Sunday, October 30, 2005

Numbing and Dumbing our Children

My four-year old son wants to be a skeleton for Halloween. So I cruise a couple of department stores, looking for stuff I can use to make a skeleton outfit. Nothing doing. There are, however, racks of ready-made, complete costumes. Out of curiosity, I check them out. What's this? No witches? No ghosts? No devils or princesses? No skeletons? Nothing but commercial product tie-ins: Batman. Spiderman. Ninja Turtles (I thought they were long obsolete). Lots of armoured, amped-up, alien-ish assassins from the latest video-games. The sad thing is, people actually pay for the privilege of marketing these products, when the companies should be paying us for the right to use our children as billboards.

I persevere--I find some black pants and a black turtleneck that will fit the little guy. I head for a crafts store to find fabric and paints to make bones. As I search for glow-in-the-dark paint, I hear a little girl in the next aisle, whining, "But Mommy, no one makes their own costumes. That's so lame!"

Our media and entertainment industries have built a huge machine designed to homogenize us and our children, to get us to be suspicious of our own imaginations. They have mastered the use of psychologists and focus groups to turn entertainment into a vast marketing ploy. We hear constantly from the "family values" crowd that Hollywood and the media don't play it straight enough. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: From Disney to Target, the machine profits most when it convinces our children to trade in real magic for a cheap imitation.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Courageous statement from Danforth

John Danforth, a conservative stalwart with impeccable credentials (Senator, Ambassador, minister...) has stated the obvious: the hold of the religious right on the Republican party is a bad thing, for the country, for the party, for all of us.

The Republicans, who once stood for fiscal discipline, a cosmopolitan world view, global engagement, and progress, have mutated into something ugly and unrecognizable. If there are any left of the old school, it is past time for them to redeem themselves. The party may suffer in the short term if losing the votes of some religious fanatics costs it a few elections; but in the long run the party and the country would be far better off.

The truth is that the cultural conservatism of the "base" is deeply at odds with the principles of free trade, free enterprise and individual responsibility that were once the mantra of the GOP. It once appeared that the challenge to the Republican leadership would be keeping the religious right in line while pursuing a traditionally pro-growth strategy. After all, no one is more at risk, from globalism and technological progress, than people who reject the modern world. Unfortunately, the religious right has become the tail that wags the GOP.

Though it was certainly not intended thus, Danforth's courageous honesty calls into question the entire rubric of the current two-party axis. If the Republican party has been so thoroughly infiltrated by the cancer of fundamentalism, that it cannot recognize itself, then the remaining secular moderates would do well to make common cause with the moderates of the Democratic party. In the ideal world, the wackos on both sides of the political spectrum would be left where they belong: outside the tent. Well, at least we can dream...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Mind is a Terrible Thing...

In the midst of the religious right's war on reason, we now have to contend with a resurgence of militant stupidity on the part of the left. I have been bombarded with bizarre rants claiming that the threat of crossover avian flu is a hoax, cooked up to enable the Cheney/Rove cabal to take us ever closer to martial law and suspension of civil rights. I don't for a minute put it past Cheney et. al. to use this threat to those ends, but that does not mean that the threat itself is not real.

The same nuts who think this is a hoax are the ones who opposed fluoridation in water, and who deny that vaccines and antibiotics have saved millions of lives. To these people, modern medicine (yes, it has deep flaws....and?) is a huge conspiracy to poison us. What if we listen to them, and ignore the threat of crossover strains of avian flu? You can rest assured that, in the event of an epidemic or pandemic, they will be the first to point fingers, comparing the situation to our criminally negligent preparations for, and response to, Hurricane Katrina. And they will be right.

It is depressing to be an advocate of rationality today. We have to contend with Bush and his band of idiots, who don't believe in science, and then we turn around to find ourselves being betrayed by so-called progressives and their own brand of aggressive ignorance. There are real issues that they could help us address, for example the fact that high-density farming greatly increases the chances of a crossover influenza pandemic (not to mention the spread of other pathogens). But they would rather we just hid our heads in the sand. How sad.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Are the rats bolting?

The rumour mill has it that indictments are being handed down tomorrow in Plame-gate. Meanwhile, Scott McClellan is implying that he was lied to by his masters at the White House (Link--this is obviously a partisan site, but the quotes are real--draw your own conclusions...) It is sad to have to root for the s--- to hit the fan, but these thugs have maimed our country so badly that they've GOT to go down. Our enemies could not have done a better job. And the administration's flacks still have the gall to describe the rest of us as traitors?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Gender Gap in American Schools

USA Today published an article about the growing gender gap in college enrollments in the U.S. (Link). The thesis is that in seeking to encourage girls, we have overcorrected and made things tough for boys. I had to reply:

In response to the growing tilt toward women in higher education, Ms. Marklein quotes Michael Gurian as suggesting that schools should offer more things boys (supposedly) like, such as sports. If you have read any of his books, you know that Gurian also thinks boys are naturally rowdy and violent. Hey, why not reinstate rumbles as a way of settling playground disputes? Gurian obviously never visited schools in Europe or Japan, or he would have realized that his assumptions are ridiculous.

For much of our history, the children most in jeopardy in our schools have not been girls, but gentle and considerate boys. They are considered weaklings or “fairies”, even by their teachers. They have never been safe from bullying or outright assault, and are the most likely children to be victimized by adults. Forget being a good student: for a boy, that is the kiss of death.

Decades of consciousness-raising have made schools today more girl-friendly. But the same reforms have, incidentally, made them more friendly to boys who don’t act like savages. If this makes things harder on boys of the old school, isn't that a worthwhile trade-off? Let parents teach them better values, and maybe boys will make a comeback.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Platform for a third party?

It is obvious that this country needs a multiparty system. The two dominant parties are hopelessly dogmatic, and on top of that, they are corrupt. Our electoral system is rigged to make it nearly impossible for another party to break in. Still, in the early 1990's, two developments offered hope.

First, after years of touting a "third way", the Democratic Leadership Council saw one of its own, Bill Clinton, elected President. Despite the Right's increasingly rabid hatred of him, he actually governed as a centrist, if not a moderate conservative. Second, the Reform Party briefly stirred things up, capturing over 20% of the popular vote in one election and placing a governer in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the Reform Party had no coherent philosophy, and its main backer proved mercurial at best. It is no longer a factor.

The people of this country long for a party that does not force them to choose the lesser of evils on almost every question. Today, you can't just practice simple tolerance--you are forced to choose between outright bigotry or heavy-handed "political correctness". You can't just want to preserve the social safety net--you are forced to choose between eviscerating the middle class, or complete fiscal stupidity (a la California). You can't favor reasonably regulated free enterprise--you have to choose between lawless, Enron-style capitalism, or being choked by "nanny government". And so on. In each of these cases, we face a continual Hobson's choice.

Worse, the Big Two do not offer platforms, but rafts of false associations. If you want to vote for free trade, it comes attached to Iraq and creationism in schools. If you want to vote for civil rights, it comes attached to government-paid "grief counselors" and Barbra Streisand.

A third party will have to be informed by certain broad and basic values. From more than a decade of conversations with people from all walks of life, I find it likely that a large majority of people in the country would buy into fiscal discipline, cultural openness, racial tolerance, a basic social safety net, and environmental responsibility. Yes, the devil is in the details, and any such debate is likely to sink into the mire of name-calling that has taken over our polity, but we have to start somewhere.

Suggestions and opinions are welcome as "comments". I will pursue this in future posts.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Blue Island in a Red Sea

It is tempting to think in terms of Red and Blue states, but of course this is an oversimplification. As I write this, sitting at a desk in Research Triangle Park, NC, I am surrounded by one of the greatest concentrations of science and technology in the country. We are within spitting distance of four major universities with strong scientific research programs. The people here are proud of being one of the leading centers in the world for the industries of the future. It is no coincidence that some of these counties voted Blue as the state went Red.

Some issues transcend political allegiance. Voters here, whether Republican or Democratic, want their children to be taught real science in schools. They do NOT want their students told that biblical accounts of creation are scientifically equivalent to the theory of evolution. For these people, surrounded by communities bent on rejecting science, defending it may prove to be a lonely and disheartening struggle. For the more secular Republicans here, it poses a basic conflict, for they know their party has sold its soul to the flat-earth crowd in exchange for votes. They may hold the key to the future. What will they do?

There are some elected officials here who have worked doggedly and successfully to promote progress in North Carolina. Two or three of these people are considered strong candidates for the governership in the next election. If one of them indeed runs for governer, let's hope that he has the wisdom to reach out to the secular Republicans, and to refuse the religious zealots a seat at the table. We badly need leaders, especially in Red states, who will stand up to the forces of fear and ignorance.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Nice Surprise

I woke up today to find that Thomas Schelling is co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics. As a college student, I read some of his papers, heard him lecture, and participated in an international crisis-resolution simulation which he designed. He was a hero of mine, for the way he was able to explain and predict so much of human behaviour based on his elaborations of game theory. Both conservatives and liberals were suspicious of him--conservatives because game theory blows big holes in their dogma that unfettered pursuit of self-interest produces optimal results; liberals because his models were not informed by their warm-and-fuzzy idealism about human nature.

I say "were" because, even though Schelling is alive and well at 84, he has faded somewhat from the scene. He commented today that he had not expected to win the prize after all this time. It is unfortunate that he did not have more influence on policy--we would have avoided much that is evil in the world today, had our leaders been so rational. Still, it is gratifying that he has been recognized, even if belatedly. Let's hope it raises at least a little bit of awareness.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Through the eyes of others

Understanding how others see you can be very illuminating. And I have recently had some very disturbing conversations with people from other countries, some just visiting this country, some long-time residents, even citizens. There has been a real change in the way people talk about us. Yes, it used to be that there were people who were jealous of America, and loved to nitpick to find fault. There were those who loved us but opposed our policies in certain parts of the world. There were people who were just against us.

Now, what I hear is either sadness or gloating. Those who really hated us or were jealous of us are cautiously gleeful at what they see as an accelerating spiral of self-destruction. Those who loved us are sad because they worry we are throwing it all away. My friends in the world of science and technology are simply horrified, and wonder if they will have to leave in order to keep their academic freedom. My friends in the arts are afraid, because there are so few places where they have ever had freedom, and this was one of those places. All of them shake their heads as we turn our backs on what used to be the quintessential American value: "Progress".

From big companies (GM, anyone?) that refuse to innovate, to labor unions that reject retraining for the new economy, to religious zealots who want to eviscerate our educational system, to political leaders who want to bomb, pollute and bulldoze us back to the stone ages, we are in the grip of a form of insanity. Is it born of fear? Has there simply been TOO MUCH progress for us to handle, that we need to turn and run?

I worry a little when people bluster and threaten me. I worry more when they shake their heads in pity. We as a country, are rapidly approaching that point.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Waking Up

As Bush's poll numbers slide, I sense growing energy on the part of those who disagree with his policies. Of course, there is growing energy on the part of the regressives, too--Rove talks openly of "finally burying the Democrats once and for all", and there is great danger that may come to pass. After all, the Democrats have been brain dead for years, with the exception of the small cadre of New Democrats led by Clinton. Let's be clear--the Democrats have taken a lot of stupid positions (opposing free trade, opposing the use of stock options, ending the draft after Vietnam--did they really think it would end war?), but on life or death issues like the environment, the war in Iraq, and now the teaching of science in schools, they have been more right than wrong. Today they are the only opposition standing in the way of complete disaster. So it is critical they get fired up.

It is striking to think back to the way political discourse used to be, and to realize how we have changed. Commentators like Limbaugh, Hannity and Drudge have inured us to hate and vitriol. Anyone who disagrees with them has been bludgeoned into polite passivity. Things have gotten so bad that the intolerance of the religious right is not even on the table for discussion--it is the rest of us who are having to defend ourselves against charges of intolerance, despite the truth that all we want is the right to think for ourselves.

Sometimes the RR are so rabid it is almost amusing. Look at their recurrent war on Disney--perhaps the most effective agency ever, for spreading American norms and viewpoints around the world. The RR have gone after them relentlessly, for the terrible sin of providing equal benefits to their gay employees. Never mind that Disney is a purveyor of the kind of bland, homogenized, mindlessly positive messages that the RR would prefer in all their art (for an example, read Michael Medved--an advocate of American Stalinist art if there ever was one). Ironically, the greatest source of traffic to Disney theme parks is our own Red States. Chew on that one!

And the war on Hollywood! Here is a community which churns out movies that portay America through relentlessly positive, idealized images, and it is not good enough for the zealots. The rest of the world considers Hollywood movies to be American propaganda. How is it our zealots see Hollywood as anti-American? Just what do they want? I am certain it is not more content--that is what the Europeans do, and aside from a few college students in bastions of "communism" like Boston and San Francisco, most Americans find it offensive.

Those of us who consider rationality a source of light have been under vitriolic and unrelenting assault for as long as I can remember, and we are paying a price for not having taken it seriously before. Some did not take it seriously because it did not seem possible that the most advanced country in the world could be taken over by troglodytes. Others looked the other way because they cynically believed that the troglodytes would vote for them without extracting a price. We had all better wake up before we really lose for good.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

More Nonsense about "constructionism"

Once again, as we consider a Supreme Court nominee, the debate has been limited to very narrow ground. The cultural conservatives have framed the debate on their terms. They have succeeded in claiming minimalism as their own, even though what they really want is their own activist judges on the bench. Of course, as usual, the "opposition" are too brain dead to call them on it. For that alone, even if they are suspicious of Miers, the conservatives have won.

A true minimalist will respect state's rights on matters such as right-to-die, medical marijuana, gay unions, and other aspects of personal behavior. It is clear, however, that the regressive wing of the Republican base actually wants judges who will run roughshod over all of their principles in order to punish people of whom they disapprove.

By pretending they care about issues of principle (constructionist vs. "legislating from the bench", minimalist vs. intrusive, pro-states' rights vs. anti, pro individual vs. anti), the regressives successfully disguise the truth: they want judges who will rule in favor of people and things they like, and against people and things they don't like. It's that simple.

If you need evidence for this statement, we got it today. George Bush was emphatic: there is no litmus test on any issue, such as abortion. His only concern, he says, is that the judge is a constructionist. He says he didn't even ask Ms. Miers about abortion. Guess what? The religious right is indignant! Some of them openly say they've been betrayed!

So it is there for all to see. They don't care about abstract legal principles. They just want their way. We can only hope Bush was telling the truth, for once.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

This is why it matters

If the crew of a wooden ship, out in the middle of the ocean, began burning the timbers to keep warm, would we consider that reasonable behaviour? Why, then, do we tolerate such behaviour on a national or global scale? Do we think that there is another planet, lurking nearby, to which we can escape if we destroy this one?

The scientific community, with its high nerd quotient, is terrible at communicating with the rest of humanity. We are hopeless at the game of sound bites and rhetorical spin. So when certain politicians insist that the jury is out on Global Warming, we let them get away with it. Well, for them to insist that there is no evidence we are destroying our world, is a blatant and cynical lie. Those who call Global Warming a false alarm are sacrificing their, and our, children for their own short-term greed. They are committing a crime of unparalleled dimensions.

What if we do everything we can to save our world, and it turns out the scientists were wrong? Simple: we will have needlessly sacrificed 1 or 2 % of our standard of living. But what if we continue in our reckless ways, and it turns out the scientists were right? Well, then we will lose everything. Our children will inherit a dying world.

Are those really equally bad outcomes?

Return to the Dark Ages?

Dover, PA: The rapidity with which the enemies of reason have advanced their agenda is a frightening omen for our future. Our President’s support for the war on science is sad and mystifying. How do people reconcile uber-patriotism with cutting the legs out from under the very source of our power? This should not have been a partisan issue, but the President and his strategists have cynically made it one.

Republicans who grew up in the era when the GOP was identified with sophistication in world affairs, and fiscal discipline at home, have to be horrified by what has happened to the party. If they are not, then they are simply wedded to partisan advantage, whatever the cost. The Republican party has sold its soul to the fanatics, and the rest of us must pay the price.

I've added a link to DefCon America. Take a look and get involved--it's our future.