major congenital disorders are aborted.

All of which highlights a real conflict, a war within liberalism between the idea of unrestricted science in the cause of health and the principle that all men are created equal — between humanitarianism and egalitarianism.

In "Science and the Left," his insightful article in the latest issue of the New Atlantis, Yuval Levin argues that a belief in the power of science is central to the development of liberalism — based on the assertion that objective facts and rational planning can replace tradition and religious authority in the organization of society. Levin summarizes the liberal promise this way: "The past was rooted in error and prejudice while the future would have at its disposal a new oracle of genuine truth."

But the oracle of science is silent on certain essential topics. "Science, simply put," says Levin, "cannot account for human equality, and does not offer reasons to believe we are all equal. Science measures our material and animal qualities, and it finds them to be patently unequal."

Since there is distinction between fact and value–and a vigorous discussion over those terms in the scientific (broadly speaking) community, I can't figure who Gerson is talking about.  Besides, the alternative to the strictly "scientist" point of view is not religious or traditional authority (whose grasp, by the way, of human rights, equality, and so forth, seems tenuous at best).

But as Gerson seems little interested in the actual objection to the administration's handling of matters of scientific fact, one can see that he has little use for logic as well.

Extreme learning

Having spent more than ten years now trying to convince people to get their learn on, I now learn that perhaps that was a waste of time:

Dr. Kawecki says it is worth investigating whether humans also pay hidden costs for extreme learning. “We could speculate that some diseases are a byproduct of intelligence,” he said.

The whole thing is worth a read.